Asylum Seekers

– in the House of Lords at 3:08 pm on 1st March 2000.

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Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative 3:08 pm, 1st March 2000

rose to call attention to the case for policies towards asylum seekers that are both effective and humane; and to move for Papers.

My Lords, the Motion before us draws attention to the case for policies towards asylum seekers that are both effective and humane. The subject is far too large to cover in a single opening speech. Therefore, I warn the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, whose maiden speech I warmly look forward to, not to model anything he says on my performance today. I look forward with almost equal interest to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, from whom I used to receive 15 letters per week when I was at the Home Office. No doubt his position has changed a little since then.

Efficiency means swift decisions and humanity means right decisions and good treatment. We can demonstrate easily enough that our policies are neither efficient nor humane. Last year, the number of people in this country who had applied for asylum and were waiting to know whether or not they would be allowed to stay was 102,000. According to the Office for National Statistics, that is more than the population of Gloucester. Many had been waiting for over three years. To wait for six years is not unusual. I know of at least one case that has been running for 10 years. The backlog is made up of all applicants for asylum, at whatever stage of the screening process. The telescoping of that process under the new Act should bring final decisions forward earlier. But on its own it will not reduce the number of asylum seekers still in this country.

Thus far the problem is quantifiable, but as so often in life, things become less simple as we study them. Home Office Report CM 4431 shows that from 1990 to 1998 inclusive there were 302,970 applications and that 222,975 decisions were made on them. Of those, 153,970 were refusals. So far so good, provided your mental arithmetic is agile. But when one's eye travels further across the table one sees that the total number of those who are either removed or known to have departed came only to 27,365 leaving 126,000--more than the population of Gloucester--unaccounted for and, as they had made their anxiety to live here very plain, probably--though not certainly--still resident in this country.

The picture would be pretty foggy if that were all, but it is not. The table clearly states that it excludes all dependants. At Tinsley House, Gatwick, last week, among the passengers on a recent flight from Afghanistan via Moscow, I saw how numerous such dependants can be. I hope that the Minister, in his reply, will tell us the real position regarding numbers, or at least the average ratio of dependants to applicants.

If we carry our inquiry forward to the published figures for the first two quarters of last year, the picture becomes foggier still. While still excluding dependants, they show that, under the normal process, 4,210 refusals were made. Ninety were made under a scheme to clear the backlog. However, this table gives no hint of how many of those 4,300 were removed or had gone of their own free will. Can the Minister arrange for these figures to be published in the annual report from his department? Can he confirm the worrying statement I have seen that the Immigration and Nationality Directorate no longer has the resources to remove more than the 1 per cent of refusals already in custody and a mere 4 per cent of the whole of the remainder?

The IND's ability to implement refusals will be thoroughly tested when the backlog clearance programme bites in earnest. That will coincide with the increased output of decisions, and therefore refusals, under the streamlined procedures brought in under the Act on 1st April. Unless that programme amounts to no more than a blanket permission to remain (in which case we should be told) there can surely be only one of two consequences: either there must be an equal increase in removals or refusal will become even more of a technicality that even larger numbers will ignore, so that we have an even greater illegal population in this country. If so, I think that we should be told.

The question of removals is critical. Asylum seekers naturally seek the comfort and support of their fellow nationals wherever they can find it. Which of us would not do the same if the roles were reversed? The Government, recognising their need for support and society's need for them to develop quickly into stable communities, believes that they should settle in "clusters" of similar origin. They require, rather than encourage, them to do so; to spread them, they disperse them round the country.

If great trouble is to be avoided, the clusters must be developed quickly into stable communities integrated with the surrounding population. Home Office Bulletin No 3 on the subject reports that over 860 individuals had been dispersed by 23rd January, but they were mostly unaccompanied children. In the 4,000 places pledged by local authorities so far, very few are for families. A cluster of bored, single, unemployed foreigners, who cannot speak English, is not the sort of neighbour most of us would want, nor would it offer a suitable home for those who are allowed to stay.

We want to see stable, law-abiding communities. The police are charged with establishing good relationships with the groups. This urgent work is exceedingly difficult because many come from countries and circumstances where the police are hated and feared, and with good cause. Community policing is, therefore, at its most important, most difficult and, because of the need for translators, its most expensive.

Yet it is from the midst of such groups that those who are eventually refused leave to remain must be removed. The more the cluster policy succeeds, the fiercer will be the community reaction against forced removals. As the number of overstayers and refusals increases, the number of removals will have to increase.

At present, the police are expected to support the IND in the work of removal, but that is entirely inappropriate. It means immediate destruction of all their work on community relations, which may have gone on for years rather than months, and makes future policing not only more difficult but quite possibly dangerous. Do the Government recognise the need not just for an effective implementation of refusals but for a non-police agency, presumably the IND--unless they can find a means of adequate supervision of a contractor--to provide it, and for the resources to do so? Will they use the experience now being gained in the operation of youth offending teams to build multidisciplinary teams of a different sort to help the clusters to mature and integrate?

The policy of dispersal into clusters could be a good one, but will only work if properly funded. The Home Office grant to local authorities for this purpose is £210 million for the current year. The policy is still entirely voluntary and therefore working only on a small scale. However, the Local Government Association tells me that, even so, this is already £165 million less than it has cost its members. Can the Minister explain the difference and tell us whether their calculations allow properly, for instance, for the educational needs of young asylum seekers? Surely they must. We know from our own young that children with nothing to do quickly become criminals. If the Minister's answer is that costs will be met automatically through the standard spending assessments, will he go further and recognise that teaching children who do not speak a word of English is more expensive than ordinary education and goes beyond the standard cost? The same applies to the large number of people who need adult education: first in English as a second language and then in skills, if we are to have viable communities left behind us.

Could the Minister also tell us whether in setting the levels of support to asylum seekers direct, the Government recognise that their needs may go beyond what can be bought with a voucher and can cost more than £10 a week, so that there will be a healthy market in vouchers sold at a discount by those in need of cash? A tiny improvement would be made if the Government accepted the plea of the Refugee Council that when a refugee pays for goods with a voucher worth more than their value, the shop should give change rather than pocketing the difference.

I return to the local authority shortfall. I draw your attention to the case of Kent, which is already facing an extra £3 on the community charge to pay for unaccompanied minors. That charge should fall to the Department of Health, the noble Lord will be pleased to hear, and not to the Home Office. But will it be met? (The Minister must answer for the whole Government.) If not, why not? Can he tell us what provision is now being made for them in preparation for next year? It must surely be an aim of policy to distribute the burden of this influx evenly between all authorities. At present it bears heavily on a few.

Kent is a good example. Service stations there are a popular decanting point for lorry loads of illegal immigrants. If a lorry decants, for instance, 30 illegal immigrants outside the port area in south-east Kent, it will take 15 uniformed police officers at least two hours to apprehend them and complete the legally-required processes. That is the entire strength at present available to provide uniformed patrols in the whole of the south Kent area. It is only when they claim asylum that the seekers cease to be a police responsibility and can be taken out of cells which, incidentally, are entirely unsuitable for holding family groups.

On that subject, can the Minister give favour to the widely canvassed idea that every immigrant should be given a clear statement of his rights in his native language, so that at the first interview, which is crucial to later hearings, he shall be properly interviewed and give the relevant information? That would make it easier to get rid of those who should not be here, and much better for those who should.

The task the department faces is changing and unquantifiable. The definition of a "genuine refugee" changes from day to day. The ruling in Shah and Islam last year extended the definition of a,

"social group for 1951 convention purposes", to include the wives of Muslim husbands threatened with violence under the sharia law. I suspect that is a very large population in the world. And in the department's open plan office at Gatwick I saw a large notice saying, "not Germany or France". That is a reminder that recent judgments in European courts have led our own to rule that it is unsafe to return certain classes of asylum seekers, under the Dublin convention, to either of those countries as they would eject some that we think should not be returned.

The current media focus on undeserving cases receiving significant benefit from public funds results in it being all too easy to do as a number of newspaper editors would like us to do and assume that all asylum seekers are cunning, undeserving scroungers, well able to get a secure and comfortable living back home. But the child given a ticket at Entebbe airport, and accepted by an adult stranger as a means of checking in overweight luggage without charge, has no home to go back to. That abuse was curtailed by making carriers responsible for passengers arriving without proper permission to enter Britain. But many such are already here. Young men from many distant lands with no known family, taken into care and then left alone with no adult friend, are described by a senior worker with the City Parochial Foundation as the lost souls of society. They may not qualify as refugees, but there is nowhere else for them to go.

That brings me to the emotive words "soft touch", which I shall not use because they carry more sense than they should. The fact is that we are a worryingly popular destination. This is in large part due to the lengthy processes that must be gone through before a final refusal, during which time asylum seekers build up ever more compassionate grounds for indefinite leave to remain, and partly due to our complete failure to implement all but a fraction of refusals. It is widely known that once people get here they have a good chance of staying, whatever the system decides. The Government are tackling the first issue; they should tackle the second. The rapid return of fraudulent asylum seekers is the best way of discouraging others. Therefore the backlog exercise must, sadly, be given a lower priority than new arrivals.

Why are we turning applicants away? Because they do not fit a definition drawn up half a century ago to deal with the aftermath of the world war; because they are what we call "economic" refugees. We should be irresponsible if we did not ask ourselves to what we are returning them. The world is becoming polarised, not just between free countries and dictatorships but between rich and poor. We consider ourselves free and, unquestionably, are among the rich. Four hundred and seventy countries have a purchasing power per head less than one-tenth of ours. As a free country we accept the victims of dictators; as a rich country we turn away the victims of poverty.

We cannot welcome them all to share our wealth, nor do I suggest any such thing. But modern communications mean that we can no longer be unaware of them and mere compassion means that we cannot ignore them. No one can enjoy growing fat when people almost next door are starving. If we cannot help them here we must help them at home, and at some cost to ourselves. The latest report of Voluntary Service Overseas shows that this is no longer an unfashionable view. The climate of opinion is changing. That must be another debate, but it is an important one.

We have a duty. If anyone wants to join this society, it should be just and honourable. If we ignore the plight of the millions that are starving elsewhere in the world, it is neither. I look forward to hearing the Government's reply and the intervening debate. I beg to move for Papers.

Photo of Lord Avebury Lord Avebury Liberal Democrat 3:24 pm, 1st March 2000

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Elton, reminded me of the agreeable correspondence we used to have when he was a Minister. I share his happy recollections of the letters we used to exchange and I listened with interest and a high degree of agreement to everything he said this afternoon.

I suppose that none of your Lordships will argue that our policies towards asylum seekers should be less than effective and humane. The Government will say that although what they are doing at the moment is neither, they have set in motion legislative and other changes which are needed to put that right. When the Immigration and Asylum Act comes into effect and we have the IND's casework computer properly in operation, they will say that they will deliver the firmer, faster, fairer decision-making that was promised in the White Paper. In the mean while, are the Government acting as effectively and humanely as they can in the circumstances we face of the sharp rise in the number of asylum seekers, or are they making policy on the hoof to deal with each new problem, as happened in the case of the gypsies from eastern Europe and, most recently, with regard to the Afghans who arrived here by chance on the hijacked plane? The noble Lord, Lord Elton, mentioned them and I shall spend a little while discussing their case as an example of what is wrong with the system at the moment.

I take it that it is common ground also that Afghanistan is one of the most unpleasant dictatorships in the world. The ruling Taliban have committed a large number of extrajudicial killings, including the massacre of 5,000 people who were mostly ethnic Hazara civilians, after the takeover of Mazar-i-Sharif. The human rights situation for women remains extremely poor. Violence against women is a problem throughout the country. Women and girls are subjected to rape, kidnapping and forced marriage, and Taliban restrictions against women and girls are widespread, institutionally sanctioned and systematic.

There are 2.6 million registered refugees from Afghanistan living outside the country, according to UNHCR, and in 1998--the last year for which we have figures available--1,600 decisions were made on asylum applications submitted by Afghans here and all but 65 of them were given either refugee status or exceptional leave to remain.

Bearing that in mind, what should we have done when the hijacked Afghan plane arrived at Stansted? The plane landed on 7th February; the crisis ended peacefully on 10th February, and the following day the Home Secretary said that he would determine personally any applications made for asylum by those on board. He then went on to say that, subject to all legal requirements, he would wish to see removed from this country all those on the plane as soon as reasonably practicable. It would seem inconceivable, he said, that persons on the flight could have intended to claim political asylum unless, of course, they had been complicit in the hijacking.

Mr Straw is wrong to have decided what he would like to do to those people en masse when he was in the position of having to decide, in his judicial capacity as Secretary of State, whether each of the individual applicants had a good case under the UN Convention on Refugees. He was wrong to say that he would decide all the cases personally when he could not possibly have the time to read all the papers of 74 applicants and apply his mind properly to the question of whether or not they fitted the criteria of the convention. He was wrong to imply that if the passengers had no intention of seeking asylum when they took of from Kabul, their applications were flawed in some way. The circumstances of their arrival in the United Kingdom have no bearing, legally, on the determination of their cases.

