§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
177 Immigration and asylum are among the most sensitive and difficult issues. Decisions in individual cases can mean the difference between life and death. They raise human rights questions and impact directly on the lives of applicants and their families.
We want to uphold this country's long-standing tradition of giving shelter to those who flee persecution. However, there is no doubt that the asylum system is being used by those seeking to evade immigration control. The number of asylum applications has increased 10-fold over the past 10 years. In 1998, nearly 70 per cent of asylum applicants given refugee status or exceptional leave to remain came from just four countries. By contrast, within the next top 30 asylum producing countries, there was a group of 16 countries which accounted for no more than 156 acceptances, or just under 2 per cent of the total acceptances. Together those countries accounted for 13,865 applications in 1998. In other words, there were a number of countries from which very few, if any, applicants could establish their claims.
We have to face those facts and improve the system to protect genuine refugees and to sustain public confidence in our procedures. We have to strike a series of balances. We must speed up the system, but ensure that all applicants have a fair hearing. We must make the system fairer, but minimise the scope for abuse. We must balance a firm immigration control with our strong commitment to human rights and to race equality. The Bill tries to strike those balances. It represents the most radical reform of immigration and asylum law for decades.
Part I of the Bill contains provisions essential to modernise and make flexible the operation of immigration controls. For example, the Bill enables a visa to confer leave to enter which will accelerate procedures at ports. The Home Secretary, as well as immigration officers, will be able to grant or refuse leave to enter. This is aimed at improving the handling of certain types of casework. The provisions will not change the fundamental basis on which our immigration control operates—all arriving passengers will continue to be seen at the port of entry, and will be refused entry if they do not qualify.
It is a fact of life that there will always be some people in the United Kingdom who are not entitled to be here. That may be because they entered illegally or, although they entered legally, their circumstances have changed and they no longer qualify to remain. Part I therefore makes provision for the removal of certain persons from the country. In future, overstayers—those who have overstayed their leave and are here unlawfully—will be liable to administrative removal, not deportation as now. Clause 9 will enable the Dublin convention—which governs the return of asylum seekers to the European Union member state responsible for considering their asylum claim—to operate more effectively. Clause 11—and other provisions in Part VII of the Bill—extend the power to fingerprint certain persons to assist identification and removal: the power to fingerprint asylum seekers was introduced in 1993.
178 This Government are as keenly committed to stamping out racial discrimination as they are to ensuring firm immigration control. Clause 18 therefore re-emphasises to employers their duty to avoid racial discrimination in their recruitment practices when seeking to establish the statutory defence under Section 8 of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996. It places on the Home Secretary a statutory duty to issue a code of practice aimed at ensuring that employers do not breach the provisions of the Race Relations Act 1968.
Your Lordships will be well aware of the recent phenomenon of clandestine entrants emerging from the backs of lorries and other vehicles, sometimes on the hard-shoulder of motorways miles from a port. More than 9,000 clandestine entrants were detected in 1998 compared with under 500 in 1992. Illegal immigration on that scale represents a serious threat to the integrity of control and we are determined to tackle it.
Part II therefore provides for a new civil penalty to apply for each clandestine entrant brought to the United Kingdom concealed in any vehicle, ship or aircraft. The Bill provides for defences, for example, when the responsible person was acting under duress, or for those who can demonstrate that they have an effective system in place for preventing the carriage of illegal immigrants and that it has been properly applied. The Home Secretary must issue a code of practice setting out the procedures that should be followed by road hauliers and others who operate a system to prevent clandestine entrants from using their vehicles, which will be taken into account in determining whether such a system is effective for the purposes of the statutory defence. Part II also replaces, and extends to buses and coaches, the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act 1987 and introduces provisions enabling the detention of transporters as security for payment.
I turn now to the provisions of the Bill which deal with the arrangements for immigration detainees. Part III introduces important new safeguards for immigration detainees. It introduces a more extensive judicial element into the detention process by means of a system of routine bail hearings, but the Government have decided that we should go further. The Government intend to bring forward amendments during the proceedings in this House to provide for a statutory presumption of bail, with exceptions to ensure effective immigration control and enforcement.
Part VIII of the Bill provides a proper statutory framework for all aspects of the management and administration of detention centres and for the escort of detainees. Taken together, the provisions regarding bail and detention centres will provide significant additional safeguards for immigration detainees.
Part IV of the Bill deals with immigration and asylum appeals. Reform of the appeals system is an essential element of our long-term strategy. Appeals have an important part to play in securing a fair system, but the current process is complex, and the existing multiple rights of appeal delay the final resolution of cases. That, uniquely among appeals systems, works to the advantage, not the detriment, of some appellants by 179 enabling those with no legitimate claim to remain in the United Kingdom to manipulate the system and prolong their stay here.
Part IV therefore introduces a one-stop comprehensive appeal which aims to cover in one stage all aspects of a case that carry a right of appeal. When an application is refused, or in certain cases as soon as it is made, the applicant will be invited to set out all the grounds on which he or she wishes to remain in the United Kingdom, including asylum or ECHR grounds. The subsequent appeal will then consider all the factors in the case on which an appeal may be brought. Unless a ground for staying in the United Kingdom has been set out at this stage, it cannot form the basis for an appeal by the applicant unless he had a reasonable excuse for not mentioning it when invited to do so, or, in the case of an asylum claim, provided he is not making the claim solely to delay his removal.
Under Part IV, as a general rule, only persons who are lawfully present at the time they apply for permission to remain longer and where a refusal would require their departure may appeal while remaining in the United Kingdom. Those who are here unlawfully, such as overstayers, will have no right of appeal while they remain in this country, except where they are claiming asylum or ECHR rights. They will be removed under administrative arrangements in accordance with Clause 8.
Part IV also fulfils a manifesto commitment to reinstate a right of appeal to those who are refused a visa for the purpose of a family visit. The previous Government removed that right by the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993. We think that that was wrong. The measure in the 1993 Act caused great resentment in ethnic is minority communities who had relatives living abroad who wished to visit their family here, and Part IV puts that right.
Part V of the Bill fulfils a further commitment in the manifesto; that is, to regulate immigration advisers. There is no place in this country for unscrupulous advisers who prey on the vulnerable for their own profit. Part 5 therefore creates a statutory scheme to regulate both unqualified and, to a degree, legally qualified advisers. It will be a criminal offence, punishable on indictment by up to two years' imprisonment or a fine or both, to provide advice in breach of the scheme. The scheme will not be brought into force in respect of legally qualified advisers unless the Home Secretary and, as appropriate, the Lord Chancellor or Scottish Ministers, consider that the relevant designated professional body has failed effectively to regulate its members who provide immigration advice and services.
The regulation of immigration advisers will be administered by an immigration services commissioner who will have powers to investigate complaints against advisers and to withdraw registration or, in the case of registered and some other advisers, to lay a disciplinary charge. In the interests of fairness there will be an immigration services tribunal to hear any disciplinary charges laid by the commissioner, to which an aggrieved person may appeal against a decision of the commissioner.
I turn now to one of the most important parts of the Bill. Part VI contains provisions for a new national system of support for asylum seekers in genuine need.
180 The current arrangements are chaotic. Under them, cash benefits are available to those who seek asylum at ports of entry until their claim is decided. Beyond that point they are at risk of destitution. Those who apply after entry are also denied benefits and are immediately at risk of destitution. This unacceptable result of the 1996 Act led to intervention by the courts, the result of which is that the burden of supporting asylum seekers has instead fallen on local authorities and that burden has been particularly acute in London and the south-east.
This Government are simply not prepared to see asylum seekers destitute in our country. We are determined to provide support to those in genuine need, but to do so in a way which minimises the incentive to economic migrants who undermine public support for genuine refugees.
Under Part VI, support will be provided completely separately from the main benefits system. The only exception to this will be unaccompanied children, for whom existing arrangements under the Children Act will continue. The new scheme will be administered by the Home Office. Accommodation will be offered to asylum seekers on a no-choice basis. This is no different from what can happen in respect of UK residents who present themselves as homeless, usually because accommodation is more readily available in places outside London and the south-east. None of this is to mean that asylum seekers will be placed in accommodation isolated from other support systems. Accommodation is likely to be in clusters, taking account as far as possible of the support available from existing communities.
Other non-accommodation support will be given partly in vouchers and partly in cash. The Government have decided that the cash element of the non-accommodation support should be £10 per person per week. So a family of two adults and two children, for non-accommodation support, will each week receive £40 cash and just over £50 in vouchers.
A good deal was said elsewhere about the impact of these arrangements on families with children. Those concerns have been responded to. Clause 113 imposes a new duty on the Home Secretary to meet the accommodation and essential living needs of destitute asylum-seeker families with minor children. The assistance they will receive in this way will be comparable to what would otherwise be available in respect of accommodation and essential living needs under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989. All other safeguards for children contained in the Children Act will continue to apply. We will ensure that there is 24-hour cover so families will always have somewhere to turn in an emergency. Nevertheless, the Government are aware of continuing concern about the level of provision for children and I will therefore be giving this further consideration.
As part of our strategy for speeding up the asylum system we have set a target of delivering, by April 2001, most initial asylum decisions within two months and most appeals within a further four months. We have decided that from April 2000 initial asylum decisions on new asylum applications from families with children 181 should be delivered in an average of two months. Average waiting times for appeals are already below four months. Our intention is to maintain this for the future for all categories of cases. If we cannot achieve these targets for families with children, we will not bring these applications into the new support arrangements in April 2000. We will only do so when we are satisfied that the targets for these cases can be met. For those people who remain on the support arrangements for more than six months, through no fault of their own, we shall be introducing an additional discretionary payment to assist with the cost of replacement items they may need.
Part VII concerns immigration officers' powers to arrest and search and extends the power to fingerprint. Effective enforcement is an essential part of a fair and firm immigration control. Under current legislation, immigration officers too often have to rely on a police presence to perform basic low-key enforcement tasks. This is not the best use of police time or immigration service resources. Part VII therefore extends the existing powers of arrest of immigration officers and provides them with powers of search, entry and seizure in respect of immigration offences equivalent to those the police already have. These powers will be subject to safeguards similar to those which cover the police under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act.
Finally, Part IX of the Bill with Clause 20 provides marriage registrars with new powers aimed at tackling abuse of marriage for immigration purposes. The Government are making these provisions to deal with the growing problem of sham marriages being used as a means to circumvent immigration law and immigration rules. Your Lordships will have seen reports in the press about rackets where women settled in the United Kingdom go through marriage ceremonies with a number of different men solely to enable them to remain in the United Kingdom. We believe that these reported cases are probably only the tip of an iceberg.
Clause 20 therefore imposes a new statutory duty on marriage registrars throughout the United Kingdom to report suspected sham marriages for immigration purposes to the Home Office. This builds on the existing informal arrangements. If this new duty is to be effective, registrars need greater powers to establish the identity of parties to a marriage. Part 9 therefore provides power to request evidence of name, age, marital status and nationality. In addition, couples will normally have to give 15 days' notice of marriage and to attend personally to give that notice. The registrar cannot refuse to marry on immigration grounds; he can refuse to marry only where he is not satisfied that the parties are legally free so to marry. There will be a right of appeal in such circumstances to the Registrar General.
These changes in the marriage law are aimed at curbing the abuse of civil marriage for immigration purposes. They do not and cannot in any way affect those who marry in the Church of England or the Church in Wales after ecclesiastical preliminaries; those preliminaries are different and there is no evidence of their abuse. Because they affect all civil preliminaries, 182 they will affect religious marriages after such preliminaries, but are unlikely to cause any difficulties in practice for genuine couples.
By any standards this is a comprehensive reform of immigration and asylum law. It is essential to deliver the fairer, faster, firmer system to which we are committed. It is a large and complex Bill. It is important to get it right. It therefore comes to this House following a wide-ranging process of consultation and scrutiny by a special standing committee in another place.
We have already made a number of amendments to the Bill to reflect points made in that process. For instance, as I said earlier, we will be introducing amendments to provide a statutory presumption of bail. We intend to introduce safeguards on Police and Criminal Evidence Act lines in relation to the powers for immigration officers. We shall be introducing other amendments in relation to provision of additional immigration services, provision of escorts for removals and in relation to Home Office travel documents.
Perhaps I may say, as I have on earlier occasions, that any amendment put forward that is consistent with the purpose of the Bill and sympathetic to its underlying approach will be given open-minded consideration. As I have said in introducing earlier Bills, if any of your Lordships, with or without advisers, wish to see me, with or without officials, the door is open. I repeat, any amendments consistent with the purpose of the Bill and consonant with its underlying spirit will be given fair scrutiny.
What we are looking to, and what we must deliver, is a modern, flexible and streamlined system capable of dealing with the pressures which are constantly growing and the demands that are increasing. It should, if we get it right, serve the interests of all our people; it should, if we get it right, better serve the interests of those entitled to visit or to settle here and the interests of genuine refugees. It will give immigration staff, who are hard pressed, the tools that they need to operate a modern, decent and efficient immigration control system.
§ Moved, that the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)
§ 3.30 p.m.
§ Lord Cope of Berkeley
My Lords, the background to this Bill is, of course, the problems and, in some respects, the chaos in the immigration and asylum system of this country. As the Minister said, the problems have escalated over the past decade. The previous government were opposed in almost all their efforts to tackle those problems by the then Opposition. But since the general election, it seems to me that the problems have been made worse by the present Government. Their arrival in government sent, by itself, a signal that controls would be relaxed and that the situation would be made easier as far as concerns people in these circumstances. Their early actions and statements reinforced that idea. Flowing from that, the backlog of cases of asylum seekers has increased and the number of applications is at an all-time high. Simultaneously, and for various reasons that we 183 discussed on other occasions, the Croydon Immigration and Nationality Directorate is in a similarly chaotic situation to the Passport Office—and that is saying something!
However, the result has been that the Government have now—rightly, in my view—changed to a tougher approach; indeed, it is tougher in some important respects than the approach of the previous government. That is why there is a need for action and a need for this Bill. We support the aims of the Government in bringing in this legislation; but I emphasis the word "aims". In company with a wide range of organisations whose members have to deal with the situation day by day, we still have great reservations about many of the provisions.
The first aim of the Bill is to speed up the decision-making system. That is certainly a most desirable aim in itself, but it also seems to me to be absolutely crucial to the whole Bill. If the effect of these measures is not to speed up the processes and reduce the tremendous backlog, then other provisions in the Bill will become increasingly draconian. References have been made to a report by Stoy Hayward on the feasibility of meeting these targets. That report was prepared for the Government and was, I believe, due to be delivered to the Home Office about 10 days ago. I am sure that it would be helpful to your Lordships to know what were the conclusions of Stoy Hayward as a result of that study as to whether or not the Government's targets in speeding up the process are likely to be met. As things stand, I think that there is grave doubt about the possibility of achieving those targets.
As the Minister made clear, the Bill sets out to streamline the appeal process with one-stop appeals, and so on. But there are also new opportunities for appeals under the European Convention on Human Rights. These will provide new opportunities for delay for those who have sought in the past, and who still seek, to spin-out the process in their own interests. Partly, I suppose, for these reasons, the Bill also sets out to remove the incentive for delaying an application by cutting down the support that is given to asylum seekers and eliminating it altogether for those who, having failed on appeal, go to judicial review. Incidentally, there seems to be some doubt about how that provision about no support for those going to judicial review stands with the ECHR. But for those who do get support, it will be some 70 per cent of basic income support levels.
The new system of vouchers and accommodation provision is to be organised by a new section of the Home Office within the Immigration and Nationality directorate. I see from the Explanatory Notes to the Bill that the staff proposed for this new organisation will number 300. They will inevitably have to dispense accommodation, vouchers and some cash to tens of thousands of people—indeed, it was about 52,000 at the last count, but obviously the Government hope that that number will be reduced—to the value, initially, of some £350 million a year, which it is hoped will be reduced as the backlog cones down. However, that is an average of more than £1 million of vouchers and 184 accommodation, and so on, a year to be distributed per civil servant employed in this new system. That seems to me to be unlikely—and I put it no stronger—to produce a smooth-running and fair system for dealing with small sums of money, vouchers and accommodation to individuals and families who, by definition, are in a foreign country and who often will speak poor, little or no English, many of whom are among the most traumatised people in the world. Moreover, many of them will have health and psychiatric problems, which will need to be dealt with. It is asking a awful lot of this new agency.
The 300 staff of this new agency will necessarily be distributed all round the United Kingdom. That will be particularly so because of the dispersal policy which is to be followed under the Bill and which I believe is a sensible policy. They will need to provide a 24-hour service, not least to deal with children who turn up needing care, just as local authorities have to do at present. The Minister said—and I welcome this—that the aim would be to provide 24-hour cover; but I do not really see how 300 staff can provide that in every necessary area throughout the country, unless they all sit in relatively few places and use the telephone instead of actually seeing the people concerned and thereby understanding the problems for themselves. So there are real difficulties with such proposals.
It seems to some that this new support system should, therefore, not come into force until the numbers involved have deceased. That is a fair enough point on the surface, but the problem is that these tough new measures are, as I said earlier, a major part of the efforts to bring the numbers down in the first place. So if the tough measures which are supposed to bring down the numbers are not to be implemented until the numbers are down, it is difficult to see how we will ever reach that point.
We shall, of course, want to probe these matters in the later, more detailed debates on the Bill in this House, especially as they relate to children. All refugees are vulnerable, but the children are the most vulnerable. When children come here in these circumstances, it is rarely, if ever, their choice. It may be the parents' choice, but it is not the children's. But the Bill removes from those children the protection of the Children Act 1989, the basic, all-embracing measure for the protection and support of all the children in this country.
One of the other aspects we shall want to probe particularly, both in this context and also wider and covering other provisions, is that of the many provisions throughout the Bill for power to be taken to do things by statutory instrument. We shall obviously want to look carefully at the report of the Delegated Powers Committee when it becomes available. Without information, and indeed undertakings, on the use of the powers and what is intended, it is very difficult to be sure about the effects of the Bill. Everything we say about it must be taken with that caveat.
Clause 1 starts as the Bill means to go on, by giving the Secretary of State power to lay down any conditions for the giving or refusal of entry into the United Kingdom. This has to be done by order, subject to the 185 approval of both Houses, but it is a very sweeping power. The noble Lord the Minister said just now that there was to be no change in the basic immigration rules. If so, one wonders why the power in Clause 1(7) for the Secretary of State to vary conditions of entry is necessary. That is followed by literally dozens of order-making powers right through the Bill, and we shall want to probe the intended use of all those powers and their expected effects.
The noble Lord the Minister ran necessarily rather briefly—I do not complain about it—over all the clauses in the Bill in general terms. As he said, it is a very long and complex Bill. I do not want to refer to all the clauses at this stage; that would delay your Lordships unnecessarily. But the provisions regarding marriage registration; exchange of confidential personal information between agencies; the proposed but still very vague bond scheme; the powers of arrest, search and fingerprinting, to which the Minister referred; the proposals regarding employers: these are all significant matters about which your Lordships will be concerned, and all have attracted adverse comment from relevant bodies.
The detention provisions, too, will need special attention. The detention of children is envisaged as possible; indeed, necessary in some circumstances. But it is not clear whether the normal secure accommodation regulations will be applied to detention centres. It is not clear also to what extent it is proposed to contract out detention. Given the contrasts that were drawn yesterday by the Chief Inspector of Prisons between Wormwood Scrubs and privately run prisons, I can see a great advantage in contracting out in some circumstances, but we do not know at the moment what is intended.
I could not see in the Bill, although from what the Minister said it seems I may have missed something, provision for the proper judicial overview of the decision to detain. In Scotland, at least, it has been suggested that those detained while seeking asylum are to be treated worse than those accused of crimes.
Part V provides for the regulation of immigration advisers. I can support the principle behind this power, but some very pertinent questions have been asked about how it will work and the costs involved to the relevant organisations. We shall need to look at that. I am not clear also whether a Member of another place will in future be forbidden to give any advice to constituents on immigration matters. I presume not, but I am not sure how he or she will be able to do that under the Bill. The same applies to organisations like the citizens advice bureaux. Not all their staff, presumably, will be able to give advice under the Bill.
There is also great concern, as the noble Lord the Minister acknowledged, about the liability provisions for carriers in Part II, and in particular the consequences for lorry drivers. Most lorry drivers are law-abiding people who want to do their job properly and conscientiously, but the Bill seems to start from the opposite assumption. Again there is some vagueness, 186 but the provisions for fines, confiscation and codes of practice are a matter of concern.
The main problem is one of blame. Is the lorry driver really to blame if there are clandestine immigrants in a container owned by one company, on a trailer owned by another, when he is in the tractor owned by a third company, presumably his own employer, and he then collects the trailer and container, and incidentally the clandestine immigrants within, from a depot or park in France? If he later discovers, on the journey, on arrival or whatever, that, say, a family of four is on board, what is he to do? He can either say, "I have discovered these people", in which case there is an automatic fine of £8,000 on him plus, I think, £8,000 on his employer, and the possible confiscation of the lorry, which will not make him popular. That does not seem a sensible arrangement to put in the Bill.
No one can object to the principles of fairer, faster and firmer, which are the aims of this legislation, as set out originally in the White Paper and subsequently, but there is great concern about how the Bill will work. We all want the same thing. It is a very difficult and complex area of policy, as the noble Lord the Minister said in almost his first words. But we all want to admit genuine asylum seekers and legitimate immigrants with the maximum toleration and humanity. We all want to refuse those who try to enter illegally, or overstay, as promptly as possible, consistent with fairness. But there is room for grave doubt whether the Bill will achieve those aims.
I therefore welcome the Minister's policy, which he stated, of looking carefully at all amendments, and we shall do our best to give him something to consider.
§ 3.48 p.m.
§ Lord Dholakia
My Lords, immigration and asylum issues are fairly emotive matters. Let me make it clear that no one, least of all we on this side of the House, advocates an open door policy. Despite the nature and effects of various immigration and asylum legislation, the circumstances surrounding it remain contentious. Every country has a right to determine its immigration and asylum policy. That cannot be disputed. Those policies will command more respect if control procedures are manifestly seen to be fair.
