Asylum Seekers

– in the House of Commons at 9:47 pm on 10th October 2005.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Joan Ryan.]

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow 9:51 pm, 10th October 2005

I am pleased to have the opportunity to initiate the first Adjournment debate after the summer recess. The main issue that I want to raise is the change that was made during the recess to granting indefinite leave to people who were given refugee status, a change that was mentioned in the five-year plan that the Home Office produced earlier this year, but a change that had never been debated or discussed in the House before it was brought into force at the end of August. When it became evident shortly before the summer recess that the change was likely to take place, several Members expressed concern. In the last few days before the summer recess more than 40 Members added their names to an early-day motion on the subject.

I really do not understand the reasoning behind the change. It reverses a policy that the Labour Government introduced in 1998. It was announced in the White Paper of July 1998. Before 1998, anyone who was given refugee status was given only temporary permission to stay and had to wait four years before they could apply for indefinite leave. In the 1998 White Paper, we said that the immediate granting of indefinite leave would help refugees to integrate more easily and quickly into society, to the benefit of the entire community into which they had been accepted. It then went on to say that this policy was wholly consistent with the Government commitment to a more humanitarian approach to the UK's obligations under the 1951 refugee convention and to faster identification of those in genuine need of protection.

Those arguments were absolutely right in 1998. I do not understand why the same arguments are not regarded as valid now. I know from correspondence that I have had with the Minister over the summer that he may say that things have changed since 1998, that we are now in a different situation and that the number of asylum applications has changed considerably. Indeed, it has dropped a lot in the past year or two. The Minister may well say that the time scale for decision making has changed. It is welcome that the time scale now for initial decisions is so much shorter than it used to be. The arguments that we made in 1998 for indefinite leave were not about numbers or time scales for decision making. They were about principles—what was the best way to help people whom we recognised as refugees to integrate into society, and how could we best operate our commitments under the 1951 convention? The convention does not explicitly demand that we immediately give indefinite leave to someone to whom we grant refugee status, and until 1998 we did not grant leave in such circumstances. However, doing so is in the spirit of the convention, and that is the argument that we made in the 1998 White Paper.

European countries do not all grant indefinite leave. In the five-year plan published earlier this year it was argued that a number of European countries granted refugees temporary leave initially rather than immediate settlement. That was true before 1998, however, and we did not regard it as a valid argument. If we are going to reverse the policy of granting indefinite leave—a policy that is only seven years old—it should be possible to point to problems that have arisen from its operation, but I am not aware of any argument that such problems have been created. I am convinced, however, that problems will be created by the reversal of the policy. It is disingenuous to say, as the Home Office has said in correspondence, that the change is not intended to prolong the uncertainty and instability faced by refugees, because that is exactly what it is guaranteed to do.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

My hon. Friend said that we have not identified any problems that gave rise to a review of the policy. In many of our constituencies, we have witnessed the benefits of the policy introduced in 1998, which has provided the certainty and security sought by families who previously experienced the direst circumstances across the world.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

I agree. The arguments for the change are contradictory. The five-year plan said that refugees

"may be joined by their immediate family and will be encouraged to find work and participate in local communities during their period of temporary leave. This will ensure they make a full contribution to the UK while here".

Leaving someone uncertain about how long they will remain here or what their future is militates against their being able to integrate and make a contribution. It cuts across the good things that have been done in the past five years. This Government were the first to produce a strategy for integration with the publication of "Full and Equal Citizens" in 2000. That document is still extremely valid, but things have progressed. Integration loans have been introduced, and there have been projects to help refugees integrate into society, many of which have been funded by the Home Office and have produced encouraging results. I do not see how our good work on integration accords with a step that will introduce greater uncertainty to people's lives.

May I draw the Minister's attention to a letter to the Home Secretary from a group of psychologists who work with refugees and asylum seekers? The points that it makes were confirmed by a worker in my local mental health trust, who spends a great deal of her time working with refugees and asylum seekers.

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Joan Ryan.]

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

The psychologists stated that they had grave concerns about the effect of the change on people with serious mental health problems that result from the circumstances of those who have become refugees. The psychologists viewed the granting of refugee status as signalling a phase of safety that allows them to begin work in earnest on tackling some of the symptoms that people are suffering. They went on to say that the prolonged uncertainties that people face when they are seeking asylum can have a serious detrimental effect on existing mental health problems, and that making refugee status conditional and temporary will make it much more difficult to work psychologically to improve the mental health of many of their clients.