At the same time, Mr Straw made arrangements which were designed to ensure that as many as possible of the passengers were induced to return by fair means or foul. What the IND normally does when it has an influx of people it considers should be detained is to grant temporary admission to an equivalent number of people detained in some other place. Presumably that is what happened in the end when the Afghans were transferred to Tinsley House from the Fire Service College at Moreton-in-the-Marsh. Presumably the purpose of having them in the Fire Service College was to prevent them having access to proper advice while the Immigration Service brought psychological pressure to bear on them to make sure that they wanted to go back to Afghanistan.

On the Sunday morning, 13th February, it was reported that only 17 of the 142 hostages wanted to return. By the time the plane left Brize Norton at 1 a.m. the following day, that number had increased to 72. On the Sunday, those traumatised people were held incommunicado in Gloucestershire. I made attempts to try to contact them via the Chief Immigration Officer at Stansted; but that only resulted in a call to me over my Sunday lunch from Ms Barbara Roche who assured me that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) would be there to look after the arrangements for those who requested voluntary repatriation. However, it was not the duty of the IOM to satisfy itself that the decisions had been well informed and made without coercion.

From the inquiries that I have been able to make of those who deal with Afghan refugees, it is not customary to detain them on arrival, except in very rare cases where nationality is at issue; for example, if an immigration officer has reason to suspect that the claimant is really Pakistani, he may refuse to grant temporary asylum (TA) while the person's origin is checked. But there was no objective reason in this case for the detention and those who wished to apply for asylum should have been given TA immediately.

What actually happened was described in a statement by Mr David Fazel, the only Afghan speaker who was called on to interpret at the Fire Service College. He arrived there on Saturday evening in time for a briefing that was given by Mr Bill Fleming of the IND, who explained that instructions had been given by the Home Secretary to make sure that the Afghans understood that they were not welcome here in Britain. They were to be told that whoever returned on the plane would be sure of a warm reception from the Taliban. However, if they did want to apply for asylum, they would not be staying in the comfort of the Hilton Hotel or even in the Fire Service College; they would be held under lock and key as prisoners in a detention centre for periods that might be upwards of a year; and at the end of that time they would almost certainly be sent back whether or not they liked it.

Mr Fleming said that the Home Secretary had told him that he would be a happy man if 50 of these people returned; if 75 went back, he would be very happy; and if 100 could be persuaded to do so, he would be over the moon. Perhaps he, Mr Fleming, might even be knighted, and all the staff involved in the exercise would receive generous bonuses, he said.

When the hijack victims arrived--

Photo of Lord Mishcon Lord Mishcon Labour

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will very kindly give way. In this House, we are used to hearing from the noble Lord with authenticated remarks. He is never reckless in his censure of others. In view of the very serious allegations that he has just made, would the noble Lord care to inform the House of the name of his informant?

Photo of Lord Avebury Lord Avebury Liberal Democrat

Yes, my Lords; it is Mr David Fazel, the interpreter. He has appeared on Channel 4 and his remarks have been reported, not in the mainstream press but in some of the Muslim magazines.

When the hijack victims arrived at about 10 o'clock that night, there was a very heavy police presence with Group 4 security. No one smiled or showed any friendliness towards the people. They were given the statement to which I referred, as required by Mr Fleming, as they were transferred from the coaches to the dining area. As soon as anyone said that they wanted to go home, they were transferred to another part of the building and were allowed to go to bed early. The remainder were made to listen to the same lecture repeatedly until 2 a.m. The groups included women and children as young as a few months old. No one was told that he had a right to any legal assistance or advice, or that he had basic humanitarian rights in Britain. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that, when someone arrives in this way, it is imperative that he should be given a full statement in his own language of the rights that he possesses.

The next morning the IOM officials arrived and the passengers who said that they wanted to return were interviewed, one at a time. The IOM was not concerned with the manner in which the decisions had been reached, but merely whether passengers would simply declare that they were going home voluntarily. Of the 20 people for whom he interpreted with the IOM, Mr Fazel says that five said they had been pressured into going by the threat of indefinite detention, followed by compulsory return. The IOM officials said that they had no right to interfere with the tactics used by the IND, although they did explain to the passengers that they had the right to change their minds at any point up to the plane's departure.

It was reported on February 16th that the Home Office had said that the applications on these cases would be made within 14 days. That deadline has passed, and the decisions have not yet been made. In the mean while, the Home Secretary has been trying frantically to get some other country--the United States, Russia and Pakistan have been mentioned--to accept the Afghans, regardless of whether or not they want to go there. He does not want to eat his own words about sending them packing, but he recognises that they cannot legally be sent back to Afghanistan. If he does refuse them, it will be glaringly inconsistent with the practice of the IND in recent years, as well as with our international obligations.

The Home Secretary does not have to adjust our asylum policy to the demands of the gutter tabloids and the would-be Jo rg Haiders on the extreme Right of the Tory Party. The Prime Minister said at the birthday party of the Labour Party on Sunday that the Labour Party had been a civilising force in the 20th century; and so it was. It always stood for the fair treatment of people arriving here and asking for asylum. It did not say, as Jack Straw seems to believe, that a person's application could somehow be contaminated by the manner of his arrival, still less that women and children--32 of them--should be locked up for something that was totally outside their control.

I hope that this episode will teach us something about the nature of the asylum process in Britain and that we shall never again have to endure the spectacle of people who have arrived from a foreign dictatorship being locked up and treated in this manner.

Photo of Lord Joffe Lord Joffe Crossbench 3:45 pm, 1st March 2000

My Lords, I should like to begin by expressing my thanks for the friendly guidance and assistance so willingly provided to me by officials and Members of your Lordships' House as I have struggled to understand its procedures--and, I might add, its geography. It has made what I feared would be a daunting process into an enjoyable one. I am most appreciative.

It is with some diffidence that I presume to engage in a debate as early as the week following my Introduction. However, it did seem to me to be justified because I have some experience of the issues involved, if only because I came to this country in 1965 as a stateless political refugee having been deprived of my passport and citizenship by the then South African government.

While not exactly welcomed, I, unlike most refugees seeking political asylum, had the advantage of language, education, friends and of being white. As a lawyer, I was able to get a job in the life assurance industry and ultimately combined this career with work in the National Health Service and in the voluntary sector, where for many years I have been a trustee of Oxfam, which I now chair.

Based on my initial experience of waiting in immigration department queues, it is perhaps easier for me than for those who have the privilege of British citizenship by birthright to understand the bewilderment of asylum seekers who, often having survived torture, atrocity and persecution in their own country, are then faced with the unavoidable processes of establishing their right to political asylum in this country.

Naturally, I do not suggest that these processes are unnecessary. But to most asylum-seeking refugees unfamiliar with the language, confused by the process and faced with the uncertainty of exile and what is going to happen next, the process is a frightening ordeal during which they need advice, patience and understanding from the immigration officials. Unfortunately, however, these immigration officials are desperately seeking to make inroads into a massive backlog, and are being criticised for their failure to do so. The one thing they do not have is time to be patient and, indeed, often even the time to look as carefully and in depth as they would wish at every case for asylum. Almost inevitably under such pressures they often make incorrect decisions leading to appeals, which in turn inflate the backlog.

So it is hardly surprising that there is a great deal of anger and frustration on all sides. All sides--the Government, the refugees, their representatives and the immigration officials--share a common interest that decisions on refugee status are made speedily and fairly. Yet until the backlog is eliminated, this will not happen. Recognising this, the Government have introduced two-way streaming whereby resources are allocated to processing all new applications speedily while, at the same time, other resources are applied to backlog cases.

While this approach is clearly to be commended, it requires significant additional resources in the short term to succeed. Although some additional resources have been provided, they seem far from sufficient as the statistics do not show that the pipeline is decreasing. By itself, throwing resources at problems does not necessarily solve them. There must be the right level and quality of resources, careful planning and intensive training, all of which take time. But as I found in tackling waiting lists in the NHS, and in the financial services industry, backlogs are impossible to eliminate unless sufficient funding is provided.

There is, of course, one other solution to the backlog problem. In raising it, I recognise that it will not be popular with certain sectors in the media and elsewhere. That solution would be, on a one-off basis, to lower the criteria for backlog applicants only in a way similar to the approach already adopted by government in relation to asylum seekers who had applied before July 1993.

While this would inevitably lead to a number of so-called "economic migrants" being allowed to remain, government might decide it is a price worth paying. In this regard it must be questioned whether allowing a number of economic migrants to remain in the UK would necessarily be a bad thing, for it must be remembered that economic migrants as well as political refugees normally have the potential and will to contribute to our society. Once they are able to take up employment they will no longer be a drain on the Government, while eliminating the backlog will enable a fair and speedy system of decision-making to be built up which would help to defuse the racist agitation which elements in the media and elsewhere are fanning.

There has been support for this approach from an unexpected source. No less an authority than Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman, was quoted in the Financial Times last week as saying that if economic growth is to be sustained at its present pace in the USA, immigration policies would have to be relaxed, and that to restrain inflation would require either more imports or more immigration. He added that he was satisfied that immigrants wanted to work, thereby rejecting the myth that their aim was to sponge on welfare benefits, a myth so often peddled in the USA and in this country.

I move from solutions to implementation of the Immigration and Asylum Act. I wish to add to the points about the plight of unaccompanied children which were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Elton. Because government wished to treat these children in exactly the same way as other deprived children, they were excluded from the new Home Office support scheme and they are governed by the provisions of the Children Act.

Many of these children have not been given full assessment of their needs under the Act and some have even been placed in adult single accommodation, in some cases hundreds of miles from the authority which has responsibility for them. A recent example is that of a child placed by a London authority in Leeds, without even reference to the Leeds social services, leaving the child very vulnerable. New guidelines issued this month to local authorities are to be welcomed but appropriate action needs to be taken to ensure that the guidelines are followed.

It also appears that the Home Office does not have procedural guidelines for its staff to follow when handling the asylum applications of unaccompanied children. There is a consensus that children should be treated first and foremost as children and I would suggest this requires special guidelines for their special needs to be prepared by the Home Office, probably in co-operation with the Department of Health, refugee community groups and voluntary organisations.

I end on a personal note. When I arrived in this country in 1965 as yet another anonymous refugee, the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, came to Heathrow airport and persuaded the immigration authorities to allow me entry. I have not met or talked with the noble Lord since then. I am sure that he has quite forgotten the incident as he must have helped many other similarly anonymous refugees. Acts of kindness such as this to refugees seeking asylum have the potential to transform the lives of refugees in the same way as it has transformed my life. After 35 years in this country, now a British citizen and very proud of that, I welcome the opportunity to thank the noble Lord again.

Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour

My Lords, like others, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for the opportunity to debate this important subject today. I know that the whole House will want to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, on his moving, challenging, honest and yet characteristically modest maiden speech. I have known the noble Lord for many years as he was my long-suffering chair during my time as director of Oxfam. His arrival in this House is overdue. He brings to our proceedings deep experience from his time as a courageous human rights lawyer in South Africa in the grimmest years, his important role in the legal team defending Nelson Mandela and others in the Rivonia trial, through his outstanding business career in the United Kingdom, and his committed and effective chairing of Oxfam, not to mention his wider work with an impressive range of voluntary organisations with a cutting edge. Throughout his life the noble Lord has been a man determined to see justice and human rights turned into practical realities. It is therefore altogether appropriate that he has chosen to make his maiden speech in this debate. He will without doubt play a significant part in the work of our second Chamber.

In January, the Council of Europe, where I serve as a member of the British parliamentary delegation, adopted a well researched and argued report on asylum. It made a number of specific recommendations to member governments. The report noted that at its 50th anniversary the Council and its member governments had last year reaffirmed their commitment to the generous vision and values that inspired its creation, not least the right to freedom from persecution. It nevertheless expressed deep concern that those principles are in danger of being undermined by a climate of hostility towards refugees and asylum seekers in Europe. It noted that member governments themselves had been introducing restrictions with a view to reducing the number of refugees and asylum seekers in their countries. It underlined that the increasing determination of the European Union to harmonise the asylum and immigration policies of its members inevitably has significant consequences in terms of additional burdens for European countries which are not members of the European Union. It therefore called for a European-wide convention on the protection of refugees and asylum seekers to be drawn up by member and non-member countries of the European Union alike. I hope that the Government will treat this proposal seriously. If any issue demands maximum international co-operation, not only in Europe but across the world, it is the issue of migration and refugees.

The report also called for the right of asylum to be incorporated into the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. It is really not convincing to argue against this that there is no need as it is already enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So are other rights covered by the European convention. The continued omission of this particular right unavoidably lends credence to the anxieties about ambivalence in commitment to its fulfilment. Surely if the European convention exists to underline the validity of universal rights in our own continent, the right to asylum should be there for all to see. I know that some noble Lords have argued that this might lead to delay in appeals procedures. But this is the kernel of the matter; are we or are we not concerned with justice and with the rights of the persecuted who seek asylum? If we are, appeals are a necessary part of the administration of justice.

