rose to call attention to the human consequences of current immigration and asylum law and practice and to possible improvements in the systems of assessment, care and support; and to move for Papers.
My Lords, I have drawn this Motion as widely as possible because I very much hope that subsequent speakers will cover all aspects of it. However, I intend to concentrate on destitution. Have the Government studied, with the care that it deserves, The Destitution Trap, a joint report by Refugee Action and Amnesty International, published on
"The Government's policy on refused asylum-seekers is a failure on both a practical level and a humanitarian level. Forcing people into complete destitution is backfiring badly, and vulnerable people are suffering—forced to sleep in parks, public toilets and phone-boxes, to go without medicines even after torture, and to rely on charity or drop-in centres".
Sandy Buchan of Refugee Action said,
"There exists in Britain a new and growing excluded class, with no contact with the authorities, no access to work or mainstream support services, and little prospect of their situation being resolved".
Lest anyone dismisses those comments, let us see what those directly affected had to say:
"I feel I am waiting for nothing, stuck in limbo, in between. I can't work, I can't go home. I can't get any support. I feel as if I am wasting my life".
That was the view of a 36 year-old from the Sudan. A 67 year-old woman from Zimbabwe stated,
"Destitution—it sounds as if people have been put in the bin and are scavenging. It makes me sound like an animal. Perhaps that is what I am now".
A 49 year-old woman from Rwanda said,
"If I go home they will kill me, straight. They killed my mother and my son. Better to move about like a nomad in England, where I am safe".
I trust that no one, least of all Her Majesty's Government, will brush aside such heart-rending comments or indeed the validity of the whole report. Its survey interviewed 125 former asylum seekers in the first half of this year. They live not only in London but in nine other cities ranging from Plymouth and Southampton to Liverpool. The five principal countries of origin were the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Iraq and Sudan: all states which have suffered a huge number of years of war and social breakdown.
Some 27 voluntary organisations, including the British Red Cross and the CAB, contributed valuable experience and information while academic and legal sources also helped this first survey of its kind. Almost one in three respondents were women, several were pregnant and all had children here. Seventy-eight per cent were aged between 21 and 40; some had reached Britain as unaccompanied children only to become destitute on turning 18. More than one-third had university or higher-level education. Twenty-six per cent of respondents were awaiting acceptance of a fresh asylum claim, but others were backlog cases from 1999 to 2004. Just under half had been destitute for up to a year, the average length of destitution being 21 months.
In preparation for the debate I met a 23 year-old Darfuri, some of whose family had been killed. He does not know whether three of his closest relations are alive or dead. He was refused refugee status and advised to return to Khartoum, something he considers very dangerous. His view is confirmed by the Aegis Trust. For five months he had endured destitution and sleeping rough. Now he has submitted a new application since his brother is a well known leader of the insurgents. While that is pending, he has £35 per week in food vouchers redeemable only at one supermarket, together with shared accommodation provided by a charity.
It is important to look at the factual background. For some years the great majority of asylum applications have been refused. In 2005, 70 per cent received final refusals, even allowing for successful appeals. Removals and returns home always lag far behind. The National Audit Office recently estimated the backlog of asylum cases as between 155,000 and 283,000. The CAB says that it is over 300,000 plus dependants. This summer the BBC discovered that a trawl by the IND found between 400,000 and 450,000 unresolved cases. In 2005-06, 40 per cent of requests for help to Refugee Action arose from destitution.
Once an asylum applicant has had a final refusal, with no further possible appeal, financial support and accommodation are cut off after 21 days. Hard cases— that is, those with serious medical problems or for whom no travel arrangements can be made—are entitled to relief under Section 4 of the 1999 Act.
Some do not know this, and even among those who do the take-up is poor. At September 30, just under 6,000 people were receiving support. Part of the reason why so many fail to get support is that they are often required to sign a form saying they will return voluntarily. The thousands who do not receive support or food vouchers face destitution. They have the stark choice of begging, working illegally, taking to crime or degenerating into madness. Begging is not well received and causes many problems. Illegal work is wide open to exploitation. Crime may land one in prison or in detention. Madness is a real possibility brought on by homelessness, isolation and exclusion from normal society.
I have evidence from psychiatrists that failed asylum seekers are usually refused secondary medical care. Mental health diagnosis and treatment are seldom available, which means that there is an increasing pool of mentally ill and potentially violent people at large who are becoming progressively more desperate. When individuals are psychiatrically examined, perhaps through the generosity of some professionals, it often turns out that they have genuine grounds for refugee status. Those grounds have been overlooked as a result of fast-tracking or poor quality initial interviews coupled with no or poor legal advice. Some cases have to be sent to intensive care, which is very expensive and could be avoided by improving other parts of the system. Dispersal policy and social exclusion after applications have been refused intensify traumas suffered in the country of origin or in transit. Detention on arrival or prior to removal can damage the mental health of applicants.
I will try now to give my understanding of how this grim situation has arisen. In many debates on asylum matters I have claimed that the quality of the first interview or assessment is crucial. Without first-class interpreters and interviewers able to gain the confidence of applicants, results will always be erratic. Legal advice or assistance from experienced practitioners can make the whole difference between success and failure. In the survey, 78 per cent complained about legal representation and 50 per cent about interpreters. Up-to-date and accurate information about countries of origin is also vital. Legal aid has, alas, been drastically cut, and the number of solicitors willing to take immigration and asylum cases has fallen sharply.
Do the Government accept those points and what are they doing to improve the quality of initial decisions, thus avoiding appeals and unnecessary refusals? Improvement should now be much easier because of the steep fall in new applicants for refugee status. There used to be a large category of applicants who did not qualify for full refugee status but who were granted exceptional leave to remain. That happened because of personal or family circumstances or where conditions in the country of origin made it unsafe to return.
In recent years, exceptional leave to remain has been more and more sparingly given and the proportion of outright refusals has tended to rise. Between 2002 and 2005 limited leave to remain dropped from 25 per cent to 10 per cent of decisions. At the same time, removals and voluntary returns have increased slightly, but many thousands have been left in the destitution trap to which I referred earlier. What then can be done? I submit that destitution is totally unacceptable as an instrument of official policy. It is morally wrong and is sure to produce even worse evils.
The new asylum model, providing for continuous contact with a single case worker, should enable the Government and the Home Office to ensure that each refused case receives appropriate support while still in this country. In particular, temporary leave to remain should be granted in all cases where the Home Office has no reasonable prospect of achieving removal. Section 95 support should be made available until cases are finally resolved. Section 4 support, with its special conditions, should not be insisted on.
Lastly, there should be a programme for clearing the backlog, based on incentives and humane principles. These include how long a person has lived here and the connections that they have formed with this country. They should take account of a person's language and work skills. They should protect the vulnerable, especially women, children and the elderly. Work and employment should be made possible, wherever that can be done. None of those measures would prevent us having a fair and firm returns policy. Refugee Action has stated:
"We are not opposed to the return of fairly refused asylum-applicants to safe countries, by safe routes".
Making full use of the talents and skills of people already here would have the extra benefit of reducing our need for still more economic migrants.
I therefore sympathise strongly with the campaign Strangers into Citizens. The Government should examine the campaign's proposal that rejected asylum applicants and a whole range of other illegal residents should be allowed to remain—subject, of course, to strict conditions. To benefit, they must have been here for five years continuously and have no criminal record. Overstayers now living precariously and not paying taxes would be thus regularised and protected from exploitation. After a further two years of good behaviour, they should be able to become full citizens.
I am proposing remedies for what has become a considerable public scandal. My suggestions address the unacceptable and unintended consequences of existing legislation. I trust that they would reduce acute human misery, despair and social exclusion. They are in line with the recommendations of the Home Affairs Committee in 2004 and a recent report from the Public Accounts Committee. On all these grounds, I commend them to your Lordships and to the Government. I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has a distinguished record as a staunch advocate of the rights of refugees and his timely advice is more relevant than ever as the Government tighten the screws, making it ever harder for genuine refugees to get through the system, and try to starve those who are unsuccessful into going back where they came from, however atrocious the conditions there may be.
The Home Secretary said that the immigration and asylum system was unfit for purpose when it emerged that 1,000 foreign national prisoners had been released without consideration of whether they should be deported, yet the Chief Inspector of Prisons had expressed concerns to Ministers in a number of reports going back several years about the absence of a strategy for managing foreign prisoners. Dr Reid's reaction to the tabloid hysteria was to divert resources into detaining all the foreigners who had been released at the end of a sentence, including EU citizens who were not deportable, such as an Irish citizen with health problems and a history of self-harm who had lived here for many years with a British partner and child.
The combustible mix of foreign prisoners, fast-track detainees and young single men in the last few days prior to removal was the probable cause of the disturbance at Harmondsworth which led to the loss of 500 places in the detention system and knock-on effects in all the establishments to which the detainees were transferred. Many, perhaps hundreds, had to be accommodated in prisons, so that the numbers there reached an all-time record of nearly 80,000. When half of Yarl's Wood was destroyed in a previous riot, there was an inquiry by Stephen Shaw, some of the lessons of which obviously have not been learnt. Should there not be a full public inquiry into what happened at Harmondsworth and its causes, considering the damning verdict that it was not performing satisfactorily against any of the tests of a healthy custodial establishment?
The chief inspector reported in July that the average length of detention at Harmondsworth had increased from two to six weeks. At her previous inspection, the longest period anybody had been detained was five weeks, but this time it was two years, with 22 people held for more than six months. No doubt the Minister will explain the reason for the discrepancies between the facts and the story she told the House a week ago. One reason for the deterioration is that experienced immigration officers had been replaced by basic administrative grade personnel with no direct involvement in casework, their only function being to relay messages between detainees and externally based case-holding officers. One detainee, who had been in Harmondsworth for more than 19 months following a short custodial sentence, could not be removed because his consulate refused to issue a travel document. Your Lordships' Select Committee on the European Union reported eight months ago that there were only four EU readmission agreements with countries of origin, and those were not with countries that generated many asylum seekers. The committee said that more effort should be made to negotiate those agreements, and to promote acceptance of EU travel letters as a substitute for official passports. What progress has been made on these issues?