The psychologists cite guidelines produced last year by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence on post-traumatic stress disorder, which specifically referred to the situation of refugees and stated that trauma-focused therapies were typically inappropriate and ineffective while people do not have the security of refugee status. These are important and powerful points. We are dealing with people whom we have recognised as refugees. We acknowledge that they have suffered persecution. Some of them have been through very traumatic experiences. Some of them have serious mental health problems that need prolonged treatment. Everyone who is dealing with the matter, such as NICE and the psychologists, is giving us the same message—that leaving those people with such uncertainty about their future will make it much more difficult to tackle post-traumatic stress, get them stabilised and deal with their mental health problems and the symptoms from which they have been suffering.

I recognise that the 1951 convention does not demand that we provide permanent protection, but experience shows that when conditions change in their countries of origin, people granted refugee status often go back voluntarily. There are voluntary returns going on all the time. Past waves of refugees—people whom I remember meeting 20 or 30 years ago, who had come to the UK from Chile or Argentina, and who had been political activists in those countries—wanted to go back when they saw that conditions had changed.

The change will affect another aspect of integration by making it much more difficult for people with temporary status to gain employment, which would help them to settle and to make a contribution. There will not necessarily be a fixed period of time. It is proposed that at the end of five years there will be a review if nothing has happened in the meantime, but in some cases that review could come within a year, 18 months, or two years of their being granted temporary status. If a decision is made that there has been a significant change in the country of origin, that will lead to a review of all the individual decisions regarding people from that country. How many employers will be keen to take on people whose status is uncertain? We know now that many people who have been given exceptional leave to remain, even though that carries with it permission to work, have difficulty in persuading employers that that really is the case. I do not want to get into a debate this evening on the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Bill, but one or two of its provisions will make matters much more difficult, to the point where exceptional leave runs out.

There will be disagreements about whether conditions in countries of origin have changed sufficiently and—another important factor—whether such changes are permanent. The five-year plan and the statement referred to a change of conditions in the country that was regarded as sufficiently permanent. I am not sure how that judgment will be easily made. In the past 12 months we have seen some of the arguments that have cropped up about the returns to Zimbabwe, and now the possibility of forced returns of failed asylum seekers to Iraq. There will certainly be disputes about whether there have been genuine changes of condition, and that will lead to a clogging up of the appeals system, because anyone who is told that their leave is being withdrawn will have the right of appeal under the Bill that we are now considering. In time it will also lead to the clogging up of Members' advice surgeries, because we will frequently be dealing with families with children who are in school and who have grown up here, and I am sure that I do not have to remind the Minister about how difficult it is now for the Home Office to deal with such removals. Those are the sort of people who will be told that, after three, four or five years of temporary protection, they will have to go back to wherever they came from. I do not know anyone who works with refugees who is supportive of the change. No legislation would be required. The measure was brought in without legislation and I urge the Minister to have another look at it.

Another matter that has been drawn to the attention of a number of hon. Members today concerns the situation of some British citizens who are married to failed asylum seekers. I would not necessarily expect answers this evening, but perhaps the Minister will consider what I have to say and perhaps write to me. Their husbands—it is often husbands—are told that they have to return to their country of origin. I understand the policies on marriage that have been applied in the Home Office for some time, going back to 1996 and DP3/96, and the reasoning behind that. Obviously fake marriages have been used to avoid immigration controls, but the Home Office is not questioning the genuine nature of the marriage of the people whom I and a number of other hon. Members met today. Nevertheless, it says that, because a marriage took place after a failed asylum claim, the person concerned must go back to their country of origin, or their spouse can accompany them. To tell a British citizen that they can accompany their spouse to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iran or Iraq, and make an application from there, is hardly credible when the Foreign Office advises British citizens not to set foot in such countries.