Humane asylum policy will not be built on aspirations alone. It is in the detail of its administration and implementation that the humanity will be found. I should perhaps here declare an interest as national president of the YMCA which works increasingly in this sphere. With all its practical experience, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux advocates--the noble Lord, Lord Elton, has drawn attention to this--the introduction of a series of statements of rights with the appropriate statement to be handed out at port of entry or sent whenever immigration status is being varied. Rights to stay or to work would be explicitly covered. Would this not only help applicants but also greatly improve efficiency and administration thereby saving a lot of time and money? How do the Government see this proposal?

Does my noble friend not agree that great care must always be taken about fast-track procedures? Is it not the case that much of the backlog has been caused by appeals against inadequate handling in the fast track? Does he not also agree that it is difficult to reconcile the obligation to consider all applications fully and fairly on their individual merits with so-called "white lists" of countries and the presumption that applications from such countries will be without substance? Can my noble friend enlighten the House on the real role of the so-called "reception" centre at Oakington in this respect? I hope that it is not related to presumptions of the white list variety.

The issue of dispersal--already far advanced in the case of certain London boroughs--raises many issues. Let me mention just three. Are we certain that the religious, dietary and cultural needs of the dispersed can always be met at their destination? Are adequate specialist legal services always available? If not, why should funds not be provided to enable people to travel to where they can gain access to such services? Is it not extraordinary that people who want to support themselves can be prevented from expediting this by being unable to afford to travel to Croydon to chase their work permits, especially when, to have any chance in the daily Croydon queue, they may have to find accommodation overnight?

The charities and voluntary organisations trying to meet the human needs in this complicated story are frequently appalled that applicants and their families can be expected to survive on less than the absolute basic minimum income regarded as essential for our own citizens. They raise with me the issue of our responsibilities under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in this respect. Frankly, they see vouchers as the introduction of a tiresome, bureaucratic nonsense which has no place in a humane system. Repeatedly, I am told that vouchers are costly to administer; that they are inflexible, with no provisions for change; and that they provide no opportunity to shop where it is economic as distinct from where the vouchers are acceptable. Above all, vouchers are seen as humiliating and stigmatising for those compelled to use them. Charities will have to pick up the pieces and, for example, help with clothing when only food can be purchased. I, for one, hope that the Government will be brave enough to think again. In the mean time, we must surely recognise that the costs of meeting the humanitarian needs are a national responsibility and that local authorities and charities should be fully reimbursed.

No one denies that there is abuse or, worse, that there is cruel, cynical trafficking in people. Such trafficking should never be tolerated and must be dealt with severely. But the issue is whether or not we are sincere about the rights of the persecuted to asylum. If we are, deterrence and preoccupation with abuse must never be allowed to obscure our commitment to be a beacon of hope for those at dreadful risk. If we mean what we like to say about Britain being an example of freedom and justice, these are not principles divisible by national frontiers. There will be costs--but by convincingly shouldering those costs we shall strengthen the foundations of our own society.

Photo of The Bishop of Southwark The Bishop of Southwark Bishop 3:53 pm, 1st March 2000

My Lords, I, too, should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, on his fine maiden speech, in which he described his own experience of asylum seeking. I understand from a recent interview with Mr F.W. de Klerk that there are approximately 300,000 people from South Africa now living in London. I am sure that they are making a significant contribution to life here. I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for initiating this debate on a subject of great importance, sensitivity and complexity. His speech reflected those qualities.

The noble Lord seeks to argue the case for policies which are both effective and humane. This, of course, precisely illustrates the challenge. As we know, statistics can support almost any argument. The people of Britain, perhaps wrongly, suspect that Britain has become, in the words of the noble Lord, "a worryingly attractive destination" for those simply wishing to better themselves, and parts of the media feed that anxiety.

On the other hand, with conflict in places such as Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and the Horn of Africa, sadly there are a great number of genuine asylum seekers shuffling around the world. Statistics would also indicate that they are not reaching Britain in disproportionate numbers. Nevertheless, with the backlog of asylum applications and with the fracas at Dover still fresh in public minds, it is necessary to continue to seek effective policies and practices in order that this country can live up to its long tradition of welcoming those fleeing oppression. It would be dreadful if asylum seekers became a political football in the forthcoming local elections, or if they became a scapegoat for an increase in local council taxes, for there are good stories to tell.

The noble Lord, Lord Judd--I agreed with practically every word of his speech--referred to the work of the YMCA. Last week, I visited several YMCA hostels in south London. In each case, a good proportion of the guests comprised young men seeking asylum from places such as Kosovo. They know themselves to be lucky to be alive after fleeing from the war zone shortly before the ethnic cleansing of young men began. Most of them have not been idle while they have been here. Brushing up their language skills has been a first priority, and then getting access to educational courses. Indeed, I met one young man who was already involved in medical studies. He seemed also to be the unofficial leader of a network of do-it-yourself support for other young Kosovans throughout south London. I see the same support networks operating out of ethnic cafes in Streatham, where I live, where refugees from Somalia congregate and share streetwise information. Such information and support can be life-giving to those newly arrived in a strange country. It can, for them, indicate whether or not asylum policies are humane.

I can understand why the Government wish to spread the load of care of asylum seekers around the country, but it is impossible to create precisely this network of self-help support without a critical mass of people from a similar background. I am afraid that there is evidence that what some of us feared about the dispersal policy for asylum seekers is already happening. Rather than being isolated in the Midlands or in the north, people are quietly moving to where their fellow countrymen and countrywomen can be found, even if it means a loss of housing and voucher support. The consortium of London local authorities currently handling arrangements for dispersal to other parts of the country has found that up to 15 per cent of people simply disappear rather than be dispersed.

But on this day, when the Government have issued a new challenge to so-called "failing" schools, I should like to focus on the asylum-seeking children who are now appearing in significant numbers in London schools, a matter to which the noble Lord, Lord Elton, briefly referred in his speech. Not surprisingly, those children are being admitted to schools having vacancies. More often than not, that means that such schools are set in areas of social deprivation and are already over-challenged to meet the needs of their existing pupils.

Let me tell the stories of some children at a single London school. One child had walked north with his family from religious persecution in Iran. They walked for eight months, arrived in Siberia, and then somehow found their way to Britain. He is in that school. There is an 11 year-old boy from Somalia who is so traumatised that he has no memory at all of what happened to him before the age of 10. He is in that school.

There are also several children whose parents simply put them on any vehicle to get them out of the war zone. A barrister and surgeon in Somalia were so worried that their young daughter would be raped by the warring armies that they put her on a ship in the harbour, wherever it was going. It was going to Britain; and she is at that school. There is also a 13 year-old Afghan boy who carried his sick father across the mountains into Turkey. He is at that school. There is a 15 year-old boy still having nightmares because of the tortures he underwent in Somalia. He is at that same school. There are two children whose father was dragged out of their shop in Mogadishu and shot in front of their eyes. Then, fleeing with their mother, the mother was crushed to death under the wheels of a lorry. Somehow, they are at that school. This is an ordinary secondary school in London--and yet it has a multitude of such children.

Children like these, coming from war zones, are often traumatised by what they have witnessed. It is not unusual for a child simply to sit in a corner and sob for days on end. When life has been cheap and death near, the rules and regulations of a British school can seem trivial by comparison. When they do overcome their trauma, because they have never known what it is to play, teenagers can revert to behaviour more appropriate to a six year-old. This means that behavioural problems can be a challenge to an already over-stretched school.

The main factor determining whether or not such children are going to survive and prosper in the British education system is language skill. Without a grasp of English, immigrant children are marginalised and fall ever further behind in their studies. The provision of specialised teachers of English as a second language is absolutely vital. Yet, at that very school, where the children to whom I have referred are being cared for, the very same teachers who keep them sane and give them day in, day out support were given their notice last month--all of them. Why? I am no expert on the machinations of educational reform or government joined-up thinking, but it seems that until April 1999 Section 11 money came from the Home Office to fund teachers of English as a second language at schools where immigrant children are to be found. Last April, EMAG (Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant) replaced the Section 11 money and fell within a DfEE grant called the "Standards Fund". The EMAG money is to be used not only for teaching English as a second language (ESL), but to raise the standards of achievement for children from ethnic minority groups who are under-achieving. So far, so good, for our asylum-seeking children certainly fall within the group.

However, there is a snag. For the full EMAG funding to be available, the local authority must match the central government grant. It will not surprise your Lordships to learn that the very boroughs needing the grants find it difficult to find the matching money. There is another change. The ESL teachers previously employed by the local educational authority are now to be employed by the schools in which they were set.

Let us put all this joined-up thinking together. The borough in which our school is set is giving notice to 18 EMAG teachers; the school is giving notice to three. Of course, it might be that all of them will be re-employed by their school, but as the funding available has been reduced because of the lack of that matching funding, this would seem to be unlikely.

I do not know the economic or educational reasons for making all of these changes. They must have made sense to someone. I do know that it is difficult to talk here about humane policies for asylum seekers when battered, bewildered, traumatised children risk having the most basic of support--the provision of EMAG teachers--gravely weakened.

Whatever else comes out of this debate, I hope that someone in some government department will revisit this issue. Rightly, as we have heard, asylum-seeking children are rarely turned away from British ports of entry. Having admitted them, surely we have a duty to house and educate them in the most humane way possible. A largish hole is developing in that net of support. It needs mending.

Photo of Baroness Seccombe Baroness Seccombe Conservative 4:04 pm, 1st March 2000

My Lords, I add my gratitude to my noble friend for giving us the opportunity to debate what must be one of the most difficult dilemmas facing this country today. I believe that we are one of the most generous and compassionate of peoples and that we can be very proud of our past history in receiving those who have fled their homes fearing for their lives.

At the time of the persecution of many Asians by Idi Amin, thousands of people arrived here just before Christmas. They were sent to centres around the country. I marvelled at the many offers that flooded in as people felt unable to enjoy their own celebrations without sharing it with those whose lives were in turmoil as a result of the evil tactics of a dreadful regime. I also remember hearing at first hand the heartrending stories of mothers who, at a moment's notice, had to gather together all they could and flee. They deserved our love and compassion. I believe that we gave it.

Let me say also that I believe we gained considerably from the people who came here at that time. Indeed, it was with great joy that we were able to welcome into your Lordships' House the third noble Lord to have become a British citizen as a result of Idi Amin's rule. We can hold our heads high in the world in our response to those who are in real trouble with repressive regimes.

However, there is an equally important issue concerning our own people who also have great need. I remember having this demonstrated to me while canvassing in Newham during an election. I climbed an outside staircase to a flat that was obviously run down and seriously in need of repair. An elderly lady came to the door. I could see that she was having difficulty in moving. She told me a haunting story. As a result of her physical disability, she had been on the list for transfer to more accessible accommodation for some considerable time. She pointed to some purpose built flats on the opposite side of the road, one of which it had been suggested she could occupy. She had been looking forward to this, as it was extremely awkward for her to negotiate the stairs up to her flat. I am sure your Lordships can imagine her horror when she saw people moving into her promised accommodation. She inquired and was told that asylum seekers had been moved into the building as it seemed the only way to cope with the situation. She felt utterly let down. It appeared that those who had just arrived were regarded as more important than people like her who had paid their taxes but were now of no use.

The situation has changed over the years and action is now essential. Otherwise it will spiral out of control. The number of applications has increased dramatically from 32,500 in 1997 to 71,160 in 1999. The number of decisions has fallen under this Government from 36,000 to 32,000 with a consequential more than doubling of the number of people--51,795 to 103,000--waiting for a decision. This is unacceptable. May I be so bold as to suggest that it would be helpful if the Minister got to grips with the figures rather than casting them on one side as fanciful and fictional? It does seem that today we are seen as a soft touch--and I do use that word--around the world so that, in addition to real refugees, we are experiencing a massive influx of economic migrants who try to get around the regulations by devious means such as entering the country in the backs of lorries. This is quite unacceptable. A strong message must continue to go out to the effect that this is unacceptable. Illegal immigrants are causing those who are in genuine need to wait longer for their applications to be heard, if they are ever reached.

I wish I could suggest one, but of course there is no easy solution. One major problem is the time factor. I was horrified to read that the average time for reaching a decision is 13 months. During that time applicants have settled into the community and naturally will go through every known process to stay. It seems to me that the greatest attention should be given to the arrival of applicants and if they have arrived via a third country, they should be returned immediately.

I was most interested to hear my right honourable friend in another place, Michael Howard, say over the weekend that the refugees from Kosovo should be encouraged to return to their homeland. We have troops there to keep law and order, so their fears of persecution should diminish. I warm to the idea and feel that such initiatives must be fed into the urgent debate that is necessary to avoid chaos. If applicants are living here for years, getting married and having children, it is almost impossible to come to a logical, clearly thought out decision. I feel also that, at the end of the process, to ask a judge to assess whether a person would be under threat if returned is asking almost the impossible. After all, how can anyone in this country, with scant knowledge of the applicant's country, know what the outcome would be for that particular person?

We have an escalating problem with huge numbers of people making legal applications and, in addition, many going to ground once here. Also, as I have said, some come in undetected. So it is impossible to assess the complete picture. The question of identity cards should be examined again. That would be helpful and is imperative if we are to make inroads into overcoming a very grave problem.

Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 4:11 pm, 1st March 2000

My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, who is the very model of a modern moderator and, like the noble Lord, Lord Renton, has been a respected authority on home affairs for many years. It is a pity that there are not more Conservatives like them in another place who can debate and criticise constructively instead of playing to the tabloid gallery, as so many do.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative

My Lords, does the noble Earl realise what damage he is doing me within my party?

Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord can look after himself.

The growing number of asylum seekers is a legitimate cause for concern, but if we are looking for humane solutions, we should also look overseas at its root causes rather than find scapegoats among the bona fide refugees. It is time we looked again at the refugee problem in the wider context of international development and not just in relation to our own judicial process. I hope that we may find time for that later.

We also have to be patient while the IND catches up with the backlog of cases, which I am confident it will. We have got to have better decision-making and higher quality legal advice so as to identify the genuine victims of oppression who have a right to asylum here. In this House we have to continue to exercise proper scrutiny of asylum legislation and ensure that the treatment of those being examined and detained follows the standards that we would apply to our own citizens. My concern today is that we are not keeping up those standards.

Parts of the Immigration and Asylum Act affecting detained asylum seekers, in spite of our detailed discussion, are still unresolved and some may never see the light of day. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, and others will remember that at various stages of the Bill I expressed a concern about the need for full written reasons for detention in the case of detainees awaiting bail hearings. The noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General and others appeared to sympathise with this in their replies, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, later confirmed in a letter dated 18th December that written reasons in the case of more vulnerable detainees,

"should show what exceptional circumstances justified detention".

To my mind, the least one can do for someone detained against his will, after food and water, is to give him reasons for his detention--in writing. It is a basic human right no one should be denied. Yet we still have no confirmation that the Government have published their stated intention to replace the so-called "checklist", which is all the detainee currently receives, with a new form which provides for individualised written reasons. We saw the form in draft, and I know that the Government have since consulted with interested parties, which is always welcome. But perhaps the Minister can now say when the final form is going to be available. Can he confirm that any history of torture will be featured prominently on the form? As we argued in Committee, if full written reasons are eventually going to be available for a routine bail hearing within seven days, why not combine these and the bail summary in one document? That would save everyone time.

On the question of routine bail hearings, the Minister recently responded somewhat apologetically to my Question for Written Answer, confirming that they have been delayed and that detainees will just have to wait another year. The reasons he gave are administrative and technical, such as the need for prior regulation of advisers. But what are the Government really waiting for? There is no shortage of legal advisers, thanks to the presence of several expert organisations. If they plead that they have a lot on their mind at the moment, so have the detainees. Does it take 18 months to implement a decision about something as fundamental as personal liberty? Surely it would be reasonable to apply the presumption of liberty, and the right to bail set out in Section 46, to existing bail hearings before the routine ones are introduced. I am advised that under Section 53 the Secretary of State is already empowered to do this.

Similar concerns have been expressed to the chief adjudicator in a letter dated 11th February from Bail for Immigration Detainees and the Bail Circle. Bail for Immigration Detainees was started in June 1998 specifically to help immigration detainees to make bail applications. In its first year, it made applications for 128 of them. The Bail Circle was set up a year earlier by the Churches Commission for Racial Justice and is the only organisation dedicated to providing sureties for detained asylum seekers. I should like to pay tribute to the individuals behind these two organisations for the commitment, free time and financial support which they provide to detainees who are very often completely destitute and without any friends or contacts in the UK.

One of their particular concerns, which many of us share, is that the bail summary, which is a fuller statement than the checklist and is presented to the court, is not usually disclosed until the day of the hearing. The director of the Immigration Service Enforcement Directorate has admitted that the present arrangements are "far from perfect". Apparently, ports and enforcement offices fax last-minute messages or give oral briefings to presenting officers to save the staff spending time preparing summaries. Legal representatives therefore arrive in court with imprecise knowledge of the reasons for detention and sometimes new matters are even raised in court which were previously undisclosed by the Immigration Service. To tilt the scales even further against the detainee, if bail is refused the adjudicator may decline to give reasons for refusing it.

Another concern of Bail for Immigration Detainees (BID) is that there is no proper complaints procedure if something goes wrong before the hearing and immigration staff fail to follow the Government's guidelines. There is also concern about the size of bail and the sureties requested by adjudicators. According to BID, some 85 per cent of its clients have been detained since arrival in the UK and they often have no one to call on as sureties, let alone people who can lay their hands on substantial sums of money for bail--four-figure sums. The Bail Circle has only 142 active people on its register, while anything up to 1,000 people are detained at any one time and up to 10,000 may be turned round in one year. I know that my noble friend Lord Hylton has put down a Question for Written Answer on that subject.

The amount of bail set in some cases would seem to contravene the UNHCR guidelines, updated in 1999, which state:

"The amount set must not be so high as to be prohibitive".

Photo of Lord Avebury Lord Avebury Liberal Democrat

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that yesterday I wanted to stand as surety for an Afghan family? When I sent in my building society passbook, which has £5,500 in it, the adjudicator said that he was not willing to accept a piece of paper; he wanted the cash; and he wanted £11,000 for one family.

Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench

My Lords, that is precisely the kind of example that is causing concern. The UNHCR guidelines also emphasise that detention itself cannot become a form of deterrent. The guidelines state:

"The increasing use of detention as a restriction on freedom of movement of asylum seekers on the grounds of illegal entry is a matter of major concern ... It requires the exercise of great caution in its use to ensure that it does not serve to undermine the fundamental principles upon which the regime of international protection is based".

I hope that the Minister can give us an assurance that the UNHCR guidelines on detention are being carefully followed, especially as we are about to witness the expanded use of that system of detention. We are now in the month when the new detention centre opens at Oakington, which will increase the detention capacity by a further 400 places.

The noble Lord, Lord Joffe, gave a maiden speech which was worthy of the great Bishop Bell, the Bishop of Chichester. The noble Lord mentioned children. In the light of previous statements that children are detained only in exceptional circumstances, will the Minister kindly repeat, specifically with regard to Oakington, the assurance (which was made many times by government during the passage of the Act) that no children will be detained except for very brief periods? Those were enumerated by the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General as being, for example, overnight, and only in exceptional circumstances where no alternative exists, such as the care of the local authority or of parents or relations.

Finally, the Minister may remember that in Committee on 28th July last year I moved an amendment requesting regular inspection of detention centres where children are detained. The noble and learned Lord replied that he would draw the attention of the Chief Inspector of Prisons to this matter,

"and suggest the involvement of social services inspectors, if necessary".--[Official Report, 28/7/99; col. 1649.]

I should be grateful to hear from the Minister in due course what arrangements are now being made for inspection.

Photo of Lord Renton Lord Renton Conservative 4:21 pm, 1st March 2000

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich. I admire his sincerity and his experience but, alas, I frequently disagree with him. I must do so on this occasion.

I join other noble Lords in congratulating my noble friend Lord Elton. He has raised a very important matter, one, I fear, of conflict between our desire and the Government's duty to do all we can to raise the standard of living of our own people and the traditional desire, dating back to the 18th century, to grant asylum to foreigners from all over the world who have suffered, or might suffer, cruelty in their own countries.

There is a conflict, and it is only right to point out the human background. In 1950, the population of the United Kingdom was just 50 million. Admittedly, within it England was the most fully populated and in many ways had the more serious social problems in education, housing, and so on. Over the past 50 years, the population has risen to over 60 million. It is right to point out that the increase of 10 million has been caused to the extent of 3 million by people granted asylum or who have been granted the right to come here as immigrants. That is a very large increase.

Naturally, we are all human beings and we all feel sorry for people who are being oppressed abroad--and, goodness knows, that oppression is increasing all the time. But a government's first duty is to our own people. If they find that the numbers coming in, for various reasons, are so considerable and of such a kind that the social progress of our own people is held up, the government have a duty to reconsider the policy, or at any rate to apply it as strictly as possible.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, on his maiden speech--although I did not always agree with it. One admires the noble Lord as an example of what can be done for people who come here from abroad in their youth and who are trained here. Not all, alas, manage to cope as successfully as the noble Lord has done. He mentioned that once a person coming into the country is able to obtain employment, there is no longer a drain on the government. But I ask him to bear in mind that unemployment in this country is still pretty high and does not appear to be getting any lower. So we really do have to consider the number coming in and the effect that that has.

I have before me the figure for those granted asylum in the five years from 1994 and 1998. It was 33,840. That was a reasonable figure of 6,600 a year. But, in addition, large numbers were granted leave to come to this country as immigrants. Over those five years they totalled 300,830, including asylum seekers. I doubt whether we can go on in the way that we have done, so justifiably and in fulfilment of a liability. This was a legal tradition of this country until 1951. It then became an international obligation under the Geneva Convention. It is for consideration whether we should now consult other countries, especially Germany, which has absorbed even more immigrants, as to whether the Geneva Convention should be modified.

Perhaps I may say in passing that the Government are to be warmly congratulated on the attitude they took in dealing with the invasion of an aircraft full of people from Afghanistan. The Government were fully justified in their approach. Alas, we know from the cases decided that many asylum seekers are economic migrants. One feels sorry for them, but we have our unemployed. Many who come in to this country do not speak our language, have no money and will merely add to the unemployment and other social problems.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, in a most interesting speech and one that must be admired, stood up for the London education authorities and the efforts made to train children from abroad who do not speak English and to help them to learn the language. We know that our schools have education problems. Although it was a commendable effort to teach those foreign children, one wonders what effect it had on the education of our native children in those schools. We really must consider that aspect.

One could go on at considerable length in discussing this matter in some detail. I hope that I have said enough to justify any effort that the Government make--they have adduced some evidence that that is their desire--to limit the numbers, ensure that there is less evasion and protect the standard of living, social progress and financial position of our own people.

Photo of The Bishop of Portsmouth The Bishop of Portsmouth Bishop 4:30 pm, 1st March 2000

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for initiating this debate on a subject which receives more and more attention by the day and for his trenchant speech in introducing it. This debate takes place only a week after a Question was asked in this House on a related matter by the noble Lord, Lord Judd. It gives me pleasure to point out that before his arrival here the noble Lord represented a Portsmouth constituency in another place. I am grateful for his contribution this afternoon and for that of my noble friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, whose expertise in this area is considerably more than mine. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, whom I had the pleasure to meet last night, for his maiden speech with its strong personal note and application which was both edifying and moving.

I want to concentrate on the question of the detention of a small minority of the total number of asylum seekers, however that figure is calculated. That is a matter in dispute and is of significance for the reasons which follow. My principal point of contact is the detention centre at Haslar which is run by the Prison Service. Haslar is an area at the southern tip of the Gosport peninsula which takes its name from two Anglo-Saxon words: haesel, meaning hazel, and ora, meaning bank. It was a bank of hazel strewn on the marshy grounds around the Haslar creek to make it passable and habitable in olden times.

Two buildings were erected at Haslar in the mid-18th century: the Royal Naval Hospital, whose sad history figured in the debate in this House on Defence Medical Services three weeks ago, which was initiated by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and the hospital's barracks nearby. The Haslar barracks eventually became a centre for young offenders, and since 1989 it has been used as a detention centre. It has 160 inmates from around 30 countries who fled religious and political persecution, sometimes after beatings and torture. To all intents and purposes they live in prison conditions. The men have more freedom than prisoners; they sleep in dormitories and a number of recreational facilities are made available to them. But they live very confined lives and are cut off from any real contact with their families. Some arrive with or develop psychiatric problems which are difficult to deal with and cannot be explained on the basis of cultural differences.

I saw some of this only last Thursday on a visit in order to baptise and confirm a French-speaking Berber from Algeria. In that connection, I was able to call upon the services of the Anglican Diocese of Quebec for a bilingual order of service. It was the first confirmation that I had ever conducted where the candidate prompted the Bishop rather than vice versa. I visited Haslar only a few days after a visit to Kingston prison in Portsmouth. The two institutions seem similar. However, Kingston is for lifers, not asylum seekers. The way that the men live at Haslar is hardly humane. They need more freedom and that is being pressed for generally by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Nor is such a strategy particularly effective. The view is sometimes expressed that it acts as a deterrent, which is not exactly borne out by the statistics. In any case, I regard that as a misconceived line of argument. In economic terms, the picture is even clearer. It costs very much more to accommodate inmates in a place like Haslar than the assistance given by the Home Office to each asylum seeker who is accommodated by local councils.

In making these observations in no way do I criticise the staff at Haslar who carry out their responsibilities effectively and sensitively. I question the fundamental nature and context of those responsibilities which I believe society has slipped into asking them to fulfil without adequate forethought. I pay tribute to the chaplains to these institutions, of which there are several, including Haslar's local vicar who works with inmates and staff alike, regardless of their religious convictions. I refer back to some of the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Elton. The chaplain to Haslar has pressed for adequate chaplaincy in faiths other than Christianity. I also pay tribute to the visitors' networks, usually organised by local churches, which are often the only ones to provide a lasting link between these centres and local communities.