Last week, the Minister said that she was not aware of problems arising from the merits test and the reduction of legal aid funding in 2005. BID, in its evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, says that the test, which requires a supplier to assess the chances of success to be greater than 50 per cent in any one case, and to achieve a 40 per cent success rate overall, is a major deterrent. Practitioners are bound to err on the side of caution, because if they take on cases that fail, they risk having their contracts withdrawn. What happens when a practitioner goes out of business? Where a firm was shut down because the LSC thought that it had committed some irregularities, hundreds of clients were left in the lurch. No attempt was made to ensure that their cases were dealt with properly by someone else. I was approached one Saturday in February on behalf of one client, a 22 year-old Eritrean who had been detained in Yarl's Wood since
With detainees, the LSC proposes the extension of the exclusive contract model which has been tried out on fast-track detainees, citing it as a successful model of service provision. This is in the absence of any evaluation and despite growing concern about the quality of the fast-track suppliers. Some 55 per cent of the fast-track appellants at Harmondsworth had no representation, because of the merits test, and this together with the speed of the process leads to a very small proportion of successes. At the time of the incident last month, there were 15 Darfurians there, all fast-tracked, who had been abandoned by their representatives from several firms and lost appeals that they had to conduct themselves. Another solicitor picked them up in the nick of time, and one has been granted permission to lodge a fresh application. Two are before the High Court, 11 are awaiting IND approval of their fresh applications, and one, who said that he was a member of the Janjaweed, has I hope by now been deported. Will the Minister issue instructions that people escaping from genocide should not be fast-tracked and should have representation on their appeals?
Sixteen countries are now on the NSA list under Section 94 of the NIA Act, which means that people from those countries have no in-country rights of appeal at all; but while a country may be safe for the population in general, it may still be dangerous for particular groups.
On Report of the IAN Bill in February, we moved an amendment with government support arising out of a discussion that we had with the Minister at the end of Grand Committee allowing for repeal by order of Section 9 and connected bits of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004, which provided for the withdrawal of support from the class of failed asylum seeker with family. If those persons did not take reasonable steps to leave the UK, the Secretary of State could certify them, which would mean that support was withdrawn from adult members of the family, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has described. We said that it was an inhumane way in which to coerce vulnerable families but welcomed the increased grants for those prepared to return voluntarily in appropriate cases. The pilots of Section 9, which were then being evaluated, had caused enormous distress and terrible destitution, according to the Refugee Council and others, and had drawn attention to the human rights violations caused by depriving families of support. The JCHR will almost certainly recommend that the Government exercise the power to repeal Section 9. Have the Government published a report on the pilots and will they not act on this before being pushed into it?
When the Home Office launched its new asylum model in January it claimed that by December genuine refugees would be granted asylum quickly and those who failed would be quickly removed. Instead, in the latest Home Office statistics, the number of cases awaiting initial decision is up and 1,200 have been in the queue for longer than six months. The proportion dealt with in less than two months was down and lower than in either of the two previous years. The number removed was down by 26 per cent and lower than any of the previous five quarters. The Home Secretary has been in his job for eight months and it is time for him to take the rap instead of blaming his officials.
My Lords, I echo the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Paisley, in thanking all noble Lords who have provided such a welcome to your Lordships' House, both Members and officers. I look forward to future debates, both to learning from them and on occasions contributing to them. It is a particular privilege to be able to speak for the first time in your Lordships' House on a theme that is so crucial to the life of our country as a hospitable, welcoming nation where every person counts and to do so from the perspective of Leeds as a city that encapsulates those qualities of welcome and hospitality and yet faces major issues in supporting and helping those who seek refuge here from violence and oppression.
Much of this debate is about "unintended consequences", to borrow the phrase already used by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. That is why we need a coherent asylum code of legislation and practice. The aim has often been to provide a way in which to enable those refused asylum to return to safe countries by safe routes. The result has been destitution, disappearance and fear for adults and children.
There must be a fundamental human right to food, shelter and healthcare. Those refused asylum, many of whom cannot return home, have none of those rights and become dependent on charity. Much work is done by a range of charities such as, in our own case, the Leeds Asylum Seekers Support Network, but they would be the first to admit that their support is haphazard and inadequate—nor can it extend to those who disappear. Candles shine this Christmas in churches in our cities for members of congregations of whom we now know nothing. Scared of being returned to countries where they have suffered violence, they have simply disappeared. We must not create in our country a legion of the disappeared.
A major concern that I bring to this debate is that of children. We have experienced the case of Antonio, whose father committed suicide in Yarl's Wood in order that his teenage son should not be deported with him. Antonio went through the whole of that trauma and is now being cared for by a family in south Leeds. But he is not alone. The fear of the 5 am knock on the door pervades many Leeds families. I think of one family that has lived in such fear for three years, which includes a sixth-former studying maths and science. In October, the family were taken to Yarl's Wood and kept there for five days. The boy missed that part of his schooling and went through that trauma. Then they came back to Holbeck because there was no flight to take them anyway. They are still in Holbeck. The boy is supposed to concentrate on his A-levels, fearing being picked up again at any time.
It is easy to quote specific cases—perhaps it is too easy. But the effect of such cases in south Leeds and many other parts of our country is not confined to asylum seekers themselves. A head teacher writes to me of three boys aged five, seven and nine. They were invited to a meeting in July to discuss accommodation and, without warning, removed to a detention centre where they remained for five weeks. They have been returned not to Leeds but to Manchester, well away from the network of friends that they had built up over the years. The head teacher had to explain to the children in the school that their friends had been taken away—friends whose home is in Leeds.
We spend a good deal of time in our society ensuring that there is care for children in our communities. Schools work on the principle that "every child matters". How can our children believe what we say when what appears to be true is that every child matters unless he or she is the son or daughter of an asylum seeker? We pour resources into ensuring that head teachers work with social services and healthcare professionals to ensure the welfare of every pupil. When the children of asylum seekers are concerned, the head gets a curt note saying that, as he is not the children's legal representative, he cannot be party to any information about them. Attempts to involve the Children's Commissioner have got nowhere. These children appear to be regarded not as human beings in their own right but simply as adjuncts to their parents—a situation which flies in the face of the principles upon which our society is based. Will the Minister say something about how children can be given their own rights in this particular difficult situation? We cause psychological harm to children in detention and to their classmates, who see what happens to their friends and lose their own sense of security.
On a different point, there is a minority who fear return to their home countries because of their faith. Perhaps it is appropriate to refer to them from these Benches, because that includes countries where Christians are persecuted for their faith. Some of those people find themselves meeting with suspicion and antagonism at tribunals, having their own faith doubted and being questioned whether it is real—and, in the case of members of my own church, being told on occasion that members of the Church of England would never wish to convert anyone so it must be perfectly safe for them to go back.
I do not believe that anyone actually desires the results of our present practices. Politicians are among those who do most to help in individual cases, but we seem to be unable to create a system that is just or humane. Over the next few days, many of us will hear the story of Jesus as a child refugee in Egypt, fleeing from violence and being given shelter in a foreign land. It is a haunting story that reveals a brutality that is far removed from the words of most of our carols. It also reveals a welcome for a refugee family in a different culture.
This is an urgent issue. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for calling our attention to it. I hope that we shall hear of ways forward now to ameliorate both the hardship and destitution and also that fear which children face who are here, now, in our communities and in our culture.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, on initiating this debate. He is in that great tradition of British reformers that started with those who opposed slavery, and he has maintained that great tradition in the most exceptional way. I thank him not only for this debate but for his whole contribution to the House and to the concerns and service of human rights.
The maiden speech by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds was of a quality that is entirely justified by the nature of this debate. He is a man with close knowledge of the north country, having been archdeacon for west Cumbria for some years and subsequently the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds. He has concerned himself especially with poverty in his community. I hope that I may say not to his embarrassment that the master of his religion would not be ashamed of what he has said today. It is worth reminding ourselves over and over again what being a Christian is supposed to be about. The right reverend Prelate has brought a strong and eloquent voice to his Benches, which most of us would very much like to hear on many future occasions. We all congratulate him most warmly.
Let me turn from that to an issue that is perhaps appropriate for a politician, since I could not begin to match the eloquence of the right reverend Prelate on the issue of Christian belief. Our system has steadily eroded from one that was just about arguable for, to one that is now shaming to this country. I do not forget—and many noble Lords will remember—the definition given many years ago by Winston Churchill that a civilised country should be judged by the way in which it treats its prisoners; to which most of us could certainly add, "and its refugees and asylum seekers". By that standard, we are as a country doing very badly indeed. We are a very rich country, and around us, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, so eloquently said, we see the wretched of the Earth in total destitution. They are supported by only a handful of decent people, charities and some churches. The state washes its hands of them, although their demands on the tax system are, to say the least, very marginal indeed.
Secondly, our system began as a genuine attempt to try to define those who were entitled to asylum under international law—people who would receive that asylum perhaps because they came from extremely dangerous countries where they might be persecuted, or perhaps because they showed evidence of torture, or because their lives would be at risk were they returned. Tragically, we have long since slid away from that set of definitions. I remind the House briefly what has happened. We abandoned, some years ago, the principle under which the basic means of living—enough food and enough shelter—were made available to refugees so that they could live until their claim for asylum status had been established one way or the other. That has long since gone. There was a second great battle over the rights of children of refugees, to which the right reverend Prelate referred, in terms of the support that they as innocent children should deserve from a decent and humane state—that, too, has gone.
Then there was the disgraceful abandonment of the system of appeal, so that now there is only one, often extremely perfunctory, level of appeal. As the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, rightly said, the first stage in which the main decisions are made—in which, incidentally, something like 99 per cent of those who apply for asylum status are rejected—is now quick, perfunctory and insubstantial. Yet it is at the first stage—we appreciate on these Benches the need to deal with cases relatively quickly—when people should get legal representation and should have their cases properly considered and then decided on one way or the other, with a limited reliance on appeals.