During the debate on the Queen's Speech I said that we would scrutinise the proposed legislation carefully. We want to ensure that fairness has not been sacrificed in favour of a firmer and faster policy. I have some sympathy for the Government. They inherited a situation which was in a shambles. The heavy emphasis on excluding the ineligible, rather than giving prompt attention to the rights of those who are eligible, led to administrative practices which result in an adverse effect on asylum seekers in this country. The result was for all to see. The current system is in disarray and in a mess. There are thousands of applications awaiting determination and a similar number awaiting appeals.
187 In July 1991 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees stated:the protection which is owed to refugees under the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees may be rendered meaningless if persons in search of protection and assistance are unable to reach the territories of States party to this convention".We believe that Part II of the Bill is a barrier to human rights protection. It seeks to prevent those at risk of persecution from fleeing from their persecutors. Almost all avenues of entry are now closed. It does this by penalising the airlines or lorry drivers who may unwittingly bring the victims of persecution to the United Kingdom. We find it unacceptable that these agencies should be forced to act as immigration officers. How, I ask the Minister, can a genuine asylum seeker, too frightened to obtain appropriate documents in his own country, enter the United Kingdom in order to seek refuge from persecution? It may sound too emotive, but the controls we are introducing would have penalised men such as Oscar Schindler for saving people from death. The Bill as a whole emphasises exclusion, control and removals. Such an approach ignores the fact that a proportion of today's refugees will be tomorrow's citizens and will make a valuable contribution to the economic development of the United Kingdom. The case of over 28,000 Ugandan Asians is a good example.
The message that seems to permeate from the various clauses is that immigration and asylum seekers are devious and dishonest and that their reasons for coming to the United Kingdom, or attempting to do so, are unmeritorious. The effect of such a message is clear. It has led to false, misleading and lurid press reports of immigration issues which, according to the Commission for Racial Equality, incite fear and xenophobia thus damaging race relations. We already have a situation where housing providers, health authorities, the Benefits Agency and employers are expected to check immigration status. Research has shown that when aspects of immigration control are handed to other agencies, people from ethnic minorities suffer unjustifiable attention, delay and unfair decisions about their entitlements. My noble friend Lord Russell will have more to say about welfare and support provisions in this Bill.
This Bill has implications about racial discrimination in employment. In opposition the Labour Party recognised that Section 8 of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 would place,a dangerous and impractical burden on employersand create an,incentive not to hire black staff or people with foreign sounding names".The Labour Party pledged to repeal this provision. The retention by the Government of Section 8 of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 is the most disappointing indication of their commitment to racial equality. There is no evidence that Section 8 has provided an effective deterrent to illegal working or racketeering. What it has done is to increase the cost to employers and to add to the barriers which genuine applicants face. The opinion 188 of the CRE, the TUC, the CBI and the Federation of Small Businesses is that Section 8 should be repealed. There is already a provision that those who flout immigration controls in this context commit serious offences for which they could be prosecuted.
Clause 20 and Part IX provide a major rewriting of the powers and duties of registrars of marriage in order to bring aspects of immigration control within their statutory duties. We all object to sham marriages designed to avoid immigration controls. The duty places an inappropriate burden on public officials. There is also a danger of a practice of indirect discrimination by the exclusion of the established Churches on the ground that religious preliminaries already provide sufficient safeguards against abuse. The Government have already explained what a "sham" marriage is, but this will require regular training on the content of current immigration law and rules for those who are asked to implement them. Stereotyping will, of course, influence judgments and it will be people from the African, Caribbean and Indian subcontinent whose marriage plans will be disrupted while they prove that their marriage is genuine. It took a long time for the Government to get rid of the primary purpose rule, which affected genuine marriages. Let us hope that the new measure does not discriminate against genuine relationships.
The Bill gives immigration officers powers to arrest a person for a list of immigration offences. It also gives them wide powers to enter and search, including premises of family and employers, to look for evidence of any of these offences. New powers include personal search on arrest, and strip search if the person is detained at a police station. Immigration officers, police constables, prison officers, officers authorised by the Home Secretary and staff of private contractors who manage detention centres are all authorised to take fingerprints of immigrants or asylum seekers in a range of circumstances, most of which do not involve illegality. Reasonable force can be used by anyone authorised (Clauses 132 and 133) in the taking of fingerprints.
Immigration officers will not have had the same training or experience in the use of arrest and search powers or the appropriate use of force. Unlike the police, the Immigration Service is not directly accountable to a public authority. While the Government have announced a strengthening of the Immigration Service complaints procedure, currently it is little used and not equipped to respond to the types of complaints likely to arise when immigration officers take on new coercive powers. Private contractors have no public accountability and are unlikely to give their staff race equality training or to operate a complaints procedure. Concern has already been expressed about this and the Government have agreed to make sure that the provisions of the relevant part of the PACE codes of practice will apply. But much more than that is needed; namely, appropriate training such as police officers now receive in the implementation of PACE.
189 The Bill is a matter of concern to many bodies working on immigration and asylum matters. It provides that the Secretary of State may "make regulations" or,may by order make further provision",or insuch circumstances as may be specified",and so on. In many areas the details are missing, as was rightly pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley. The Immigration Law Practitioners Association has identified over 70 areas where there is no such detail. None of us can be confident that we will have more efficient and effective machinery. The situation—and I avoid mentioning the Passport Agency—in Croydon has been a scandal for most of this year. There are complaints about inaccessible files, unopened post and massive delays. The immigration and asylum appeals system is chaotic. The Bill does little to improve it. It fails to rectify the injustice whereby many people have no right of appeal before expulsion, and indeed removes such a right from people who have it now. With certification it retains the complex two-tier system of asylum appeals. There is, however, a right of appeal for some visitors refused visas. Practitioners need to be convinced that the appeals system will become more efficient and effective. On the basis of their briefing material this is unlikely.
The removal of rights of appeal against expulsion will lead to injustice and to continued unfounded applications for asylum because there will be no other way to have cases considered. However, I welcome the commitments made by Mike O'Brien in the other place. We now look forward to revised rules to ensure that all the factors such as age, length of residence here, family ties and compassionate circumstances will be considered before a deportation decision is made. Before the 1997 elections the Labour Party promised that each applicant would be given swift, individual attention and would be guaranteed a proper and effective right of appeal. The Bill does not necessarily provide this.
We welcomed the provision in the Bill about unscrupulous advisers and the Government's intention to regulate previously unregulated advisers. What we want now is some remedy to address the problem of an inadequate supply of good quality immigration advice. Bodies such as the Immigration Advisory Service, the Refugee Council, the Refugee Legal Centre and many others are working under severe pressure. It is in the Government's interest to ensure that assistance to such bodies will assist in improving the system. We ask that the Immigration Services Commissioner should be properly accountable. Simply preparing a report himself on his own effectiveness is not good enough.
There are obviously certain issues which are not addressed in the Bill. There is likely to be a devastating impact on women and children fleeing rape and other violence. It is estimated that a substantial number of women seeking asylum have been raped, and yet rape is not recognised as persecution and therefore grounds for asylum. There is a need to be compassionate.
§ Lord Clinton-Davis
My Lords, in looking at the whole area of advice, does the noble Lord agree that it 190 is extremely important that people—and there are too many of them—who are prepared to take advantage of those who are in desperate need of advice should be legislated against most effectively where they take serious advantage of such people? Does the noble Lord recognise that this is a serious problem which has been long neglected and which requires attention in the Bill?
§ Lord Dholakia
My Lords, certainly I welcome that particular provision. A long time ago I put a question to the Minister about that matter. Unfortunately, to date there has not been a single prosecution brought against any such unscrupulous immigration adviser. I hope that the Bill will contain such a provision.
The matter of bail and detention provisions in the Bill will be addressed by my noble friend Lord Avebury. Needless to say, we currently detain some thousands of people each year for varying periods of time, in some cases for two years or more. Those of us who followed the passage of the Bill in the other place took note that the Government committed themselves to consider several issues raised by the Members of the Standing Committee. I do not see evidence of such amendments included in the Bill before us; nor do I ask the Minister to respond now to the issues I am about to raise, but it will be helpful at some stage if he could reply to some of the points.
The Government agreed to consider whether the role of the independent monitor might be extended to cover broader issues, such as the operation of the bond scheme in compliance with race relations legislation, as well as the refusal of entry clearance.
The Government agreed to introduce a statutory presumption in favour of bail for detained asylum seekers. The Government agreed to consider an amendment which seeks equality with the Bail Act for the second bail hearing. This would mean that the second bail hearing would be a full one, in which the same points as those made in the first hearing could be repeated, as well as additional ones. The Government agreed to consider an amendment that would ensure that someone arrested in relation to breaking bail conditions would be brought before the court within 24 hours rather than "as soon as practicable".
The Government have undertaken to reconsider the composition of the immigration appeal tribunal; amendments have been tabled pressing for three members rather than one. The Government agreed to consider bringing forward an amendment so that Clauses 6 and 47 come into force at the same time. This would mean that removals under Clause 6 would not begin before those involved could challenge the removal as being unlawful under the Human Rights Act. The Government said that the 14-day move-on period may need more flexibility. All these are matters which were promised in the other place, but we see no evidence of them in the Bill.
The Government are considering making funds available to support asylum seekers who are unremovable because of the conditions in their country of origin, or for those who have been granted leave to move for judicial review. A commitment in this area is important.
191 There are, of course, other issues of concern. The Government's plan to channel resources into making decisions on families with children within the target times is likely to lead to single adult asylum seekers having to wait much longer for their decisions. There is a large backlog of cases at the Immigration and Nationality Department, the great majority of which precede the reorganisation; for example, there are currently more than 100,000 cases in the IND's casework in progress store, many of which are five years old. The problems are neither temporary nor superficial. Even the unions representing IND staff are sceptical that the caseworking programme will deliver the efficiencies intended.
There is some good in the Bill, but it is far outweighed by the restrictive range of measures I have identified. The Bill has sacrificed fairness. We are left with a fast and firm method of dealing with asylum and immigration matters. I do not believe that the Bill will deliver these objectives.
§ 4.3 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Southwark
My Lords, there are many elements in this Bill which those of us in the Church who have first-hand experience of working with refugees and asylum seekers welcome, not least the commitment to faster decision-making and the ending of some of the present confusion where different local authorities respond to providing support in very different ways. But I also feel duty bound to bring to the attention of your Lordships the widespread and deep misgivings which are felt about several aspects of the Bill, and particularly about Part VI and its provisions for support. We are not at all sure that the Bill has successfully achieved the number of sensitive balances to which the Minister referred earlier.
It perhaps should be said that we in the Church are very much an interested party. In my own diocese, which covers most of south London, the Church has either refugee centres or centres for the homeless in more than half the boroughs—indeed, there is such a centre within a hundred yards of where I live in Streatham—and my colleagues and I have ample opportunity to speak directly with many asylum seekers and those who seek to assist them.
Indeed, yesterday afternoon I met a young Ugandan woman, heavily pregnant, who had fled with her three children from a situation where all the members of her family had been killed. Deeply traumatised, she has been placed in a small furnished flat in the borough of Sutton. Fortunately, she is receiving help and advice from a local refugee charity, which has helped her to obtain basic furniture, yet even it has been unable, after three months, to find a place in a local school for her eight year-old daughter. She is not an economic migrant but a fellow human being in deep despair. I know from my own personal experience that there are many, many like her.
We in the Church then are an interested party because we are already involved. We can be absolutely sure that if there are flaws in the proposed legislation, the consequence will be more people like broken packages showing up on our vicarage doorsteps and church halls.
192 What are some of our misgivings? It is widely recognised that the withdrawal of entitlement to benefits since 1996 for large numbers of asylum seekers has caused enormous hardship. Had it not been possible for local authorities to resort to the National Assistance Act 1948 there is no doubt that thousands of asylum seekers would have been absolutely destitute. It was thanks only to a series of judgments, some of which were given by noble Lords, that even that Act was allowed to be used.
Under the proposals in the Bill before us, the National Assistance Act will no longer be able to be used to provide support for asylum seekers. It must be admitted that the Act was never designed to be the last resort, let alone the main means of support, for asylum seekers. But many of those who have been working with asylum seekers had expected something better in its place. Having seen the Bill in its present form, they feel disappointed.
The concerns are well known. The Bill does not provide a statutory guarantee that asylum seekers who are "destitute or likely to become destitute" will be given assistance commensurate with that given to UK citizens who rely on the benefits system for support. The Bill would allow the present and subsequent Home Secretaries to determine the amount of support at whatever level they saw fit. We have been told that initially this will be set at some 70 per cent of the normal benefit rates. Yet even the normal benefit rates have recently been demonstrated to fall short of people's actual needs and expenses. This has been convincingly set out in two reports, Low Cost but Acceptable and Low Cost but Just, which have been promoted by the Zacchaeus Trust and which were lauded by the late Cardinal Hume at their launch last month.
Seventy per cent of what is already an inadequate figure—much of which is to be provided in vouchers not cash—would seem to be a recipe for hardship. One cannot exchange vouchers for cassava or sweet potatoes in a northern supermarket; one can buy them for modest amounts of cash in Peckham market.
The Bill withdraws from children seeking asylum—and indirectly from their parents or guardians—the rights currently afforded to them by the much praised Children Act 1989. Thanks to the protection of the Children Act, they are now eligible to receive cash payments. If the Bill is passed in its present form, they will not. As I understand it, children in families, as well as adults, are to be transferred to the voucher system, with all the shame and stigma that that can involve and which would be so acutely felt by children in particular.
The Children Act spells out a whole range of rights designed to put the welfare of the child first. If the Bill proceeds in its present form, most of those rights will go. Of course, Home Secretaries will be required to ensure that those needs are addressed, but there will be little statutory guidance to ensure that they are clearly identified and treated as rights. The assurance that the Minister gave us earlier in the debate that he will give further attention to the needs of children is welcome and I hope that the outcome satisfies those most concerned with the welfare of children, as we all should be.
193 However, in general the Bill deliberately offers assistance at a level known to be less than adequate, in a manner known to be humiliating and according to a criterion known to be indiscriminate. Deterrence is a major objective. The restrictions will apply to anyone seeking asylum, regardless of the manifest merits of their case. Because some people abuse the system, all must pay the price. Were we to adopt such an approach in allowing our citizens access to the health service, our schools or the benefits system, we would rightly feel ashamed. By what right, then, do we use a different standard for people seeking asylum? It is maintained that the admittedly less than perfect arrangements are bearable because the cases of asylum seekers will be dealt with swiftly and successful families and individuals will then benefit from the full system of support and protection.
Knowing the problems that the Home Office has had with processing asylum applications, particularly the major problems with the computing systems at Croydon in my diocese, I have grave doubts that it will be successful in its aspirations. If there are no amendments to the Bill, asylum seekers could find themselves under the system of a voucher economy for years, not months. We would wish to support any amendment that lessens this risk. We welcome the Minister's assurance that the new support arrangements will not be implemented for families with children until the desirable target has been achieved, but we would wish this sensible decision to extend to all asylum seekers.
Then there is the question of accommodation. The Bill reflects a desire to relieve the mounting pressure on London's local authorities. That is understandable, but we must question whether the problem is best solved by the Bill's proposal to require asylum seekers to go to any part of the country to which they may be sent without regard to any choice on their part or the risk that support from specialised charities, such as that to which I referred earlier assisting the young mother from Uganda, will not be available. With no specialised help on hand and no cash with which to travel to find it, vulnerable people will be even more confused than at present.
I have confined my remarks to Part VI of the Bill, but I must express concern about the attitude underlying most of the provisions—that of crude deterrence. I share the disappointment of many Christians working with asylum seekers that, by adopting such an approach, we seem to give more credence to those who perhaps exaggerate the real problem of abuse than to the sufferings of those who have fled persecution and to the contribution that such people can make to the country granting them asylum.
Before my appointment to Southwark I had the privilege to serve for seven years as Bishop of Leicester—a city whose economic and cultural life was enhanced dramatically by the arrival in the early 1970s of tens of thousands of Asian asylum seekers from Idi Amin's Uganda. Asylum seekers need not always add to the problems of society; they can be part of the 194 solution by helping to create a prosperous and just community. I would like to see something of that understanding reflected in the Bill before it leaves your Lordships' House.
§ 4.14 p.m.
§ Lord Warner
My Lords, despite some of the comments made by previous speakers, I support the Bill. I do so from a perspective of having seen from within the Home Office how badly the immigration and asylum system needs a complete overhaul. I was also director of social services in Kent for six years and I have seen how the weaknesses of the present system have placed an unfair burden on that county and many London boroughs. The Bill is ambitious in scope, but the Government are right to undertake a comprehensive modernisation of the immigration and asylum system. The piecemeal attempts at reform under the previous government with the 1993 and 1996 Acts have not worked. Indeed, the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 was the cause of many of our present problems.
The Government's White Paper made the case for reform. It demonstrated how the present system is too complex and has failed to keep pace with the increasing volume of people seeking entry to this country as a result of turmoil in various parts of the world, economic migration and easier global travel. Paragraph 3.1 of the White Paper summarised well the problems that we face and it bears brief repetition. It says:Despite the professionalism and dedication of staff at all levels, the complexity of some rules, too many outdated procedures and chronic under-investment make it increasingly difficult for the system to deal quickly with those entitled to enter or remain and to deal firmly with those who are not".That situation has not arisen in the two years since the present Government came to office. It arises from the failure to tackle the problem effectively before 1997. Immigration and asylum today present some uncomfortable problems and truths for us all. Although there are many genuine asylum seekers whom we should do our best to help, there are also thousands of economic migrants seeking a better life in this country and the rest of western Europe. We need robust immigration controls if we are to preserve social harmony in this country and avoid serious social disruption and problems in some of our communities. We have to strike a balance between the needs of asylum seekers and those of many of the disadvantaged groups living in our communities. We tend to lose sight of that fact.
It is worth reflecting on the fact that if the present number of asylum applications were accepted on a continuing basis over the next decade and people were allowed to settle in London we would be accommodating the equivalent of two to three new London boroughs within a decade. That would impose tremendous pressures on many of the people living in those communities now.
It is also worth bearing in mind that the Dublin convention—signed, if I may say so, by the previous government in 1990—has not worked well and has led to a game of pass the parcel with asylum seekers who are undocumented or who will not provide information 195 that would establish whether another EU state is responsible for them.
A whole new industry has grown up around immigration and asylum over the past two decades. Some of that industry is an exploitative trade in human beings and human misery. There are some worthy successors to the slave traders of the 18th century now charging people fur clandestine entry, bogus marriages and ways of cheating the system or controlling entry. Immigration and asylum work is now an important part of the functions and earnings of the legal profession. Not surprisingly, some parts of that new industry do not like the changes that the Government are proposing. We have to bear in mind that some of those interests are vested as well.
The Bill is a managerial piece of legislation, but I believe that it is all the better for that. It recognises that immigration and asylum require better rules, better processes and better systems. It attempts to tackle the never-ending process of appeals that has grown up, with an excessive use of judicial review. The Bill is buttressed by the managerial changes that the Government are putting in place, which will be the key to its success. The new case working system in the Home Office has got off to a bad start, but it is delivering much-needed higher productivity in decision-making. The increasing expenditure and staffing will improve matters further—although I suspect that the Treasury will have to accept the need for further investment. I welcome the commitment by the Home Secretary to firm time targets for decision on appeals for asylum seekers, for without adherence to those the system will sink back into chaos. The new asylum support directorate promises the prospect of far better arrangements for supporting asylum seekers provided it is adequately funded, staffed and managed.
Better arrangements for supporting asylum seekers are long overdue. The Government deserve congratulations on grasping the nettle and tackling the mess they inherited. Part VI of the Bill needs to be considered against the situation the Government are trying to deal with. We can all feel enormous sympathy for genuine asylum seekers uprooted from their homes by fear of torture and death in their own countries. But large numbers of those claiming asylum today across western Europe are not those for whom the 1951 convention was designed. A large proportion are economic migrants seeking a better standard of living than is available to them in their own countries. As my noble friend the Minister pointed out, there has been a 10-fold increase in the annual number of asylum applicants in the past decade. That is a rise from about 4,000 a year to 45,000 a year.
It is worth reflecting on some of the nationalities that submitted claims for asylum in 1998. Among the countries from each of which over 1,000 applications were received were Sri Lanka, the former Soviet Union, Pakistan, India, China, Poland and Romania. Nearly a third of all applications came from those seven countries, but the percentage of applicants recognised as refugees 196 from each of those seven countries was 3 per cent or less. Yet from some countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia—
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, can the noble Lord explain to the House why, from a similar sample of refugees, the proportion recognised as legitimate in Canada is so dramatically different from what it is in this country?
§ Lord Warner
My Lords, I cannot explain what has gone on in Canada. I have not studied the situation there. I sought to demonstrate the contrast between what has happened in relation to applications from particular countries and what has happened in relation to Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. From those three countries we accepted as refugees over 90 per cent of the applications. I suggest that those statistics make it clear that we are able to recognise genuine asylum seekers and distinguish them from those whose claims are not well founded. We must face up to the fact that a large proportion of applications for asylum are not well founded and that we need robust systems that deter—I do not shrink from using that word—the growth of such applications.
Much has been made of the fact that the Government will not restore entitlement to social security benefits for asylum seekers while their applications are being determined. Social security benefits are for those who have established a right to be here, which applicants for asylum clearly have not. That seems to me a principled position and one that most taxpayers, who fund non-contributory social security benefits, can understand. Nearly nine out of 10 asylum seekers are single people without dependants; over three-quarters are male; and two-thirds are aged between 21 and 34. Making social security cash benefits available as of right to asylum seekers in that group will act as a considerable pull factor. We cannot run away from that fact. The evidence when the Conservatives changed the benefit rules demonstrated that. We shall simply collect more unfounded applications and that will make it more difficult for us to deal with genuine asylum seekers, especially those with families. We shall also give encouragement to those who operate internationally to organise the trade in human cargo.