I believe that overall there are too many groups involved in the business of organising detention. That is a dynamic which is usually a recipe for diffusing responsibility rather than facing up to it and sharing it. Some detention centres are run by the Prison Service, others are not. Different disciplines operate in different places. I am aware that the 1999 Act seeks to make sense of such variations and the much-needed organisation and speeding up of bail applications which has figured in a number of speeches this afternoon. But I believe that a different model from that of the Prison Service needs to prevail, tempting though that may appear to some if only for its familiarity. I look forward to a response on this matter from the Minister either this afternoon or later in written form because it causes a great deal of concern.

In conclusion, I should like to make a general point about the relationship between ethnicity, nationhood, culture and religion. We cannot change our ethnicity. We can change our nationhood only by moving or changing boundaries either by duress or a collective decision. We may opt in and out of some aspects of our inherited culture according to circumstances. We see more obvious signs of that in Britain today. Our long tradition and history which have shaped our collective lives include the Viking invasion with its particular cultural enterprise in the early middle ages. As far as concerns religion, that is, or should be, a matter of choice.

Those factors undergo different kinds of shifts and movements all the time. The seemingly intractable nature of the issue of asylum seekers is evidence of precisely that and brings home to us all that we live a much more fragile and insecure existence than appears to be the case. There are those in our own world who seek to dictate to others on all four of those factors. We are told that about one in every 100 people on the planet has been forced to flee his country because of violence and persecution. Asylum seeking is not an easy or straightforward matter and, like anything else, is open to abuse by either party, as it were. Above all, it needs analysis which puts under the spotlight the economic and foreign policies of countries such as our own. Perhaps more fundamentally, it needs to be pressed vigorously at the international level in the context of human rights.

Photo of Lord Rotherwick Lord Rotherwick Conservative 4:38 pm, 1st March 2000

My Lords, in international law, asylum is the protection granted by a state to a foreign citizen against his or her state. That person has no legal right to demand it and the host state has no legal obligation to grant it. On the other hand, a refugee is a person who is forced to flee from his or her country of origin to escape persecution because of religion, nationality, social grouping or political belief. He or she has no national protection or status and in many instances has been uprooted and is homeless. Hence, most of the large-scale population movements of this century have been of refugees, starting with the 1.25 million who fled Russia during the revolution to the 12 million in Europe at the end of the Second World War, and proceeding in tides of desperate humanity fleeing Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and, more recently, over 2 million from Rwanda and 4.5 million from Yugoslavia.

It is possible that when the situation causing the refugee problem has been put right large numbers of those uprooted will go back to their country of origin. The receiving countries work very hard to ensure such an outcome. The direction of this endeavour is reflected in the ways in which refugees are treated. Often those fleeing are the most able citizens. It is important to their country that those able citizens return to help to rebuild their country.

It also seems that increasingly the distinction between asylum seeker and refugee is being blurred. That may be a reflection of the volume of applications for asylum which, in the past year, rose to a peak of over 7,300 in September. Last year, the September to November numbers for asylum seekers were 42 per cent higher than in previous years. The ever-increasing, gargantuan number of asylum seekers passed over 71,000 last year, as other noble Lords have already said.

The Government's inability to manage the processing has resulted in the numbers awaiting decisions passing over 104,000 in January this year. How will the Government solve that chaos? Will they give amnesty to huge, unprocessed numbers to solve the backlog problem as they have done in the past to potentially 30,000 asylum seekers?

In November last year, the 6,400 who applied for asylum came from over 40 different countries. Those asylum seekers obviously are not daunted by the Labour Party's manifesto which states,

"Every country must have control over immigration and Britain is no exception"; or perhaps they are misunderstanding the Government's rhetoric on being tough on bogus asylum seekers. In short, whichever way one reads the statistics on asylum seekers, this Government's management of the situation needs rethinking.

In all walks of life and in many varying circumstances, one hears well-intentioned, hard-working, caring and compassionate people being adjured to, "Take care of yourself or you will be no help to anybody if you collapse from exhaustion". Perhaps it is time that the Government took steps to ensure that bona fide asylum seekers are not let down by this country because our system is simply not working.

According to the Daily Mail, it costs £400 to process each application--that amounts to more than £25 million for the past year's intake, and more than £40 million to tackle the whole of the waiting list. On top of that, it costs £1,300 a week for each resident in a detention centre.

Perhaps most applicants should be contained in government centres until they are processed as the vast majority are not recognised as refugees and granted asylum. It would deter bogus applicants and enable fairer, faster and firmer processing. The Immigration Service union has estimated that the cost of the asylum process is close to £2 billion a year at present. That is a huge burden on this country, especially when more funding is required for the NHS, schools, and law and order.

The Government are not even expected fully to fund the cost of asylum seekers this year. It is estimated that around £90 million may have to be funded by local authorities. However, there are other hidden costs paid out by various bodies throughout the country. I believe that it costs somewhere in the region of £3 million for the NHS to supply translators in London. That situation must surely be repeated now in all the NHS trusts throughout the country with the dispersing of asylum seekers nationwide. There is the burden on our schools which we have already heard about from other noble Lords, on housing resources and on the forces of law and order.

Perhaps the most appalling problem that has been brought to my attention is the lack of traceability in the system. The system for asylum seekers assigns them to locations, sets up payment through the social security system direct to the landlord for their rent, and allows them a small cash sum every week. The local LEA takes responsibility for teaching any children involved and the local medical service puts them on its books. If they do a midnight flit, no one seems to miss them and grateful landlords continue to receive regular payments. It is amazing that this system of traceability also obtains if asylum seekers are refused leave to enter and are deported or if they return home of their own free will.

It seems clear to me that the system is wrong and that the backlog is merely an added complication. Everybody involved, with the exception of the few landlords guffawing all the way to the bank, pays a heavy cost; none more so than those poor applicants who turn up here by fair means and have to wait and wait, fret and exist on a pittance for years.

Surely the Government can be bold here. How much more effective would our money be were it to be used in the areas from which asylum seekers come to help the adjoining states to receive them. They would be in the same geographical area. They would be among members of their own race, religion, ethnic group and culture already there. If their presence attracted as little as the cost of processing their applications in this country, they would be much better off in most cases.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Is he aware that the system that we currently operate was introduced by his own government when in office? Has the noble Lord estimated how much it would cost the Government if we were to detain all asylum seekers and applicants, given that, according to the figures the noble Lord used, currently there are 100,000 cases outstanding?

Photo of Lord Rotherwick Lord Rotherwick Conservative

My Lords, I accept the point that the noble Lord makes and that the initial cost would probably be a lot higher, but eventually it would reduce dramatically because we would not have 104,000 unprocessed asylum seekers being paid for by the taxpayers. It would surely reduce the very large number of asylum seekers coming into this country.

Can the Minister say what records are being kept to monitor the movement of asylum seekers and those who fail to be granted asylum? Can he say whether the Government are actively removing from this country all bogus asylum seekers?

Photo of Lord Wright of Richmond Lord Wright of Richmond Crossbench 4:47 pm, 1st March 2000

My Lords, like other speakers, I welcome the initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, in opening up this important and topical subject for debate today. Current attention in the media tends to concentrate on two aspects of asylum policy: first, that Britain is regarded world-wide as a "soft touch", if the noble Lord, Lord Elton, will forgive me for using those words, and that our problems with asylum seekers are worse than those of other countries; secondly, that our main aim must therefore be to keep people out since letting them in adds to pressures on our social services with no compensating benefits.

I hope that this debate will have helped to put both these impressions into perspective. It is probably true that our long-established minority communities, our reputation as a haven for refugees, our generous benefits system, our appeals procedures, and the virtual absence of any after-entry controls, make Britain an attractive destination, although I am bound to say that some of the points made by noble Lords this afternoon, including those made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth, make me wonder quite what is Britain's attractiveness for asylum seekers.

But let us put this into perspective. We need to compare our figures with the very much higher figures for Germany, even though I understand that we exceeded German numbers in December for the first time, and also the higher per capita numbers for the Netherlands and France. We also need to remember that 80 per cent of all refugees remain in the developing world. Other noble Lords may be as surprised as I was to learn that Iran has the largest refugee population in the world with more refugees than all 15 European Union countries put together.

Of course we should continue to take steps to keep out those whose claims for asylum are unfounded, and to prosecute those criminals who are duping and fleecing hundreds of illegal immigrants through clandestine networks. According to the International Organisation for Migration, those networks are probably responsible for attempts to smuggle up to 1 million people in a multinational business worth 8 billion dollars. Visa regimes, and the screening of passengers before embarkation, must no doubt continue to play a part in immigration control. But it is important that our national reputation for generosity to refugees and genuine asylum seekers, without which many of our forebears in this House--like, indeed, the maiden speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Joffe--would never have ended up as British citizens, is not eroded by necessary attempts to keep out the bogus and illegal.

Britain has a long and honourable tradition of providing asylum to people seeking refuge from persecution. As a leading member of the international community and upholder of its values, with a growing reputation for a multiracial, diverse and entrepreneurial society, it is vital that we maintain that tradition.

We should also bear in mind the fact that ageing populations in the European Union (and especially in Germany and Italy) mean that, despite the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, increasing numbers of workers from outside the European Union will be needed in the future. The United Nations Population Division has estimated that the European Union may need as many as 159 million immigrants by the year 2025 to balance our ageing populations. It is quite probable that many of those who are currently seeking asylum in this country could contribute their skills to economic growth and social stability. Should we not be looking for mechanisms to enable them to enter this country by legitimate means rather than via the asylum route?

Most importantly, we need to put this problem into the context of our wider European and foreign policies: our human rights obligations, including those under the 1951 Geneva Convention; and our international developmental policies towards those countries, of which Mozambique is a terrifying current example, which are staggering under the burdens of man-made and natural disasters. I hope that the Minister can assure the House that the Department for International Development takes into account the source of our main refugee flows--Somalia, the former Republic of Yugoslavia and Sri Lanka--in prioritising our aid policies. Reducing migration pressures must, after all, play a major part in eradicating poverty.

Finally, I hope that the Minister can assure the House that we are making the best use of European political co-operation and our diplomatic representation abroad, both bilaterally and multilaterally, in addressing these problems. It is clearly important that visa regimes should be efficiently and promptly administered. But visas do not only stop those not entitled to come here; they can also discourage the flow of genuine visitors and legitimate businessmen, with the consequent negative impact on trade and investment prospects.

Having myself had experience of some diplomatic posts in which the visa section comprised well over half our home-based staff, I know how important it is not to let migration control dominate our bilateral relations. That is perhaps especially true of our relations with European Union accession countries, which are probably the greatest current source of abusive asylum claims among non-visa nationals but which will be our full partners in the European Union within two or three years. Are we doing enough to explain to and co-ordinate our immigration policies with those governments from where the main flood of asylum seekers comes? I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us something about the prospects for greater European co-operation and harmonisation in this field, following the decisions of the Tampere European Council last October, and for developing a global approach with our European partners for effective and humane immigration and asylum policies.

Photo of The Earl of Longford The Earl of Longford Labour 4:55 pm, 1st March 2000

My Lords, Latin is not often quoted in this House. However, two Latin words come to my mind: sum timida (I am as timid as a timid woman). Following learned speeches and the memorable maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, I may wonder why I speak. However, I am a kind of religious acolyte of the noble Lord, Lord Elton: where he leads I am bound to follow.

The subject of the debate is one of the most difficult of the issues discussed in this House. The moral, legal and administrative issues are hopelessly intertwined. On the moral side, the noble Lord, Lord Elton, is well qualified to give a lead. I attend every week the prayer group inspired by him; and, naturally, I therefore join the queue of people supporting the noble Lord's Motion.

I shall not deal with the problem about who should be let in. Other learned people have spoken on that. Starting from the standpoint of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, I ask: is there a Christian approach to the question? In the Gospels we are told that Christ told us, "I was a stranger and you took me in". It would be hard to follow that literally in our home or in the state. Nevertheless, I am sure we are all happier in our conscience if we believe that in this ever more prosperous country--I am glad to think that it is now more prosperous than it has ever been--we have a large share of the attempt to help those who are persecuted abroad.

What is persecution? When I was at Eton--100 years ago, or thereabouts--I was told by a friend near the end of my time there that I was the most unpopular boy in the school. It may or may not have been true. I thought that he was. But I was not persecuted. I was captain of the house football team which won the school cup; and I was near the top of the sixth form. I doubt whether I would have gained admission to Winchester or Harrow as an asylum seeker.

A contemporary of mine was teased unmercifully, partly because he was very bad at cricket. We were a cricket-mad house. My housemaster was a famous cricketer. The late Gubby Allen was cricket captain, after whom the stand is now named at Lords. Plum Warner, another cricket captain, like Gubby Allen, and captain of England later, used to visit us the whole time because his son was in the house. My poor friend was very short-sighted and no good at cricket, so he was teased unmercifully. So he might well have said that he was persecuted. He went on to become Lord Chancellor and more distinguished than any of us. Undoubtedly, the limited persecution we afforded him may or may not have benefited him, but he was the object of persecution at school and made good in a big way later. As regards persecution, someone has to decide. I do not question the machinery, but the process takes a long time. I know the keenness of the Minister, the Government and everyone else to speed up the process.