The way such cases are being dealt with needs to be looked at. I understand all the arguments about the need to deal with fake marriages—I have seen some fake marriages, as I am sure others have—but I am referring to marriages whose genuine nature is not in question yet we are asking either British citizens or their spouses to go to countries that the Foreign Office regards as dangerous. I am sure that the Minister will be approached by hon. Members about this and I hope that he will consider such cases with some sympathy and see whether we can adopt a rather more humanitarian approach than we are at present.

Photo of Andy Burnham Andy Burnham Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) 10:09 pm, 10th October 2005

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard on securing the debate.

At the start of his remarks, my hon. Friend rightly pointed out that hon. Members should be given the opportunity to discuss such a significant policy change. I recognise that the debate is important, and it is pleasing to see so many of my hon. Friends and Simon Hughes.

I listened carefully to my hon. Friend, who has anticipated some of my arguments—he is well versed in reading letters from the Home Office—but if he listens to the detail, I can provide reassurance on many of his points. Although I have been in the House for only a short time, I know that no hon. Member is more assiduous than him in raising such matters and that his comments are born out of genuine concern.

The Government remain committed to the 1951 refugee convention, which is part of a legal and ethical framework that enshrines basic principles of human decency—a civilised society may be judged on how it treats desperate people who are fleeing persecution. I do not accept that the new policy of granting refugees five years' limited leave to remain in the first instance rather than immediate settlement represents an erosion of the Government's commitment to refugees or to the international protection system in general. Hon. Members are understandably concerned about how the new policy will operate, which is why I want to take this opportunity clearly to set out why we are introducing it, how we envisage that it will work in practice and what its consequences will be for refugees and their families.

My hon. Friend has rightly pointed out that the Government's five-year strategy on asylum and immigration, which was published in February, set out our intention to introduce a policy of limited leave rather than immediate settlement for refugees, which was also a manifesto commitment. My hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality announced the new policy to both Houses in a written ministerial statement on 19 July, and it was implemented on 30 August. From that date onwards, all refugees, other than those arriving in the UK under resettlement programmes, have been granted five years' limited leave to remain rather than immediate indefinite leave to remain.

We made that change for two main reasons: first, there should be a clear and consistent approach to those obtaining leave under the immigration rules on how long they have to be here before they become eligible for settlement, and we have decided to set that period at five years for most categories; secondly, we should provide refuge to people for as long as they need it, but if conditions in their country improve significantly, it is reasonable to expect them to return, particularly where they have spent only a relatively short period in the UK.

Some have argued that the new policy is not within the spirit of the refugee convention—I note that my hon. Friend has not made that argument this evening—while others have suggested that it flies in the face of the Government's decision in 1998 to give recognised refugees immediate indefinite leave to remain. Those considerations are important, and I shall address each of them in turn.

The refugee convention states that it shall cease to apply to someone who

"can no longer, because of the circumstances in connection with which he has been recognised as a refugee have ceased to exist, continue to refuse to avail himself of the protection of his country of nationality."

In other words, an individual is only a refugee for as long as he needs the protection of the refugee convention and for no longer. Our new policy is therefore within the spirit of the refugee convention, but there should be no doubt that where the conditions that gave rise to a refugee's fear of persecution continue to exist after five years, we will allow them to seek permanent settlement in the UK. However, where there has been a significant and non-temporary change in conditions in their country sufficient to suggest that they could return in safety, they will be expected to return there—indeed, I am sure that many refugees would wish to go home in such circumstances.

Some have questioned why we have reversed the decision that we took in 1998 to give refugees immediate settlement; indeed, my hon. Friend raised that very point. He also anticipated the answer: we believe that the decision was the right one given the circumstances of the time and the immigration system that we inherited from the Conservatives, which was, as he will remember perhaps better than anybody, a system that was in crisis with huge backlogs. As a result, a large number of asylum seekers had been in the UK for many years before receiving decisions—even initial decisions—on their applications.

It is important to contrast that with the picture today. Backlogs in the system are at their lowest level for a decade. Asylum intake is back to 1997 levels and has fallen further and faster than in the EU as a whole in recent years. It was 76 per cent. lower in the UK in the second quarter of 2005 compared with the peak in October 2002, and 32 per cent. lower in the UK in 2004 than in 2003. That is the essential context of this debate, and it is largely the result of action that the Government have taken to increase the efficiency of the asylum process. More than 80 per cent. of initial decisions are now made within two months. We have brought forward legislation to deter unfounded asylum claims. As my hon. Friend knows, there have been three major pieces of legislation since 1997, as well as the Bill currently before the House on which detailed consideration will begin next week.