I believe that the Government had no option but radically to reform the system of support for asylum seekers. Councils such as Kent and the London boroughs have been left with an unfair burden. There have been considerable disparities in the treatment of asylum seekers according to where they have ended up. In addition, we have seen the indigenous homeless of some London boroughs dispersed from London because all the spare accommodation has been taken up by asylum seekers. Social unrest has reared its head in some areas as a result of tensions between new arrivals and the home population.
Dispersing asylum seekers out of London in cluster areas where they can be properly accommodated and supported has to be the right policy. There is more spare accommodation outside London and we should make use of it. It will be impossible to make a dispersal policy stick if people can simply drift back to London without 197 any consequences. I believe it is right that the asylum support directorate should provide and pay for housing for asylum seekers. That seems to me preferable to using housing benefit and private landlords, with all the scope for serious fraud and abuse that that would present.
Like many others, I have been uneasy about some of the arrangements proposed for accompanied children. I have never been a particular fan of vouchers, whether for disposing of beef mountains or for use in connection with asylum seekers. There is a strong counter-argument that, used with single people, they can deter unfounded asylum applications. I welcome the decision of the Home Secretary to increase the balance between cash payments and vouchers, especially for families with children. As my noble friend the Minister indicated, we now have a situation in which a family of two adults with two children will receive cash payments of £40 a week alongside £50 in vouchers, as well as—and this has often been lost sight of—the asylum support directorate paying for accommodation, water, heating, lighting, cooking, furnishing and domestic equipment and travel to asylum interviews. Those are much better arrangements than now, especially in the context of the new fast-track processing arrangements proposed by the Home Secretary from April 2000 under which initial decisions on families with children will be made within two months and the changes will not be introduced until those targets have been achieved, as the Minister indicated. We shall have to monitor closely how the new arrangements work in practice. But we should not be afraid to grasp this opportunity to seek improvements.
Finally, I welcome the decision of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary to introduce amendments to make it clear that he will be under a duty to meet the accommodation and essential living needs of destitute families in a way that is comparable with the duty on local authorities under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989. That is a significant safeguard, which many people concerned with the welfare of children wanted to see.
This is a well constructed Bill, producing much needed reform. I hope that we can give it a constructive passage through the House.
§ 4.27 p.m.
§ Baroness Gardner of Parkes
My Lords, Britain has a long-standing practice of receiving people from all parts of the world at times of crisis. That tradition of help for those in need has saved many lives over the centuries. Although refuge has been given without thought of return, it has not been an unrewarded generosity. This country has benefited from the different skills, energies and ideas that have been brought here by different cultural groups over the years.
The time was when Britain had open doors—I arrived as a typical Australian dentist, in the 1950s. I came for six months. I am still here. There are many residents in the United Kingdom today in just the same position. Because of when we came, we have a right of abode and are not affected by changing immigration laws. Although I personally am not directly affected, my 198 family most certainly is, as are all Australians. None of my Australian-born relatives could simply arrive here now in the way that I did.
Controls have been introduced, and some of them are very tough—as they are now in all parts of the world. There are much greater restrictions on entry into Australia than there are here.
I welcome the introduction in Clause 1, under the rubric "Leave to enter", of subsection (2)(b) which anticipates new technological developments and would allow the use of smart cards. It is my hope that such a system might be able to make some special concession for a small group of Commonwealth citizens who feel, I believe justifiably, that the contribution that they have made is not valued. I am referring to World War II veterans, who were most upset by having to get visas to visit the VE Day celebrations. In letters to me they emphasised that they were now an ageing group and did not feel that it would be easy for them to wait in queues for clearance at the airport. I contacted the Home Office at the time, and special arrangements were made to ease their entry. They later sent notes of appreciation, but the resentment lingers. They were prepared to give their lives for Britain: surely there could be some easier access when they wish to visit.
As I said, they are a declining number and many of them will never come again, but I mention this at the beginning of my speech because that is where it arises in the Bill. I am hoping that the smart card technique might be able to do something for that very small number of veterans.
Long before I took my seat in your Lordships' House in 1981, I took a keen interest in each immigration or nationality Act and for this reason I am very aware of the genuine anxieties raised in the minds of those who are new to this country or who wish to come here. I was a member of my local community relations committee and I heard about, and shared, many of these worries. As time passed, it became clear that many of the alarms were false alarms. Anxieties caused by scaremonger tactics are very unfair. I hope that the Government will make every effort to allay unnecessary worries and be very clear as to what the Bill is intended to do.
There are a number of very genuine anxieties and, as a woman, I must draw the Minister's attention to the need to recognise rape as a legitimate reason for women to seek asylum. Women who have been raped have been victims of violence in one of its most terrifying forms. As UK representative on the UN Status of Women Commission, I was one of a small group studying confidential communications. Violence against women, particularly sexual violence, in detention and at times of armed conflict was the most common complaint to that commission from all parts of the world. This should be acknowledged and not ignored.
Another genuine anxiety is that an asylum seeker's application will be prejudiced by a health problem. There have always been powers to have medical checks carried out and I think it is important that these should be done, wherever there is any question. I recall, as a local authority health committee chairman, that a new 199 immigrant who presented at the chest clinic with active tuberculosis was found to have already infected 15 other people after his arrival in London only weeks earlier.
The incidence of HIV infection is very high among some ethic groups in the United Kingdom. I quote from a paper from the Terrence Higgins Trust:almost 80 per cent of infected women and the majority of infected babies and children in the United Kingdom are African".It is in their interest that this infection is detected early, so as to protect contacts and to provide the necessary treatment. Having sat as a member of the AIDS inquiry panel last year, I am aware of the special sensitivities of this issue and of the stigma that attaches, particularly within the African community, to being diagnosed as HIV positive. I am also aware that many who gave evidence to us had no idea that they were infected and had no thought of applying for a test. This issue must be handled sensitively but it is essential to stop the spread of this terrible disease, and diagnosis is just a first step. I cannot accept the argument that it is right for people to conceal their condition for fear of discrimination. Information and education on this matter are required to remove this concern.
Wherever asylum seekers are settled, adequate social and health services must be provided, and can be. I recall the time when these services did not exist in London: now we take them for granted. The right reverend Prelate referred to the fact that you cannot buy cassava in some parts of the north of England, but I remember the time when you could not buy it in London. All these foods appear wherever there is a market for them to be bought, and I have no doubt that if people were settled in some other part of England, the foods that they like would appear there very rapidly.
There is huge resentment in this country as regards illegal immigrants and overstayers, and rightly so. I think it is a good provision in the Bill that appeal for extension will only be applied within the legal period in the United Kingdom. Presumably some time will be allowed for existing overstayers to come forward, and information should be made widely available to enable them to do that, so they would be within any time limit to apply for consideration of their cases. An Australian journalist told me that there are an estimated 40,000 Australian overstayers here. There must be even greater numbers from many other countries with larger populations.
I welcome the clampdown on unscrupulous immigration advisers and those trafficking in human misery, charging people their life savings, and more, to bring them here illegally and thus condemning them to living in the shadows in this country. I also welcome the restrictions on judicial review which have been so abused in their use as a delaying tactic.
The bond scheme, for family visitors is a good one and I wonder whether, in terms of those cases where detention might apply—not family visitors but other cases of detention—the Minister has considered the possible use of a tagging system in lieu of detention. Would this be appropriate? I heard the Minister say that finger-printing is not new as it was introduced in 1993, which I had not appreciated.
200 However, I am strongly in favour of identity cards. I am convinced that they would remove many of the concerns and fears of discrimination that exist. This subject was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and really I think we should all have identity cards.
When we read in the press that so many surplus houses are available for sale in Salford, that the price is very low—£2,000 was quoted—it is clear that there is accommodation available in other parts of the country. If asylum seekers are placed in such homes, they will need to have the support of those who understand their cultural background and needs, but they could provide good homes and settled communities. I must make a plea here for one of the services to be provided to these people to be the teaching of English as a language. It is much easier for anyone to live in the United Kingdom if he or she has at least some knowledge of the language. I am quite amazed at the number of housing benefit cases there are—people who have lived in this country for years without any employment, without any occupation, and yet they have never attempted to learn a single word of English.
We must avoid the drift back to London which has caused such pressure on local authorities in the capital. I think that subsections (1) and (2) of Clause 87 are very clear and good. I support them, but I am rather upset by Clause 87(3), which seems to wriggle out of subsections (1) and (2) because it says that by order everything in subsections (1) and (2) could be amended. As I say, I thoroughly applaud subsections (1) and (2). I am worried about subsection (3) and I hope that the Minister can reassure me that the first two subsections will not be thrown out.
As I say, we must avoid the drift back to London, which has caused such pressure on local authorities in the capital. How can that be done? ID cards would be one answer. Another would be to have a number of compatriots in the area so that people would not feel alone and would want to stay in the place they had gone to. We all oppose "ghettoisation", but newcomers to a country find comfort and reassurance in being with others of the same background. I have never lived in Earls Court, but it used to be "kangaroo valley". Before that it was "little Poland". As a dentist, I worked in Aldgate East, which was then intensely Jewish. Now it is Bangladeshi, and indeed the kosher restaurant has gone.
Past records show that not all asylum seekers need help or are genuine and it is essential that the help we give is given to the genuine asylum seekers. It is important to identify bogus claimants. Local London authorities have continuing worries about matters that are not clear in the Bill. Those matters are: what is the position of asylum applicants already accommodated by London local authorities? What is the long-term resettlement position of such people? The biggest problem is that one-third of them are now drifting back to London. What is the position with regard to asylum seekers who have exhausted all appeals? The greatest concern of all relates to the cost and care implications with regard to unaccompanied children and young adults because of the ongoing responsibility until they reach 201 the age of 18. Councils are concerned that the proposed grant rates do not match their obligations and the cost of caring adequately for those unaccompanied children.
In conclusion, I am pleased that the Minister said that there will be opportunities to discuss such matters. This is a good Bill and I commend it to the House.
§ 4.40 p.m.
§ Lord Avebury
My Lords, it may be a good Bill, but it is certainly a large and complex Bill, as the Minister said, and it needs your Lordships' careful attention. That is particularly so given that at the end of Report stage in another place the Government tabled a whole raft of amendments which were guillotined and not discussed at all. That is wholly unprecedented on such a major piece of immigration legislation. Therefore, we have a special duty to pay close attention, as the Minister put it, to the provisions in the Bill and especially to those amendments which were introduced at the very last moment in another place and those which, even now, have not seen the light of day.
My noble friend Lord Dholakia referred to those amendments. They include the promise to consider extending the role of the independent monitor appointed to monitor refusals of entry where there is no right of appeal, so that he or she could also look at broader issues such as the operation of the bond scheme and compliance with race relations legislation. My noble friend did not mention the undertaking to bring forward an amendment to bring what are now Clauses 8 and 55 into operation at the same time, so that a person who is to be removed without right of appeal can challenge the removal as unlawful under the Human Rights Act. There are three important promises about bail, with which I shall deal in a moment.
We all agree with the objectives set out in the White Paper, Fairer, Faster and Firmer, and that we should seek, among other things, to ensure that asylum seekers have their applications reviewed promptly, fairly and efficiently, so that people who are escaping from persecution and tyranny have the opportunity to start a new life as soon as possible, and to refuse equally promptly those who are simply using the asylum system to come here and enjoy the economic benefits of life in Britain.
As the Minister mentioned, a large number of people do come here and apply for asylum, and not all of them are properly qualified. There has to be a system for examining claims, and testing them against the criteria of the refugee convention. Only a small proportion of the applicants are detained, but even so, hundreds are being kept in prison because there is not enough accommodation for them in the detention centres provided for the purpose. That is the aspect of the problem on which I should like to concentrate.
As the Asylum Rights Campaign states:The detention of asylum seekers is the most disturbing aspect of the UK's present … asylum policy".The Minister, Mr Mike O'Brien, said a year ago in another place that refugees should never be held in prison. He went on to point out that some people are 202 now applying for asylum at the end of a prison sentence for a serious offence, such as murder or rape, just to postpone their return to the countries of their origin, and one can see the point of keeping those people under secure conditions. However, at the end of May 1998, only 38 of the 742 asylum seekers in custody were subject to deportation orders.
I have suggested on previous occasions that the law should be amended to allow deportation orders to be served, objections to be lodged and appeals to be disposed of within the currency of longer prison sentences, so that in the small number of cases involved, the persons do not have to be detained after the expiry of their sentences. Perhaps the Minister could look again at that proposal. We have considered it previously, but it seems to fit in well with the Bill's objective of disposing of cases as expeditiously as we can.
At the end of April, there were 968 Immigration Act detainees, of whom 518 were in prison, most of whom were not charged with any criminal offence. I believe that all of the few who are considered to present a threat to security are held in Belmarsh. At the latest count, they accounted for only 11 of the 968, so it is quite a small problem.
Of the asylum seekers in custody at the end of March, 438 were awaiting initial decision, 186 were awaiting the result of an appeal, and 110 were awaiting the result of a further challenge, or awaiting the documentation for their removal. The Government have said that detention should be concentrated towards the end of the asylum process, but evidently that is not happening. The Minister must pay attention to that point because the Government's objectives are apparently not being achieved.
The Prison Service order on the management of Immigration Act detainees states that as far as possible they are to be accommodated in four main holding centres, but that any local prison may be required to hold detainees. According to the information that the Minister has been giving me in response to my request for statistics on month-end detainees, over 50 local prisons have been used to accommodate such people. It must be quite a burden for prisons that are not used to the special needs of these detainees, and which have to provide interpreters and translators; to ensure that detainees have access to aid agencies; to make suitable provision available for officers of the IND to conduct interviews and surgeries; to facilitate communication between detainees and their families, legal advisers and aid agencies, and to provide foreign language information packs in the languages understood by the detainees. It ought to be extremely rare for an applicant awaiting initial decision to be kept in prison at all, but to the extent that it is necessary, only a few specially designated prisons should be used, where the requirements that I have mentioned can be routinely satisfied.
Much of the debate concerning the detention of asylum seekers has focused on the absence of a statutory presumption in favour of liberty, as exists in criminal cases under the Bail Act 1976. As I understand it, that would put the onus on the IND to give substantial 203 reasons for detention, related to the individual. The unsupported opinion of an immigration officer that the person was likely to abscond would no longer be sufficient.
In the very useful minutes of the Special Standing Committee in another place, close attention was given to the report of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which recommends that asylum seekers are detained only for reasons recognised as legitimate under international standards, and only when other measures will not suffice; that detention should be for the shortest possible period, and certainly not for the long periods of up to two years that are experienced currently.
I understand that the Government now accept that there should be a statutory presumption of bail, and the unanimous evidence of the agencies which gave evidence to the committee was effective in persuading them to change their minds, where Parliament alone might have been unable to do so. I hope that we shall see the criteria for detention set out, if not on the face of the Bill then at least in orders made under it, and that legal aid will be available for applicants at bail hearings.
The Minister in another place said—this may have been overtaken by the undertakings given later—that legal aid would only be provided by a combination of Section 23 of the 1971 Act and Clause 45 of the Bill, under which grants may be made to bodies such as the Refugee Legal Service and the IAS. Since those organisations are currently able to deal with only a small fraction of the cases, asylum seekers have been driven into the arms of unscrupulous and incompetent practitioners. I am glad that the Government are tackling that problem. However, nothing has been said about the level of grant to the IAS and the Refugee Legal Service in future years when the new bail provisions come into operation, yet if they are to cope, those organisations will obviously need more money.
As we still need to do all those things to ensure that we are not vulnerable to action under the Human Rights Act, and as the Government have now agreed to do them, I am surprised that the Minister felt able to sign the statement of compliance with the Human Rights Act on the front of the Bill.
As the Minister in another place pointed out, the impression of the working group was that a large majority of people were economic migrants and only a small percentage were genuine asylum seekers. There are no statistics published on this matter, but if one takes the figure of 10,000 people detained each year and assumes that three-quarters are asylum seekers, that can be compared with Amnesty International's evidence that of those detained in 1997, 89 went on to get refugee status and 132 were granted ELR. On those figures, only 3 per cent of the detainees were successful in getting leave to remain one way or the other, but that does not mean that all the remainder were properly detained or that all of them were economic migrants. It is not an either/or situation. Somebody who is an unsuccessful applicant for refugee status or ELR is not ipso facto an economic migrant. Many people with claims to come here, such as the Ugandan woman described by the right reverend Prelate, may not fall within the provisions of 204 the convention on refugees because the harm done to them, for example rape, is not one of the criteria set out in the convention.
For those who await the first decision, the question is not whether they have a right under the convention but whether they comply with any conditions imposed on their temporary entry while their applications are being considered. We need to go into that more thoroughly at Committee stage, because that does not seem to be the practice at the moment. The working group expressed concern that decisions on detention were being made on the basis of the availability of space in the detention estate rather than the objective merits of the case. Looking at the month-end figures, the variation since last August has been from only a minimum of 913 to a maximum of 989. It is very difficult to believe that that represents a true reflection of the objective need to detain.
It is a worry that by enlarging the detention estate we shall simply be encouraging the IND to detain even more people. I suggest that when Aldington is rebuilt the Prison Service should be made to reduce the number of places that it makes available to the IND by a corresponding amount. In that way one will not have an extra number of detainees corresponding to the accommodation available in Aldington.
Finally, the reduction in the numbers in detention—which is costing the taxpayer some £50 a year, plus the cost of keeping them in prison—depends critically on, among other things, the success of the PFI partnership project with Siemens on the IND's casework system. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, in a Written Answer on 19th May said that testing of the system was due to begin on 14th June and that it would be in full operation by early 2000. Has the Minister had any feedback from the testing so far, and can he give any more precise indication of when full operation will begin? The Minister said that as of 13th May over 76,000 asylum applications were waiting to be determined. That is an increase of 41 per cent on the numbers when the Government took office.
Can nothing be done to reduce the appalling backlog until the system is ready? It was not reassuring that Mr O'Brien could only tell my honourable friend Mr Richard Allan, who asked what would happen if there were further delays to the project:We are thinking about what to do if that happens and have formed some views on the matter. I cannot give the honourable Gentleman a firmer answer than that. We shall have to plan for these things".—[Official Report, Special Standing Committee, Commons, 18/5/99; col. 1618.]Asylum seekers and their advisers, not to say Parliament, are surely entitled to a better response than that, and I hope we shall get one from the Minister today.
I have concentrated on detention, because it is universally agreed that it is wrong in principle and expensive in practice to lock up a group of people who are not criminals. The Government have had more than two years to do something about this, and in spite of their good intentions up to now the situation is no better than when the Tories left office. Under this Bill, steps can be taken to see that detention is used only in cases 205 where it is absolutely necessary and that people who have suffered persecution at the hands of their own governments do not have to endure the further ordeal of imprisonment when they come here as refugees.
§ 4.54 p.m.
§ The Countess of Mar
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Immigration Appeal Tribunal. When I was first appointed in 1986, the main workload of the tribunal consisted of the determination of family cases from the Asian sub-continent. The introduction of genetic fingerprinting immediately resolved any questions of family relationships and the determination of primary purpose of marriage cases formed the bulk of the caseload.
From the early 1990s we began to see an increasing number of asylum cases. Most of the applicants came from north and west Africa, the Indian sub-continent and Sri Lanka, with some from Turkey and Iran. These claims were interspersed with a variety of applications for entry as visitors, students, dependent relatives or working holidaymakers, for example. In the past four years or so most of the applications to the tribunal have been claims for asylum, some as much as four or five years old.
From relatively simple beginnings since the 1971 Act immigration law has grown exponentially into a complex amalgam of UK primary and secondary legislation, European law and the 1951 United Nations convention relating to the status of refugees. Almost every asylum appeal to an adjudicator or the tribunal contains an element of definition. There is an urgent need to redefine the meaning of "refugee". For example, more and more often the situation of a single or widowed Moslem lady with no male member of the family to protect her has become a reason for a claim to asylum. I believe that to be a very valid reason.
As the Minister said, the Bill strengthens previous legislation that has not worked. I share the fears of many that this legislation will not necessarily solve the problems. What really makes the whole system chaotic is the overwhelming number of people who try to enter this country. The image of the dispossessed refugee fleeing tyranny in his or her homeland is a tragic icon and it is a state to which one can imagine no one aspiring, yet millions queue to join the ranks. The noble Lord, Lord Warner, gave some of the reasons. Something has gone fundamentally wrong.
The key to the problem is that, in the aftermath of the Second World War, the embarrassment and horror of genocide of the Jews, gypsies and the disabled led all right-thinking nations to sign up to the United Nations convention so that it should never happen again and refugees would always find someone to give them succour from tyranny. The drafters of the convention did not foresee the advent of easy international travel or satellite television. As the economic gap between the first and third world has widened, the poor of Asia, Africa and Latin America can see a better life portrayed daily on their screens. They come in their thousands, assisted by unscrupulous agents who have made a 206 profitable business from arranging their travel and coaching them in fabricated claims for asylum, because we have progressively changed our laws to make it impossible for them to enter the UK under any other category.
My curiosity is increasingly aroused by the number of asylum seekers who tell us that they are brought into the UK by agents who appear to travel with impunity particularly between the airports of the Asian sub-continent and Heathrow. Presumably, they do not pass through immigration control at this end. Can nothing be done to prevent these agents from travelling freely and dumping their human cargo at immigration control at Heathrow?
I do not wish to give a false picture. There are people in desperate need of refugee status in certain regions of the world, for example Kurds in the Middle East, victims of tribal conflict in sub-Saharan Africa fleeing torture and execution, and both Albanians and Serbs fleeing the revenge in Kosovo. The problem is to identify this deserving minority, which would in itself number some hundreds or thousands a year, in a hopelessly under-resourced and appallingly managed immigration system overwhelmed by bogus claims, of which I understand there were about 50,000 in past year, corrupt agents and advisers, and political confusion.
Fundamental change is needed in our system of control at points of entry. Those seeking asylum must be interviewed promptly before they leave the port of arrival. All too often, essential evidence is not revealed until the case gets to a tribunal, possibly years later. All too often, by the time a case reaches a tribunal, an appellant has been thoroughly coached in his original story or has embellished it. This is when deciding upon credibility becomes a major factor.