I am not concerned to decide who is persecuted--I leave that to other better informed people--but I should like to know what happens to the people while they are waiting for a decision to be made. As one would expect, we are given advice from the Bishops, from the Minister and from many other people, but the Minister will tell us how the process can be speeded up.

In the meantime, people are waiting one or two years and what is done about them? My Church, the Roman Catholic Church, has expressed its anxiety under various headings and I have given the Minister notice of them. The first is poverty. What about the poverty of the people waiting throughout the interminable period while they are being examined? I am informed that their standard of living is only 70 per cent of what is regarded to be the minimum in this country. Is that Christian?

The second is the voucher system. It is not clear who invented it and we claim that the Conservatives did. Whoever invented the system, it has few friends among those who care for the unfortunate asylum seekers. A number of experts will speak on the voucher system and all that goes with it.

The third heading is dispersal. Will the people scattered throughout the country be well looked after? The Minister may tell us that they will be, but it seems doubtful. Will they receive legal advice if they are scattered all over the place? Those and many other problems are associated with asylum seekers. Will resources be made available to the areas which take many of the people?

I have given the Minister notice of those questions and I felt it right to raise them. They are in the minds of so many people. I know that the Minister is a serious and compassionate man and that he will give careful answers. He may run out of time and be unable to deal with my questions in detail, but I know he will deal with the debate in a thorough fashion.

Photo of Lord Carr of Hadley Lord Carr of Hadley Conservative 5:02 pm, 1st March 2000

My Lords, I, too, express my gratitude to my noble friend Lord Elton for bringing forward the Motion. I join others in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, on an outstandingly and deeply experienced maiden speech. It is more than the usual form of words to say that we hope to hear from him often in the future.

I particularly welcome the wording of my noble friend's Motion; the inclusion of the words "effective and humane". They are essential to a consideration of the subject. We have a long and proud tradition of accepting people from other countries who are in trouble and distress. Not only can we be proud of that on humanitarian grounds, but it has benefited us economically and socially. When I was Home Secretary many years ago, I had the privilege--I will say "privilege"--of having to cope with the Ugandan Asians. They have certainly proved the economic benefit which people from abroad can bring to this country. Even now, 20-odd years later, I receive letters and Christmas cards from Ugandan Asians in various parts of the country telling me of the economic success they are enjoying and the economic benefit they are bringing to those among whom they live.

However, modern conditions have made the acceptance of this duty and privilege much more difficult to bear. I am glad that among our contributors today is the noble Lord, Lord Wright, who, with his Foreign Office experience and knowledge, greatly stressed the need for action within the foreign policy field. We must get out there and try to deal with some of the problems which give rise to the flood of people coming to this country. No magic will take it away, but it ought to be an important part of our policy to bring to bear all the pressure, help and persuasion we can to those in other countries whose actions--or lack of them--affect the pressure of the onward flow to this country.

Today, I want to stress the fundamental importance of the quick decision. We must get rid of the huge backlog. It is not a subject we can bandy about with party political credits or debits. Governments of both parties have tried and failed. When I was Home Secretary 25 years ago, I did not believe that all the mistakes had been made by my predecessors or now by my successors. It is a hideously difficult problem. However, we must get rid of the backlog because a long waiting list encourages a longer one. People can see that once they arrive here they have a chance of refuge for a few years before being sent away. That must be an incentive if you are in a hopeless condition in an unfriendly country.

We must think about the problem anew. Perhaps I am about to say something which can be criticised on moral as well as practical grounds, but I believe that we need to draw a line under the existing queue and start again with a new queue when the new operation begins on 1st April. We should say that from that date a quick decision will be made on everyone--within two or three months at the most--because, if we continue to add to the existing queue, we shall increase the belief that people can come and stay. That is not only depressing to those who come and provides bad opportunities to the least conscientious of them, it is also a depressing factor for our own population.

I do not mean that having drawn a line under the queue they should be forgotten about. I am saying in broad and un-thought-out terms that one team of people should work on the old queue and another should work on the new one. Then at least from April onwards everyone coming here will be decided about quickly and not added to the bottom of an over-long queue. I realise that one can find moral and practical difficulties in the suggestion, but they need to be overcome. I have thought about the problem a good deal over the years and I see no hope in adding people to the queue and then trying to reduce it.

Furthermore, I am convinced that more resources are needed. We shall not get quick decisions until we have allocated more resources. More resources in the short run are the only way of saving money in the longer run. Before and after my ministerial career I have been a businessman and that suggestion comes easier to me than to Ministers and politicians and even easier than it comes to the Treasury. I have believed for a long time that the amount of money we waste by taking short-term rather than long-term financial views is beyond calculation.

I believe that all of us, on all sides of the House, should be prepared to bring pressure to bear on the Government and to support them in providing a large temporary influx of resources in terms of people, and therefore money, to tackle the problem of those waiting. I am sure that until quick decision-making is in place we shall not get rid of the worst problems of the present situation.

That brings me to the present policy of the Government, which I approve in principle, of dispersing those who are waiting for a decision. Yes, I agree with that policy, but I believe that dispersal should take place only after a decision has been made. I do not believe that dispersing asylum seekers prior to a decision will be helpful. I believe that it will spread discontent and exacerbate the difficulties of dealing with the queue. People will have to travel to an interview when it is time for them to be seen. I believe that dispersal before a decision is made is very dangerous. Once a decision has been made, then dispersal should of course take place. If people are allowed to stay, their dispersal should be guided as far as possible to areas where others from their own country have already settled. That means--again, I return to resources--that the local authorities of the areas to which the asylum seekers are going must be given adequate financial help.

I know that local authorities have always complained to governments that they do not receive adequate financial help. I believe that that is probably true. One should consider the feelings of the local population. They will not tolerate resources allocated to local authorities for their benefit--that is, for their homes and for schools for their children--being diverted to newcomers. Therefore, when dispersal takes place, the local authorities must be given adequate resources to meet the extra expenditure which the Government imposes upon them.

This debate could continue for a long time in a number of areas. I want to make one small point which has been brought to my attention by the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. I came into contact with that organisation many years ago. It does the most magnificent work for the people whom it helps. It is somewhat concerned about the possible effect of strengthening the number of local representatives who try to stop people from coming to this country. While it understands the need for that, it also sees a great danger: if in the areas from which they are trying to escape it is known that people are being interviewed, that draws the attention of the authorities in those countries to the very people who are most at risk of persecution. The organisation is not saying that that has occurred but, in strengthening the local questioning of people, it asks the Government to take particular care to do so in a way that does not draw those people to the attention of the authorities from whom they are trying to escape.

I hope that we shall find that this is a matter on which all parties can unite, above all in providing adequate resources to tackle the problem. I end as I began: only when we carry out a big attack through adequate resources in the short run shall we have any hope of solving the problem in the long run.

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench 5:13 pm, 1st March 2000

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for calling this timely debate and I congratulate my noble friend Lord Joffe on his eloquent speech. Following on from what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Carr, it will be extremely useful to have an expert on queues to keep pushing on this issue.

Listening to the debate this afternoon, I was struck by the thought that much of the problem is one of perception. I once lived by a housing estate in south London off the Old Kent Road. It was one of the largest housing estates in Europe. When I consider this matter, I try to understand how someone living in that area would perceive the problem: someone who is insecure about housing and employment and who may never have been beyond these shores. Of course, to someone such as that, strangers who speak a tongue which they do not understand, who have a culture which they do not know and who have a different religion, could be seen as threatening.

However, again, as my noble friend Lord Joffe said, we could see those incomers as a wonderful resource for the future, perhaps meeting our future employment needs. Therefore, the issue is quite largely one of perception. I believe that it is very much a job for the Government to do all that they can to persuade people and to give reassurance. For example, I believe that people should be more aware of the appalling experiences that genuine asylum seekers have undergone in their own countries. I am sure that many more people would be prepared to do without a little of what they have--for example, to pay an extra few pounds on their council tax--if they felt more sympathy for those entering the country.

In many different ways, I believe that it is necessary to tackle this problem by engaging the resident population. Earlier, we spoke of the need for English tuition in schools and the desperate shortage particularly of one-on-one tuition for young people who cannot speak any English. Surely there is a way to harness the local population in that type of work. It would save money and would provide a way of integrating local people and newcomers. I know that the Government recently published an integration document. I am sure that they have taken this matter seriously. However, I believe that the matter needs to be very strongly pushed.

Why is it particularly important to adopt humane policies towards unaccompanied children and young people who seek asylum? Last year I talked to an 18 year-old woman from West Africa. She was living in the Centrepoint hostel in Soho for young homeless people. We had talked for some while. I asked her what her home country was like. That led to her describing to me what had become of her sister. Walking in the street, her sister had been stopped by a gang of soldiers. A game of chance followed. Either she would lose her hand (a "handy"), her arm (an "army") or she would lose her life. The sister was murdered. As she told me this story, the young woman wept.

A young Somali man of about 18 years of age--an upright young man who had been sleeping on the streets of King's Cross for two months--told me that his parents had been killed. He should not have been on the streets; he should have been met at the port of entry. I did not manage to find out from him why he fell through the system, but it was quite clear from his state of exhaustion that he had been on the streets for two months. His parents had been killed. As for his brothers, he had no idea where they were but he feared the worst for them. He had been so long without sleep and was under such stress that he found it hard to concentrate. Intelligent as he clearly was, his mind would begin to wander after a minute or so.

Normally, the hostel's maximum length of stay is three weeks. There is a curfew and residents are obliged to leave the hostel between 9 a.m. and 3.30 p.m. during the day. Residents are not allowed to spend more than half an hour in their rooms before lights out. The two public areas are noisy and cramped. Yet, asylum seekers are staying there for three months or more. There is a severe lack of available accommodation into which young homeless people may be moved, and that most especially affects young asylum seekers.

I believe that we should treat humanely all young people who seek asylum from persecution. We need to treat all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and young people with care because they are a long way from home and are very vulnerable.

For the protection of the young seeking refuge, it is most important to have effective asylum policies. It is extremely difficult for a child or young person to cope away from his family and in an alien country. I have seen young men from Africa and the Balkans degenerate as they attempt to grow up without parents. Parents sometimes send their children to the United Kingdom because they know of the economic opportunities here. I know that it is a difficult matter but I believe that they should be discouraged from doing so.

The first priority must be to give those children and young people the support that they need when they are here. But the second priority must be to go to their home countries, as my noble friend Lord Wright and the noble Lord, Lord Carr, have said. We must be proactive and inform parents of the difficulties that their children will face, growing up without parents in England. They may end up in children's homes. Sadly, we know how inadequate those homes can be. Oxfam and Save the Children are already making efforts in that direction but I am sure that they need more support than they are receiving at present.

The Refugee Council urges that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and young people should have fast-track assessments. Given what has been said already this afternoon, that may seem rather too much to ask. But, if it is safe for a child to return home, it is best that that is done at an early stage. That is less disruptive for the child. After some time--and again, this has already been mentioned--it becomes extremely difficult to tear the child away from the new environment into which he has settled. Will the Minister tell the House whether there will be a fast-track assessment for unaccompanied children and young people? Does he agree that family reunion here and in the home country are both extremely important goals?

So policies towards asylum seekers need to be effective for the sake of asylum seekers. They also need to be effective to protect the under-privileged of our own society and to prevent ethnic hatred. At lunch today, I was speaking to my secretary, who has a house in Kent. She is concerned about whether her local authority must meet the costs in connection with asylum seekers. She wanted to know whether she, in Kent, would have to take responsibility for asylum seekers arriving in this country rather than the burden being shared with the rest of the taxpayers in Britain. Already, I sensed a feeling of resentment and memories of a friend whose jewellery was stolen by some immigrants. That spiral of resentment, fear and hatred may be extremely quick to establish itself.

I hope that the Government will take every possible measure to reassure those living in the inner cities that they are not threatened by the incomers. They should do everything they can to unite and knit together our society. I should hate to see us in a situation similar to that which exists in the United States. That country may have a more open-door policy which may work economically but very often the social fabric of society there seems to have collapsed.

Photo of Lord Dholakia Lord Dholakia Liberal Democrat 5:23 pm, 1st March 2000

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for introducing this debate today. He and I share many common interests and, therefore, I am delighted to contribute on the subject which he has chosen on this particular occasion.

I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, on his maiden speech. He brings great credit to this House in citing his own personal example on this very important subject. We are grateful to him. I hope that we shall hear from him on many other occasions.

The core of the argument today, as identified by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, and advanced by many noble Lords, is that policy towards asylum seekers should be effective and humane. That is the test of our civilised values, and nothing should detract us from those basic principles.

Immigration and asylum matters are fairly emotive. Despite the nature and effects of the immigration and asylum legislation, the circumstances surrounding it remain contentious. The purpose of the Immigration Act is not in dispute: it is to admit those who are eligible and to exclude or, subject to the appropriate humanitarian principles, to remove those who are not.

I have said before--but I repeat--that in any administrative system, questions arise about priorities. The administration of asylum procedures is no exception. In this instance, the need to exclude the ineligible--in this case, mainly the economic migrants--means that checks must be made to determine who is and who is not eligible.