We believe that that process of reform should continue, and we are rolling out what we call the new asylum model that will result in tighter case management of asylum claims through to the final outcome, whether that be integration or removal. The new policy of limited leave for refugees is a return to one of the basic principles of the Geneva convention—that generally someone is a refugee only for as long as the conditions that mean that they will be at risk of persecution continue to exist. It brings the UK into line with most other European countries—that is an important point to stress. France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and Denmark, for example, all require a refugee to complete a period of temporary leave before applying for permanent residence. Refugees are now granted five years' limited leave from day one, which may—I stress that word—be subject to review if they bring themselves within the scope of the refugee convention's exclusion or cessation clauses through their own actions: for example, where a person commits a terrorist act or re-establishes himself in his country of origin.

Those triggers for review are not new. The new element is that refugee status and limited leave may—again, I stress that word—also be reviewed where there is a significant and non-temporary change in conditions in a country or part of a country that places in doubt the continuing need for protection in the UK of all or certain groups of refugees from that country or part of it. We would determine that such changes had taken place on the basis of objective country information. When we determine on the basis of that information, and other sources such as case law, that certain categories of claim are likely to be clearly unfounded and that the change is of a durable nature, we will consider whether to instigate a review of previous grants of refugee status and limited leave to those falling within the scope of those categories.

However, I can give my hon. Friend assurances on a number of points, and I hope that they will go some way towards reassuring him. First, any review will be conducted on a case-by-case basis, and the burden of proof will be on the immigration and nationality directorate—

Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Labour, Bishop Auckland

The Minister makes an important point about addressing this on a case-by-case basis. He said earlier that one of the key things about the policy is that it should be reasonable. I put it to him that its whole approach has been drafted from the perspective of adults, not children. Five years is a long time for a child to be in one country. Will special account be taken of situations involving families with children? To have one's childhood torn up once is a tragedy, but to have it torn up twice is devastating.

Photo of Andy Burnham Andy Burnham Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's point. I stress again that the review will be conducted on a case-by-case basis. The circumstances, such as country conditions, will be the trigger for a review but the factors that she mentions will be taken into account in any review of a specific case. I am sure that my hon. Friend believes as we do in the Home Office that that is the right thing to do. Reviews will be conducted on a case-by-case basis and the burden of proof will be on the IND to determine whether the individual continues to qualify for refugee status and limited leave.

The second assurance is that any decision to trigger a review on the basis of a change in country conditions will be made only following consultation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

Will the trigger mechanism for a specific case and country be reported to the House for debate?

Photo of Andy Burnham Andy Burnham Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

I was about to deal with that point, which is very fair. The third assurance is that the scope of the review, before its conclusions had been reached, would be communicated to the House through a written ministerial statement.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

The Under-Secretary will have heard last week's reports about regular criticisms of the country reports as inaccurate. The new process is welcome but it is no good if the reports that lead to the decision are inaccurate and therefore give wrong information that could prove fatal if someone is sent back to much more dangerous circumstances than the country report suggests.

Photo of Andy Burnham Andy Burnham Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. The quality of the country reports is obviously crucial in reaching a reasoned and fair judgment on the conditions and circumstances that exist in a country. The reports originate in the Foreign Office. The hon. Gentleman will have seen some of them. The material is drawn from many different sources; the documents are well grounded. If he considers the recent process that we went through on Zimbabwe, great effort was made and care taken to establish the conditions in that country. I can give him the assurance that he wants. We will continue to take great care in establishing facts on the ground before taking further action. We do not want to act on wrong or misleading information.

We are ensuring through the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Bill that refugees will have an in-country right of appeal against a decision to take away their leave and that the decision will not take effect until that appeal has been heard. I can further assure my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow that when an individual no longer qualifies for leave as a refugee, we would always consider whether a grant of leave on another basis was appropriate, for example, on European convention on human rights grounds. Although it is possible that some refugees will be allowed to remain because they have established a private and/or family life in the UK, we need to get the balance right between offering a family a permanent life in the UK and expecting them to return to their country of origin if conditions improve there.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

The more I listen to the description of the mechanism that will operate, the more I wonder whether we want it. The Home Office has enough to do—it has enough backlogs for years. Do we genuinely want to take on all the work of reviewing cases and clogging up the appeals system for the relatively small number of people who are given full refugees status? For that small number, the decisions are tremendously important. From the Home Office point of view, are the benefits of the new mechanism worth all the effort?