I recognise that in our Home Office Ministers—and, if I may say so, particularly in those who are present in the House—we have people who are deeply thoughtful, civilised and good. The mystery is how a system can be, as it were, seized from all of us and in the end go through as it now is, without being bitterly fought against.
Let me just mention two features of this system. The attempt to set a target for the return of asylum seekers is desperately dangerous. It is unrelated to situations that arise, such as the one in Darfur, which, as my noble friend Lord Avebury pointed out, is now being considered a case of genocide. There is also the situation in Zimbabwe, from where the people who are refugees in this country are among the bravest in the world; they have fought at the risk of their lives against the gradual disappearance of democratic structures in that country and the establishment of something of a tribal tyranny. Those sorts of people are now being sent back to countries where we can and have shown that they will be immediately swept into police power and, in some cases, tortured.
In spring this year, Anne Owers, the outstanding inspector of prisons, called on the Home Office, in her report about Yarl's Wood, to ensure that cases of torture were properly looked into and argued that people who had been tortured should not be locked up for long periods. That was the inspector of prisons in spring this year, and yet we find in Harmondsworth that people with evidence of being tortured were among those who were detained, sometimes for long periods. Torture is the final lodestone of a decent society. If one is able to go along with it—if one conspires with it—one is in a sense part of it. We have to make sure that people who have been tortured and who have signs of torture on their bodies or on their minds, which is sometimes more difficult to see, are not locked up in solitary confinement as if they were among the worst high-security prisoners whom one could ever hope to meet. It is an appalling stain on our country that that can still happen.
Harmondsworth exploded into a huge riot, with police being brought in from all over the country to put the trouble down. Anne Owers's report on Harmondsworth showed that the situation was serious and dangerous. It made it quite clear that there had been a dangerous mixture of people awaiting deportation after concluding their prison sentences—in other words, people who had been sentenced as criminals and were then to be deported because they were criminals—with utterly innocent asylum seekers who were having their cases heard, or in some cases had had their case refused but without the slightest implication that they had been involved in offences or criminal actions. That is a very dangerous mixture.
I conclude by asking the Minister, given the terrible track record of Harmondsworth, given the evidence that people were staying for quite long periods, given the much worse evidence to which the inspector of prisons drew attention of the appalling relations between the detainees and the staff, especially the more junior staff, why are we maintaining a contract with a company with that kind of record? If one privatises detention centres and prisons, the level of accountability should be at least as high as it is for a government department. Where we can reject somebody's bid for renewal of contract because of the level of behaviour and the standard of their attitudes and actions, surely we should take that step. Can we not forthwith end the current contract—perhaps it has been ended—for Harmondsworth, and if not, why not?
My Lords, I do not normally contribute in your Lordships' House on this subject. As we have seen, many of your Lordships know so much about it and work untiringly to bring to wider attention the dreadful situation that so many people face. However, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member, has begun a most relevant inquiry, which will,
"consider any significant human rights concerns relating to the conditions of life for asylum seekers and failed asylum seekers in the UK".
Our focus is on accommodation and financial support, healthcare, the treatment of children, detention and removal, and treatment by the media. We have received a mountain of evidence, and our first two sessions of oral evidence are now available on the parliamentary website in uncorrected proof form.
After these two sessions, my eyes have been opened to much detail that I ought to have known, but did not. The people who work in this field and have come to give us evidence—I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Judd, who is in his place and is a member of our committee, will agree with this—are so impressive and dedicated, so up against the odds in what they do, that one can only feel admiration and enormous respect for them, together with gratitude that there are so many people who turn a huge sense of outrage into humanitarian work. One of them, Ms Mushaka from Scotland's Refugee Policy Forum, told us how important it was for her to come to Westminster to give evidence to our committee. She said:
"It is not common for our voices to be heard in high circles like this".
I want to thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for this opportunity for those voices to be heard in this high circle, and to echo the comments made about him by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams.
I will touch briefly on some points that have emerged so far from our evidence sessions, and then make a point about the human rights implications. Our witnesses describe clearly a situation where, next to our affluence, a hidden group of people live in want and fear. We were told that people are living in accommodation that is due to be demolished. Nothing has been invested in the building, yet people have lived there for five years. Last February, the Scottish Refugee Council carried out a small survey and found that 154 asylum seekers and their dependants, including 34 children, were destitute. One of our witnesses said that,
"destitution as a coercive tool of policy has no place".
Indeed, it is immoral, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said.
The Scottish Refugee Council told us of the situation in Glasgow, where 1,000 families who are described as "appeal rights exhausted" live in absolute fear of the knock on the door. They are terrified of being removed from their houses, early in the morning. They go regularly, as they should, to fulfil the requirement to register at the Immigration Service, but they go in terror that they will be detained and not return. We also heard from Scotland about,
"the indigenous community who have taken asylum seekers to their hearts and are engaged in trying to support people and prevent them from being wrenched from the communities".
That brought a little gleam of light.
We heard many shocking things about healthcare. We heard evidence from Médecins du Monde—an international humanitarian organisation working in places such as Darfur and Afghanistan—which has set up a project in London to improve access to healthcare for vulnerable migrants. I find the fact that we need this in a country with our National Health Service deeply shaming. The people involved in the project told us that they have case studies of people refused access to secondary care, including people who are quite seriously ill and pregnant women. They told us that they, and other organisations, have come across pregnant women who are being asked to pay a 100 per cent deposit for an antenatal package before they can have any care at all. A doctor from Medact—a network of health professionals working with refugees and asylum seekers—told us that, while the Department for International Development campaigns for access to retroviral drugs for all who need them, people here in the UK are refused them because of their status.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights has previously raised with the Government, in its reports on the convention itself and on the Children Act 2004, the reservation to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in respect of asylum-seeking children. I remind the House of what our committee was told by a Home Office Minister, who said:
"The UNCRC is not binding on the UK in so far as a matter falls within the reservation, and there is therefore no requirement to make the best interests of the child a primary consideration or to adhere to any other principles set out in it".
We have heard in evidence that disputes about the age of children can lead to repeat interviewing of vulnerable children. One witness told us that a child had described it as,
"like being in a slave market, because at the airport she was taken to about six or seven different case officers and they were all told",
to look her up and down,
"and give their assessment of how old she might be".
I am sure that the Minister would agree that the rights set out in the Human Rights Act 1998 apply to everyone within the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom. In the treatment of asylum seekers we are seeing violations that are, as one witness put it to us, "very extreme, severe violations".
The treatment that I have briefly described at the very least comes under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states that,
"No one shall be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment",
under Article 8, on respect for family life, and under Article 2, on the right to life, which applies to measures taken to prevent suicide among people in detention and to the treatment of people who will die without access to healthcare.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights is nowhere near making recommendations in its inquiry, although our witnesses so far have made many sensible and moderate ones, as noble Lords have done today. My purpose in speaking was to put before the Minister the serious human rights concerns that arise from the policies that the Government are pursuing, and I would welcome her response.
My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for choosing to introduce this debate. It is appropriate that we should look critically at what is probably not only one of the more difficult areas of government but also, sadly, one of the more chaotic. I also congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, who has in his maiden speech demonstrated a practical compassion and shown a shrewd understanding of the needs of the less fortunate. I know that that will always be welcome in your Lordships' House.
One might suppose that, coming from Northern Ireland, one would interface infrequently with the Home Office and immigration authorities. That used to be the case but is less so lately, particularly since the enlargement of the European Union and the United Kingdom's more general involvement with international terrorism. It would be only the slightest exaggeration for me to suggest that my new experiences in dealing with the Home Office are exclusively unhappy interludes in my life.
I have the unhappy feeling at this sensitive time that the leadership of the Home Office has been inappropriate in so far as the Prime Minister seems to believe that when there is a problem, one simply employs a "bruiser"—a hard man—to resolve it. I think that we all know who I am talking about. That is fine if there is a coherent blueprint for reconstruction, but have any of us seen one? The hard-man approach may work if one is running a nightclub, but it is not the way forward when one is dealing with linguistic, cultural, political and religious differences that can make communication difficult. That requires courtesy and education plus the instincts of a police officer and the patience of a judge. And that does not just happen; it has to be planned and made to happen.
When I hear Secretaries of State talking about what is good and efficient at the Home Office, I despair. It would be much more reassuring if they simply told us what, sequentially, were the difficulties and what were the benchmarks on the way to their resolution. I regret to say that instead we are kept "boisterously" confused by good news stories that ring hollow.
I pose a question: should the criminal elements who find their way into the United Kingdom and operate in a Mafia style here in London, for example, be a problem to be resolved by our police after those elements become established, or a problem to be nipped in the bud when they arrive at our shores? I am currently participating in the parliamentary police scheme, so I know the answer to that question, but I do not know whether there is currently any—shall I call it?—"border security initiative" that seeks better co-ordination in intelligence, policing, customs, immigration, social services and whatever other agencies are necessary.
If we had the sort of co-ordination that actually worked, we could put people before paper. I am neither a liberal nor an anarchist; I am a practical, pragmatic democrat who believes in values and standards and that we could do more for genuine asylum-seeking and economic migrants than simply locking them up—the good and the bad together in a system that is ponderous, unfair and humiliating and that, most of all, does not achieve its objectives. In the Home Office, I see a department of paper pushers instead of "people" people.
I turn to specifics and ask why, in my experience, Christian asylum seekers seem to fare worst of all. On
Reverend Masih, his wife and a son—a medical student—were granted asylum, but two daughters and their families were refused permission to enter the United Kingdom during the time their mother lay critically ill. Since Reverend Masih had been a well-known leader of the Methodist communion in Pakistan, those left behind had to live under virtual siege. When Reverend Masih's wife died, the two daughters and their families, again following my representations, were belatedly allowed in for the funeral. They applied for asylum. That has been consistently refused, and after unsuccessful appeal, they have been ordered to return to Pakistan. They are two of the families who live in terror of the five o'clock in the morning knock on the door.