It is vitally important that the interviewers are skilled. It should be made absolutely clear that this is the time for a full and open statement of facts, and that there is no need to be afraid of the authorities in this country on the basis that what is revealed may be passed to the authorities in the country of flight. Interviewing officers should have immediate access to accurate and up-to-date information on the current situation that pertains in the country from which the claimant has fled. Legal representation should be offered and independent medical reports should be prepared at this time.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, who is not in her place at the moment, raised the problem of women applicants. For women and children, both interpreter and interviewer should be women, especially when rape or other sexual assault is a possibility, simply because women from certain ethnic groups would not reveal for any reason whatever any such information to a man.
With the possible exception of those with young children, who should be offered special facilities, claimants should remain confined in humane, purpose built surroundings, not prisons, for reasons made clear by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, until a decision to grant or withhold refugee status has been made by the Home Secretary. That decision should be made within one week. Each case should be dealt with on its individual merits. Instead of the general-purpose refusal 207 letters which currently emanate from the Home Office, with minor, often inappropriate changes to paragraphs for individual cases, particular attention should be paid to accuracy in detailing the circumstances relating to the claimant. That would prevent a large number of appeals which ultimately fail.
Those who appeal should remain confined for a little longer, perhaps two or three months, as they are in some Nordic countries. They should also know that if their appeal fails they will be physically removed from the United Kingdom. The example of immigration control in some Nordic countries seems to work. The bogus claimant is deterred. The genuine refugee is in no way disadvantaged. Status would be recognised rapidly, enabling claimants to become integrated into our society and to rebuild their lives without a prolonged period of anxiety while their claims are decided. The economic migrant would be discouraged.
Government resources should be directed at providing the Home Office with effective means of entry control, accommodation for claimants, and deportation measures. Those resources may readily be found from the millions currently spent on income support and housing benefit for bogus asylum claimants who eventually disappear into the black economy.
There is absolutely no point in having an appeals system if there is not absolute certainty that those claimants whose appeals fail in the final court are not deported. Far too many failed asylum seekers and those in other immigration categories who have exhausted the system go to ground. In order to solve the problem of a perpetual backlog, the possibility of processing separately existing claims, and claims which arise after the enactment of this legislation, should be considered.
On a technical note, the Home Office appears to have been reluctant to use its powers to grant exceptional leave to remain, rather than full refugee status, to those with a credible short-term need to be out of their homeland; for example, where a civil war is likely to be temporary, or in the current circumstances in Algeria, or where a government have effectively ceased to exist and there is no practical way of the claimant returning, as in Somalia.
I believe that these are practical solutions to the present problem. They are a great deal more relevant than, for example, the appointment of a commissioner or the establishment of tribunals to determine grievances on matters of welfare and support, or the effectiveness of claimants' representatives—proposals of Kafkaesque irrelevance to the core of the problem. A system of recognition of non-legally qualified representatives is certainly needed, but it can be readily established under the Immigration Appeal Tribunal, which is effectively a court to be headed by a High Court judge. The same tribunal is in the best possible position to hear these appeals.
There has been a proliferation of legislation in this field in the past 20 years. It is a pity that the Government have not chosen to consolidate existing legislation in the Bill. The Bill is widely opposed by many working in the field of immigration for failing to get to the heart of the problem and for many of the draconian measures it 208 contains. I share many of those concerns. I look forward to following in detail the progress of the Bill through your Lordships' House.
§ 5.5 p.m.
§ Baroness Uddin
My Lords, I support the Bill. I have spoken to a number of people both inside and outside this House. They agree that the Bill is the most fundamental reform of immigration and asylum law for many years. It is always controversial to deal with difficult issues of putting up borders to prevent outsiders entering, especially when all over the world many people in many countries face violent abuse of their human rights. It is a brave government who will take a fairer, firmer and consistent attitude to dealing with these issues and I believe that this Government are one.
For 20 years, we have struggled to get in place a balanced view and a practical policy for dealing with immigration and asylum often with a race bias. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the good work of many organisations, including the JCWI and the Refugee Council to name but two. I believe that the current intention is a definite and humane approach—the White Paper sets out an integrated strategy, which we have demanded for a number of years—alongside the Government's commitment to advance a multi-cultural, multi-racial and anti-racist agenda. That is an important aspect of the Bill. Surely, no one can doubt that this Government are committed to that agenda in the post-Lawrence era.
The current arrangements for supporting asylum seekers are inconsistent and unacceptable. Noble Lords in all parts of the House agree with that. Often, on arrival someone at the right destination would receive some or adequate support, but on arrival at another would be treated like a criminal waiting to be put away or thrown out. No one in their right mind would want to see that continue.
As a leading member of a local authority, I speak from some limited experience of dealing with the extra demands made on local authorities. I was sometimes unhappy with the services available to my own constituents, but as an officer of another authority I was in a politically sympathetic environment, able to provide adequate support using the Children Act and community care legislation. That is illustrated by this example of the social services department in my authority of Newham. We began to give cash to asylum seekers, which brought the department to a practical and financial collapse. It was subsequently decided to rely on vouchers alongside the provisions for housing and a daily cash allowance. We believe, and we were told, that a number of asylum seekers felt lucky to be in Newham. By contrast, Tower Hamlets, which is my borough of residence, and Westminster provided much more limited support.
There is no doubt in my mind that a caring government could not allow such discrepancy to continue. I endorse the contribution of my noble friend Lord Warner, who dealt with a number of points I wanted to raise. I shall not repeat them. I intend to restrict my comments to matters of principle rather than 209 refer to individual clauses and concerns, which have been covered with much experience and integrity by a number of noble Lords.
I hope that the debate will ensure that the final legislation takes on board many of the concerns expressed here and in the other place. To that end I am reassured by the opening speech of my noble friend the Minister that he will consider amendments seriously.
I wish to draw attention to particular concerns expressed about this Bill by a number of my noble friends and honourable friends in another place, not necessarily in an official capacity but mainly in the corridor. I am also concerned about those who have talked to the media off the record to express their deep concerns about the Bill without feeling able to place them on record. I myself have deep faith in the parliamentary process and in the workings of this House to deliver a Bill which will have been amended in the usual way to take on board a number of those concerns.
During the passage of the Bill many of us have been asked to express our concerns in various outside meetings. The Floor of the House is the right place to air those concerns rather than media opportunities which are currently available and accessible. A number of us have been asked to appear on radio and television and share our concerns about the Bill. A number of honourable friends have suggested privately that if they speak out about the Bill they risk being assigned to the Back Benches for ever. I have reservations about this kind of method of opinion sharing because I believe that it has added to some of the anxieties outside in the community as well as in the media.
I urge my colleagues in the other place and in this House to state on record their real fears so that we can tackle them and redress the Bill with appropriate amendments so that we have something to which we can all sign up.
One other fundamental concern which we have all shared in contributing to this debate, both inside and outside the House, is that the Bill is governed by the premise that each application is bogus and that there is a racist connotation and undertone widespread in the country. It is my opinion that this Bill has been unjustifiably accused of reinforcing that stereotype and that agenda. However, it is a very serious allegation and it does not bode well for a government who have tried so bravely to tackle racism. I urge the Minister to take back to his colleagues in the Home Office the fact that we must place greater emphasis on ensuring that this point is put across to the community at large and is challenged at every turn.
In the spirit of my previous remarks, I wholeheartedly endorse the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, in relation to the impact of the Bill being in danger of damaging race relations and support his call to the Government to take a very clear position. I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, that the Bill will not achieve its objective. It is up to all of us to ensure that the Bill passes through this House amended appropriately so that we can agree to it. This is an opportunity.
210 This is the right place to acknowledge the concerns of the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, who is not in her place, about women's applications, especially those who have been, or fear being, raped. I wholly endorse her comments that we need to take that on board. In addition I agree wholeheartedly with the comments of the noble Countess, Lady Mar, who talked about appropriate staff being available to deal with women's applications.
I belong to the all-party group on children. Deep concerns have been expressed by most of the children's organisations. I urge the Government to re-examine some of the issues raised by children's organisations, not because they have a monopoly over children's rights over and above the Government, but because, as a local government officer, I was for a long time and am still all too aware of papers and Bills being introduced by officers who could not always appreciate the political implications and the realities of implementation.
The current faster, fairer policy may be a new concept and I am not suggesting that in assisting us to legislate the Civil Service has not caught on to the new agenda. I am suggesting that we can look at some of the ways in which the Bill is proposed. We cannot struggle with yet another Bill that stands accused of missing the point. I believe that something is missing when the most caring government for many years are accused of this by its various publications despite their intention to be fairer and to administer a Bill that is consistent. This must be refuted and corrected if appropriate. I am assured by noble Lords that requests for serious amendments by children's organisations will be taken to the Home Secretary and I look forward to the Bill being amended to take on board some of their concerns.
I welcome the Bill. It has afforded us an opportunity to put in place a way forward. Let us correct that with which we are not happy. I do not take seriously Members on the Opposition Benches in the other place who decry those involved in the community or in national politics but who cannot have failed to notice the inertia of 18 years of government when individual authorities were left to their own devices, sometimes using blatantly divisive means to deal with immigration and asylum issues. I am ambitious and confident that once we have debated and amended the Bill we will have many of the desired amendments to make this Bill into something that cannot be associated with yet another attack on black and immigrant communities.
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn
My Lords, the aspirations and intentions underlying this Bill are laudable, but a year ago, in July 1998, the Home Secretary, in his preface to the White Paper, described the situation then as a shambles. Is the situation any better now and do we really believe that the situation will be better soon?
The central problem as I see it is one of timing and delay. This is a matter which is not directly addressed in the Bill, although one recognises that there are a 211 number of provisions which should bring about some streamlining. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, in his very thoughtful and interesting introduction to the Bill a little while ago, made reference to intentions of timing: this would be done by 2000, that would be done by 2001. I have to point out that there is absolutely no mention of those timings in the Bill nor in the Explanatory Notes to the Bill. Indeed, if you look at the Bill and you suddenly see mention of the word "delay" in the margin, and you think "Oh, perhaps something is going to be addressed, this is Clause 98", it is not delay in processing applications which is in question.
For some time I have been concerned about the colossal backlog of cases of longstanding applicants for asylum, some of whom have been in this country for more than six years, without any indication of a decision, still less the award of the status of exceptional leave to remain, or any consideration whatever by the Home Office. Of course, any asylum seeker must be grateful for the refuge accorded by this country and the material support given. However, on 16th March last year in a Written Answer to a Question I tabled (WA 102) the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, stated:the overall number of outstanding cases which pre-date 1994 can be estimated"."Around 10,000" was the answer—an accurate breakdown … could only be achieved at disproportionate cost by examination of individual case files. … it is also not possible to establish accurately the number of undecided applications, if any, which were lodged prior to 1988".This is the world of Kafka. To have in this country applicants for asylum who have been kicking their heels for a decade, unable to settle their futures and at the expense of the British taxpayer, is absurd. Some of them are young people—perhaps I should say "were" young people—anxious to get some training and embark upon useful careers. But without some decision, if only exceptional leave to remain, they are denied access to the relevant training.
I have in my possession a letter from the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment, dated 6th February 1998 in which she states:Asylum seekers whose applications have not yet been decided by the Home Office are not eligible for student mandatory awards or loans".Perhaps the Minister will confirm that in these circumstances, they are also charged overseas fees although they are resident in this country and have been for up to 10 years. Even if a student living in this country has been here for five or six years—
§ Lord Warner
My Lords, could the noble Lord tell the House whether he raised any of these issues of the backlog and some of the individual cases he mentioned with his colleagues in the previous government?
§ Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn
My Lords, that is an entirely valid point. The answer is no, I have only become acutely aware of this matter in the past two years. I have only recently complained about it seriously. The noble Lord has a point, but the present 212 Government have been in office for two years and the time comes when they must take responsibility for the circumstances. I am concerned because I do not believe these matters are being addressed in the Bill; indeed, they are not being referred to.
I return to the point which I was making. Even if a student has been living in this country for five or six years and would, in normal English, have passed the formal requirement of being,ordinarily resident in the British Islands throughout the three years immediately preceding the start of his coursethere is the "Catch 22" that such residence does not count for an asylum seeker since he does not have settled status.
I am aware that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, has great sympathy with this position. On 27th January 1998, in answer to a Starred Question on this point, he observed:I entirely agree with the noble Lord. It is utterly demoralising. … no human being should have to be left in doubt and limbo for that period of time".—[Official Report, 27/1/98; col. 104.]The five years are now six. I do not in any way question the sincerity of the noble Lord. My concern is with the efficacy of the solutions presented in the Bill. In his Written Answer to me of 25th August 1998, the noble Lord wrote:We will start by clearing the undecided cases which date from before 1st July 1993, and hope to be able to decide most of these by early 1999".We are past early 1999. Has that happened? I can assure noble Lords that in many cases known to me it certainly has not.
I should like to ask the noble Lord a question of which I tried to give him notice and which I hope got through: how many cases of application for asylum made before 26th July 1993 when the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act came into force, have been cleared since his estimate of 15 months ago that there were 10,000 remaining? How many cases remain where no decision at all has been made and no reply given to applicants for asylum who entered this country before 26th July 1993?
This Bill lacks reality because the assurances which were given when the White Paper was introduced have not been met. We are all familiar with the current chaos in the Passport Office. That has had plenty of publicity because it inconveniences British citizens and they have rightly reviled the Home Office for its monumental inefficiency in relation to their holidays. We are familiar also with the comparable chaos as concerns visa applications in the Home Office's Immigration and Nationality Directorate. As The Times remarked yesterday in its leading column:Thousands of people's visa applications have been lost, leaving them either unable to enter Britain or stranded here. In March the National Audit Office criticised the Home Office's handling of this project and made a wider point which every minister should heed. There are many examples of bespoke projects such as this one, which in retrospect can be seen as too ambitious".213 It continues:That is an understatement".It certainly is.
These are the cases which attract attention because they inconvenience—
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. The noble Lord said that the Bill lacked reality. Can he explain what he means by "lacking reality"?
§ Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn
My Lords, I certainly can. However, I do not want to speak at greater length than I had intended. It seems to me that the central problem is the colossal backlog which currently exists. The Bill does not explicitly state how it will deal with the backlog of existing cases. I imagine that most existing cases will be dealt with under the existing law, though the noble Lord opposite will correct me if I am wrong. It may be that the Bill will operate retrospectively, but I do not assume that to be the case.
So, what will be done about the existing cases? The Bill has no remarks to make about that. We are told—I shall refer to this later though I shall conclude my speech briefly—that it is hoped there will be a two-week decision time by the year 2001. When that point is reached, the situation will work admirably. However, to anticipate what I was planning to say, Explanatory Note No. 393 states that 300 extra officers will be recruited to implement the Bill and deal with the backlog. My noble friend Lord Cope of Berkeley also referred to this point. Perhaps I may say, in retrospect, to the noble Lord opposite, that that simply is not enough. Why not 3,000? Three thousand officers might cost something of the order of £60 million. That is still a small sum in relation to the annual sums being paid out to accommodate and offer subsistence to the 50,000 or more people who constitute the present backlog. I hope that gives a sufficient answer to the noble Lord. These matters are not addressed in the Bill. That is why I believe that it lacks reality.
In his Statement of 27th July, the Home Secretary stated:All told, we aim by 2001 to have average process times for initial asylum decisions of two weeks, and for appeals of a further four months".—[Official Report, Commons, 27/7/98; col. 37.]That would be grand—
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I believe that the Home Secretary stated "two months". I do not want the noble Lord to mislead himself.
§ Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn
My Lords, I am grateful for the correction. That is, indeed, an important point so I shall state the quotation correctly:initial asylum decisions of two months and for appeals of a further four months".However, if noble Lords believe that we shall reach that point in the year 2001 without some very special provisions being undertaken, they are optimistic indeed.
214 Urgent measures are now needed to deal with backlogs which have been allowed to build up over a period of many years in the previous regime as well as the present one, as the noble Lord, Lord Warner, correctly observes.
This is not just a matter of changing the legal position as the Bill sets out to do; it is a matter of efficiency, providing the resources to do the job and noting that the budget of social security benefits will, in some respects, be reduced thereby. Indeed, when we look at the passport office and the situation regarding visas, it is perhaps not unfair to say that it is a matter also of competence. A year ago it was hardly reasonable to criticise the Government for a situation which they had inherited. But the time comes when Ministers have to shoulder responsibility for the continuing position. The Minister will no doubt tell us that the present Bill is designed to reduce the pressures on the immigration department and thereby alleviate these problems; but, what will the present Bill do to alleviate the existing backlog of long-standing applicants?
This is now a public scandal and one which is more serious than delays with passports for holidays or visas for short visits. These are people whose lives have been on hold for five, six or maybe 10 years. I should like to ask the Minister how many such people there still are and what is he going to do about it. Unfortunately, the present Bill does not address the problem. It has its merits but I fear that it misses the central point.
§ 5.29 p.m.
§ Lord Alton of Liverpool
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, in particular in reinforcing the point he has just made about the omissions in the Bill and the need to face the separate challenge of clearing the backlog of outstanding cases. I agree with him that the legislation does not go to the heart of that problem and, therefore, we may be wasting much parliamentary time in dealing with yet another piece of legislation that misses the point.
When I was a Member in the other place I served on the Standing Committee that considered the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996. In preparing for today's debate, I revisited the Second Reading speeches. Mr Jack Straw was the principal Opposition spokesman and he set out the context in which that legislation was being promoted. Many of the arguments that he advanced then in the other place hold good today, so your Lordships will readily appreciate the irony that Mr Straw now holds the legislative ring.
In the Second Reading debate, Mr Straw said:asylum policy is about the protection of that most basic right, the right to life".He added:Above all, we must act in a way in which prejudice is not fanned, and people must not be led to believe that immigration is out of control … there must be a balance between fairness and firmness, between justice and control".—[Official Report, Commons. 11/12/95; col. 711.]We are in danger of overexaggerating the scale of the problem. The last time I tabled Questions about the numbers of immigrants arriving here, the Answer revealed that in the year in question some 5,000 more 215 people left the United Kingdom than came into the United Kingdom. Of the 215,000 who had arrived that year, 90,000 were in any event British citizens.
As Mr Straw himself said when we last considered these issues, we must not overexaggerate the problem and suggest that immigration is out of control. If we compare the numbers today with the numbers of those who arrived here 30 years ago, we see the right context in which to place this debate.
The noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, mentioned resources and it is worth commenting not just on the disproportionate amount of parliamentary time that we spend on the issue, but on how resources are allocated. I was told, again in answer to a parliamentary Question, that the previous legislation cost more than £200,000 to promote and took some 8,000 hours of civil servants' time. I am told that 400 extra staff will be required to administer the new voucher system. My noble friend Lady Mar and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, talked about the cost of holding people in detention. Those are considerable sums of money and if they were allocated to dealing with the backlog of people who are being held and seeking the right to remain in this country, and who will be returned if their cases are not upheld, it would be a more expeditious and useful way of dealing with the problem and a better use of resources.
In 1995 it was my strong contention that Michael Howard's legislation failed to meet the test of fairness and firmness, justice and control. I regret that, like my noble friend Lady Mar, I do not believe that the Bill will do any better.
I have three points to make, including, first, a few words about the process that produces these ill-considered Bills and some remarks about the effect on children and the persecuted. In 1995, the Bill was rushed through Parliament fewer than three years after Ministers had assured both Houses that the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 was the definitive answer to asylum abuse cases. We can all be forgiven, therefore, for a sense of déjà vu.
When a group of us tried to persuade the other place to set up a Special Standing Committee with the power to take evidence and hear witnesses, the amendment was defeated by 314 votes to 287. Inevitably, that led to the charge being made against the then government that they simply wished to look tough before the impending general election. The Times said that the Bill could "sour race relations"—a roint echoed in our debate today. It continued that it could put Britain,in breach of its obligations under the 1951 United Nations Convention concerning the status of refugees".The Economist called it a "nasty Bill". The Daily Telegraph said:Mr. Howard is certainly playing, to use that most dog-eared of metaphors, the race card".Mr Straw called in aid an argument from the Financial Times—which is particularly pertinent in the context of today's debate—that,it was too much to expect business to act in such a policeman's capacity".—[Official Report, Commons, 11/12/95: col. 720.]He also said that the Bill had plain "racial implications".
216 The Bill today also needs to be measured against the charges that were made in 1995. I know that on this occasion a Special Standing Committee was established in the other place, and I welcome that. It is a sign that the Government wanted a less adversarial and confrontational approach. However, I wish to draw to the attention of the House the experience of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, perhaps the most respected organisation in the field, which said:This is a very large and unwieldy Bill, with much of its effect hidden away in a host of regulations not to be published, even in draft form, until after the Bill becomes law. Much work was done to clarify the meaning of the provisions in the Special Standing Committee of the House of Commons. However, a truncated third reading in the Commons means that the benefits of this scrutiny have yet fully to be realised".That point supports the remarks made earlier by the noble Lord. Lord Avebury. In addition, the Medical Foundation said:We have been consulted. On some parts of the Bill extensively, on others in a cursory fashion, on others not at all. On fundamental issues such as the shortcomings of Home Office decision-making and the systematic social exclusion of asylum seekers, our views have been solicited, expressed and rejected".It should give the House cause for concern that although superficially we appear to have improved the procedures since 1995, one of the most respected organisations dealing with the issues can say that its views have been rejected.
The Minister made a conciliatory speech at the outset of our debate. I welcome what he said about looking forward to seeing constructive amendments and I hope that he will bear in mind the importance of involving organisations which have far more experience on the ground than any of us can possibly have. I would have thought that it would be a more constructive way to proceed to establish a permanent standing advisory committee made up of those many organisations to advise the Government before they bring forward legislation.
Along with other Members of your Lordships' House, I have been inundated with briefing material about today's debate and about this third Bill in six years. Those representations professed profound concern about the Bill's consequences. How much better would it have been if the petitioners, the charities and the advocacy groups could have been involved in the drafting of the Bills. The moral of the three Bills has been that if we legislate in haste we repent at leisure. However, considerations about the inadequacy of our legislative process pale into insignificance when measured against the effects that the laws will have on the vulnerable and the destitute.
