Asylum Seekers: Language Testing

– in the House of Lords at 2:36 pm on 10th June 2002.

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Photo of Lord Quirk Lord Quirk Crossbench 2:36 pm, 10th June 2002

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their assessment so far of experiments with language testing to expose false claims by asylum seekers.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

My Lords, the language analysis pilot started in November 2001 and is still under way. It is too early for us to make any assessment as to the value of language analysis within the asylum decision-making process until all the pilot cases have been decided and have been heard at appeal. We envisage undertaking a full evaluation of the outcome of the pilot during the first half of next year.

Photo of Lord Quirk Lord Quirk Crossbench

My Lords, placing people on the basis of their accent is more parlour game than forensic science. Therefore, I welcome the Minister's note of caution. Is it not the case that, in Sweden, where such tests have been in use for some years, despite the strong opposition of academic linguists, numbers of asylum seekers have been, in consequence, deported to the wrong country? Will the Minister bear in mind that, in "My Fair Lady", Eliza's accent persuaded the rival phonetician that she was in fact from Hungary?

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

My Lords, I shall not for one second set myself up as Professor Higgins. The noble Lord is right: the Government believe that there is a need to identify a range of measures where the nationality claimed is doubtful. Language analysis is just one of a number of such measures. Language testing has been undertaken in four other European countries for some time—namely, in Sweden, Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands—and has generally been found to be a helpful source of further information. I am certain that immigration appeal processes will use the evidence from language assessments as part of a balanced judgment; and all such decisions will be tested when and if asylum claimants take them to appeal.

Photo of Lord Dholakia Lord Dholakia Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord to his new post at the Home Office. Perhaps I may say how sad we are to lose the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, whose robust approach we always welcomed.

According to the Government's own figures, more than £2.1 billion is contributed by migrant workers in this country. Would it not be a good thing to make a formal policy decision to allow migrant workers to take paid employment and to depend less on claims on the state?

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

My Lords, the Government's White Paper, Secure Borders, Safe Haven, published in January, made clear that, as part of our approach to immigration, we wanted a balanced policy which made it possible for people who wished to work in this country to do so if they met skills shortages which we could not in the short term fulfil. That was very much part of the Government's policy. We shall seek to ensure, on the one hand, that migrant workers who can meet skills needs are welcomed, and, on the other, that asylum seekers who have genuine claims will continue as always to be recognised—while, of course, resisting those who claim asylum when they are but economic migrants.

Photo of Lord Campbell of Croy Lord Campbell of Croy Conservative

My Lords, as foreigners often speak more correctly in English than we British do, might a relevant test be one of rhyming slang? For example, people could be asked how much of their journey had been made on their "plates of meat".

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

My Lords, asking people to complete limericks from their own country might be taking matters a little too far. More seriously, the discussions that take place in language tests—not English language tests but language tests in their own language—seek to put the person at his or her ease and to refer to their own experience and culture. They may refer, for example, to what it was like attending a village wedding in the area. So the test is a fair one rather than one that seeks any knowledge of cultures other than the one where people claim residence.

Photo of Lord Corbett of Castle Vale Lord Corbett of Castle Vale Labour

My Lords, what progress is being made throughout the European Union to make mandatory the taking of finger-prints of those who are making asylum applications—the better to guard against bogus applications using a whole string of aliases?

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

My Lords, we have introduced the mandatory finger-printing of all asylum claimants in Britain, including other biometric data that make it possible to be clearer who the person is, so that if the asylum claim is unfounded he or she can be properly removed at the end of the appeal process. Discussions are going on with our European colleagues to look at raising the minimum standards of reception and identification to try to ensure a level playing field in terms of processes for assessing, vetting and accommodating asylum claims across the European Union. I am not certain whether mandatory finger-printing is part of that, but I shall look into the matter and write to my noble friend accordingly.

Photo of Lord Avebury Lord Avebury Liberal Democrat

My Lords, will the Minister take this opportunity to tell your Lordships what initiatives the Government are planning for Refugee Week, which begins next Monday, to highlight the enormous contribution that has been made by refugees to this country's national life and prosperity?

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

My Lords, many of your Lordships are aware of the contribution that refugees have made to this country over the centuries. The Huguenots come to mind as one example, although there are many other much more high profile cases from the last century. The Government's position on legitimate refugees could not be clearer. We recognise the contribution that they have made and are committed to trying to ensure that genuine refugees who seek refuge here will find one. On the other hand, we do not accept as refugees people who are not such, but are economic migrants. I am interested to hear of the celebration of the contribution that refugees have made. I am sure that the Government endorse that warmly.

Photo of Lord Dixon-Smith Lord Dixon-Smith Conservative

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is very difficult to deal properly and generously, as we would wish to do, with refugees and genuine asylum seekers at the same time as the country is suffering from too many fraudulent asylum seekers or, as the Minister has said, economic migrants who have no real reason for coming here apart from the fact that they think it would be rather enjoyable to be here?

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

My Lords, in broad terms, the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, is right. The substantial increase in asylum applications over the past 10 years—far greater than any previous experience, apart from during particular times of crisis—has made it more difficult to identify those with a genuine claim. Ensuring that we do so is a challenge to government and we cannot resile from that. It does not allow us to stand back and fail to treat all claims as seriously as possible and investigate them carefully. However, it clearly adds to the cost of the process and the time taken. The Government have to face up to that. It is clearly not possible or realistic to welcome everyone and have an open doors policy, although we recognise the human urge to improve oneself that drives many economic migrants. The other point is the serious criminal activity that underpins the problem.