In Pakistan, their homes and church have been totally destroyed, though on
"there is no evidence to suggest that Human Rights conditions for Christians have deteriorated in Pakistan".
I do not know what that means. He continues:
"Therefore it is considered that there is a sufficient protection in Pakistan for Christians".
What arrant and arrogant nonsense. Because of the Christian witness of the Masih family, because their young children now speak mainly English, to send them back would be akin to painting a target on their foreheads.
Many of us read in the past couple of days about what happened to dozens of young British Muslims sent back to Pakistan to receive treatment for drugs addiction. They were manacled and imprisoned in filthy conditions. If that can happen to young Muslims—and those who have heard me speaking on other topics will know that I am not anti-Muslim when I give this example—what is almost certain to happen to identifiable Christians? Yet our Home Office cannot differentiate between the needs of this family and a situation that permits, say, Russian mafia to stay in the United Kingdom. The Masih family are well educated. They will be loyal to this country. They have language skills that could be usefully employed. They want to work. But they have children who are being condemned by us to become victims or to victimhood.
I ask the Minister: is that what the United Kingdom stands for? Is this country so dismissive of our Christian traditions and values that we cannot see that where we betray those who are the most needy, in so doing, we betray ourselves?
My Lords, this time last week I was present at an immigration tribunal in Feltham. I was there in support of a young man and his family. He had fled from a situation of violence and conflict, traumatised by it, and came to the United Kingdom seeking asylum. He got embroiled in a fight and received a prison sentence. While in prison he was told he would be deported and he appealed against this. That was in 2004. He was a model prisoner and was released early. He accepted all the help that was offered to him to deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder and his probation officer's report said it was extremely unlikely that he would ever offend again. He worked in the community as a volunteer with a Baptist church and got a job to support his family.
He heard nothing at all from the Home Office until one day he went to sign, as he did monthly, and was detained on the grounds that his deportation was imminent, which was untrue as the legal process had not been completed; that he was likely to abscond, which was not at all likely as he had a job and was well settled with his family; that his release was not conducive to the public good, although there was no evidence to suggest why; and on grounds of national security—surely an abuse of legislation. He was held in detention for three months—illegally, unnecessarily and expensively—until his legal team managed to get him released. Fortunately, he has good friends and family support and a good legal team.
At the tribunal, which I attended, there was an assumption that the hearing was to be under the 2006 rules, for the Home Office had either forgotten or had ignored the fact that the original appeal had been waiting for two years. We were in the hearing room for two hours, during which we took turns to sit on the few available chairs. We await the outcome.
What shocked me was the remark made privately to me by the barrister who took his case. She said that my presence had made a real difference to the conduct of the hearing in that it was more courteous and considerate than she had experienced before. She asked me to attend on other occasions, particularly to sit in on cases where people are unaccompanied and unrepresented and often find it a deeply depressing and abusive process.
Perhaps I have told this story, with the consent of the young man concerned, in unnecessary detail, but it highlights some of the difficulties experienced. It is not necessarily the law that is at fault but how it is applied: administrative errors and procedural delays are often experienced. I was told of a case where a father was granted British citizenship and his children had the right to join him, but the case took 25 years to be completed, by which time he had died and his children had grown up. I hope that that is an exception.
The law is differently interpreted and administered. For example, there were two brothers whose asylum cases were the same. One was healthy and articulate and he was granted asylum; the other had mental health problems that resulted in a lack of ability to explain himself, and he was refused. A more alarming case was that of a man who was granted asylum and the Home Office then appealed against the decision. The tribunal found in favour of the Home Office, suggesting that the man should return to his country and keep safe by hiding his identity, thus encouraging him to commit an offence there by providing false information when registering. There is also considerable evidence of people being pressured or deceived into signing deportation papers while in detention. It all suggests a process that is driven by a political determination to reduce numbers rather than to pursue justice for those who require it.
Legal processes within the immigration system seem to operate at a level far below that of other legal jurisdictions in the UK. In a case involving misrepresentation of an unaccompanied minor, a top lawyer said that in any other legal jurisdiction the case would be thrown out and begun again.
Recent alterations to the availability of legal aid for asylum cases mean that a lot of people cannot get legal representation, even if their cases have strength. If people have not been well represented and seek a new solicitor, they are often unable to find one to take the case because too much work is involved for a firm to invest the time and take the risk of not being paid. That leaves the way open for unscrupulous solicitors to take advantage of vulnerable people.
I turn to the financial hardship that so many people experience as a result of a flawed system. This matter was raised earlier, and there are so many reports on it that I hardly need to stress it again. I chaired the Commission on Urban Life and Faith, which reported earlier this year. In the report, we said that it is unacceptable to use destitution as a tool of coercion in dealing with refused asylum seekers, and that all seeking asylum should be allowed to sustain themselves and to contribute to society through paid work.
Yet destitution exists. One young man who had the right to be in the UK and to work while his application for extension of stay was processed was picked up by the police, who contacted immigration. Officials came to the police station and released him because he could not be deported until the legal process was completed. However, on releasing him, they removed his right to work and imposed signing restrictions that meant making a journey which cost £16 every week. He has absolutely no legitimate right to any form of income and there is no funding to pay for the costs of travelling to fulfil the instructions imposed on him. Another woman was released and tagged. Every day she has to sign at the police station, which involves travel costs of £3 per day, £2l per week. She has to pay that out of her weekly money from the National Asylum Support Service which provides subsistence at the rate of 70 per cent of the income support rate.
I turn to possible improvements. The reports of many of the campaigning groups contain recurring recommendations: improve the quality of decision-making; improve access to legal advice; grant leave to remain to people who cannot be removed; allow refused asylum seekers to work; continue support for refused asylum seekers until they can be removed; and improve the response of statutory services to refused asylum seekers. I hope there will be support from Members of the House for the setting up of the independent review of the asylum system, and welcome for the hearings that are to be conducted in different parts of the country in 2007. I hope that the Government will take notice of the findings.
In conclusion I draw attention to the many voluntary organisations, including faith communities, that help the immigration and asylum system to have a human face. It has largely been left to them to encourage respect for human dignity and to provide friendship. The Living Ghosts campaign presented 500 postcards to the Government this week. I hope they are read. Again, I refer to the Faithful Cities report, which speaks of the concept of radical hospitality—hospitality that welcomes the stranger, and is prepared to accept the possibility of being changed in the process.
My Lords, so much has been said this afternoon that I may repeat what others have said. In recent years, the United Kingdom has tried to justify its global actions as a need to go into various situations to relieve injustice and oppression. We were told that we were going into Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban because its actions were making the lives of women in particular totally insufferable, so we went in to restore dignity to the people in Afghanistan. We were told that we should go into Iraq not only because there were weapons of mass destruction—we know how untrue that was—but also to remove the regime of Saddam Hussein. So many people—I think of the Kurdish people—had suffered so dreadfully at the hands of Saddam Hussein and they were to be released from that suffering. We were told to battle against poverty and AIDS in Africa because we have to give people hope and value. History came into it. A week or so ago, the Prime Minister regretted the way in which we had acted in the slave trade in previous centuries. All that was done to give people a sense of dignity and worth.
However, the stories that we are being told this afternoon show that something has gone very wrong here in the United Kingdom. We seem to have lost our hospitality, our welcome, our concern. People come here and are made to feel totally unwelcome. Some years ago, I would travel through Wales and see signs on walls and rocks telling non-Welsh people to go home. Thankfully, I do not think that that happens today. Yet some of our newspapers, some of our people and political parties such as the BNP say, "You are not welcome here". Hospitality has become hostility.
You see this in the way in which some legislation is enacted. We have heard how people are left without any money whatsoever to meet their daily requirements. I inquired of the British Refugee Council this morning what a single man under 25 would receive. The answer was just over £31 each week in order to meet all his needs. This, as the noble Baroness, Lady Richardson, said, is just 70 per cent of the ordinary benefit entitlement. We are treating immigrants as though they can live at a lower rate and in a different way from us. When I think of £31 each week, I think of those of us in this House—of which I am so proud to be a Member—and how we live at a totally different standard, somehow without realising that if we treat people in this way, not only will they be stuck in their cycle of poverty, but they will be resentful. They will turn to ways that are unhelpful to themselves and our community.
I hear, again from speaking to the British Refugee Council this morning, of the way in which we treat those in our centres. I was told that 20,000 children, at one time or another in the past 12 months, were detained in these centres. If you fail your appeal and are not allowed to stay in this country, you lose various rights, including your right to medical care. Let me repeat that. As a failed asylum seeker you are unable to receive treatment for the diseases that are so rife in our society. We treat these folk in a way that not only demeans them, but demeans us.
I will not keep your Lordships very long this afternoon. So many other problems in society arise from the way in which we treat asylum seekers. In 1980 there were around 16,000 people unintentionally homeless in England. Twenty years later that number had doubled. I ask the Minister how many folk—and how many children—are suffering in this way because they have failed various immigration appeals and applications.
The whole picture brings us into disrepute as a nation. If we lose our hospitality, our welcome and the contribution that these folk will go on to make to our society, we are very short-sighted indeed. I was advised not to say what I am about to say, but I know of the warmth of the two Ministers on the Benches opposite. I doubt that they agree with the policy that they are trying to defend on the Government's behalf. I ask them whether it is not time for rebellion, even among Ministers. I think that many Back-Benchers, including the Tory Back-Benchers, have rebelled already, because they are not here this afternoon. Does that show a lack of concern?
I am so grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for initiating this short debate, because I hope that it will make members of the Government—even though only two of them are here—consider their position and realise the extent of our unhappiness with the present situation.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Hylton for securing this important debate and for bringing our minds back to perhaps the most excluded people in this country. I share his concern for the 310,000 or so—this is the figure provided by Citizens Advice—failed asylum seekers and their dependants, and the parlous situation that they live in. I also share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, about the families caught and made destitute by Section 9 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999.