I shall illustrate my point by reference to the plight of children. Notwithstanding the Government's new clause, entitled "Support for Children" and tabled on 16th June, the Children's Society and the Children's Consortium, of which the Children's Society is part, say that the concession does not,significantly improve or change the situation of children".They recognise that Mr Straw is at heart a decent man, and those of us who know him know that. Any charge of racism is absurd. However, they say that the new 217 clause is not enough, because a less benign Secretary of State could choose to act in a draconian manner because the good intentions have not manifested themselves in a legal framework of principles, safeguards and standards in the Bill.
Indeed, the effect of Clause 113 could fairly be described as wholly malign. It removes the duty of local authorities to protect children of asylum seekers as a distinct group of children in need within Section 17 of the Children Act 1989, in respect of their accommodation and living needs. In future parents will have to prove that they are impoverished and unable to provide for their children before their family can qualify for support. This undermines parental dignity and self-respect. It creates a begging bowl culture. If the Government wanted deliberately to create a hidden class of "illegals" who will live in the shadows and on the margins of our society, this would be the way to do it. Shanty towns of destitute people living below the levels against which our own nationals would be safeguarded, in terms of the drawing of a poverty line, hardly smacks of social progress.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark spelt out the realities for refugees on the ground, like the woman from Uganda whom he cited, and the recipients of vouchers. In addition, the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, reminded us that the price we will pay in damage to race relations is too great to justify either this social exclusion or the so-called deterrent effect.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, suggested that we should ensure that families with children are dispersed into the country and that we should use empty property to help them. It is true that in cities such as Liverpool, although she did not mention it by name, there are some 8,000 empty properties in the public and private sectors. It was recently suggested that some of them should be used for Kosovan refugees. The fact is that these are hard to let properties, out of which people were moved five years ago as being unsuitable for ordinary British nationals to live in. Are we serious that these are properties into which we should dump people who have been fleeing persecution in the most terrible circumstances?
There are questions to be faced here regarding the practical effects on children. The Children Act 1989 was one of the best pieces of legislation implemented by the last government and they are to be congratulated on that. Significantly though, in the light of my earlier remarks, it entered the statute book after it emerged from a long period of consultative gestation and it received all-party support. That is not a bad model, perhaps, for what we should be doing today. It provides a universal yardstick by which children are to be treated. Now we are being invited to remove the children of asylum-seeking families from the legislation, and they are arguably one of the most vulnerable groups of children protected by that Act.
218 This sets two pieces of legislation against one another. How can this Bill sit alongside an Act which states thatthe child's welfare shall be the court's paramount consideration",but states thata court shall have regard in particular to the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child—[and] his physical, emotional and educational needs".Clause 113 is also at variance with the assertion in the 1989 Act that a child is best supported within the context of the family.
Asylum seekers' children will have lived through harrowing experiences of violence, discrimination, famine, perhaps war and frightening journeys from captivity to safety. If this is the best we can offer them when they arrive in a country which has a liberal and civilised tradition, and which was once set apart from much of Europe by the standards we upheld, it really will not do.
The provisions concerning practical support are also disadvantageous to families with children compared with those of our own nationals. At present, asylum-seeking families with children are entitled to receive 100 per cent of current income support. The destitute child of an asylum-seeking family will have all the same physical needs as any of our own children in a comparable situation.
Although recent changes mean that a family with two children will now receive £40 rather than the £21 previously announced as cash payments, the overall package remains at £90.80 a week in total. This is just 70 per cent of current income support levels. In legislating for this package we leave ourselves open to the charge of discrimination and mean-mindedness. Any of us who occasionally go to shop for our own family's weekly basic needs, such as food or clothing, know how far these sums will go.
When I last looked asylum seekers accounted for one quarter of 1 per cent of all social security claimants. Again, let us put this matter into some kind of context and perspective. It is hardly an unreasonable demand on our national resources, and yet we spend disproportionate time and effort on singling out this one group. Doubtless there are bogus claimants among these people, just as there are bogus expense claims and bogus tax claims made by some of our own nationals.
Let me end by mentioning the persecuted. Last week I was fortunate enough to go to Jerusalem and, with a group of people mainly from the Anglican Church, went to Yad Vashem, where we saw the Forest of the Righteous Gentiles. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, has mentioned Oscar Schindler. We saw the tree that was planted there for him and that which was planted for Raoul Wallenberg. It is worth remembering that if Raoul Wallenberg or Oscar Schindler were involved under the terms of this legislation, manufacturing papers to enable people to flee from persecution, whether religious or political, then they would be collaborators; they would be arrested and they could be fined. That should give us pause before placing this legislation onto the statute book.
§ 5.45 p.m.
§ Lord Clinton-Davis
My Lords, I am very pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Alton, particularly in relation to the last passage of his speech. For my own part, and I make this declaration of interest, I had the great privilege of being chairman of the Refugee Council for a number of years. I pay tribute to them and indeed to all the ether bodies who speak out for and offer support to those who come to this country, who seek, against a very difficult background, to make a worthwhile life here, sometimes to seek refuge.
Yes, there are those who abuse the system too. Sometimes, for very narrow political reasons, there are deliberate attempts to distort the situation so far as they are concerned. There are people who come here whose legal status may be uncertain, but to describe them simply as bogus is to distort the whole situation. Many of them do not satisfy the strict requirements of immigration law, but there is great uncertainty about their future. Very often they come here because they see no hope for their children's future, and they need help and understanding. To characterise them in the way that people sometimes do—and the word "bogus" lingers on the lips of too many—is the wrong approach. If they are in breach of the law, they should still be treated with dignity and respect. Sometimes that simply does not happen. It does not happen at the point of entry.
I recall listening to debates going back to 1971, to my very first Act in another place, the Immigration Act. The language on the part of some was totally insupportable. They were years when the then government reacted to situations, I believe, with a degree of spite and of malice, in order to pacify a number of people in this country who quite deliberately wanted to seize political advantage out of the scenario. It is as unacceptable to do that today as it was then; it is more inexcusable.
It is extremely important always to keep this in perspective. I do not wish to speak as someone lecturing to the House from on high. That is not my objective at all. There are great problems associated with immigration and asylum. One cannot flood the country and I am not suggesting that at all. The criteria to be adopted, however, are those which are applied with a measure of sympathy and understanding for the plight in which so many of these people find themselves.
My grandparents were refugees. They owed a great deal to this country. I am not sure whether all my noble friends will agree with that when they look at me, but I am the residue. The fact is that when they came here they had to put up with much opprobrium, and that situation has not radically changed. I do not think for one moment that politicians from any of the responsible political parties today would adopt the line that was taken in the 1905 legislation, about which my noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees and I had a good deal to say in those debates of the early 1970s. It is the duty of politicians not to fan the flames in any sense but to ensure that people approach these issues with a degree of responsibility and care. Many of the people who come to this country have a great deal to offer. Yet, underlying this, and even on the part of those who 220 ultimately prove their right to be here, there is that degree of hostility which is unacceptable in a responsible and civilised society.
I do not believe that the Government, of whom I was very proud to be a member, have approached this issue in a discriminatory or deliberately provocative way. This is a hugely difficult problem and they undoubtedly inherited a mess when they came into power in 1997. However, I am not convinced—we will go into this matter more in Committee and subsequently—that they are entirely applying the right approach now in respect of a number of material issues. But, having said that, I reject the idea that I have heard from some quarters that the Government have set out on a prejudicial course. I do not believe that of my noble friends, least of all of my noble friend Lord Williams who speaks for the Government today.
However, as I said, there are problems; for example, are we applying the right criteria as regards those asylum seekers who use false documents in order to escape persecution? Sometimes these people do not notify immigration officers of such facts on arrival. Is it right that they should be prosecuted under the new offences established in Clauses 22 and 24? I ask my noble friend the Minister: would that not breach Article 31 of the 1951 refugee convention? Then there is the question of pre-entry controls and visa regimes. Should they be imposed on countries where serious human rights violations are occurring at present? Would that not trap refugees in the countries where they are in fact being persecuted? I ask that question because I think it is exercising the mind of the Refugee Council at present. Is there not a need to ensure better examination of refusals of entry clearance as far as concerns monitoring the impact of carriers' sanctions on those fleeing persecution?
I turn to the question of detention, with which I shall deal briefly. Does my noble friend the Minister believe that clearer safeguards should be introduced into the system so that asylum seekers are detained only when it is absolutely necessary? I am not convinced that that is the case at present. Further, should not asylum seekers—I hope that my noble friend will go along with this—also be entitled to challenge the deprivation of liberty promptly before a competent, independent and impartial authority?
I welcome the moves that have been made by the Government to introduce automatic bail hearings for those who are detained under the powers of the Immigration Act. That should be done—and, indeed, is to be done—very promptly. But is it enough? As the Bill stands, the courts will not be able to examine the original decision to detain against clear criteria, and there is no presumption of liberty in asylum cases, as there is under ordinary criminal law. Moreover, there is no maximum period of detention and no necessity for continued judicial supervision after the second bail hearing. Is it not important to recognise that there are deficiencies here, which will require careful scrutiny when we come to consider further aspects of the Bill at a later stage?
221 I would also prefer to see an extended judicial control of the decision to detain. I do not think that that is adequate at present and it is important that that should be imported into the provisions of the Bill. Perhaps it is among those further amendments that are being considered by the Government, about which we shall hear at a later stage. I do not wish to detain the House by speculating in that respect. However, it is important that people who are faced with detention hearings should not have them heard in prisons or in immigration detention centres. It gives the wrong impression; indeed, that is not the impression of impartiality. It is perhaps the impression of the wielding of a heavy hand by the state. In the main, I believe that they are people who should not be exposed to that treatment.
I now turn to immigration advisers. I have to say that I have been a solicitor for a long time now; indeed, some would say too long. However, I still enjoy being a solicitor and still believe that it is a worthwhile profession. I used to do a lot of immigration work, but I think that a miserable importation was the work of some of those people who proffered advice and who were not really entitled to do so. Money was the sole objective and they fleeced unfortunate people—that is, people who looked to them for succour but who were in fact cheated. Unfortunately, there are some of them in my profession who have not covered our profession with great glory. But it is a small minority. In the main, I think that people from the solicitors' profession who are engaged in this area of the law, which is not a profitable one, deserve commendation. There are, of course, exceptions and I hope that the Government will deal with both those aspects of the unfortunate way in which some people who are in trouble are dealt with.
I move on to the destitution which faces some asylum seekers. I remain to be convinced that the voucher system is the right way to proceed. We have not gone into the matter in great depth, but we will have the opportunity to do so later. The burden of establishing that rests on my noble friend the Minister and his noble friends who will be dealing with the Bill. But what will happen? Is it right that there will be periods in which no support will be provided if, for example, an asylum seeker seeks judicial review through the courts or appeals against a refusal to provide support? Am I right in that assumption, or is it something that the Government will ensure does not take place?
For my own part, I believe that the benefit system is the fairest and the most equitable way of proceeding. However, I should tell my noble friend the Minister that I am perfectly happy to be convinced in that respect, if I can be sure that justice can be done to people who are in fact destitute and facing real problems.
I turn finally to the question of the powers of immigration officers to search and arrest. I am concerned about extending those powers. I am concerned that there is no independent complaints body available to investigate a misuse of those powers. Why not? I am also concerned that immigration officers should secure proper training and that there should be accountability for their actions. It seems to me that there is a need for guidelines 222 to enable them to carry out those additional powers with proper safeguards. I look to my noble friend to answer that point, too.
We have an important task in undertaking proper scrutiny of the Bill. It is a matter which goes to the very heart of civil liberties in this country. When one is dealing with people who are frightened, they do mislead sometimes. When one is dealing with people who are destitute, of course they panic. Of course, one will also have people who are crooked. We must balance all these considerations to arrive at the right and just result in terms of dealing with the matter.
I speak with considerable care and compassion, because I have been involved in this area for a very long time, as a solicitor and somebody who has been involved in the Refugee Council. But also I can never forget where I come from.
§ 6 p.m.
§ Baroness Ludford
My Lords, I am pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis. I agreed very much with what he said.
I cannot agree with those who call this a good Bill. There are few good things in it, including the regulation of immigration advisers, provision for appeal against refusal of visas for family visits and the target time for decisions, but on the whole I find it a depressing and even nasty Bill, which will make it more difficult even than under the terms of the 1996 Act for those fleeing persecution to come here.
The Bill as a whole emphasises exclusion and control, not, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, pointed out, fairness and justice. There is a puzzling inconsistency in the Government's approach generally between the good things they are doing and the bad. On the one hand, they show evidence of being reformist, pluralist, inclusive and enhancing liberty. On the other hand, they are authoritarian, illiberal, stigmatising, excluding—and, yes, even I am afraid, prejudiced. In the Home Office as a whole, with exceptions, we find too much of the latter tendency, coupled, which makes it worse, with poor management and inefficiency. As others have pointed out, there is also inconsistency between the Bill and Labour's stance when it was in opposition.
The third aspect of inconsistency is the Jekyll and Hyde approach to, for instance, Kosovar refugees, treated in two different ways depending on how they arrived here recently. The Government should have concentrated on making the system more efficient—not only the processing of applications, but also the effective pursuit, removal and deportation of those who are found to have no valid claim.
I must disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Warner, who is no longer in his place. It is a mistake to say that cash payments are a "pull factor". The statistics simply do not bear that out. The biggest reasons why our system in the UK is overwhelmed, with far fewer numbers than in, say, Germany, are the slow decision-making process and Dickensian working 223 conditions in Lunar House. Indeed, the Minister, Mr O'Brien, said in Committee in another place on 18th May:increasing the speed at which decisions are taken is a key to resolving problems in the asylum system. That is the best deterrent and the best way of resolving the appalling shambles that is our current system".One curious aspect is the employment of 300 staff in the newly set up asylum support directorate in the Home Office to process and administer the voucher scheme. Deploying them as processing applications would seem a rather more effective deployment of staff.
The Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, said in his introduction that the Government would be willing to consider amendments that were sympathetic to the underlying spirit of the Bill. Since organisations such as Justice and Amnesty International disagree strongly with the Home Secretary's claim that the Bill is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, and believe that it infringes some aspects of the 1951 convention, and since the Children's Society says that the Bill fails to comply with the 1989 Children Act and with the UN convention on the rights of the child, it is difficult to know where to start to find amendments, if only those sympathetic with the underlying spirit will be acceptable.
I have time to pick out only some of the worrying features of the Bill. In particular, I will not touch on the bail and detention aspects and the powers of immigration officers, which others have dealt with. There is serious concern that the Bill will worsen race relations. The message it sends out is that immigrants and asylum seekers are dishonest, grasping scroungers, seeking to bum off the honest British taxpayer. What happened to the proud British tradition of welcoming refugees and integrating immigrants? Of course, there have to be controls, but they should be fair and respectful of people's dignity, recognising the contribution those people can and will make to our society and economy—often a disproportionate one, because of their energy, get-up-and-go and intelligence, which have often led them to leave and often led them to be persecuted in the first place. Let us think of the 1,000 refugee doctors in this country who are unable to work for various reasons, when we have a desperate shortage of doctors in the National Health Service.
I have concern about the provisions which have the effect of privatising and exporting immigration controls. I am also concerned about not only the carriers' liability part of the Bill, but also the duties placed on registrars and clergy, other than clergy of the Church of England and the Church of Wales, and on employers. I find it curious that a government who are so insistent on the maintenance of border controls within the European Union should extend the range of internal controls. I should have thought that it was at the border that immigration control should take place.
For employers it is a great disappointment that the Government have not carried through their opinion in opposition that Section 8 of the 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act, now Clause 18 of the Bill, should be repealed. Indeed, they pledged repeal before the 1997 election. The Better Regulation Task Force has 224 recommended repeal, because the section simply does not meet the criteria for good regulation. It is ineffective and expensive, and its impact is bound to be racially discriminatory, because employers are wary of hiring job-seekers who might lead them to infringe the legislation. It would be far better to use Section 25 of the 1971 Immigration Act to tackle the problem of racketeers.
It is inappropriate to make registrars and clergy of religions and churches other than the Church of England and the Church of Wales carry the burden of immigration control, for which they have no training. It is also bound to result in racial discrimination and stereotyping. I hope that the Government will be open to amendments in this area.
I turn to the support system, where the charge of inconsistency applies forcefully. How can the Government reconcile their laudable commitment to reducing social exclusion and promoting racial justice with the creation of a new social underclass under the voucher system?
I come now to the question of the dispersal of asylum seekers. As a London politician, indeed, a London borough councillor, I am obviously aware that London boroughs cannot shoulder all the burden of support. The best way to make this a national responsibility is through the social security system, as the Labour-majority Association of London Government said in 1996, though it seems, shamefully, to have changed its mind.
There is concern that groups who are dispersed to towns and cities where they are few in number may be isolated and become targets for racist attacks. Will not the Government at least consider the expression of reasonable preference as to preferred location? There is great concern that if asylum seekers feel lonely and lack community support and access to services such as the Medical Foundation which has an office only in London, they will not stay in their allocated location and will drift back to London with no money and no benefits. They may turn to begging, crime and prostitution to stay alive. That would be an appalling situation.
As regards the voucher system, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, it is important to remember that this is not a right. People will have to prove that they are destitute. But while the cash value of the voucher system will be only 70 per cent of income support, and the system has all the disadvantages of inflexibility—it can be exchanged only for a limited range of goods—it will be more cumbersome and costly to administer than social security benefits. I do not know how it meets the test of best value that all government departments are meant to be working towards. I understand that Switzerland dropped vouchers because they were impractical as well as demeaning. There is no evidence that the withdrawal of cash payments acts as a disincentive to migrate. The voucher system is much more costly to administer than benefits even without adding the cost of the 300 staff in the Asylum Support Directorate.
225 The noble Lord, Lord Warner, is not present at the moment. However, I say to him that his colleagues who still work in Kent County Council social services believe that vouchers are a nightmare. They create community tensions due to the stigma attached to them and the fact that they hold up supermarket queues. There are great fears of a black market emerging with refugees being forced to sell their vouchers below value because of their desperate need for more cash for, say, travel, stamps and 'phone cards. I hope that the Government will reconsider this matter and place all applicants on the cheaper system of income support. I hope at least that the new system will not come into force at all until the Government have reduced the average decision making time to six months, and that in individual cases families will receive benefits automatically after six months if their cases are not decided. I hope that the Minister will be able to make those changes.
I have two further points. First—this has been touched on by others—I refer to the treatment of women, particularly women who may have been raped. That women may be raped by police and soldiers as a weapon of war has been tragically borne out yet again in Kosovo, as it was in Bosnia. Rape is a weapon of war as an expression of contempt and as an exercise of power. We need gender-specific guidelines for processing asylum claims, as I believe exist in Canada and Australia. I hope that the Minister can give some assurances on that point. Even if this matter is not within the terms of the convention, will the Minister consider extending exceptional leave to remain arrangements in case of rape claims? As the noble Countess, Lady Mar, mentioned, there is a need for female interviewers to interview female refugees, and special training for assessing rape claims.
I shall not mention children as others have done so and I am running out of time. So, finally, I refer to the European aspect. With the Amsterdam Treaty now in force which moves the whole area of immigration and asylum into the Community competence instead of intergovernmental competence—apart from, of course, the UK opt out—I hope that the European Union will prioritise the obligations of international human rights and refugee law and the European traditions of humanitarian policy and democracy. We shall need to look for improved judicial and democratic oversight through the European Court of Justice and the European Parliament. I know that there will be a special justice and home affairs summit in October in Finland. I hope that member governments will look to those aspects and not just see management as restricting immigration and refugees. Of course we need a common policy but we must also be positive in our approach to refugees.
As the noble Countess, Lady Mar, said, it is perfectly possible to have a system that deters bogus asylum seekers and allows genuine ones true refuge, protection and welcome—other European Union countries manage to have such a system—in other words, a real firm, fast and fair system, which despite the Government's claims, this Bill unfortunately does not provide
§ 6.15 p.m.
§ Lord Sheppard of Liverpool
My Lords, thinking of this Bill reminded me of when I led a delegation from all the Churches to the Home Office when I was chairman of the Church of England Board for Social Responsibility. That visit occurred when Michael Howard was Home Secretary. He repeatedly told us that Britain was regarded as a "soft touch", so much so that when we left I was clear that what he wished was that the word would go around the world that Britain was a brutal touch and that people would be influenced not to attempt to come here.
The objective of a fairer, faster and firmer policy is a fine one. We need all three objectives. I listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Warner. I recognise—as we all must do—some of the complexity and difficulties involved in this issue. We need a robust and clear set of rules. In spite of the tough measures of the 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act, we are told that Britain has more persons seeking asylum than ever. Perhaps that is because more people now are being displaced or threatened. However, it was important to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, put the "numbers game" into context.
I hope it is common ground among all of us that Britain as a settled and wealthy country should expect with a good heart, along with partner nations, to take its share of those distressed people around the world who need asylum. I congratulate the Government on what I believe are their real intentions to make the process faster. That will have an enormous influence. The uncertainties of long delays have been damaging. Looking at this Bill one might say that it is a business efficiency answer to some major problems. However, as my noble friend the Minister made clear, there are great human needs to be met. It will not be an efficient Bill unless we pay attention to those human needs.
I want to make brief reference to four parts of the Bill. One or two noble Lords have mentioned Clause 18 on employers. Like other noble Lords, I remember opposition to this part of the 1996 Act, Section 8. I had hoped and expected to see it repealed. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, has reminded us of the race relations implications of this measure. My understanding is that Ministers have regarded Section 8 as an effective weapon for prosecuting racketeers who exploit illegal immigrants. The CRE tells us that to date there has been only one prosecution under this section. I recognise the difficulties of preventing exploitation in this often confusing area, but I ask my noble friend whether he agrees that a high price is being paid in race relations for keeping this section. The CRE says that, as we all anticipated, Section 8 has stopped some employers from considering job applications from those whose appearance or name or command of language suggest that they may involve the employer in committing an offence. It is easy to understand that an employer feels it is not worth the hassle of checking documents.
