Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 6th July 2004.

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Photo of Lord Lester of Herne Hill Lord Lester of Herne Hill Liberal Democrat 3:45 pm, 6th July 2004

My Lords, I intervene as a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I am glad to do so in the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, who, like me, has the great benefit of serving on that all-party, and beyond-party, committee. I shall explain the reason for my intervention.

Parliament has not been well served by the Home Office in the way in which these human rights issues have been dealt with. At the beginning of our report, which was published yesterday, we say at paragraph 3:

"We have made it clear in a number of reports that we regard it as unacceptable that amendments having significant implications for human rights should be introduced at a late stage in a Bill's passage through Parliament, without a clear explanation of the Government's view of the human rights implications. We find it particularly regrettable that we find ourselves once again in the very same position so soon after having made clear that such a practice undermines parliamentary scrutiny of legislation for compatibility with human rights. Such scrutiny is crucial to the democratic legitimacy of the Human Rights Act 1998. We once again draw this to the attention of each House".

We work very hard; we have an excellent staff; we attend meetings; we consider reports; and we produce them as quickly as possible. The earliest that we could produce a report that could be of any benefit to Parliament and to this debate was yesterday.

My noble friend Lord Avebury has done the House a great service in summarising, in a way that I do not need to do, some of the main issues that we raised in the context of marriage and sham marriages. However, the situation is wholly unsatisfactory for this reason. Having done all that work and having produced what we consider to be a cogent report, it would be impossible for us to expect the Minister now, although we would like him to do so, to respond properly in this debate and before the end of Third Reading to the points that my noble friend Lord Avebury summarised. The net result will be that, in a thinly attended House late in the afternoon, the luckless Minister will have the task of responding to a report as best he can and we shall then move on.

What will be the result of that? There will be no effective parliamentary scrutiny of these human rights issues and, as my noble friend Lord Avebury said, the matter will end up in court. Although I practise at the Bar, I regard it as a misfortune whenever legislation is passed in a form so defective that judges and lawyers have to come to the rescue. That does no one any good—not even the legal profession. It is dispiriting and it is entirely the fault of the Home Office. I am sure that, when he replies, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for whom I have great respect and whose love of parliamentary democracy and respect for Parliament is beyond reproach, will, in some sense, apologise. I am sure that he will. But, of course, that will not make good what has been done on this occasion.

This is not an ordinary Bill. It is one that affects the rights of one of the most vulnerable groups of people in this country. I must choose my words carefully—I am tempted to go over the top, but I shall not. I hope that this is the last occasion in the lifetime of this Government, or any future government, that something of this kind happens. When it does, we let down the parliamentary process and, ultimately, we must resort to litigation, which is a great misfortune.

Finally, I want to ask one specific question. It is a narrow but important one. In paragraph 46 of our report, we point out that:

"The legislation is . . . silent about the purpose of the open-ended power in the Secretary of State to exempt certain classes of individuals subject to immigration control from the new requirements".

We point out:

"There is no indication of the sort of differentiations which might be made between different categories of people".

I am sure that we would be grateful for an answer to that specific point and also for a reply to the various other points that have been made in our report.