I shall address myself principally to families. In spring of this year, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, instigated a welcome review of the treatment of families and children in the system. There was recognition that a few families were spending far too long in detention, that case management needed to be significantly improved in some cases and that statistics were not being properly kept, among other issues. I am disappointed that we have still not moved forward to including asylum-seeking children under Section 11 of the Children Act 2004. That would make an immense difference to their welfare. I hope that the Government can change that soon.
Before talking about improvements in government policy, I shall say a couple of things about the Government's achievements and the challenges that they face. They have significantly increased investment in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate since 1997. They have significantly expedited the processing of initial applications. I note the caution expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, on that, but it is an important step forward to a degree.
In 2003, when she was the Minister responsible, the right honourable Beverley Hughes instigated an inquiry into the National Asylum Support Service and found that it had significant failings. She took action, and additional resources were made available. The senior management team recruited outsiders with relevant experience and the result was a transformation, with great savings to the public. In evidence to the European Union Sub-Committee F's inquiry on illegal migrants—the report is House of Lords Paper 166—Mr Jeremy Oppenheim, director of the National Asylum Support Service and a former director of social services, said:
"Broadly speaking, however, in 2003-04 the overall budget for asylum support was running at over £1 billion—which struck me as a very sizeable sum of money. In 2005-06, in the current financial year, we have got that down to about £580 million and for the next financial year, subject to approval, we would estimate to spend only just over half a billion pounds".
That is an important achievement. One challenge is that the Government will of course receive scathing criticism from much of the media whatever they do. I do not envy them that position.
My first concern is that the case owners—as they are now termed under the new asylum management scheme—should receive consistent, good-quality supervision throughout. Can the Minister assure me that steps have been taken to ensure that that is the case? Case owners make judgments on the life and death of children and families. I understand that many of them are enthusiastic about the new model of working, and I have met some in the past. In particular, I spoke with a newly graduated young woman with whom I was very impressed as a case manager. They have a huge challenge in front of them, however.
If, at present, one takes three officers from three different offices, one finds that one officer will have excellent support and supervision, the next will have some and the one after that hardly any at all. We must address the support for these important decision-makers. We must also be assured that their caseloads are manageable. I would appreciate reassurance on that. I have not given the Minister notice of these questions, so if she prefers to write to me, I quite understand.
The Minister will know, as I do, the situation of some of these children—she will recall cases of children from Afghanistan, for instance. One young woman whom I knew over several months was unable to speak English and spoke a dialect for which there were few translators in this country. She was a shy girl living in a mixed hostel, and I arrived one evening to hear from staff the news that her family's town was being shelled. She had to sit there with no information on their welfare. There was another young woman from Sierra Leone whose sister had been mutilated and killed by the militia there, and a young man whom they had kidnapped and kept in the jungle for several months, who was deeply disturbed by the experience. Among these people there are some very vulnerable individuals.
There have now been three reports in just under two years in which HM Inspectorate of Prisons has expressed great concern about Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre. In its first report in the spring of last year, the inspectorate emphasised that social work has a crucial role to play in protecting families and preventing us from making these mistakes with them. A social worker can identify when, for example, a boy has been taken out of school during the school day or a woman arrives bruised having been detained in the community. He can ensure that the mechanisms that the case managers use are reviewed and improved. I welcome the fact that a social worker was appointed to Yarl's Wood earlier this year, but when I spoke to her she expressed her frustration that she did not have the leverage over the decision-makers to improve their decisions.
A report from the Children's Commissioner for England again expressed deep anxiety about the conditions for children at Yarl's Wood. The manner in which these children and families are detained in a community can often degenerate into almost a brutal attack, because it is an extremely hard process to undertake. The removals can be very traumatic for children and families. There are also the child protection issues in the centre. There need to be good processes to ensure that children who are failing to thrive in the centre are removed and made safe.
In her latest report, Anne Owers also expressed particular concern about child protection, and she was not clear how reviews of children influence decision-making. How many cases have been triggered for release as a result of social work assessment? Has the Minister ever refused to authorise continuance of detention after 28 days? Again, I have not given her notice and, if she would prefer, I would be pleased to hear from her in writing. I see that I am beyond my time, so I had better finish. Thank you.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lord Hylton for introducing this debate. His Motion draws attention to,
"the consequences of current immigration and asylum law and practice and to possible improvements in the systems of assessment, care and support".
For 21 years I was a member of the Immigration Appeal Tribunal, now the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal. When I first joined in 1985, we heard very few asylum cases. Home Office figures indicate that for the period 1988-90, it accepted 85 per cent of those claiming refugee status and just over 2,000 claims were refused. The cases we heard related mainly to the primary purpose of marriage, student and visitor visa applications and overstayers, with a sprinkling of conducive deportations of criminals.
After 1992—when the Conservative Government made entry to the UK more difficult for men and women from our former colonies, who traditionally came to the UK to work for a few years and then went home—the number of those who used asylum as a means of obtaining entry escalated rapidly. Also at around that time, there was an increase in the number of internal conflicts in eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa. It is hardly surprising that people wish to escape the privations of civil war, poverty, homelessness and hunger or even simple, grinding drudgery. I respect those who try for doing so. However, I also accept that their desperate needs must be balanced against the ability and willingness of the states to which they flee to accept and provide for them.
Having been part of the system for so long, I am conscious of the agonising decisions that must be made at all stages of the process. There were many times when I was acutely aware that if we made the wrong decision, we might be sending someone to his death. I am aware that hearings such as those described by my noble friend Lady Richardson occur, and I cannot condone them. There are tribunal judges who are rude, and some border on incompetence, and, as I am a forthright lady, I used to point out their shortcomings to them if I was sitting with them.
I am a child of the colonies—I was born in Kenya during the Second World War. I recall that my parents and their British friends were for ever extolling the virtues of home, as we called the UK. It is no exaggeration to say that the impression they conveyed was that the streets of London were paved with gold. Since then, the visual power of television has permeated even the remotest regions of the world, and I do not think we should underestimate the persuasive ability of the media to promote the affluence of the West. We have inadvertently created an illusion that must inevitably burst for asylum seekers.
Almost subconsciously, over the past 10 years or so, I became aware that an industry was growing up around finding ways for refugees, be they political or economic, to circumvent our laws to obtain a foothold on our shores. Tribunal members learnt that those appearing before them had often parted with, by their standards, enormous sums of money to get here, that their families would sell most of their assets and impoverish themselves in order to find that money, that there is a network of agents willing to provide false passports and papers in order to facilitate entry to the UK and that refugees are coached in their stories by the agents' representatives before they enter the UK or afterwards. The asylum seeker is sold a package, much as holidaymakers are sold package holidays.
I became disillusioned by the charade that was played out before the tribunal, week after week. I knew that in the event that we dismissed the appeal—and four out of five cases are dismissed—the likelihood that the appellant would be returned to his country of origin was extremely remote. It seemed that everybody, including the appellant, was aware of that. It is a very cruel hand to deal anyone because, although we do not make very much effort to send people back, neither do we help them to help themselves. As other noble Lords have eloquently said, the law does not allow failed asylum seekers to work, and they get no benefits. They must depend upon their friends to accommodate them. Many have serious physical or mental health problems. If they work clandestinely, they have the constant fear of being discovered, and they are often exploited. With my other hat on, dare I say that our laws to protect our wild, farm and domestic animals are much better than those that protect these people?
So what are we to do about it? First, I believe that prevention is better than cure. If we are serious about reducing the number of asylum seekers, we must start at the beginning. There must be some way in which the media can be harnessed to dissuade economic migrants coming to this country. We must help them make a decent living in their own countries, feed themselves and become healthy. Where possible, those who so callously exploit their compatriots by acting as agents need to be discouraged. Agents must be well known in the departure areas of certain airports and in the arrivals sections of others. Immigration desks at international airports must always be manned. Agents soon get to know, for example, that desks are not always manned in the small hours at Heathrow airport.
I am not alone in the thought that once asylum seekers set foot on UK soil they must feel that they are wading through treacle; so too must those working in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate and in the Department for Constitutional Affairs. I suggest that when improvements to systems are sought, those actually doing the job might be the best equipped to suggest where and how such improvements might be carried out. There has been a marked increase in the use of outside agencies to conduct surveys and to come up with answers that are already staring managers in the face. There seems to be an all-pervading reluctance to make old-fashioned management decisions without hands being held by someone from outside the organisation. I am sure that staff who are encouraged to discuss problems and to propose remedies, who know that their job is just as important as anyone else's and see why it is important and who know that they are an essential part of the whole will work with much more enthusiasm than is now apparent. There has been a marked lack of communication and consultation by management in recent years.
This Government have done much to weed out the solicitors' firms and other advisory agencies that were obviously exploiting asylum seekers, other would-be immigrants and the British taxpayer. Most of those who remain try to provide an acceptable service given the financial and time constraints imposed on them by the law and the handicaps that are the hallmarks of an inefficient bureaucracy. The usually excellent Home Office presenting officers are also handicapped—by the late service of papers, lost files, incomplete bundles and insufficient time in which to absorb the details of a case. This is no way to administer justice fairly. It is not fair to the appellant or to the British citizen who must foot the bill. It leads to appeals, which clog up the courts and create further delays. The longer an asylum seeker or other immigrant remains in the appeal pipeline, the more embedded they get into the British way of life and, strangely enough, the more right they think that they have to stay here. Whatever happened to firm, fast and fair?
Ideally, we should put the whole of the current system in the bin and start again, with a totally new, streamlined department using experienced personnel, but I know that that cannot be done. There is no reason why we cannot discuss possible solutions with the experienced people and—who knows?—the answers may surface. An independent review is long overdue.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for this debate.
The Prime Minister said last week that immigrants ought to stay away if they cannot conform to our culture. This remark was dubbed by some as the end of multiculturalism. I would rather see it as the start of the next general election campaign, because the coming two years will see a rise in xenophobia, as a challenge to what the Prime Minister calls the culture of tolerance. The two main parties are bound to take account of it by swinging to the right.