Clause 18 of this Bill requires the Secretary of State to introduce a code of practice as to the measures that an employer must take, or not take, in order to avoid 227 unlawful discrimination. But why should we think that those employers will take any notice if they have ignored what the Race Relations Act has long said and what government and CRE guidance said before Section 8 came into force? As a number of noble Lords have mentioned, the Better Regulation Task Force has identified Section 8 as failing the test of good regulation. I hope that the Minister will listen to the voices here and to those other bodies mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, which have called for Section 8 to be repealed.
Secondly, and briefly, I shall turn to the question of appeals. When the 1996 Bill was being debated, I remember that many of us made a major issue about appeals. We even persuaded the Archbishop and the Cardinal to approach the Government about it together. It is a very important principle. Like other noble Lords, I welcome the provision of a right of appeal against breaches of human rights. That will make possible appeals by asylum seekers on the ground that a return to their own country would put them at risk of suffering torture or degrading treatment. I am also glad about the proposal for a single, comprehensive appeal. I think I heard my noble friend say that that would make it possible for all reasons why a person should not be removed from the United Kingdom to be reviewed. Perhaps he will confirm that that is the case.
My third comment concerns pre-entry controls. I am concerned about the threats to carriers and especially about the insistence on correct documentation. If someone is genuinely fleeing from persecution, he or she is not likely to be able to obtain a visa. The Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference said in April that this proposal to strengthen the carrier liability Act will,strengthen the existing barriers preventing asylum seekers who need to escape from the it countries of persecution".The noble Lords, Lord Dholakia and Lord Clinton-Davis, movingly made those points.
I am led to under stand that Articles 27 and 28 of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees 1951 make it clear that asylum seekers may be in a signatory state without proper travel documents. Therefore such persons must be permitted to travel to and enter the territory of a signatory state without documentation. I hope that my noble friend will say how the Government regard Articles 27 and 28.
The noble Lords, Lord Alton of Liverpool and Lord Dholakia, asked whether Jews fleeing from Germany in the 1930s would have escaped if the carrier they approached had insisted on their possessing the correct documents. The same applies today with refugees from Iraq or other countries we could name.
Fourthly, and lastly, I come to the question raised by many noble Lords about support for asylum seekers and their families. I am glad that my noble friend said that he would listen especially to matters relating to children. Like other noble Lords, I have read the Children's Society brief on its east London project which tells us that families and children who depend heavily upon voucher systems are often subjected to racial harassment and discrimination in local shops and markets. In addition, the vouchers can be exchanged for only a 228 limited range of items which often fail to meet children's specific dietary, cultural and religious needs. Children in the playground are called "voucher children". The stigma of being called names does not help them to feel welcome and accepted.
At least some of those seeking asylum will be given permission to stay in this country. The first few weeks in Britain are crucial. How will the family adjust to their massively changed circumstances? How will children come to feel that this could be home, where they will belong and make their contribution?
There has been some argument about whether the support package is worth 70 or 90 per cent of income support. But why is it not 100 per cent? Other noble Lords have made that point. Poverty is poverty. Income support is not generous; it simply provides what is necessary for a very modest standard of living. We should be not apologetic but proud of spending whatever is needed to provide a fairer, faster and firmer system.
I strongly supported the Government's military intervention in Kosovo. As a child I recall Mr Chamberlain saying that we should not want to risk British lives on behalf of "a little country far away". Those words have always stayed with me and frequently come back. I am proud that our nation was willing to spend whatever it took to deliver from oppression one little country far away. I hope that we shall not grudge spending more to help restore that little country and other Balkan countries which are suffering from the fall-out of war. There are other little countries far away: the fall-out of war and oppression leave many others suffering as a result. We should not be grudging in spending what it costs to provide our proper humanitarian share.
We made a point last time round on this subject, a point which we should not hear: most refugees in the world are cared for by much poorer nations than ours in Africa and in Asia. We are being asked to take only our share. For these people in desperate need—not in impossible numbers—I hope that the Minister will agree that human need and not cost-cutting should be the greatest factor in providing firm, fast and fair action and support.
§ 6.27 p.m.
§ The Earl of Sandwich
My Lords, it is only three years since the Conservative Government were under siege from a strong cohort, at that time led memorably by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. It is no surprise to me that the new Government are already in similar difficulties. It is not customary to spend much time commending a Bill—and it might sound like faint praise if I were to do so—but it should be remembered that the previous Government, whose caring voice rings today rather strangely, had allowed the Home Office to build a mountain of problems over nearly two decades. No one could expect this Government to deal with them all at once. Indeed, it is refreshing that under pressure from their own MPs and members of the Special Standing Committee in another place they are still revising a Bill even at this late stage. I therefore apologise to the Minister in advance if I have not caught up with all the amendments.
229 If anyone should think that this Government have now got it about right they should look at the huge volume of briefings coming in from refugee agencies. The Government may well point to the "shambles" left behind by the Conservatives, but what other word would describe the scene in the IND's new computerisation project early this year, with thousands of unopened letters and as many files deemed inaccessible?
We all accused the Tories of the "deterrent" of their new legislation, but again the emphasis of this Bill seems to be on preventing refugees from coming, not on giving them asylum. I realise that these things are easy to say for someone outside the system, but they are also being said by those whose daily task is to look after refugees. I understand how hard it is to change attitudes and practices in the Home Office; equally, we in Parliament must continue to scrutinise change and criticise delay and inefficiency, whether it is in passports for our own citizens or visas for those from other countries.
There is of course a cost to this country in maintaining its great tradition of asylum. But sometimes even intelligent people forget that asylum is not a burden on the taxpayer but a clear commitment from ordinary citizens through their elected Parliament. In that sense, asylum is like international development. The two should complement each other. Both areas of government suffered severe cuts at a time when Europe's economic wealth was still expanding in relation to developing countries, however much our Chancellors would have us believe that we were hard up and close to recession. If the Government have at last decided to reverse that process in the case of international aid, why are they cutting the support that they give to asylum seekers? Asylum cannot be seen just as a cost. Like development overseas, it brings us economic and cultural benefits as well.
Many people, including the Special Standing Committee, have tried to distinguish between immigrants and asylum seekers. As we have heard, there is a major industry built on that proposition. If we think of the motive of economic betterment as a purely negative factor—as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Warner, that is not just a characteristic of the previous government—we shall undermine a process of wealth creation. As the noble Lord, Lord Janner, often reminds us, many of us come from other cultures and the vast majority contribute to our society. In the generosity table we are well down the European list at number nine or 10, after all our Scandinavian and German-speaking neighbours.
As we look through the Bill, the Treasury pruning knife seems to have been applied across the board, to protection and human rights on the one hand and to support on the other. That is a disappointment to me. The Chancellor recently spoke to the Church of Scotland General Assembly about one moral universe,in which, by the strong helping the weak, all of us become stronger".I am disappointed because the Government have not influenced the political and the legal framework that determined the previous Bill or the famous culture of 230 disbelief in the Home Office that Labour so fiercely criticised from the Opposition Benches. I should be grateful to hear from the Minister that that is not the case. I look forward to his reply to the sensible suggestions made by my noble friend Lady Mar.
As a brief illustration, we all have in our minds the drama of the Kosovan refugees. How quickly it was decided in the Home Office that the new refugees must be genuine and could qualify immediately for benefit, while those with five year-old claims, perhaps from the same villages, would have to wait their turn. When there is political will allied with public interest, something can be done quickly. Somehow, as the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, urged, that will must be regenerated to reduce the backlog and support genuine refugees within our international obligations.
The Government have already made some significant advances and have learned from and worked with refugee agencies. That is a tremendous step forward. The agencies fully acknowledge that we have a listening government. All that they need is a government who will act on their advice. In some instances they certainly have that. There has been a greater use of extended leave to remain, such as in the case of Afghans and Congolese in 1998 as well as Somalis. Acceptance rates went up last year to 17 per cent for refugee status and 12 per cent for ELR. The Minister helpfully hinted at new measures for children in line with the Children Act. There has also been a greater judicial element in the detention process, which I know that many people welcome.
However, the Government know that they have to go further. The Minister may be able to explain why they cannot. We are told that a statutory presumption in favour of bail will now be included in the Bill, but that there will be no presumption in favour of liberty, in defiance of the ECHR and the Human Rights Act. It would help if there could be parity with the Bail Act 1976 for the second bail hearing. Half of the 53 bail applicants surveyed recently by King's College, London were still awaiting a Home Office decision. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, suggested that the true proportion was considerably higher. The overall number of detainees is going up, with a consequent strain on prisons.
There is no maximum period of detention and there can be no challenge to a decision to detain. Legal aid is not available to all bail applicants. There is no recognised right to medical treatment and private detention centre staff are given powers similar to those of prison officers, but without the safeguards of proper training. Detained asylum seekers reasonably wonder whether they are unconvicted prisoners. At Rochester, for example, they cannot receive telephone calls and at Haslar they are not allowed even to show visitors—in some cases their only visitors—lawyers' letters that they have received.
The Law Society describes immigration and asylum as,the only major area of law where there is resistance to legal representation".231 It seems incredible that the Immigration Appeal Tribunal is the only legal forum in which an applicant can be without legal representation. The position has improved and the Government now say that there will at least be a presumption in favour of an oral hearing for those on appeal. However, there is a paradox. According to the Refugee Legal Council, there is an imbalance between the extra resources given to the immigration appellate authority for the number of hearings and the cuts in funding to excellent organisations such as the RLC and the IAS, which represent refugees. The Government know that those agencies are doing an essential job. Perhaps the Minister would like to comment on that contradiction. When a voluntary agency is able to afford to represent asylum seekers on appeal, it has a higher chance of winning. For example, the Refugee Legal Council achieved a 24 per cent success rate on substantive appeals.
There are many examples in the Bill of a presumption of guilt rather than innocence, which flies in the face of the new human rights legislation and makes one wonder whether the Home Office is running the Government rather than the other way round. There are still concerns about the safe third countries removal.
Two years is a short time to turn round a policy of two decades. I may have spent too long with NGOs to understand the reality of day-to-day government, but there are stories arising from some agencies such as Asylum Aid about the nightmares of being a refugee which make one wonder if we are living in Kosovo or Rwanda.
I shall add only a few words on dispersal. I have read the representations of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. On its past record, the foundation is unlikely to exaggerate its fears. It wants only to avoid any new arrangements that would cause further suffering to refugees in its care. We all remember the amazing amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard. The foundation believes that survivors of torture, who are supposed to be protected by the legislation, are still at risk of detention in spite of efforts made in the Special Standing Committee. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has said, the foundation believes that it has been inadequately consulted on some of the fundamental issues, including detention, dispersal and support. I remember the mistakes made at the time of the Vietnamese refugees.
It is unreasonable to expect asylum seekers who have survived torture and many others living from hand to mouth on the new voucher system to move away from London and centres where they know that they can receive regular medical support and legal advice. The case for revoking or reviewing the policy of dispersal is already overwhelming and I urge the Minister to confirm that the Home Office is seriously rethinking it.
Finally, it is hard to see how the Government can meet their targets for reducing the backlog, although we all want to see results quickly. There is no time scale or clear plan. It appears that families deserve to be in the six-month category, but that will mean penalising individuals who may be equally or more deserving.
232 Would it not be better for the IND to reduce the worst case load and get closer to an overall six-month target before setting so-called priorities for families?
The noble Lord, Lord Warner, did not have time to take up the lessons of the Kent experience of the new voucher system, but it shows that the new system will lead to queuing, black markets and stigmatisation, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, have said. Why are the Government ignoring that advice? The extra cash and other add-ons are of some improvement but expert opinion suggests that the new system still provides barely 80 per cent of the value of income support, ensuring that asylum seekers, for this and all the other reasons that I have mentioned, are still to be treated as second-class non-citizens.
§ 6.39 p.m.
§ Lord Ahmed
My Lords, I welcome the Government's aim of a firmer, fairer and faster immigration and asylum system, including improved advice on asylum and the regulation of unqualified immigration advisers. Like many noble Lords, I have some concerns that I should like my noble friend the Minister to consider, although most of the points I had intended to make have already been made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark and the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford.
Perhaps I may turn first to Part VI of the Bill, which includes reference to the voucher system. The point has been made by almost all speakers that the system is expensive and bureaucratic. It was tried, and failed, in Switzerland. It has created an administration nightmare. Councils such as Hackney have given evidence to the effect that it costs three and a half times more, and it stigmatises people. The IND, which already has a great many problems, will be running the system; so people will not have confidence in it when it comes into operation in April 2000.
The noble Lord, Lord Sheppard of Liverpool, said that the voucher system represents 90 per cent of income support. Why should it not be 100 per cent? At present, income support is set at a very basic level. It causes people a great deal of hardship. My fear is that it will also create begging, illegal work and crime. There will be repercussions. There will also be race relations problems.
My second point relates to Part VII, dealing with the new powers of arrest, search and entry to premises. I am particularly concerned about the power that is to be given to immigration officers to enter places of worship: mosques, synagogues and temples. I hope that the Government will restrict those powers. If it is necessary to enter places of worship, local magistrates should have the power to issue warrants. They understand the local situation. It could be very sensitive. Most immigration officers are based at regional level and do not understand some of the local issues.
Thirdly, I am concerned about the removal of appeal rights for people who over-stay and are threatened with expulsion from the UK. I fully understand that there are people who abuse the system and prolong the expulsion 233 process. But my concern is with genuine people who have problems because they do not understand the immigration system and do not know that they have to apply for indefinite leave. I know of dozens of cases where people have over-stayed and the Home Office is asked to reconsider. Sometimes the department does reconsider; but it takes a long time. Sometimes the cases go to appeal. If those rights are taken away it will cause difficulty. Taking the figures for 1997, out of 4,620 people in regard to whom a decision to deport was given, only 890 appealed, less than 20 per cent. It is a natural right that people should have. Again, as regards judicial review, the fact that some may abuse the system does not mean that genuine people should have their right taken away. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will take my concerns into account with a view to re-examining those parts of the Bill.
§ 6.44 p.m.
§ Lord Hylton
My Lords, perhaps I may briefly examine the wider context in which the Bill reaches this House. In this country families tend to be small, with two or fewer children. The population is ageing; and the numbers of those who are very old likely to rise for some years more. By contrast, the majority of immigrants come in at working age, bringing with them at least some skills or education, together with great powers of adaptability. Immigrants are consumers as well as producers. Their presence tends to create jobs. They often undertake the kinds of work which others are unwilling to do, whether in local shops, transport or the health services.
I strongly agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, who made an excellent speech. I join him in paying tribute to the great quantity and high quality of work that is being done by a wide range of people who are working with and helping immigrants and asylum seekers and who are motivated by personal faith.
In these circumstances, it should be possible to present a positive view of immigration. That, in turn, will have implications for government policy, not only on straightforward immigration but also on asylum and related matters such as "exceptional leave to remain". A positive presentation will require courage, not only from the Government but also from parliamentarians in general. If that kind of courage can be found, it will lead to a more humane and less callous system than the present one. We should remember the many areas of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and perhaps the North of England which would welcome additional population if only they could attract it.
I turn now to the guiding principles that should govern immigration to this country. The probability of reasonably easy acceptance and integration into British society should underlie all that we do. We should build on the families already living here. Family reunion for close relatives and dependent family members is the first principle. It is one that seems to reflect the settled policy of the Government; namely, to encourage family life. Already, that principle is being honoured, in that the great majority of those accepted for permanent 234 settlement are spouses or dependent children. That could be extended, particularly in cases of ELR, where it should apply considerably sooner. We should note the provisions of the Canadian Immigration Act 1978 and recognise that family reunion accords well with the right to family life, upheld by the European Convention on Human Rights. Reunion will build up the power of existing families to contribute to the common good. Its importance will, however, need to be fully explained to the general public.
My second guiding principle is that those coming here should, whenever possible, have a good grasp of English. That will enormously increase their chances of employment and acceptance. In border-line cases—that is, people who could either be accepted or rejected—a knowledge of English could well be the deciding factor. Some could perhaps be told, in appropriate circumstances, to reapply when they had learnt English. Again this should be a factor taken into account in decisions about ELR, or early admission of dependants. It might also affect presumptions under the 1951 Convention on Refugees, replacing a too literal application of the first-safe-country rule.
My third principle is to ask: is there an existing ethnic religious or linguistic community which is likely to accept and support the newly arrived immigrant or asylum seeker? Community support of this kind can make relatively easy what might otherwise be a difficult or painful process of adaptation to new and different circumstances. This principle therefore is contrary to the notion that asylum seekers and others can be dispersed in an even way across the country. Such policies were tried without success in the cases of the Vietnamese boat people and the Ugandan Asians, as was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Sandwich. Both groups, it was found, usually moved towards their fellow countrymen as soon as they possibly could.
The Government have stated that the earlier White Paper and the current Bill have made human rights the cornerstone of their policy. Their own advisory service, the IAS, however, comments:Immigration policy is open to executive abuse, as the media and public opinion climate is seldom favourable to those who suffer under it".The IAS continues:The Government certainly has not heeded the advice it has been given—This will lead to bad legislation".Here I follow the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, and I would go on to say that it may be too much to hope that the Daily Mail will abate its flow of articles about "bogus refugees"—37, I believe, since 1995—or that other tabloids will refrain from using headlines about floods of refugees pouring into the country and swamping it.
I trust, nevertheless, that more sober counsels will prevail in your Lordships' House and that amendments will build into the Bill something of the three principles that I outlined earlier; namely, family reunion, knowledge of English and community support. I ventured to make some suggestions in a debate in your Lordships' House on 25th February 1998. I asked for cash benefits and not for vouchers or aid in kind. I asked 235 that detention be only used for decided cases and that prisons be reserved for those awaiting judicial deportation. I pointed then to the huge backlog of cases, which has since grown. In my view, there is a duty on Her Majesty's Government to explain in some detail how in practice the present backlog of cases and appeals will be reduced.
Your Lordships have the opportunity to make this Bill more humane, principally by helping government to end the culture of disbelief and to improve the quality of decision making. Speed in itself is not enough. We really do need quality decisions. If we could achieve those things, it would cut the present number of appeals and make the whole system fairer. The opportunity exists, and I urge the House to grasp it.
§ 6.52 p.m.
§ Lord Berkeley
My Lords, among the sadness and human misery of so many asylum seekers, which has been so eloquently described, it is my role to bring the House down to earth with a bump. I feel I should express concern that the Bill appears to be turning most cross-Channel lorry drivers and train drivers into potential criminals, and possibly bankrupting them. My concern is with carriage liability in Part II of this Bill, which was commented upon by the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley.
My noble friend the Minister put this problem into context when he said that there were about 9,000 clandestine entrants last year. Most of them come in ships, vehicles and aircraft. My interest is in the lorries and trains. It is true that the numbers are increasing and the operators are worried. It is also true that most of the immigrants get into the vehicles without the operators knowing. That is the, problem.
I declare an interest, as chairman of the Rail Freight Group, but I shall also speak about road freight because this is a problem in both areas. My concern is that the Bill extends the carriage liability Act to buses, coaches and lorries. I am not sure about trains: they are not mentioned in Clause 25, defining a clandestine entrant The Bill says that tile Secretary of State can fine train operators. If immigrants do not come in by train, that may be something for my noble friend to think about. I am not sure whether freight trains are covered as well as passenger trains. Perhaps my noble friend can deal also with that point.
Why is it a problem? Most lorry drivers, in theory at least, load in a safe parking area on the Continent—Bulgaria, Romania, Italy, Germany, wherever. The lorry is sealed, and it remains throughout. But the driver does not always have control over where he picks up goods or where he stops for a rest. He may just be picking up a trailer; he may be delivering the trailer to a Channel port and the load will then come across the Channel as what is known as an "unaccompanied trailer", to be picked up by another tractor unit in this country.
The problem is that immigrants get in through the roof; they sometimes break the seals and get aboard, sometimes with the collusion of people on the ground. It very often happens without the knowledge of the driver: in fact, it is usually without his knowledge. It can 236 happen anywhere along the route through any number of European states, and he often cannot tell where it has happened. The immigrants are inside for several days, and obviously the load is in a mess when they come out. Often the company loses its revenue for the transport, because the customers do not want that load because it has been tampered with.
On top of that, he is now going to be fined. The incentive for the lorry driver to report immigrants is not high—I would say it is probably nil—because if he does report them there will probably be a fine, and that could lead to bankruptcy. The driver may even be attacked. One can understand, though of course one must not approve, drivers stopping in a lay-by and allowing the doors to be opened. That is not very good for the immigrants; they may get away but they could be somewhere in the middle of the countryside. It is not very good for the Government. It is a temptation which we have to recognise and deal with.
In the case of trains the position is even worse, because they stop in many places. There is one particular place in Italy where it is well known that trains stop for several hours. One train from northern Italy stops for several hours in a siding where, I am told, several hundred refugees camp around it. When they decide it is time to move on they find a suitable rail wagon, climb on the top and break in. There is no means of knowing that they are in there unless somebody stands on a bridge, and there is not much incentive for people to stand on a bridge. It is very difficult for drivers to check for illegal immigrants, unless they cut a hole through the roof, because they do not usually carry ladders with them; so it is remarkably difficult.
When it comes to the question of who is liable for this, I am sure that all your Lordships have read the relevant section of the Bill. I will give an example, a swap-body or container belonging to a United States hire company is hired by an Italian forwarder to send some marble from Spain to the United Kingdom. It sits on a German trailer and is driven by a tractor driver through Spain to a port. The container is then put on a ship on a special trailer to come to the United Kingdom. It is then loaded on to a different trailer in the United Kingdom and collected by a United Kingdom haulier for delivery to the purchaser of the marble. Who is responsible? The Bill does not say. What is the chance of collecting a fine from any organisation outside the United Kingdom? Why should the UK haulier—the person who has collected the freight from the port—pay for the alleged failure of security on the Continent?
It is even worse with trains because the box container may be loaded onto a German wagon in Italy; hauled by Italian railways to the frontier; be connected to a French locomotive, under contract from French railways; travel to Calais where either EWS or SNCF will haul it through the Channel tunnel, and hauled here by EWS. It is not a main contract because SNCF is contracted to somebody for the French part of the journey and EWS is contracted for the UK leg. The French Government are responsible for Channel tunnel security, but apparently not for dealing with clandestine entrants to the UK, so there are great big security inspections for bombs and so on, but nothing in the UK.