The Government should have realised that the greater the emphasis on excluding the ineligible, the more intensive those checks must be. We seem to forget that the more intensive the checks, the more complicated they are to administer and thus there is more delay for those who are eligible. But if the objective of excluding those who are ineligible is taken to extremes in matters which are not susceptible to documentary proof, the risk of excluding those who are genuine becomes very serious indeed.

The matter is not helped by hostile press coverage in the past few weeks. It reminded me of similar coverage when the Conservative government, led by Ted Heath, Robert Carr, David Lane, Iain Macleod and others, agreed to admit 28,000 Ugandan Asians to this country. I pay tribute to, and am delighted to see, the noble Lord, Lord Carr. He mentioned that particular incident. That was a brave political decision by a party which enshrined humanitarian principles in its core values. That was leadership at its best. As the noble Lord, Lord Carr, quite rightly pointed out, the East African Asians have repaid that trust by contributing economically to the prosperity of their new homeland. Therein may lie the answer to many of the questions posed by the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick.

Asylum matters require sensitive handling and the debate should be focused on our moral and legal obligations towards the innocent victims of human rights violations. That does not mean an open-door policy. Nobody advocates that; but as Amnesty International says, we should be less preoccupied as to which government have been most effective in adopting robust policies to deter people seeking refuge here. The Government have a duty to lead. We are waiting for that particular leadership.

We can all start brandishing figures about the number of asylum seekers entering this country. We heard some of those figures today. I shall resist that temptation, but we cannot escape the fact that in recent days we have seen large-scale abuses of human rights in Europe. It is still a fact that in terms of asylum applications per 1,000 inhabitants, the United Kingdom ranks ninth in Europe. Even more important is the fact that in 1999, over half--54 per cent--of asylum decisions resulted in positive outcomes.

I am concerned that in recent days articles have been published specifically whipping up antagonism against unaccompanied asylum-seeker children. Representatives of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, which the noble Lord, Lord Carr, mentioned, tells me that none of the children with whom they are working came here of their own volition. All were brought or sent. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark quite rightly described how they came to be in this country.

Children and adolescents faced with traumatic events and situations cannot work through the stages of development in the normal manner. They become overwhelmed by their experiences of torture and atrocity in their own country and by their experiences here. Children who are overwhelmed cannot develop until the consequences have been worked through. The situation is exacerbated by the discontinuity of exile, depriving children of the community, carer and cultural backdrop against which they can develop and make the transition from childhood to adulthood. The uncertainty over whether they will be allowed to stay here may in itself result in arrested development.

The Medical Foundation has long sought to encourage the use of powers under the Children Act to provide extra support to asylum-seeking children up to the age of 21. Yet, in the Daily Mail on 23rd February, members of the Immigration Service union suggested that because of cases involving age dispute, a new category of asylum-seeking children over 15 should be created. That is symptomatic of an approach which loses all sight of those whom the system exists to protect and which penalises the person in need of protection for the perceived sins of others.

Recent debates in the House of Commons, notably on 2nd February, have done little or nothing to counter such hostility and in many cases have sought to fan it. That increases social tension, social exclusion, and the isolation and marginalisation of asylum seekers. It also increases harassment, including violent attacks. The House of Lords resolutely refused to go down this route in the debates on the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, and trusts that the Minister would condemn any hostility which results in violence to those who came here to escape the same.

We need fair and effective procedures. Following the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, a number of voluntary organisations got together to produce the report entitled Providing Protection. That report emphasised the need to focus attention and resources on making sustainable initial decisions the cornerstone of an asylum policy that would be both effective and humane. It made clear the need to "front load" the system.

The principle of "front loading" has yet to be taken on board. One example cited by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, is the new detention centre in Oakington in Cambridge, due to open in late March. Cases are to be selected for Oakington on the basis that they are manifestly unfounded, but there will be no substantive asylum interview until the person is already detained in that centre.

How can a case be identified as manifestly ill founded before it has been investigated? The question arises in the context of Oakington as to what will be known about the applicants save their nationality and method of entry. Among clients referred to the Medical Foundation this month are nationals from Turkey, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Russia, Northern Cyprus, Bulgaria, Togo, Ethiopia, Iran, Afghanistan, Cameroon, Burundi, Eritrea and Algeria. Torture crosses many national boundaries. A cursory look at the country from which a person came cannot tell us what torture or atrocity he or she has suffered.

In the White Paper entitled Fairer, Faster, Firmer, the Government stated that evidence of a history of torture should weigh strongly in favour of temporary admission or temporary release while a claim is being considered, yet there is no evidence of that being applied in the case of detention. That has never been checked. We need to find out whether such factors are taken into account before detention is authorised.

Similarly, the Government stated that the detention of families and children is particularly regrettable but that it is sometimes necessary to effect the removal of those who have no authority to remain in the UK. Nobody disputes that. However, is it not right that such detention should be effected as close to removal as possible?

I ask that we do not get excited about the numbers game; that is not the issue. As the noble Lord, Lord Carr, rightly pointed out, the issue is for us to deal as efficiently and humanely as possible with the numbers of people on the waiting list. I believe that a time will come when those in genuine fear of persecution and those who have been tortured will rightly be allowed to stay in this country. They will make a positive contribution here, as have many other people in the history of this country. I hope that will be the case in this instance.

Photo of Lord Cope of Berkeley Lord Cope of Berkeley Conservative 5:34 pm, 1st March 2000

My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for securing the debate and for the measured way in which he launched it. Asylum and, indeed, all immigration, is a subject which can be full of emotion in both directions. My noble friend got us off to an excellent start. I am sure, too, that all noble Lords appreciated the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Joffe. He joins us with a fine reputation. Having heard his moving maiden speech, we shall all look forward to his future contributions.

The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, asked that we do not get stuck in the numbers game. As an accountant, I am afraid I often get stuck in the numbers game, as many noble Lords will appreciate. It is necessary to look at the numbers in order to understand the position. The starting point for the debate, and many of the contributions, has been the number of asylum seekers and the number of decisions made.

This has not been a political debate and I do not wish to make it so. However, in the past the Minister suggested that in 1997 the Government inherited a deteriorating situation. That was not the case. In the last year of the Conservative government, there were 28,000 applications, 39,000 decisions and a declining backlog of under 50,000. That compares with double the backlog, fewer decisions and many more applications in 1999.

Applications increased in the United Kingdom by more than in comparable countries over the period since 1997. In some respects, that reflects the terrible situation in certain other countries which cause people to be driven out. However, it also reflects the impression given by the new Government, who opposed all the tough measures of their predecessors. Leaving that on one side, as a result of the Act passed last year after long debates in which many noble Lords took part, we are in the middle of a complicated transitional period.

Several points have arisen with regard to the short-term position. In 1999 the Government started a backlog clearing exercise, somewhat along the lines suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, and referred to by my noble friend Lord Carr. In that year I understand that 12,500 cases were decided under that exercise. At that rate of decision-making, the backlog of 100,000 would have taken eight years to clear, but matters have speeded up since then. Of those 12,500 "backlog exercise decisions" 90 per cent were admitted, a far higher percentage than for "normal decisions". I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us the latest figures under the backlog clearing exercise.

There is also the wider question of how many applications are now being processed in total. The latest figures suggest approximately 4,000 per month. However, we are promised that that figure will soon reach 8,000 per month. That is a large increase, although the backlog is still likely to increase this year.

Perhaps I may give your Lordships a measure of the scale of the issue. Next year, if decisions run at the promised rate of 8,000 per month, which is twice the present rate, and applications remain at the December level of 7,000, we shall clear the backlog at the rate of around 1,000 per month. That would also take eight years. It is a matter of fact that 8,000 decisions is an optimistic figure; on the other hand, 7,000 applications a month may prove to be a pessimistic figure and I hope we may do better than that. The figures indicate that it is essential that, whatever else happens, the rate of dealing with applications--including the one-stop appeal introduced under the 1999 Act--should be seriously speeded up.

I should like the Minister to tell us also what the target now is for getting rid of the backlog. The Permanent Secretary to the Home Office told the Public Accounts Committee in October that the whole backlog would be cleared by October 2000. In a Written Answer in another place yesterday it was said that it was hoped to reduce the backlog of asylum decisions to "frictional levels" by April 2001. I am not sure what "frictional levels" are. It may be a misprint for "fractional" though that does not make sense either. I hope it means levels below which there is no friction, though that is not what it says. The Minister seemed to be saying that they hoped to reach their target by April 2001. That is not what the Permanent Secretary said and I shall be grateful for the Minister's views on the matter.

There is then the vexed question of what happens to those whose asylum applications are refused. My noble friend Lord Elton drew attention to this at the beginning of our debate and the problems of removal, so I do not need to spell it out. But I hope the Minister will give us a clear idea of how many people disappear from view, either by taking themselves overseas or into the population. All the other figures are known so the difference should be those who disappear from view. I accept, as a result of exchanges we had the other day, that it is not the full 13,000, which is the difference between those refused and those applying (because of appeals and so forth); but how many is it?

We made provision in one of the clauses of the 1999 Act to permit removal action to be started before an appeal had finally failed. Can we assume that removal action will now be automatically started on the day refusal is decided or an appeal fails?

There have been many references this afternoon to the new support system. We were originally told that it would start on 1st April. It will, but only for relatively few people within the system. I am not surprised at that. It is difficult to get it off the ground and it was always an extremely ambitious target, as we pointed out at the time. However, we need to be clear what the position is, as do the local authorities who have to manage much of it, and there are only 30 days left before it begins.

Five categories are involved in the new system. Those who claimed asylum at a port before 1st April will receive social security benefits until a decision is taken to refuse them. If they appeal they go into the second category and join those who claimed asylum in country before 1st April. They will continue on the present local authority interim arrangements, being given either cash or vouchers, depending on what the local authority thinks best, paid for in theory by the Home Office. I say "in theory" because local authorities complain that the Home Office is not sufficiently reimbursing them. Those who apply after 1st April who are families will be on the new Home Office voucher and accommodation scheme. The right honourable gentleman the Home Secretary said in earlier debates that it would be worth the same as social security. But for a couple with two children it will apparently be worth £110 a week and not the £150 which a normal family of the same size would receive through social security.

Those without children who apply after 1st April will also be on the new Home Office voucher and accommodation system, but it will be worth less. Finally, there are the unaccompanied young people aged under 18. They were mentioned by several noble Lords and they have been left out of the new dispersal arrangements. I am told that there are 850 in Kent alone at the moment and that the numbers are rising. As has been said, their position needs urgent consideration. Families are now being fast-tracked. We all appreciate the humanitarian reasons for that, but the unaccompanied minors are a more deserving case for fast decision-making.

Another concern that has arisen is health. There is serious concern that there is a shortage of TB vaccine and TB screening facilities. The rates of TB in Hillingdon and London are rising. Health workers are at risk and the schools programme in this respect has had to be suspended. That is extremely worrying.

All those matters are in the course of change as the new Act comes into force. It makes it difficult to see where we are. We are looking at moving pictures picked out of a film rather than at stationary pictures.

I recognise the problems the Government face in dealing with the situation. Underlying it all are the problems which give rise to refugees. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees lists 21 million refugees worldwide who are of concern to them. Some of them, and their ancestors, have been on their books for 50 years, notably the Palestinian refugees. Of course we need to put both thought and resources into trying to reduce the causes of migration movement. But in all parts of the House we want our country's behaviour towards asylum seekers to be both "effective and humane". Sadly, the debate tended to demonstrate that we do not live up to either aspiration at the moment.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office 5:46 pm, 1st March 2000

My Lords, this has been a very good and in large measure well-informed debate. It does great credit to your Lordships' House.

There have been many contributions--some 20 speakers in all. I particularly enjoyed the contribution made by the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, in his maiden speech. It was persuasive, perceptive, understanding, born of considerable personal experience and made with great dignity. I also greatly enjoyed the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond. Again it was persuasive and contained some important insights, not least those which focused on the work which needs to be done in many of the countries. The work that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office does in that regard will greatly help us in tackling some of the problems that visit our shores.

I also greatly enjoyed the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Carr. It was well tempered and well measured, again born of valuable inside experience. He made telling points, particularly in relation to waiting lists, queues and the way in which we need to put together our resources and focus them where they are best used. His experience of dealing with the Ugandan crisis stands us in good stead today. It shows a very humane approach, in my view.

There is a tendency for debate on asylum policies to focus on immediate problems or pressures; that is inevitable. Today's debate has provided us with the valuable opportunity to stand back and consider the broader principles on which effective and humane asylum policies should be based. We owe a great debt to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, for providing us with the opportunity of focusing on "effective and humane" policies. He has the twin pillars of the argument in place in the subject in front of us.

I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, was right to say that, in this policy field above all others, we need to demonstrate and show leadership. That is exactly what the Government intend to do; have intended to do; and have been trying to achieve since we took office. Many speakers made most important points. I have a stack of questions here that I shall try to address, either during the course of my commentary or towards the end of my remarks. However, if I do not cover all the points raised, I am sure that noble Lords will appreciate why. Without overburdening the correspondence section of my office, I shall try to respond more precisely to those questions that need a very precise response.