I found one Daily Telegraph blogger responding as follows:
"The eastern European invasion has just about put us under. The excessive numbers of foreign individuals your party has allowed to flow unchallenged into the UK over the past 10 years has changed the face of Britain forever. Our tiny island now has over 60 million people inside its borders. We are sinking fast, from clogged and jam-packed roads".
And so on.
Such prejudice comes from a small minority, but it must be met head on and resisted squarely with facts. We are not an overcrowded country. Our economy and service industries have gained from the latest EU migration. "Foreign" is an increasingly hard term to define, when many—perhaps a majority—have a foreign origin somewhere. Refugees and migrants have always brought new ideas and new wealth. Of course there are too many illegal immigrants. We are controlling those, or trying to, and reducing the new arrivals, but it is not primarily a numbers game. We need new migrants and we have a duty towards others under the various UN conventions. Let us therefore become the standard bearers of good practice rather than the soft touch, as the attitude is sometimes misleadingly portrayed.
We have not yet got right—something that the blogger will never see—a fair system for asylum seekers. The succession of Bills, and we have another coming shortly, shows that there is an inbuilt official failure to get it right. We have heard many examples from my noble friend Lady Richardson. The latest report on Harmondsworth IRC is a reminder of how many things the Home Office can still get badly wrong, although I very much take the point made by my noble friend Lady Mar. The report is described by the chief inspector as,
"undoubtedly the poorest we have issued on an IRC",
which is a strong indictment, especially when we remember how high the inspectorate stands in public esteem.
I will use this report to highlight some of the worst grievances, but I shall not ignore the improvements in the new model, which show that the IND is gradually making an impact on the culture of disbelief. One of the most serious criticisms in the report is victimisation and the lack of support for victims from the moment of arrival; 44 per cent of detainees claim to have been bullied or victimised, compared to 28 per cent in the other IRCs, and as many as 61 per cent of detainees felt that they were unsafe. Rule 3 of the Detention Centre Rules states that the very purpose of the centre is to provide for the,
"secure but humane accommodation of detainees ... respecting in particular their dignity and the right to individual expression".
I can hear our blogger protesting at this point that foreigners due for removal have no right to be treated like citizens and should not have access to welfare, television or anything else. The IND has moved well beyond that position, but it needs constantly reminding that even detainees awaiting removal cannot be subject to the vagaries of a prison establishment.
One would expect humanitarian treatment to be an even more absolute requirement for those who have already been the victims of persecution in their own country. But, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, has said and the Medical Foundation knows, too many asylum seekers who allege torture still turn up in fast track at Harmondsworth. Yet, their cases are not always followed up. In the year to June 2006, 131 detainees reported that they had been victims of torture. As a result of this, 57 cases were forwarded by healthcare staff, but nothing seems to have happened. With a 99 per cent chance of refusal and removal, it might not be thought to be worth following up those cases. Could the Government comment on this report?
On the positive side, healthcare and hygiene were generally good. The work of the chaplaincy and the education department were assessed as,
"extremely good ... and valued by detainees".
The cultural and religious affairs liaison officer was obviously making an important impact on race and cultural problems, which contrasts with the somewhat weaker regimes that I have seen at Yarlswood and Oakington. In her introduction, the chief inspector sees these as "pockets of good practice". Significantly, she adds that the staff felt much less valued by managers than by detainees.
The third part of the report deals with legal rights, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. It is well known, and we discussed it in the previous Bill, that professional legal advice is still minimal. The Home Office is trying to improve it. However, the report says that solicitors often fail to respond because they were not able to take on new cases. Funds were available, but with the high refusal rate many duty solicitors withdrew even though half the detainees had had no legal representation during their appeal in the previous three months. The LSC is trying to address this through a legal advice surgery, but it is painfully slow. What success has there been in putting right this anomaly, by which if a person is already a no-hoper, he or she has proportionally less hope of being rescued?
It is a sad comment on our society when an institution like Harmondsworth should be so neglected that it is not only the subject of the worst report, but even its inmates are forced to riot in protest, causing untold disruption to the current administration and putting back by many months any new-found confidence in the system.
Incidentally, my noble friend and I attended the launch of the Refugee Action report on destitution. Like him I urge the Government to ensure that no rejected asylum seeker is forced into the limbo of destitution. The new asylum model should provide for the support and accommodation they need until they return home. I am planning a visit to Harmondsworth among other centres soon as a member of the Independent Asylum Commission. The commission will set up an association with the Citizen Organising Foundation and it is conducting a nationwide review of the asylum system and will report back in April 2008.
Detention and removal will form part of the inquiry, although the emphasis will be on access to the system. In the mean time we all look forward to the Minister's explanation of the changes that will have to take place in response to the chief inspector's report.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for securing this important debate and I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds on the contents of his maiden speech. We are assisted in our discussions by Refugee Action and Amnesty in their excellent report on destitution among refused asylum seekers. There have been 11 speakers so far, and not a crumb of comfort for the Minister. I do not necessarily subscribe to the views of my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno when he said that the Ministers and her colleagues should rebel. All I want to make sure is that she will be there in that department to stop some of the excesses that often come about in terms of legislation.
In one year alone Refugee Action has been contacted by more than 46,000 asylum seekers and at least 40 per cent of requests for help have come from destitute asylum seekers. This detailed report backed by evidence from caseworkers requires serious consideration. The report comes at a time when we have also had disturbances at Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre, a point made by my noble friend Lady Williams. This is the second such incident in the past two years. The first incident in July 2004 was in reaction to the death of a detainee there. Following the recent incident the Home Office has announced that Kalyx has been penalised for allowing conditions within the facility at Harmondsworth to deteriorate to an appalling state.
Surely, following the damning conclusion by HM Inspector of Prisons and riots over conditions by detainees, we should not be employing such contractors. Should they not be sacked for human rights violations? Asylum issues are fairly emotive. Despite the nature and effects of various immigration and asylum legislation, the circumstances surrounding them have always remained contentious. Let me place on the record that every country has a right to determine its immigration and asylum policy and the United Kingdom is no exception. However, a rational approach to our needs and obligations is often overtaken by hostile press coverage accompanied by tough government measures designed to curb immigration and asylum to this country.
It is here that we should call attention to a number of terrible consequences so aptly described by many noble Lords in this debate. It is here that the Government need to demonstrate leadership. The attempts by politicians to get tough on asylum in order to appease certain sections of the public and the media have shamefully made a political football of the issue. That is demonstrated by five parliamentary Bills in the past 10 years and one more to come shortly and we still have not got the system right.
The sequence of immigration legislation has been so predictable that we need not ask what is likely to be contained in the Queen's Speech in future years. I am sure that asylum legislation will continue to be on the agenda. In 2004 we were told that the government proposals in the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill were designed radically to reform the administration of the immigration service to secure public confidence in that service. I am afraid that that has not worked. I said at the time that these were some of the most draconian measures in the name of reform. We were creating a class of people in our welfare services that would cease to be eligible for support. It was not just about asylum seekers, but about their families, who would be ineligible for support or assistance. We have been proved right.
How did we reach this situation? First, let us admit that successive Governments have introduced measures that make it impossible for asylum seekers to enter the United Kingdom legally. The effects have been devastating. The UN convention is rendered meaningless if people in search of protection and assistance are unable to reach territories of countries that are party to that convention.
At the root of our problem is the clear evidence that the culture and operations policies adopted by the Home Office are notoriously inefficient. The case identified by my noble friend Lord Avebury makes that point. Let us put aside that argument for the time being. Let us look at all those who have already sought shelter here. How do we treat them? I have no difficulty in accepting that those who are ineligible for asylum should return to their country provided it is safe to do so, but we must make sure that we do not strip them of their dignity—the only thing left when they finally got to our shores.
Let us look at the reality of what we are faced with. In 2006, a string of reports by the Citizens Advice Bureau, the Scottish Refugee Council, Amnesty International UK and others have sought to draw attention to the hardship and distress faced by many of the 300,000 or more failed asylum seekers in the United Kingdom. The human consequences and the wider social impacts are very serious indeed, so what are the Government doing about this? The Home Office has set an arbitrary target on deportations saying that the number of forced removals each month should exceed the number of unfounded applications. It is easy to forget that we are talking about thousands of men, women and children—some genuine and some maybe not—seeking shelter from persecution or wanting to secure a better future. No one condones illegal immigration. That is why it is necessary—and why there is public support—for the system to be designed so that it helps refugees and deals effectively with those who have been rejected.
Within this context we should never forget that immigration and asylum involve basic human rights. We are where we are because of the poor quality of the initial decision-making process by the Home Office. Of course, I can back my arguments with statistics and I have done so in the past, but I shall avoid that temptation because other issues need to be highlighted. All I know is that we are still uncertain about the size of the problem because no reliable statistics are available. I am grateful to the Citizens Advice Bureau, which points out that the homelessness and destitution of failed asylum seekers is not a new phenomenon. For much of the past 20 years or more, most failed asylum seekers have been left in legal limbo without access to welfare support and other essential services such as healthcare yet with no great likelihood of either enforced removal or voluntary deportation from the United Kingdom. In recent years, both the number of new asylum claims and the proportion of refusals have risen and the scale of destitution has increased enormously.
There is an added complication. Those whose cases are being considered are not allowed to seek employment here. Of course, we cannot deny that some people will seek employment simply to survive, however illegal that may be. Equally, despite the uncertainty of their status, there are those who provide valuable voluntary work in the community without any personal benefit. That was confirmed by a story that appeared in the Independent only this week. It concerns Farhat Khan, a failed asylum seeker who, because of her contribution to community work in an advice centre, had been invited to Buckingham Palace and now has an invitation from Downing Street—yet her application is still to be determined.
So let me spell out some of the facts. Home Office research shows that immigrants—and that includes refugees—are a net benefit to the community to the tune of £2.5 billion. Treasury figures suggest that economic growth would fall by 0.5 per cent over the next two years if migration to Britain ceased. At the root of our concern is the provision of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004, which denies financial support and accommodation to the families whose appeals have been dismissed. No matter how we try to disguise the implication, it is clear that for a local authority to maintain its obligation to the welfare of children of such families, they may have to be placed in the care of the local authority.