237 I know that this is not Committee stage, but it is interesting to note that the Bill states that the person responsible, the train operator, is the operator of trains who embarks that person on that train for the journey to the UK. In the scenario that I have just painted, it would be interesting to know who "the person responsible" would be. The immigrants might have come from Romania. Do the provisions really mean that the Government will fine French railways £2,000? I think that they might be told to go and whistle—
§ Lord Clinton-Davis
My Lords, is my noble friend proposing to become an examiner in private international law? The questions that he poses are redolent of my student days.
§ Lord Berkeley
My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right, but perhaps on this occasion I should describe him as "my noble and learned friend". However, in this difficult matter I am merely posing questions; I am not giving the answers.
Moving quickly to consultation, the Road Haulage Association has been consulted. It recently received a copy of a code of practice on how the provisions will be implemented. The association states:It must be said that the draft was extremely unsatisfactory in its current form and our response has been little short of a complete rewrite".EWS had its first meeting six days ago. As my noble friend the Minister did not even mention rail freight in his speech, perhaps it is not included within the scope of the provisions. I have been seeking a meeting with Mike O'Brien, the Home Office Minister, for three months, so far with no success. I hope that if there is a draft code of practice, we shall be able to see it before the next stage.
The Government are seeking to make transport operators their immigration officers. That will cause confrontation and aggravation. I believe that this is a matter for governments and neighbouring member states to negotiate. Screening equipment is available in the US which—I must repeat to the House this lovely quotation—can detect biomass through even container sides".It works on the Tex-Mex border of the US. If the Government are to insist on these provisions, perhaps they should consider installing such equipment at Calais and other places through which these immigrants are alleged to travel. It is for the Government to negotiate this. I believe that the industry would prefer to work with government and not to see every driver made a potential criminal. Is it really worth all this for the 9,000-plus clandestine entrants? I believe that implementation is the Government's responsibility and that industry would co-operate on something feasible, if given some encouragement. It is important to remember that the Government's policy is to encourage rail freight; these provisions will do the opposite.
I believe that the consultation so far has been inadequate and started much too late. I should like all these provisions to be withdrawn from the Bill and 238 replaced by an agreement with the road and rail freight industries so that government and industry can work together positively and proactively to ensure that the very few criminals—there are criminals in every business and I am sure that the road and rail freight industries are no exceptions—are apprehended and that the others in the industry can go about their daily business unhindered, and perhaps even help in this matter. The Government should not turn the entire road and rail freight industries into potential criminals. With that, I look forward to an early meeting with my noble friend the Minister.
§ 7.4 p.m.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, in this Chamber I have listened many times to the Minister making speeches on civil liberties or race relations. I have been proud to be able to hear those speeches. Nothing that I may say in the course of the passage of this Bill will in any way suggest that I have forgotten that; I shall not have done so. However, I know that the Minister is also a great advocate. It must be the skill of a great advocate to make the best of a very weak brief. If sparks should fly in the later course of the passage of the Bill, the Minister will, I am sure, understand that it is the brief and not the advocate with which I am irritated.
I shall speak mainly on Part VI, but as I am replying to the debate from these Benches, perhaps I may touch first on some of the points that have been made. I agree entirely with what the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, has just said about the limits of carriers' liability, and in particular with his point about a driver's limited control over his lorry. The driver is the ideal scapegoat.
I listened with great pleasure to the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Clinton-Davis and Lord Sheppard of Liverpool. I take the point about false documents. This is a regular Home Office problem. The Home Office thinks about immigration law and asylum law in the same box. False documents indicate that someone is a false immigrant, whereas someone would be much more likely to be a false asylum seeker if he had genuine documents. I shall not say that no asylum seeker can have genuine documents. I know that that happens. It happened even when people left Germany in the 1930s. However, it is of the nature of asylum-seeking that documents are likely not to be genuine, as is illustrated by what has been happening to documents in Kosovo. We should never forget that. So, I think that the presumption being made is wholly impertinent and immaterial to the matter we are discussing. I also agree rather strongly with what the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, said about the powers of immigration officers.
I am particularly grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark for introducing the problem of placing in schools the children of asylum seekers. I am even more grateful to him for giving my noble friend Lord Tope notice of what he had to say. The individual case is being investigated. However, the problem is much more general. The right reverend Prelate will find that it was discussed in the evidence to the Standing Committee in another place on 18th March last. The 239 point was made there about the dislocation that is caused to a school when there are sudden floods in and out of children with special needs.
Another point was made, which again stretches far beyond the Bill, relating to the problems caused by the present system of school admissions, in which schools or local authorities are very far from having complete control over their admissions procedures. I shall not take that point any further now, but the right reverend Prelate may find it interesting to read the debate of a Motion tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, last winter about the working of the code of guidance on school admissions. He may also be interested in consulting Shelter about its joint research with the University of London into the equivalent problem with regard to the homeless. I am glad that that point was raised. It is the sort of interdepartmental problem that tends to get neglected.
I agree strongly with what my noble friend Lord Avebury and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, said about the review of detention. Incidentally, that is a subject on which we owe the Minister thanks for the fact that anything is there at all. However, I wonder about the form in which it occurs. According to Article 5(4) of the European Convention on Human Rights, anyone,shall be entitled to take proceedings by which the lawfulness of his detention shall be decided speedily by a court".The Minister has signed the certificate of compatibility. He must have considered how far, and on what grounds, bail hearings really meet that provision. I should be grateful for his answer on that. I am sure that I would learn from it.
I am also glad that the noble Countess, Lady Mar, said what she did about persecution and gender. I draw her attention to a judgment of the Appellate Committee of this House only about three months ago which ruled that gender could be a particular social group within the meaning of the UN convention. I am sure that the Minister has the detail available. I regret that I did not bring that particular cutting with me among so much else. It needs to be remembered not only that all women tend to find rape extremely hard to report but that some cultures, of which the Kosovar Albanians are one, find it particularly difficult to report because it tends to destroy marriage prospects.
I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, said what he did about the interests of the child being paramount. I hope that we shall return to that. I also hope that we shall return to the very narrow definition of a dependent child. There are many children—Kosovo reminds us of the problem—who come out with both parents dead. Is it possible that the Government can stretch a point enough to regard these children as the dependents of their uncles, grandparents or other next relatives who are willing to take responsibility for them? To concede that may save public money and it is also a matter of common humanity.
I turn now to the central fallacy of the whole Bill. Since it underlies Part VI as much as any other I must spend a little time on it. Paragraph 8.5 of the White Paper states: 240The real issue is how to run an asylum system which serves the British people's wish to support genuine refugees whilst deterring abusive claimants".The aim is not ignoble, but it is absolutely pie in the sky until the claim has been heard and it has been determined whether or not the applicant is a genuine refugee. I recall that once before when I put this matter to the Minister at Question Time he replied that a seasoned advocate was capable of recognising, on the face of it, which claims were likely to be true. I accept what the Minister says, but he is too good a lawyer to suppose that it is the same point. It is not given to us to be able to sort the sheep from the goats at one glance. That is not a human power.
I agree with the Minister that there are people who use asylum claims to evade the immigration system. The question is whether it is possible to know who those people are before there is a hearing. If there is any way in which that can be done I have yet to hear it. I agree with the Minister about the ten-fold increase in applications, but I believe that the reasons for that stretch outside the responsibilities of the Home Office. His noble friend Lady Symons of Vernham Dean may be able to comment on the matter rather more appropriately than the Minister.
Last night I happened to read a speech by my right honourable friend Mr Ashdown at Chatham House in 1996 in which he pointed out that of the 82 armed conflicts in progress at the time he spoke no fewer than 79 were not wars between states. What we see is the breakdown of the state's monopoly of armed force. That has a great deal to do with the increase in the number of refugees. It does not result from an increase in original sin because I have never been convinced that sin is more original in one period than in another.
I also have very considerable doubts about the legality of the attempt to deter applicants. Under the UN convention of 1951 we are bound to give a hearing to those who claim asylum from us. That has been incorporated—or semi-incorporated—through Section 2 of the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993. If we try to deter them from coming we are impeding their claim to a hearing, which is a legal right. I am also very much bothered about the practicality of the idea that people can be deterred. It assumes a knowledge of British legislation that is quite rare in this country, let alone in the back streets of Jaffna.
The Refugee Council points out that since the 1996 Act the ratio of in-country applicants who do not get benefits to port applicants who do has remained constant; and in Scotland where in-country applicants can still get benefits there has been no proportionate increase in the number of applications. That seems to suggest that they do not follow these matters quite as carefully as the Home Office computer supposes. The same mistake was made by F. E. Smith who said that the Welsh Church Disestablishment Bill had shocked the conscience of every Christian community in Europe.Do they trembling, groaning, bleeding, wait the news from this our City;Groaning, 'That's the Second Reading'; hissing, 'There is still Committee'.If the voice of Cecil falters, if McKenna's point has pith,241Do they tremble for their altars? Do they, Smith?".I am afraid that they do not, which is why the whole policy of deterrence rests on yet another fallacy.
The other fallacy on which it rests is the belief that an asylum seeker, who gets out by the first means available and is bound by the safe third country rule, has very much choice as to where he goes in the first place. Even supposing that he does, is it really a good idea for the world's powers to have a Dutch auction about who can be less generous to refugees than everybody else? Will that not give us a world of flying Dutchmen? Will not the airlines have a fit—and quite right too?
Incidentally, we always discuss this question on the assumption that British benefits are more generous than anyone else's. They are not, as Eurostat tells us. If the assumption were correct we should already be getting a much smaller proportion of applications than we were getting 20 years ago. Once again, they do not know what is going on in British legislation.
When we come to the system of support, it costs more and provides less. My noble friend Lady Ludford's point about best value was well taken. I hope that it will be crystal clear that local authorities who co-operate with any part of this system will be immune from the provisions of best value legislation while they are doing what they are required to do by government legislation. It would be just like government in all centuries to forget to make that clear, and I hope that this Government will not do so.
The whole point of this is to make it all more unpleasant than it would otherwise have been. I agree with the point about the effect of the vouchers and concentration of accommodation in one place. I have not forgotten one evening in Greece when it turned very cold and rainy, as once in a blue moon it does. Everyone congregated in a taverna where on a television they could see a film of the burning of the refugee hostel in Lübeck. I watched the faces of the Germans sitting at the table next to me. They were absolutely horrified to the core. I do not want on a future holiday to be in the position of those people.
The loss of entitlement is also serious. That is achieved by the use of regulation so flexible as to entitle the Minister to take away the right of support from practically anybody he likes. I was pleased to hear the Minister's remarks about the duration of support—until the claim is heard. I shall read that extremely carefully when I am here tomorrow. That could be a concession for which one might be grateful.
The objective of deterrent shows through with painful clarity. Take this: Clause 87(2), the Secretary of State exercising his power to say where refugees shall live. To say that they can only live in one place seems to me to be on the slippery slope that leads towards internment. In the words of the Bill, the Secretary of State,may not have regard to … any preference that the supported person or his dependants (if any) may have as to the locality in which the accommodation is to be provided".242 Those words seem to me to approach the sadistic. If by any random chance the Home Secretary were to put people where they actually wanted to go, he might be offending his own legislation. That can surely not be what was intended.
After all, when people come out of the experience of becoming a refugee, they tend to be in a rather traumatised state. In those circumstances you want to congregate round your friends, the people you recognise and the people who speak your own language. The CAB has already reported cases like the Somalian who has been sent to Brighton where no one speaks his language and he cannot communicate with anyone. It is not going to make matters any easier.
I heard what the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, who is no longer in her place, said about drifting back to London. I have supported her many times in the past on the burden on London local authorities, but that was because the burden was put on local authority budgets. When the burden is put on central budgets it is to a very large degree a different matter, and the accessibility of legal advice in London is unrivalled.
One should also look at the other things which are being done here. Clause 107(1), the National Assistance Act 1948, the safety net which came unexpectedly to our rescue last time, is being cut away just in case it does it again. Clause 108(2), the National Health Service Act 1977, disentitled refugees to protection under local authorities' powers for the prevention of illness. I think that the Government have there shot themselves in the foot. Cholera is not dead. Cholera is one of the things which did a great deal to put an end to laissez faire. In fact, it did more damage to laissez faire than socialism ever did. We already have a rapidly growing amount of TB among the destitute. If the local authority cannot intervene at an early stage and try to stop diseases like this among people who malnutrition will make all too prone to them, we are going to end up spending a great deal of public money which could have been spent to much better purpose.
I wonder also: is this deprivation of support legal? It appears to me to contradict section 24 of the UN Convention on refugees 1951. I know the Government put up an argument to claim that people are not refugees until their claim is recognised. I find it very hard to reconcile all that with the actual words of the 1951 Convention. Its definition of a refugee is having a:well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion. nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country".That begins from the moment of being outside your country. It is in the grammar of the words. That is the interpretation of the UNHCR handbook. The principal intention of the legislator means that we need to listen to the UNHCR. It is also the judgment of Lord Justice Nolan, as he then was, in the Koboko case. There is a very strong ground for arguing that it is the law. Justice is also doubtful about how far it is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. It invokes Articles 3, 8, 14 and, in extreme cases, Article 2. There 243 may be extreme cases. Article 2 is the right to life. The Minister will have considered that argument and dismissed it. I should be grateful to know why he did so.
Before concluding I shall turn briefly to the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Warner. He said that he thought we did a fairly good job of recognising which were genuine and which were not. It leaves us with a problem of the contrast between what we do with a body of applications and what Canada does with a very similar body. We cannot both be right. There are also sudden and sometimes dramatic variations in the treatment of applications from particular countries. I remember when John Major, not the most squeamish of politicians, described the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa as murder by the sword of justice. I looked at the figures for the treatment of refugee applications from Nigeria. The previous year's figures were: refused 1,485, exceptional leave to remain four, refugee status zero. These seemed to me to be an offence against the law of averages. I am not sure that we do quite as well as he thinks.
§ 7.27 p.m.
§ Lord Warner
My Lords, would the noble Lord concede that in 1998 the number of acceptances of applications from Nigeria was about 7 or 8 per cent, rather higher than he is suggesting?
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, I am extremely glad to hear that information, which was the kind of information I hoped I might elicit from the noble Lord. I welcome it, but the point illustrates that error is possible. One should not be too confident, and the pool factor is subject to all the arguments about deterrents which I have already made.
I used to quote in this Chamber, apropos of Secretaries of State for Education, an American folk song with a chorus which went, verse after verse: "I married another far worse than the other, and I longed for the old one again." I knew it applied to Secretaries of State for Education. I am dismayed to find it applies to Home Secretaries.
My Lords, I am not sure whether I should be agreeing or not with the noble Earl, Lord Russell, on his last remarks about Home Secretaries, but I shall certainly not attempt to emulate him in his verse.
This is an important Bill. Immigration and asylum are difficult issues. This country has always benefited from those who have come to our shores, but modern communications mean that almost anyone anywhere in the world can formulate a wish to come to Britain. We cannot accept all economic migrants, but we must accept genuine asylum seekers. I believe that all your Lordships agree that basic premise.
Since coming to power the Government have repeatedly announced measures to reduce the number of asylum applications made in this country and to create a fairer, firmer and faster system. That is a laudable aim. But, after more than two years in Government the immigration and asylum system remains in crisis. The 244 backlog of asylum applications has increased, the number of asylum applications has reached an all time high, and havoc and chaos reign supreme in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate in Croydon. Under this Bill cash benefits for asylum seekers are replaced with a mixed system of cash and vouchers. While we do not oppose this move in principle, we have deep concerns about how the new system will work in practice.
The entire basis of the Bill appears to be built on the assumption that asylum seekers will have their cases decided within six months. Currently, they have to wait nearly two years. I should be the first to accept that the Government have inherited some of the problems from the previous government. However, I must point out that since the Government came to power, delays and backlogs in the immigration and asylum system have multiplied. It now takes an avenge of 22 months for a decision to be made on asylum applications.
I believe that the Government's proposal to reduce the decision time to six months is hopelessly optimistic. Can the Minister answer the point made by my noble friend Lord Renfrew on how that will be achieved? How many officials will be required? My noble friend mentioned an additional 300 officers, but I understand that they will be involved with the new support system and not the backlog. Perhaps the Minister can explain the position.
We support the principle of the Government's plan to replace cash benefits. However, there is the underlying assumption that asylum seekers will not have io wait long for their cases to be decided. That is unrealistic. How long will it take the Government to reach that target?
I turn to some aspects of the Bill which have already been mentioned and some which have not been raised. I begin with the carriers' liability on lorry drivers, mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. The existing legislation levies an automatic fine of £2,000 on the lorry driver for each clandestine entrant. There is no opportunity for lorry drivers to plead mitigating circumstances, even if they acted in a public spirited way in alerting the authorities about refugees. That seems to us to contradict even the most basic principles of criminal justice.
I turn to the appeals system. Despite the Government's claims of a comprehensive one-stop-shop for appeals, the Bill fails to establish that. Those who are minded to string out their cases through successive appeals will be able to do so under the Government's system. As my noble friend Lord Cope said, we are concerned about the position of children as outlined in the Bill and are opposed to Labour's plans to take away the protection of the Children Act 1989 from the children of asylum seekers. That protection should be in place for all children, which is the intention of the Act.
Our other concern is that many of the powers which the Government propose in the Bill could be used to lay the foundation for a European system of immigration control with the subsequent loss of security at borders and a potential infringement of civil liberties through internal police checks.
245 I shall return to some of those issues in detail, but should like to examine the rise in the number of asylum seekers. In 1998, there were 46,000 applicants for political asylum, compared with 35,000 in 1997. In addition to the 46,000, there were 12,000 dependants. As the noble Lord, Lord Warner, said, the majority were from just four countries. The total number of applicants in 1998 was the highest on record and there is no sign of this influx falling. There were 14,400 applications in the final quarter of 1998, compared with 8,455 in the final quarter of 1997.
This country welcomes genuine refugees, but one has to say that the vast majority of the applicants are not genuine. As your Lordships know, what is considered to be genuine is set out in the 1951 UN Convention relating to the status of refugees, as well as in several other UN Conventions dealing with human rights. I wonder whether the Government have examined the 1951 Convention and considered whether the definitions are relevant to the present day.
Criminal organisations are exploiting the immigration system. Many of those who are asking to stay here have destroyed all their papers in an attempt to make it more difficult for the Immigration Service to check their stories. In that way, Albanians, for example, can claim to come from Kosovo where people are genuinely fleeing from persecution. We must always remember that the greater the number of applications by economic migrants the more difficult it is for genuine asylum seekers to seek entry into this country.
As outlined in the White Paper, the Government have made changes to the immigration system without legislation. In granting a virtual amnesty for the 10,000 who arrived in this country prior to the coming into force of the 1993 Act and making settlement easier for the 20,000 who arrived between 1993 and 1996, the Government are sending out entirely the wrong message to would-be asylum seekers, which may account for the rise in the number of people trying to come here. I accept that a large number of people who want to come to this country do not know the details of our legislation, but they quickly get an overall message.
I return to the subject of vouchers. We support in principle the Government's plan to replace cash benefits for asylum seekers with a mix of vouchers and cash. However, we are concerned about the Government's timetable for creating the system. How will it work? It can work only if the new asylum support arrangements are speedy. The Government have said that what makes the system acceptable is that asylum seekers will be in it for only a short time before their cases are dealt with. How will the Government introduce the system? When will it be introduced? Indeed, can it be introduced before the reorganisation and computerisation of the immigration and asylum systems?
The voucher system will be complicated to manage and I shall be interested to hear the Minister's response to questions, particularly those asked by the 246 right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark. Will the Government consider inserting into the Bill a provision for changing the voucher system if it does not work? The voucher system is a laudable aim, but it may be difficult to introduce. Some countries use vouchers in their social security systems. For example, the American social security system gives vouchers which can be used in food stores. In this country, the voucher system will be new. It will not be run by the Department of Social Security but by the Home Office and I believe that it will be difficult to introduce. When one looks at the Home Office, one has to say that its record as regards the asylum determination system does not provide huge encouragement that the voucher system will be introduced without problems.
I return to lorry drivers. We are concerned that the proposals contradict even the most basic principles of criminal justice. It will be extremely difficult for lorry drivers to establish that they were acting in a public spirited way. We believe that the regime proposed by the Government is unfair to them and it is likely to be counter-productive. Throughout our debates on the Bill we must try to produce good law: law which will work. If it is not good law, it will not work.
We support the objective of the streamlined appeals system. Part V makes provision for a one-stop-shop appeals procedure and for lodging appeals under the 1951 Convention and the HCR grounds. However, despite the Government's claims for a one-stop-shop, the Bill fails to establish it. We believe that people will spin out the procedure. Indeed, the Bill creates new areas of right of appeal based on alleged breaches of human rights.
What is the removal rate of those who have lost their appeals? Looking at the figures, it appears to us that few people who have had their appeals rejected are ever removed from the country. Do the Government have figures to show that many people have been removed? Are those people still here? Indeed, do the Government even know where they are? What is the estimate of over-stayers? I realise these are technical questions. I shall be happy for the Minister to write to me. I am sure he will not be able to answer all the questions tonight, but this is an important point. Will the changes in the Bill increase the number of asylum seekers in centres such as Campsfield? Will further provision be needed? If so, will such provision be contracted out and how will it work?
As I said, we are concerned about the position of children as outlined in the Bill. We are extremely concerned about the Government's plans to take away protection under the Children Act 1989. One-third of the 41,500 asylum applications lodged in this country in 1998 involved families with minor children. This is an area of concern to all your Lordships. I am sure that we shall have to return to it in great detail in Committee.
The asylum support system provides help only to parents arriving in this country with their own children. Asylum seekers who come to this country with other people's children do not receive the same 247 support. The Bill proposes that grandparents who arrive in this country with their grandchildren will not be eligible for family benefit. We believe that children should remain with their families, even if that is with their grandparents, and that they should not be penalised for so doing.