As many noble Lords observed, the policies that we operate as a government and the decisions that we take in individual cases may, quite literally, be the difference between life and death. Equally, there can be no doubt that a substantial number of asylum applicants do not qualify for asylum. In some cases, they cynically exploit the asylum process to evade normal immigration control. Our policies must recognise and deal effectively with those twin tensions. We must ensure that we are able to protect genuine refugees while deterring and dealing firmly with those who do not qualify for asylum. Those who seek to abuse the system do great damage to the interests of the genuine refugee. That point was tellingly made by the noble Lord, Lord Elton. We must face that problem and deal with it.

It was for those reasons that, shortly after coming into office, we undertook a fundamental review of immigration and asylum policies--a plea made by the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, in some of his comments. The results of that review were set out carefully in a White Paper, Fairer, Faster and Firmer--A Modern Approach to Immigration and Asylum, which was published in July 1998. We thought that comprehensive and radical reform was needed to tackle the deep-rooted problems that we inherited. Piecemeal change over the years produced a complex and, in our view, slow system. As a result of some ill-considered legislation, the arrangements for supporting destitute asylum seekers were--I have used this word before--a shambles. It was clear to us that fundamental reform was needed to deliver a system that is both effective and humane.

Fundamental to the strategy set out in the White Paper was the Government's determination to fulfil our obligations under the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. As has been said many times this afternoon, we have a proud tradition of giving shelter to those fleeing persecution. We are determined to uphold that tradition. Having accepted refugees, we must do more to help them integrate effectively into our community. For that reason, we are developing clearer strategies to assist such integration--a lesson that I believe we learned from governments in the past, not least the Conservative administration of the early 1970s. We issued a consultation paper on refugee integration last year to which responses were received in mid-December. We are now studying them to see how best to proceed.

We should not overlook or forget a point made--and, indeed, emphasised by his mere presence here--by the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, regarding the enormous contribution that refugees have made to the economic, political and cultural life of our country over many years. They enrich our society and we in turn have a duty to help those accepted as refugees to adapt quickly to a new way of life.

One of the most effective ways of helping the genuine refugee and dealing effectively with those who do not qualify is, in our view, by speeding up the process. The Government do not underestimate the enormous challenge that this presents. Last year a record number of people-- 71,000--claimed asylum in the United Kingdom. We were not alone in facing increased pressures. The war in Kosovo and upheavals in other countries like Afghanistan, Somalia and Sri Lanka have increased the asylum pressures on many of our European partners. The latest figures for 1999 show that Finland saw an increase of 123 per cent, Ireland an increase of 67 per cent, Belgium an increase of 63 per cent, Austria an increase of 46 per cent and France an increase of 38 per cent. Last year, our figures increased by 55 per cent. Only in Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden was the trend in the opposite direction. Over recent years, Germany has recruited additional asylum decision-makers and streamlined its legislation. Those are key elements of our own strategy.

In the White Paper we set targets of two months for initial decisions and four months to deal with appeals by April 2001. Sadly, plans were made under the previous government to reduce staff numbers in IND by 1,200 posts overall, in anticipation of efficiencies from a computerised casework system. As a result of those plans, staff numbers fell and valuable caseworking expertise was lost. The noble Lord, Lord Carr, made the point that we need to invest to save. That is exactly what our strategy is designed to do. We began a substantial recruitment programme last year to increase staff numbers. We are also investing an additional £120 million over the next three years to speed up the system; indeed, I believe that such a plea was made by many speakers, most notably the noble Lord, Lord Joffe.

I can tell noble Lords that 250 additional asylum decision-makers have already been recruited and more are planned. As the noble Lord, Lord Cope, said, asylum decision output has already increased as a consequence. In January of this year about 4,000 asylum decisions were made. We are aiming to make 8,000 a month by late spring. At current intake levels, decision-making output will then exceed the number of applications and the backlog will begin to fall.

There is of course a great deal of work needed to deliver our targets for speeding up the system. But we are determined to deliver them. In the case of families with children, we have already introduced faster procedures for new applications from November of last year. As a result, most of those decisions were taken within two months.

Our reform of the casework process is complemented by a reform of the legal framework. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 represents the most radical reform of the system for decades. As the House will recall, it completed its passage through Parliament last November. Some of the Act's provisions have already been implemented, but the major changes are still to come.

I believe there is common agreement that the current asylum support arrangements are, at best, chaotic. They were the product of some ill-considered legislation and administrative arrangements. They have imposed an unplanned and intolerable burden on local authorities, especially those in London and the South East. Indeed, one could fairly say that Kent has perhaps borne the worst of the burden. Such arrangements have left many asylum seekers in hardship, having to seek assistance for which the statutory basis was unclear. Port applicants were entitled to normal social security benefits until a first decision was taken. All in-country applicants, and all port applicants after a first decision, were left with no support until the courts intervened.

The new scheme will create a coherent, national system of support. It will mean that all destitute asylum seekers will be able to obtain support if they are in genuine need. But the availability of cash payments is, in our view, an incentive to those who seek to abuse the system: they are, effectively, economic migrants. That is why, under the new scheme, support will be provided mainly in kind, with the minimal use of cash payments. Accommodation will be provided on a "no-choice" basis in cluster areas across the country. It will be to a reasonable standard and regard will be paid to the cultural and other needs of the asylum seeker and the availability of support from existing communities and voluntary groups.

The new arrangements are not harsh or unfair. Those in genuine need will be provided with a decent level of support. There will be a cash element but accommodation and other essential living needs will be provided directly. That is not unreasonable; nor is it unreasonable to ease the burden on London and the South East by dispersing asylum seekers to other parts of the country. A number of noble Lords drew attention to the problems faced by local authorities. We are very mindful of such problems and of keeping them very carefully under review. We believe that it should not matter to the genuine refugee precisely where or how support is provided. It is more important that it is provided and that it should be to a good standard.

The Act will deliver other important changes to make the asylum system fairer, faster and firmer. It provides for a single comprehensive right of appeal to enable all the circumstances of a case to be considered at one go and so reduce the scope for exploiting the multiple avenues of appeal that currently exist. We are aiming to introduce those provisions in October of this year, when the Human Rights Act will also come into force and provide additional protection. I thought that my noble friend Lord Judd made a good case for a sound appeal system. That is what we believe we are putting in place. It will regulate immigration advisers to eradicate the unscrupulous who exploit and cheat vulnerable applicants.

An Immigration Services commissioner will be appointed and will have responsibility for administering the regulatory scheme. Only those who are registered with that commissioner, who are authorised to practise by a designated professional body or who are otherwise exempt, will be permitted to provide immigration advice or services. It will be a criminal offence to provide such advice or services in breach of the scheme. Our aim is to have the regulatory body established and ready to receive applications by 2nd October of this year, with a view to the full scheme being operational from April 2001.

The Act will also strengthen our powers to deal firmly with those who abuse the asylum system to evade immigration control. There are stronger powers for the Immigration Service to target the growing number of traffickers and facilitators who profit from the traffic in clandestine and illegal immigration. The number of clandestine entrants detected is now running at something like 2,000 a month. We cannot allow that to continue. The new civil penalty--I know that this is opposed by some Members of your Lordships' House--for bringing clandestines to this country will encourage drivers and operators to improve security and conduct proper checks of their vehicles to prevent illegal entry.

A number of noble Lords, particularly the noble Lords, Lord Joffe, Lord Judd and Lord Avebury, have raised concerns about the detention of asylum seekers. Clearly it would be wrong routinely to detain those who seek asylum, and we do not wish to do so. However, in cases where a person has claimed asylum, it would be wrong to bar the use of detention where this was otherwise appropriate. In any one year we detain somewhere in the region of 900. That suggests that we are trying to strike a balance.

We have given commitments to increase the number of failed asylum seekers who are removed. That issue was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, and other noble Lords, including in particular the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick.

Photo of Lord Avebury Lord Avebury Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I believe the noble Lord must have made a slip of the tongue when he said that in any one year we detain about 900 asylum seekers. Will he confirm that at the moment there are over 950 asylum seekers in detention and, as they are not there for the whole of the year, the actual figure for the 12 months must be many times that amount?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord's question. I shall seek further guidance on the figures and advise him in due course.

We wish to reduce our reliance on Prison Service accommodation. A number of pleas have been made for us to do that. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth expressed that well. I know that other noble Lords are concerned about the use of the prison estate for those who seek asylum. These commitments mean, however, that there is a need to increase the size of the detention estate generally. A new reception centre is to be opened at Oakington. Others are likely to follow. We are committed to speeding up the consideration of asylum applications. The purpose of setting up reception centres such as Oakington is entirely benign and is designed to increase our ability to deal quickly with straightforward asylum claims, many of which will prove to be unfounded. Applicants will remain at Oakington for about seven days while their claim is decided. If the claim is rejected and there is an appeal, we shall have to decide whether to grant temporary admission with reporting restrictions or whether the applicant should be moved to a traditional detention centre.

I mentioned earlier that other European countries had experienced substantial increases in asylum seekers. The traffic in clandestine entrants is almost entirely via other European countries. We must therefore see our asylum policies within a European context. We were wisely encouraged by the noble Lord, Lord Wright, to do exactly that. Our aim is primarily to harmonise asylum procedures within the EU and within the remit of the Amsterdam Treaty. The Amsterdam Treaty commits the EU to adopting minimum standards in the following areas: criteria and mechanisms for determining which member state is responsible for considering an application for asylum; the reception of asylum seekers; the qualification of nationals of third countries as refugees; procedures for granting or withdrawing refugee status; and the granting of both temporary and subsidiary protection.

There is a need to address all our international obligations, not just those arising from the 1951 convention. Subsidiary protection covers those individuals not meeting the requirements of the 1951 convention who remain in need of international protection. Temporary protection refers specifically to the protection granted to individuals at times of a mass influx of humanitarian evacuation--for example, from Kosovo or Bosnia. This is what member states have signed up to for the next few years. It is likely to lead to greater, beneficial harmonisation but much depends on what standards can be agreed.

The Dublin Convention is a treaty to which all the EU member states are parties. It governs arrangements for determining which member state should be responsible for examining asylum claims made within the EU by non-EU nationals. The basic principle behind Dublin is that the member state responsible for the presence of an asylum seeker in the EU should be responsible for examining the claim, wherever it is made. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 will strengthen our ability to return asylum seekers to other member states under the Dublin Convention.

A number of noble Lords have mentioned the recent hijacking at Stansted and the subsequent asylum claims. As a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the status of refugees, the United Kingdom has an obligation to consider all applications for asylum made at the ports or within the UK, regardless of matters such as the method of entry into the UK or the nationality or ethnic background of the asylum applicant.

Nevertheless the hijacking of an aircraft is a criminal offence and no one should consider that any benefit is to be obtained by hijacking. Those responsible are being held in police custody and will be subject to due legal process. Four members of the cockpit crew have been assisting the police with their inquiries and remain in the UK. They have not claimed asylum and are expected to leave shortly with the aircraft when flight clearance is received.

The remaining flight crew and 58 passengers have returned to Afghanistan. Seventy-nine passengers have either claimed asylum in Britain or are dependants of applicants. These claims will be judged in strict accordance with the law. The applicants are being held at Tinsley House, Gatwick, a purpose built immigration detention centre. They have access to support and free legal advice. I advise the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that that support and free legal advice have been available to them from the outset. We are satisfied that everyone who wants representation is receiving it. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary is shortly to make an announcement about the future of all the other applicants for asylum status.

I am mindful of the time. Many questions have been raised which I have not been able to cover. I shall gladly write to noble Lords on those points. I hope that I have been able to reassure the House that government asylum policies are effective and humane. We have a comprehensive strategy in place for which the foundations have already been carefully laid, but there is still much to do. We need to speed up the asylum process. We need to implement major legislative reforms. But it is essential that we do so in order to create a system which is genuinely fairer, faster and firmer and one which I think is both effective and humane, in all of our interests not least those of the genuine asylum seekers.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative 6:07 pm, 1st March 2000

My Lords, it remains for me to thank, first of all, the large number of organisations outside this Chamber which have made my contribution and those of others possible. They are far too many to mention or indeed to weave a lot of what they have said into words. Their work is deeply valuable and deeply appreciated.

Secondly, I thank your Lordships for a most remarkable series of contributions which leave me with the clear impression that the intention of the Government is that we should have policies towards asylum seekers that are both effective and humane, but that that intention will not be achieved until the enormous queue has been reduced and a swift turnaround of fraudulent applicants discourages further fraudulent applicants from abroad. This will enable us to be more humane with greater resources for those who remain here.

I must not make a speech at this stage. However, in withdrawing the Motion that stands in my name, I wish to say how daunted and yet how encouraged I have been to see the Bishops' Bench full until the very last minute. I wish that the noble Earl, Lord Longford, had chosen some other evening to draw attention to my precative activities upstairs! The presence of the Bishops reminds me also that no country is an island any more. We may look like an island but in this world we are very much part of a world community. I return to my closing remarks and say that, if we ignore the conditions which produce the refugee pressures upon our shores, we are not only making a rod for our own backs but we are also in breach of our Christian duty. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.