Detention of children is also a very serious matter, if they are detained solely for an administrative purpose and without time limits. Article 37 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child sets out what is appropriate—that is, the shortest possible time for which children should be detained. Can the Minister confirm that that is now the Government's policy?
There is also ample evidence about matters relating to healthcare. The report that has been produced by the Refugee Council clearly demonstrated that over the summer people were being denied maternity care, cataract operations and treatment for cancer because of the regulations introduced in 2004. The point that the Government have to accept is that destitution among refused asylum seekers has risen to its present level because of government policy.
Let me cite some good examples of what the Government could usefully do. Islington council has developed a service based on finding resolutions to people's destitution. For those who have met strict eligibility criteria it provides care support, including accommodation and financial support. It currently provides care support to 64 people who have no recourse to public funds. Since December 2006, it has been involved in a taskforce with the Home Office, working in partnership to find a resolution to 50 of Islington's cases that have no public funds to support them. It is worth looking at such positive examples, even in a short measure, to see how the Government can help. This is a step in the right direction; it is rather late, but it is important to follow such positive examples in being able to help those who are least fortunate in this country. I commend this to the Home Office.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, for giving us the opportunity for this debate today. The subject of immigration and asylum law is one which political leaders find particularly testing. For the past five years it has featured as one of the most important political issues in the minds of the British people, so mainstream politicians must give it serious attention. At the same time they need to do so in a calm and rational way. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, was right to remind us of that.
The need for such a tone is obvious. Ill-judged language can cause genuine hurt and damage community relations. Yet one common political response in these circumstances—that of avoiding any risks by playing down the issue—is inadequate. Taking such a course gives rise to a disconnection between politicians and the electorate, which in turn leaves the field wide open to the misinformed, the conspiracy theorists and extremists.
The debate over economic migration is often confused with that over asylum, and we believe that it is important to differentiate carefully and clearly between the two when possible. Noble Lords have concentrated almost exclusively on the asylum part of the title of the debate, but I shall focus on the immigration part. The reason for that is quite simple: my right honourable friend David Davis and my honourable friend Damian Green have recently published our views on controlling economic migration, and I shall use that as the basis for my comments today. We shall be publishing our views on asylum at a later date.
We should note, however, that the system for asylum applications is struggling. There is a sharp fall in the number receiving a decision within two months, which means that delays are once more building up in the asylum system. That is unfair both to genuine asylum seekers and the British taxpayer. I am grateful to all those organisations that have provided such careful briefing on asylum issues for today's debate. They argue that we are failing the children of asylum seekers in particular. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds today concentrated on that in his most welcome maiden speech. This is indeed a fraught issue, and not one that is easy to resolve. If the Minister can do so today, she will be waving a magic wand.
While briefly referring to asylum, I must mention once again my concern about the fact that the Government have not yet signed up to the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings. As ever, I ask the Government to explain what progress they have made towards signing up to it. Of course, I acknowledge, as I always do, that there are legitimate concerns about doing so in such a way that provides a pull factor to the UK. I would not wish to encourage traffickers to think that we were helping them in their hateful business. Have the Government yet found a way of resolving that?
The importance of addressing immigration seriously and calmly has been reinforced by the events of 2006 at the Home Office. The public collapse of some of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate's policies, leading to the sacking of Charles Clarke as Home Secretary, and the unprecedented admission by his successor John Reid that the department was not "fit for purpose", have reduced public confidence further than ever. That was accompanied by the extraordinary failure of the Government to predict how many people would come to work in Britain from the new countries that entered the European Union in 2004. Last week, we had the spectacle of the immigration Minister giving evidence to the Select Committee in another place admitting that the Home Office has no idea how many people might come to Britain from Romania and Bulgaria when they join the EU on
The Minister's honourable friend Karen Buck made the point in the Select Committee in another place that children in her constituency are not getting school places because of the pressure of numbers of those coming to the UK from overseas to live and work. What account have the Government taken of that? When assessing the human consequences of current immigration and asylum law, it is vital to consider the impact of those coming to the UK on the provision of services for all of us; those of us who live here already, those who seek to come here as economic migrants, and those who are seeking asylum. All those groups matter as individuals and as human beings.
The immediate response of the Government has been to toughen their rhetoric again, while promising to bring in a new system that will attempt to simplify the various routes by which people arrive legally in this country. The idea behind that is to make it easier for those with useful skills and qualifications to come here to work. The new system has not yet been launched, and many of the details are still to be decided. In principle, it has some virtues, but it will not deal with many of the underlying problems that afflict the system of immigration law. It will be a long time before public confidence is fully restored, but the first step must be to establish the proper principles to follow.
Our paper on controlling economic migration explores the context in which a modern system of immigration control for Britain should be set. It looks at the economic, cultural and practical issues that arise. It explores the way in which other countries have dealt with the similar problems that they face. Our central argument is that Britain does benefit from some immigration, but not from uncontrolled immigration. We suggest a way of distinguishing beneficial immigration, both in terms of the economic effects and the wider social and environmental effects. We recommend that a better distinction must be made between those allowed to settle here and those allowed only temporary residence. We recommend that immigration policy should not be seen as a discrete issue to be addressed in its own terms. Instead, the approach adopted to immigration should form part of a wider policy that addresses the growth in the number of people in this country overall, the demographic changes that we are experiencing, the distribution of the population, and the balance between the need for a flexible workforce and increasing pressures on public services. That recognises the full benefit that we have received in the past from migration to this country and should receive from it in the future.
We propose that there should be a two-stage process for deciding whose immigration applications should be successful. The first stage would be to make eligible for admission those who will benefit the economy. The second stage would be to control the numbers with regard to the wider effects on society, including the ability of the public services and infrastructure to cope with new arrivals at both national and local levels, the effect on housing, the environmental impact of a rapidly rising population, and the potential effects on community cohesion.
In most years, we anticipate that the plan would result in a positive, upward level of net immigration. However, the exact figure would be calculated only after an annual consultation exercise with a number of bodies, including local authorities and housing and public providers. Of course, that figure could not include the numbers of those granted asylum, which must be able to respond to the ebb and flow of international crises. To make the system work, we would introduce better enforcement methods, based on a specialist border police force, which would be trained and empowered to concentrate on those who overstay and the backlog of those working here illegally.
The immigration debate needs to be conducted calmly and rationally, and those conducting it need to remember who suffers most from an out-of-control immigration system. The immigrants themselves, whether coming here legally or illegally, are more likely to find themselves in a hostile environment if public confidence in the system is low. They are the obvious victims. In addition, those living in the poorer areas of our big cities often experience the immediate dislocation of badly planned migration. A compassionate approach to politics entails a rigorous approach to immigration law, and to the policy that directs it.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, on securing this debate and on his powerful presentation of a number of important aspects of our immigration system. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, says that we must have this debate in a calm, rational and reasoned way and I absolutely agree. The exposition of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, exemplifies how that can be done. I also compliment and congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds on his extraordinarily thoughtful and moving maiden speech. He exemplified the compassion for which his office has come to be known. I congratulate him on that.
It is clear from all the speeches in the debate that there is a real feeling, understanding and concern for those who migrate to this country whether in pursuit of asylum or for other, economic reasons. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, was right to say that we must look in the round at how it influences all of our citizens.
Whatever the shortcomings of our present immigration control system, it would be right to say that it has three overwhelmingly important characteristics. It is fully subject to the rule of law; it delivers crucial, practical benefits in security, prosperity and social cohesion; and its principles enjoy overwhelming public support. There is virtually no lobby for abandoning our controls and none of your Lordships who spoke today suggested that we should do so. But if we are to have controls, they must be based on rules that are clear, amenable to challenge, fair and just. The corollary is that we are entitled to expect that people will abide by them and that, where necessary, those rules should be properly enforced.
I take this opportunity to thank the noble Earls, Lord Listowel and Lord Sandwich, and the noble Countess, Lady Mar, for complimenting the Government on some of the beneficial changes that we have brought about. This was not a debate without balance regarding those achievements. But it is right to recognise that the challenge remains.
Much that has been said today focused on one aspect of our immigration system, the asylum system, and that constituted by far the biggest part of the debate. In terms of the numbers involved, however, it is not the biggest part of the immigration system. Those who come here for legitimate economic reasons or to join their families by far outnumber those who are granted asylum. I absolutely agree with the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, that this country has enjoyed huge economic and cultural benefits as a result of migration. That should never be forgotten. I reassure the noble Earl that multiculturalism is very much alive and kicking and is evidenced in at least one place—your Lordships' House.
We need to debate these issues, and I can assure your Lordships that the system we operate is based on the principle that all applicants should be treated with respect, that each case should be considered on its merits and that we should never lose sight of the fact that we are dealing with individuals whose lives are fundamentally affected by the decisions we make. I very much welcomed the comments of the noble Countess, Lady Mar, in that regard, and her contribution clearly demonstrated the challenge with which we are faced. There are those who wish to come and utilise our procedures and distort them. She described clearly how that is done—that although there are many excellent legal advisers, there are those who, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, made clear, are not worthy of that title and have not always given the best service to the migrants who are most in need of their care and support. I hope that the efforts made to improve the quality of advice and to increase the opportunity to get sound advice will be warmly welcomed.
My Lords, I shall come to the legal aid point. I was referring directly to the comments that the noble Lord made and taking the opportunity to agree with them. I did not wish to recite the whole of the speech made by the noble Countess, Lady Mar. I simply wanted to agree with it and say that the historical issues she outlined were set out correctly. I know that the noble Lord may not have been in his place when she made her speech but I am sure that we can deal with that in a while.
