Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:47 pm on 31st October 2002.

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Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat 5:47 pm, 31st October 2002

My Lords, to save the time of the House, I can say that if the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, will move his Amendment No. 9A formally, I shall accept it formally. The reference in the amendment would then be to,

"legal or appropriate advice from suitably qualified advisors".

I can imagine, for example, situations where the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux might give advice that was appropriate but not legal. Nevertheless, the central thrust of the amendment concerns legal advice.

The Government love to talk about "rights and responsibilities". However, I note that when they talk about the responsibilities of citizens, they do so in a peremptory, indeed military, manner, with absolutely no room for exception or discretion. However, when they talk about their own responsibilities, they do so in a much more indefinite manner. Clause 28(3), where the amendment would bite, states:

"The Secretary of State may arrange for the provision of facilities in an accommodation centre for the use of a person in providing legal advice to a resident of the centre".

Clause 107, which gives the power to make grants to people providing legal advice, is again worded in this permissive way—using the term "may". This creates no duty on the Government. This appears to us to be something of an absence of a level playing field—in a situation where the playing field is already very far from level. On one side are people who must be presumed to be expert in the business; on the other are people who are in a strange country, with a strange language and a strange legal system, who are quite unaware of what they need to prove and what they do not. I have been through the United States immigration system, and even that—with a common language that occasionally divided us rather than uniting us—was, I admit, a bewildering process. What it must be for a Somali, I dread to think.

The provision of competent legal advice is essential not only to the interests of the applicant but also to the interests of the Home Office. The UNHCR comments that:

"Quality advice minimises the prospect for appeals and fosters confidence among asylum seekers," and that, therefore, quality legal advice at the earliest possible stage helps not only to assure applicants that the procedures are fair, but ensures speed and efficiency in the asylum process.

I note that the Government are in the habit of quoting, for the numbers of successful asylum applications, only the initial applications and leaving out the number that are successful on appeal. That is perhaps partly because the difference between the two can be remarkably large.

We need something a little more peremptory than this. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has remarked that if people's human rights are to be made real and effective rather than merely theoretical and illusory, it is essential to provide them with information about their rights and with independent, accessible, free or affordable legal advice from experts in the field. Incidentally, at no stage of the debate have we heard anything about what the Government intend to do to make people aware of their opportunity to obtain legal advice. Before this amendment is finished with, I hope that we shall hear something on that subject.

This is a case where "may" is not good enough. The House has expressed its opinion once today about clauses that state that the Government may do whatever they like. I hope that the Government have heard that. I beg to move.