Photo of Andy Burnham Andy Burnham Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

I shall describe some of the exact processes of the review shortly. I believe that that will give my hon. Friend some assurance about the work load for the Home Office. I stress that we are not considering a system that will continue as it has done in the past. We do not want an overloaded and sclerotic system, from which people cannot get clarity or a decision. We have enabled claims to be decided much more quickly, and we want the system to be able to function quickly and to give people clarity in a much more timely manner than we have achieved hitherto. I think that my hon. Friend would accept that one of the problems with the old way of doing things was that people were left in limbo for so long.

Photo of Michael Jabez Foster Michael Jabez Foster Labour, Hastings and Rye

My hon. Friend the Minister has gone to a great deal of trouble to explain what he intends to do, but he appears to be developing a very complex system, as my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard says. Has the Minister made any assessment of the obligations and costs that these measures will place on his office, and of whether any extra resources will be provided to support this complex system of review?

Photo of Andy Burnham Andy Burnham Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office)

Yes, we have. I think it will be of interest to my hon. Friend if I describe some of the ways in which the measures will work in practice. The ability to move cases through the system more quickly has enabled staff time and resources to be deployed in different ways, and we have obviously weighed up those considerations, but if I describe the system, it might make more sense.

A number of hon. Members have given the impression that the new policy will leave a sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of all refugees for up to five years. I do not believe that that will be the case. Nor do I accept that the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal will be swamped with appeals flowing from decisions to curtail leave granted to refugees. Many of the countries that generate large numbers of refugees, regrettably for those who live there, are unlikely to become safe and stable within the next few years. I anticipate that declarations that country conditions have changed will be used sparingly. The Government consider, however, that it is right in principle to undertake a case-by-case review of grants of refugee status and limited leave when there is a significant and durable change in a particular country affecting some or all categories of claims. I stress again, however, that many of the countries that we are talking about are unlikely to reach the position in which there would be a trigger for review. We all know from our constituency postbags that not many countries have experienced such a change in in-country conditions as to warrant the kind of review that we are discussing.

If a refugee completes five years' leave without a review having been triggered, there will not be an in-depth review of their case as a matter of routine when they apply for settlement before the expiry of their leave. We would, however, check to ensure that the triggers for review on the basis of the cessation clauses had not previously been missed. We would also check for evidence of serious criminality or exclusion.

Some have suggested that the change of policy will have a damaging effect on refugees' entitlement to benefits and services, and undermine their integration into the UK. I am clear that this is not the case. Refugees continue to have access to key mainstream benefits, as well as to social housing and to employment. The Government are committed to ensuring that refugees are able to contribute to their communities while they are in the UK, and to participate fully in our economy and society. For that reason, they will retain access to a whole range of assistance, including personal integration plans, mentoring and integration loans. Indeed, we are currently legislating to ensure that refugees with limited leave will have access to such loans. By promoting integration, we will ensure that refugees can contribute fully to the life of the UK while they are here. If conditions improve sufficiently to allow them to return home, the skills that they have acquired here should stand them in good stead for the future.

I do not believe that my hon. Friend is right to say that the measures will set back the good work that has been done on integration in communities up and down the country. We are currently embarking on the reform of the National Refugee Integration Forum, and considering what further steps we can take to ensure that refugee integration is improved and that we build on the successes that exist. I do not believe that that necessarily means that there should be any backward steps in that regard.

Finally, I want to touch on the position of resettled refugees and changes to humanitarian policy. We have decided that refugees arriving in the UK under resettlement programmes such as Gateway should continue to get immediate indefinite leave to remain. These refugees have been outside their countries of origin for many years and have no realistic prospect of returning there. Many are held in UN camps in different parts of the world. Integration in the first country to which they have fled is often not possible. Indeed, these are the refugees who have suffered the most stress and trauma before their arrival—

The motion having been made at Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.