Perhaps I may briefly mention one subject which has not been raised by your Lordships. The Bill makes almost no provision for asylum seekers who are genuine victims of torture prior to their arrival in this country. We believe that the Government have not developed a system for establishing whether asylum seekers are genuine torture cases and, if they are, for ensuring that they receive the correct treatment. That is a matter we shall consider in Committee.
Many of your Lordships are concerned about housing. The Secretary of State is specifically directed not to have regard to any preference which an asylum seeker may have as to the locality in which their accommodation is to be provided. This seems to denote that accommodation is on a "no choice" basis. My noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes was concerned about that point.
We are not opposed in principle to dispersal. We think it may be appropriate in some circumstances. However, many have warned that the way the Government intend to go about it will result in asylum seekers drifting back to particular areas and perhaps causing social problems. Should not asylum seekers at least be allowed to state their preference for where they wish to go—even if they do not get there—which would perhaps be near friends or family?
Many of the powers which the Government propose in the Bill could be used to lay the foundation for a European system of immigration control with a subsequent loss of security at borders and potential infringement of civil liberties. The Immigration Services Union has raised serious concerns about Clauses 1 to 3 of the Bill. It is concerned, for example, at measures which allow staff other than immigration officers to grant or refuse entry to this country, opening up the prospects of administrative control and immigration by remote officials employing pre-established criteria.
It is also concerned at the granting of leave to enter by visa officers which could reduce the control on entry to dealing with nationalities considered "immigration problems." At present an immigration officer may ask a visa holder questions. He can refuse entry if he discovers either that the material facts have changed since the visa was issued or that the visa officer was deceived. Under the Bill, the act of issuing a visa at a British embassy abroad would also constitute the granting of leave to enter this country.
Can the Minister clarify whether officers at the point of entry will still be able to turn away people who have received visas in another country if, for example, they consider that the circumstances of that person have changed? The Government have put in place an appeals system for visas which may be helpful in the application of this process. However, it is important, too, that we are able to deter visa fraud which exists in many places.
248 Some of your Lordships mentioned the provisions on employers, brought in by the 1990 Act. We welcome the code of practice in principle, and we welcome the Government's support of the original clause. As my noble friend Lord Cope, stated, scattered throughout the Bill are many provisions for the Secretary of State to use the negative resolution procedure. We shall have to consider carefully the fact that the Bill grants huge powers to the Secretary of State. The noble Lord will not be surprised if that is an area which will cause concern to this House, as it always does.
We support the aims of the Bill. I remember being involved with the previous Bills of 1993 and 1996. The Labour Party voted against every Conservative Bill on this issue. Perhaps if they had been more supportive, in the constructive manner of this Bill, some of the problems the Government face today might not have happened. I refer, for example, to the fact that when in opposition the Labour Party was adamantly opposed to fingerprinting and fought against it tooth and nail. Now, in the Bill, the Government are widening fingerprinting. They are also bringing in important changes to the marriage laws which will put onerous responsibilities on registrars. We want to consider such issues with great care.
I have had my minor "dig" at the Minister and his party, perhaps because I sat through the Bills of 1993 and 1996 when we were criticised by the Opposition morning, noon and night, or so it seemed. However, we welcome the aims of the Bill. The Minister introduced it in a helpful and constructive way. We shall do our part. I hope we will be a constructive Opposition. We shall support issues which we believe will improve the Bill. I am sure that the Minister will be bombarded by amendments from all sides, including his own. We will play our part to ensure that when the Bill leaves this House it will be a better Bill.
I planned to conclude by quoting from yesterday's issue of The Times. Unfortunately, my noble friend Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn has already done so. I was about to say that great minds think alike when I realised that, given the academic distinctions of my noble friend, it would be extremely presumptuous of me to say anything of the kind. However, perhaps I may make the point again because it is worth noting. The National Audit Office, in referring to the computer project at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, stated:There are many examples of bespoke projects such as this one, which in retrospect can be seen as too ambitious".We want to ensure that there is nothing in the Bill which will not be too ambitious, such as vouchers which will not work. We shall certainly play our part in trying to improve the Bill as it passes through your Lordships' House.
§ 7.48 p.m.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I am grateful for the debate. The response, though critical on occasions, has been generally in the spirit which I invited, and I am glad to have it reciprocated; 249 namely, if there are improvements to be made, I am perfectly happy to look at them with an open mind. Some points strike me as being extremely powerfully made. I shall want to consider them with some care. I believe that apart from myself there have been 20 speakers. And several hundred questions have been asked. If it is agreeable to the House I propose to repeat the thrust of our policy which underpins the Bill and to deal with some general points and some specifics. It is impossible for me to deal with every question. Although occasionally duplicated, mostly the questions were not. I propose therefore to write to noble Lords. I shall place in the Library a copy of every response that I send. If I mis-apply a letter, three or four of your Lordships having asked the same question, copies of responses will be available in the Library.
I believe that the Bill represents the most comprehensive overhaul of immigration and asylum for decades. As stated by the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, among others, it is important that we get it right. We shall continue to listen. I can genuinely say that I look forward to further debates. I anticipate further debates in any event, if I do not look forward to them!
I recognise entirely—and not only because of the passions that are aroused—that we must examine the technicalities with great care and that it is a proper discharge of our function to do so. I confirm that we will continue to consult bodies outside government with a particular interest in the Bill's provisions, such as—to deal with the point raised by my noble friend Lord Berkeley—the road haulage industry in relation to the civil penalty; and practitioners in the field of immigration and asylum appeals in relation to the point made so powerfully by my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis. In particular, I also welcome any help we can get from children's organisations. Some of the briefing that has been sent out has been overtaken by amendments and events, but I welcome all discussion that can assist us.
The Bill is necessary to deliver a fairer, faster and firmer system. It is not a racist Bill: it is intended to be efficient. It is not motivated—to answer the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell—by the desire to make everything more unpleasant.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, the Minister will admit what the White Paper says—that many provisions in the Bill are meant to deter. Is not that synonymous with what I said?
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
Not really, my Lords. One can deal with people in a fair, decent and appropriate way that is not designed to make life unpleasant but is not saying that we have an open-door policy for economic migration. I have said in the past, and I shall repeat the point if your Lordships will allow me the indulgence, that I sympathise with everyone in the category of economic migrant. If any of your Lordships or I had children and dismal domestic circumstances, such as lack of 250 work opportunities or other problems, we would want to move. We would want to follow the trail west, as many people did to the United States of America in the 19th century.
However, no government of whatever complexion would reintroduce the policy that once obtained to the eternal benefit of us all when, as she said, the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, came here as an Australian dentist—neither part of which I take as a term of reproach. We shall never be back in that situation and it is deeply unkind to pretend that we ever shall. The United States of America in the early and continuing years of the 19th century is not a model for what our society can ever want or hope to become. That means that decisions will be disagreeable and unpleasant, but the systems need be neither: they need to be fair and proportionate.
We have set ourselves targets to be achieved by April 2001, for most asylum decisions to be made within two months of receipt and, on average, for most appeals to take a further four months. If we can deliver that, we shall have done a considerable service for the people of this country and for those who apply for asylum and appeal. At the moment, average waiting times for appeals are below four months. To meet the two-month target—I am dealing specifically with the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, and I shall go into more detail subsequently—we are spending an extra £120 million on the IND over the next three years, including £60 million on case work. Hundreds more staff will be deployed as case workers, including 200 who are being actively recruited now. The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, was quite right to say that that is a different figure from the 300 referred to by your Lordships earlier. Asylum decision-making at the moment is running at 900 per week. That is 160 per cent of the levels achieved before the new team-based system came into effect. Those are the facts.
In the new asylum support arrangements we want a coherent national system that serves asylum seekers and relieves the current burden on local authorities. No one is to be left destitute and the needs of families with children will be fully protected. It is our intention that families with children should receive broadly the same value of support as that which asylum seeker families with children currently receive on the emergency income support rate. I am aware of concerns about the level of provision for children and, as I mentioned when I introduced the Bill, I undertake to give that matter further consideration.
I have to deal with the points raised by several of your Lordships, not least by my noble friend Lord Sheppard. It is important to bear in mind what is being offered before a conclusion is reached about whether it is appropriately generous. The support arrangements will consist of free accommodation, which will be furnished. I stress that, because I have picked up the example mentioned by the right reverend Prelate of the Ugandan young woman who was left in difficult circumstances in unfurnished accommodation. That is not what we are providing. 251 The accommodation will contain domestic utensils and equipment necessary for a decent level of existence, including linen, pots and pans, cutlery, crockery and so forth. In addition, council tax will be paid and the utilities—gas, electricity and water—will be paid also. The Family Expenditure Survey for 1997–98 shows that households in receipt of social security benefit spent, on fuel and power alone, some £13.12 a week. Those bills will all be paid in addition to the vouchers and cash. We will provide all those benefits—and I make no complaint about that. I simply wish to put the record straight, because there has been much public concern, based on misapprehension.
Vouchers and cash will be paid at a level equivalent to 70 per cent of the income support rate. Of that, as I have said, £10 per week per person will be in cash. We can fairly take the view that the package as a whole is broadly comparable to that which an asylum seeker family in receipt of social security benefits could expect to receive. I do not pretend that that is wealth untold, but it is not unreasonable for a relatively short time if we can deliver on the two-month and four-month targets.
§ Lord Avebury
My Lords, if it is broadly comparable with the benefits that are received already, what is the point in recruiting 300 extra staff to the Home Office to administer the system, when the social security system is already in place?
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, we wanted to have a different system and the people who will run the support system under the control of the Home Office will not simply be concerned with the administration of the voucher scheme. They will also be concerned with support and assistance for those families. In my view, it is prudent to provide an alternative system. At the moment, as I have heard many representatives of London authorities complain, the south-east takes a disproportionate burden. I have already mentioned the social problems and the scarce accommodation resources in London. It is commonplace that units of accommodation are available outside London that are not under the same pressure—I take the noble Baroness's point—that London and other south-east local authorities have had to bear.
My noble friend Lord Sheppard asked whether we would consider all relevant issues before a person is removed from the United Kingdom. Yes, and the Immigration Rules will make it clear that it is the Secretary of State's duty to do so.
The noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Avebury, and the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, who has had a continuing interest in the issue, raised the question of the detention of asylum seekers. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, said that in his judgment asylum seekers should only be detained when absolutely necessary. I agree. We have begun to take steps to ensure that those who are not convicted of crime are not kept in prison establishments. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, mentioned one scheme that is presently under way 252 with a single institution ceasing to be used for prison custody purposes and being used for detention purposes.
Most asylum seekers are not detained. No one is detained just because he is an asylum seeker. It is the regrettable fact that we have found some people who will not comply with the terms of temporary admission or release. More than half of those given temporary admission, who would otherwise he liable to detention, simply abscond and that is one of the reasons why I cannot give satisfactory details about who these people are and where they are. For many of them we do not know. I do not think we can tolerate that if we can possibly avoid it.
We are introducing into the Bill—and I am not sure if anyone offered credit for this, so I shall again attribute it to myself—a presumption in favour of bail. That is a presumption in favour of freedom and, I believe, entirely consistent with ECHR and the principles which underpin it.
We have to recognise also that detention will be necessary to effect the removal of those whose claims have been rejected and who refuse to leave the country on a voluntary basis. My Lords, if anyone has a solution to that problem which does not involve detention, I would be most obliged to hear it.
We are going to have routine bail hearings. In using the word "routine" I do not for a moment disregard the importance of these hearings. "Routine" means that this is a protection for the individual. It means bail hearings within eight days after detention and again between 33 and 36 days. Those are important and I believe that if one has a system then one is more likely to be fair.
A question was raised about the opposition to bail hearings in detention centres and prisons. Our intention is to give the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor maximum flexibility in providing suitable facilities for hearings. Where there is a suitable magistrates' court which can cope and can provide proper custody facilities at the court, that will be used. Where that is not the case, we shall only consider using a detention centre or prison where there are discrete facilities provided, first of all to uphold the dignity and independence of the court and, secondly, to provide for public access. I have always thought that there was considerable virtue in at least considering bail applications in these circumstances: where you avoid the disruption of the day and where you avoid sometimes quite lengthy travel.
I stress that detention is used as a last resort. Two of your Lordships were good enough to say that at any one time the percentage is in fact very small. Some detainees have been kept for long periods. It gives me no pleasure to have to say that in the majority of those cases it is because there are last-minute appeals and representations against removal from the United Kingdom.
If one wants to manipulate the judicial review system in this country, it is not difficult to do so. That, pace the noble Earl, Lord Russell, is something which is well known to people and their advisers 253 when they get to this country. If one looks at the timescale to obtain leave for judicial review and at the timescale which follows in what I will put in inverted commas as a "hearing with expedition", "expedition" in that context is not something which I would recognise as being expeditious. One can play the system perfectly easily.
We are going to provide additional places in purpose-designed centres. We do not want to continue the situation which I have personally witnessed at Rochester Prison, which I and my colleagues have always said is not satisfactory.
We propose to set out on the face of the Bill the exceptions to the presumptions of bail, which will in effect provide guidance to magistrates and adjudicators in the immigration service. The Bill makes provision for representation which we believe is appropriate.
My noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis asked whether there would be support for asylum seekers pursuing judicial review. By that stage, they will generally have been considered by the Home Office and the independent immigration appellate authority. Destitute families will continue to be entitled to support under the new arrangements for as long as they remain in this country. Single people will not get support after they have received a negative decision, but we will be making financial provision for the voluntary sector to continue to support cases, where appropriate, where someone is waiting for judicial review.
The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, asked questions, echoed by others of your Lordships, relating to—he did not put it in this way but others did—burdens put on registrars and ministers of religion. I do not think there is any danger of discrimination here. The problem is confined to marriages after various preliminaries. We do not need to train registrars in immigration law; they simply have to report their suspicions. They have to do that fairly, of course, and their suspicions may relate to those with white skins as well as to those with black skins; but they do not need any particular training for that. It is not discriminatory to say that because the ecclesiastical preliminaries are different in the Church of England and the Church in Wales there is any feeling that those who seek marriages in registry offices are in any way second class or should be discriminated against. In specific answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, there are no new duties put on clergy or ministers.
The duties to report suspicious marriages are to be placed on registrars only. We intend to issue guidance on the relative factors for them to take into account. I am happy to be able to say to both the noble Baroness and to the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, that the content of the guidance is being consulted upon with the CRE and with other representative bodies. I hope that is an earnest of our good faith.
Immigration officers who will be able to use the extended powers in Part VII of the Bill will have full comprehensive training before they can exercise them. They will be cautious and start with a small number of officers only.
254 The noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, posed a particular question about the need for the judicial intervention of a magistrate to provide a warrant for entry. That is provided for in the appropriate part of the Bill.
My noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis asked about Article 31 of the Refugee Convention. That would be taken into account in deciding whether or not to prosecute; but I have to remind your Lordships that that provision applies only where a refugee has come directly from a country where his life or freedom is threatened. Most of the asylum seekers with whom we are concerned will have transited a safe country or safe third countries before they arrive here.
My Lords, I am most grateful for the courtesy of the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, in giving me notice of his question; that is, how much of the pre-1993 case backlog has been cleared? We have dealt with about 3,500 of the pre-1993 cases. We expect to have dealt with all those cases, now estimated at about 6,500 in total by the end of September. I have to agree that the process was slow initially, because of the need to contact the individuals concerned; that is not always easy with the passage of time. Well over 1,000 cases from the 1993 to 1995 backlog have also been cleared. We are now deciding more of those cases and clearing about 200 per week. I took the trouble to check that because I was about to sign a Written Answer on this question, and the backlog has since gone down even further, which is excellent news.
A question was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, about those who act for humanitarian reasons in assisting persons to enter this country. The extended offence of facilitating entry, Clause 23—about which I think the noble Lord was oncerned—does not apply to those who are not acting for gain. It is designed to catch those who do it for commercial reasons, not humanitarian reasons.
Again arising out of the noble Lord's question, carriers' liability charges for carrying inadequately documented passengers are waived when there is a successful asylum claim.
The noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, also asked whether the existing asylum cases would be dealt with under the new or the old law. The asylum claims will continue to be considered in accordance with the 1951 convention. There is no change in that. The Bill does make important changes to some processes, however. An existing case which reaches the appeal stage after the Bill is enforced will therefore be dealt with on the new system, and we shall have to provide transitional arrangements.
The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, asked about monitoring entry clearance in the context of Clause 19. I have to say that the Government are very grateful to the Monitor, Dame Elizabeth Anson, for the wide-ranging manner in which she has carried out her work. We do not think that the clause needs to be amended to specify in any detail which detailed provisions the Monitor can comment on. I believe that my right honourable friend made that plain in another place. Doubtless the Monitor will want to comment on the proposed bond scheme in Clauses 12 and 13. 255 I personally think that we should welcome such comments, which, judging from past experience, are likely to be constructive and helpful.
We are not undermining the Children Act. That is a very important point. It was necessary to consider this quite carefully because there were a number of concerns expressed, both in the House of Commons and outside. Indeed, much was said in the other place about families with children and we have responded. So Clause 113 imposes a new duty on the Home Secretary to meet the accommodation and essential living needs of destitute asylum seeker families with minor children. This will be comparable to what would otherwise be available in respect of accommodation and essential living needs under Section 17 of the Children Act. I need to stress that all the other safeguards for children contained in that Act will continue to apply. We will ensure that there is 24-hour cover so that families will always have somewhere to turn to in an emergency. As I said a little while ago—too long ago, I am afraid—I shall, as promised, give this particular aspect further consideration.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, asked whether we had paid sufficient attention to the children's charities and similar organisations. I repeat my willingness—indeed, my full willingness—to listen to anything that they have to say and to have such meetings as are thought appropriate.
The noble Countess, Lady Mar, asked whether we would be reluctant to use exceptional leave to remain. I can say that the Home Office is ready to grant ELTR in the sorts of cases mentioned by the noble Countess; for example, in Somali cases, which do not necessarily merit the grant of asylum, and in cases from countries like Algeria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, asked about Clause 87(3). This clause is needed as a fall-back because we may need to make some changes and that provision will be available as a facilitator. It is not intended to do away with Clauses 1 and 2, but simply to amend them if necessary.
I can tell noble Lords that we considered tagging, and we are still assessing the introduction of tagging in the criminal justice system. Home detention curfew tagging has been going since 28th January. To be candid, it is too early to know whether it would be useful in the immigration context. One of the problems is that tagging will tell the monitoring contractor where the person is not—namely, at home between 7 o'clock at night and 7 in the morning—but it does not help us to prevent absconding. At present, once the tag is removed, or the tag wearer has removed himself, it is not possible to trace him. The technology in this respect is certainly developing and we are considering it. However, I am not able to give a more positive assurance other than to say that we shall keep this very much in the forefront of our considerations.
Questions were asked by the noble Baronesses, Lady Ludford and Lady Gardner, about women who have suffered sexual indignity, including rape. Indeed, 256 the noble Earl, Lord Russell, also mentioned this point. Certainly rape may be part of the evidence that an asylum applicant has been persecuted or is at risk of persecution. All the circumstances must be considered, including the allegation of rape. We are revising guidelines about how we deal with female asylum seekers—a point that was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford. We will revise the guidelines in consultation with outside bodies with an interest in this field. I entirely endorse what was said: women asylum seekers must be appropriately treated and appropriate treatment for men is not always appropriate for women.
Several questions were raised about the position of carriers. The noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, asked a number of detailed questions. I should stress that I am more than happy to hold a meeting with officials and the noble Lord, who has a vast knowledge here. I have to say that even a cursory reading of Clause 27 indicates to me the availability of significant defences; for example, subsection (3) provides that the carrier,did not know, and had no reasonable grounds for suspecting, that a clandestine entrant was, or might be, concealed [that he had] an effective system for preventing the carriage of clandestine entrants … [and] that on the occasion in question the person or persons responsible for operating that system did so properly".I do not think that that is quite as draconian as was suggested on one or two occasions by a number of your Lordships. However, I am more than happy to revisit that area.
It seems rather a long time ago now, but the noble Lord, Lord Cope, asked a particular question about the Stoy Hayward team. My up-to-date information indicates that that report is being finalised this week. The team has identified some useful areas for improvement, which will help us to achieve our targets. There will not be government support for those pursuing a judicial review. However, as I said, we will provide funding to the voluntary sector.
The noble Lord, Lord Cope, raised, with some interest, the prospect of his former colleagues in another place possibly being imprisoned because they had actually discharged their duty in a surgery by giving advice. I have to disappoint the noble Lord: Members of another place of any party will not be able to go to prison because they are not providing advice in the course of a business. To make it an offence, I am advised that it has to be done during the course of a business. That is dealt with under Clause 72(2).
On a more serious note, although there is little more serious than the prospect of Members of Parliament going to prison, citizens' advice bureaux will be able to seek exemption from registration under Clause 75(4). So those bona fide persons, if I may put them in that category, including MPs, will not be subject to criminal sanction.
Questions were raised about ECHR and whether or not an application for bail was a sufficient discharge of obligations under the convention. It is not in itself 257 of necessity, but it would still be possible to bring judicial review or habeas corpus proceedings to review the legality or otherwise of detention.
My noble friend Lord Berkeley pointed out that trains are not included in Clause 25. They are not included because, at present, they are not subject to the civil penalty for carrying clandestines. Passenger trains are subject to carriers' liability under Clause 32. Having been kind enough to focus our attention on freight trains, I have to tell the noble Lord, Lord Cope, that, following his helpful intervention, we are now considering extending to freight trains the civil penalty for carrying clandestines. But I promise to consult him before that is done.
I believe that I have generally answered most of the questions that were raised. I think that the Bill is convention compliant. The mere fact that we are looking to improve it does not suggest the opposite. I repeat: although the speeches were relatively short in number, I do not think it could be said that anyone made a wasteful, partisan or negligible point. I stress that I entirely agree with what the noble Viscount said before sitting down; namely, that we all have a good deal of work to do. Indeed, he was echoing what all your Lordships said. We should all work at it co-operatively because it is an opportunity in regard to which we need to discharge our duties properly. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.