asked Her Majesty's Government:
What is their response to the recommendations in the Amnesty International report on asylum seekers in detention.
My Lords, we are currently studying the report in detail and welcome the opportunity it provides to have a debate about immigration and asylum issues. However, on initial consideration it is evident that Amnesty International takes a different position in principle on a range of issues. But this is a detailed report and we will need to consider its content and recommendations extremely carefully before responding in full.
My Lords, while noting the serious allegation made by Amnesty International that the Government are breaking the law by detaining people when there is no prospect of their removal or danger that they will abscond, will not the noble Baroness at least consult the UNHCR with a view urgently to produce a solution to the problem, thus ending unlawful detentions and complying with the UNHCR guidelines which have been in force since June 1999? Further, will she commission a report from an independent lawyer to be selected in consultation with the UNHCR on how the procedural and financial constraints on the availability of legal aid described in this report could be adjusted to ensure that detained asylum seekers receive effective legal advice and access to bail, in particular when they are outside London or in the deserts for the provision of legal aid in the north and elsewhere?
My Lords, first, the Government are considering the import of this report. I do not accept the basis on which the noble Lord makes his comment; namely, that the Government are breaking the law. On each asylum Bill that has come through this House, there has been the most detailed consideration on whether we were ECHR compliant. Secondly, the noble Lord knows that we are already considering the report of the UNHCR which we will again respond to. We do not accept that the procedural inadequacies are such that they put us in any way in error in terms of the legal consequences. However, we understand that these are contentious issues.
My Lords, on removals, which I think is what the noble Baroness is referring to, the number is variable. We have increased the number of removals; it has risen by 1 per cent including dependants and 4 per cent when they are excluded. At the same time we have to bear in mind that applications fell by 17 per cent. However, it is difficult to give noble Lords a day-by-day figure because it changes all the time.
My Lords, one aspect covered by the Amnesty report is the total lack of availability of statistical information on which we can make up our minds about what is happening in relation to asylum seekers. No data are available regarding how many asylum seekers are detained during the course of the year, for how long they are detained and at what stage of the process they are taken into detention. Does the noble Baroness agree that such data would help us in our consideration of whether detention is used solely for removal, or whether there are other underlying factors?
My Lords, I understand what the noble Lord is saying, but he will know that we have made real efforts to improve the statistical data produced, which is published as soon as it is available. We hope that by consideration of that data, noble Lords and indeed all those who are properly interested in this area can make the judgments and comments that the noble Lord seeks for them to be able to make.
My Lords, can the noble Baroness outline what proportion of police holding cells are occupied by failed asylum seekers?
My Lords, I do not have available the figures relating to holding cells, but I shall certainly write to the noble Baroness. At the moment, however, so far as I am aware—I emphasise that—we do not have people being held in such cells. I repeat that I shall certainly write to the noble Baroness.
My Lords, can the noble Baroness confirm that the number of escapes and attempted escapes has increased? I know this to be a fact at Haslar prison and, I think, at other secure detention centres.
My Lords, I am afraid that I am not able to confirm for the noble Earl that there has been an increase in the number of escapes. He knows well that this issue has been a matter of concern and that strenuous efforts have been made to keep the situation properly under control. Again I am happy to write to the noble Earl, although my understanding is that what he asserts is not the case. However, I shall write to him if I am wrong.
My Lords, is there not a paradox in that the Government are planning to increase the custodial estate by 30 per cent at a time when the number of applicants for asylum is reducing sharply? Will the Government at least pay some attention to the recommendation made in the report from Amnesty International that non-custodial alternatives such as reporting restrictions should be applied?
My Lords, the noble Lord will know that we are reducing some of the estate. My honourable friend the Minister responsible for asylum issues has indicated that we will not carry on with the proposed development at Bicester because the population of those we need to house has dropped significantly. We are looking at these issues and making sure that the estate available is commensurate with our needs, which have now diminished.
My Lords, I hope that the Minister will forgive me if I say that I was a little puzzled at her response to the question put by my noble friend Lady D'Souza. The Government regularly publish responses to Written Questions giving the monthly figures for removals from this country, yet she appears to be saying that those figures are not kept. Would the Minister please make the position clear?
My Lords, I did not say that figures are not kept, but in answer to the question put to me I said that we collect regular statistical data which are made available. I answered the question put to me by the noble Lord to show that that is the way in which those interested in this subject can scrutinise the figures and make appropriate comment. The statistics are available, but I did also say that of course they change from day to day. It is therefore difficult, as I stand at the Dispatch Box, for me to give the precise figures for today's date. However, the monthly data are available to all those who have a proper interest in this issue.