Our system for granting asylum is, like that of all other western countries, based on strict adherence to the requirements of the Geneva Convention on Refugees, which places heavy obligations on signatories. It requires that asylum be given to all those with a well-founded fear of persecution who fall within the criteria of the 1951 convention. Where asylum is refused, we will always give consideration to whether a grant of humanitarian protection or discretionary leave is warranted. That, in conjunction with the European Convention on Human Rights, requires the provision of a system of public assistance for those who seek asylum—a system of full judicial oversight over administrative decisions.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; I appreciate that she wants to make progress. It is difficult to reconcile the statement she just made—in good faith, I am sure—about our desire to conform with the Geneva conventions with the fact that, in the past couple of years, we have returned to Zimbabwe asylum seekers who have been refused asylum. In some cases people have been immediately returned to police stations in Zimbabwe and tortured. That seems to me as a lay person completely in contravention of the Geneva conventions.
My Lords, as I said and the noble Baroness will know, each application is considered on its merits. There has never been a wholesale policy to return. She will also know that, at the moment, returns to Zimbabwe are not being enforced. She will also be aware, having participated in and generated a number of debates, of how the position in Zimbabwe has ebbed and flowed. The Government have continually reviewed the situation with each country, and reviewed it again, to ensure that our behaviour is always consistent with the international obligations placed on us. We are therefore able to say that we are compliant. I absolutely understand the noble Baroness's concerns. She has occasionally heard Ministers at this Dispatch Box express similar anxieties and concerns about various countries as these issues arose. I understand, too, what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, about the importance of holding human rights.
Despite the immense pressures on the system caused by a huge increase in numbers of asylum seekers at the beginning of this decade, we have remained firm in these principles and sought to adhere to all of them. People have responsibility to take steps to comply and voluntary departures are always preferable to enforced departures. But people have to facilitate such voluntary return. If we have a system that is fair, the procedures have been complied with and there is a decision that there is no entitlement to remain, then enforcement of that decision must take place. The changes in our policy and processes have emphasised that, with compliance and co-operation, that can be dealt with smoothly, humanely and efficiently, making sure that those involved receive appropriate support.
While I am touching on that point, I should deal with an issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, who referred to the fact that applicants receive 70 per cent of the income support level. I remind him, as I am sure he will remember, that although the rate is set at 70 per cent of income support, the amount that asylum seekers receive does not include accommodation costs, utility bills, council tax and the like. In practice, if you put those together, the amount is comparable. Children, of course, receive 100 per cent of the income support rate.
When individuals do not comply and do not leave there is a need to enforce removal; otherwise there would be no point in having the rules at all. That view has a number of consequences. The first is that rejected asylum seekers cannot be allowed to take employment in the United Kingdom. In many cases the hope of being able to take employment in Britain will have motivated the rejected asylum seeker in the first place, and to allow people to work would fatally undermine our contention that they should leave the United Kingdom on the rejection of their claim.
It also follows that people whose claims have been turned down should not be entitled to public assistance until they have been forcibly removed. But that is very much predicated on their failing to engage with the authorities. We will need to provide assistance to failed asylum seekers who are complying with the removal processes, or who are too ill to travel, or for whom there exists no safe route to their home country. In addition to people who are on Section 4 support, we also provide ongoing support to failed asylum seekers with dependent children. We do not find that a satisfactory situation. What it means in practice is that such people are able to live at public expense and ignore their obligations. I am, however, pleased to see that the compliance issue is very much more to the forefront. We hope that we will have a better opportunity to engage with those who are in that position. Two years ago, we introduced measures on this matter, but I think that the situation should be seen in the context of the developments that we inherited in 1997.
We inherited an asylum system that was in crisis. In 1997, initial decisions took an average of 22 months. That could not be seen as fair to those seeking asylum—only to those seeking to abuse the system. Now, with the reforms and investment that we have put in place, the overwhelming majority of initial decisions—69 per cent in the third quarter of 2006—are made in two months or less. We have done that without compromising on the quality of the decision-making. Indeed, that continues to improve through our work with UNHCR. In 2005-06, 90 per cent of cases sampled by external assessors were found to be fully effective or better, but I agree with noble Lords that improving that initial stage of the process is very important.
We are not complacent and continue to strive to improve the quality and efficiency of the asylum process—in particular, through the new asylum model. I very much welcome the supportive comments about that model. The IND review commits us to conclude 90 per cent of new asylum cases within six months by the end of 2011, either by granting leave or by removing the applicants concerned.
The Government recognised in the IND review that we must deal with a legacy of older cases that have yet to be fully resolved. We plan to do that by July 2011. All such cases will be dealt with on their individual merits. In the first instance, we will prioritise those who may pose a risk to the public, and we will then focus on those who can more easily be removed, those receiving support and those who may be granted leave.
A number of noble Lords—the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds being foremost among them—criticised the way in which the asylum system operates in relation to unaccompanied children. It is of course right that we offer support and protection to those who are most vulnerable. The vast majority of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children retain eligibility to some form of support for a period after they turn 18—for example, from their local authority under leaving-care legislation. It is true that these avenues of assistance do not continue indefinitely, and I have already set out why that policy was developed. However, I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, that the new models that the Home Office, together with practitioners, is seeking to evolve is a real way forward. We are engaging practitioners across the piece to try to ensure that the reforms that we put in place will be humane and effective and that they will give the right level of support.
We need to ensure that the planning is right. We are helping local authorities to provide clarity about the long-term future of those young people and about what will be expected of them. We plan to publish proposals on these and other matters very early in the new year.
The Government are also committed to tackling trafficking in human beings—a matter mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, on a number of occasions—both domestically and internationally. They are determined that the measures taken bring the criminals responsible to justice, protecting the victims of trafficking without undermining our ability to control our borders.
Full consideration is currently being given to the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings and to the level of risk associated with these provisions. We are considering how we might implement them safely without placing more vulnerable people at risk. I remind the noble Baroness that, although a number of countries have signed the convention, only three have ratified. She will know well that we signed and ratified. We hope that that full consideration will be productive.
So far, I have concentrated on responding to the criticisms of our immigration system, but there is much to be positive about. It is widely acknowledged, including by the voluntary sector, that the system is improving rapidly, and I am glad that that was commented on by others today. The new points-based system will transform our ability to manage economic migration to the benefit of this country. The system of dealing with asylum claims is rapidly improving, due in no small part to the introduction of the new asylum model which will be fully in force by next spring. Against a background of declining numbers of people seeking asylum over the past few years, the new asylum model is based on simple and effective principles—in particular the assignment of individual applications to one caseworker who will remain in charge of them from initial claim to final outcome. We are already seeing the benefits of that approach in time spent waiting for decisions, a reduction that benefits both asylum seekers and taxpayers. We have transformed the system for providing support and accommodation for asylum seekers, entailing high standards in the dispersal system while ensuring that the new contracts represent good value for money and take account of the wider needs of asylum seekers.
I say to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, that I absolutely understand the need for training and support. I have a very long and good answer for him but I doubt I shall have time to complete it tonight. I shall write to him on those matters. He makes some very important points.
Internationally, we are working with our partners to reduce the need for forced migration. The United Kingdom has led the world in the drive to promote good government, stability and probity, which has led to international efforts to combat poverty and disease as well as violence in many of those countries which have traditionally been sources of large numbers of asylum seekers.
I should like to deal with some of the other significant issues that have been raised, such as the report on Harmsworth. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked whether the figures I gave in the Statement were incorrect. I am told that they are not. I am happy to write in detail on those matters. Harmsworth, as noble Lords will know, is being scrutinised very carefully indeed. The controls put in place to ensure that the contract is complied with are being gone through with a rigour that hitherto was not present. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, highlighted some positive issues regarding education and children which we hope will be favourably considered.
My Lords, will the position of the current contractors be looked at very carefully with a view to considering whether the contract should be renewed?
My Lords, the contract has been looked at very carefully and is being monitored with a new rigour. Changes are now starting to happen, and I can reassure the noble Baroness that that will continue. Reference has already been made to the penalty that the company had to pay for its failure to comply. If we felt that it did not have the ability to address and redress those matters we would consider the position very carefully. The noble Baroness should also remember that one of the main people driving this forward is the new director of the centre. Prior to his appointment he was one of the inspectors responsible for looking at how to make these things work better. Those levers are very important and we will continue to look at them.
I am conscious that I have not had an opportunity to answer the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, and a number of other noble Lords. Bearing in mind that my time has well and truly run out, I undertake to write to all those to whom I have not had an opportunity to give a full and satisfactory answer.
My Lords, I am given to understand that the benefit is not exactly the same but there is rough parity. I am very happy to write to the noble Lord on those matters. I was seeking to deal with his suggestion that the only amount they receive is slightly over £30 and they were in receipt of no other support. That is not quite the picture because accommodation and some other expenses are paid for them. I understand how the difficulty may have arisen. I shall write to the noble Lord on all those matters. I apologise for not being able to cover fully all the interesting issues that were raised. I should have congratulated the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, on providing us at last with an outline of what the Tory party actually thinks.
My Lords, I am deeply grateful to all those who have spoken in today's debate. I particularly welcome the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds. As I told him earlier, I, like so many others, knew his predecessor, and it is clear that he is treading nobly in his footsteps. I also greatly value the support that I have received from my noble friends on the Cross Benches and from almost the whole of the Liberal Democrat party.
The debate has clearly expressed the concern felt throughout the House on the subject. It has highlighted our feelings about the treatment not only of adults but of children, who, as many of us feel, should be considered as persons in their own right, in accordance with the United Nations convention. Of course, we all want a just and humane system. The Minister enunciated some wonderful principles, but I noticed that she did not move very far from the rather hard line taken by Governments over a long period. In particular, she did not respond to me on the urgent and serious matter of destitution. I have no doubt that we shall have to come back to that.
I look forward to the Government's proposals, which will appear in the new year, as I do to the work of the independent commission on migration and asylum. I hope that both pieces of work will concentrate on improving administration at every point along the line and on incorporating best practice into how we administer these matters. Neither did I hear much about regularisation of those who are here illegally. I hope that that is something on which the Government will concentrate some effort. With these words and with deep gratitude, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.