Motion to Agree

Part of Asylum: EUC Report – in the House of Lords at 9:20 pm on 12 January 2010.

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Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Security and Counter-terrorism) 9:20, 12 January 2010

My Lords, I am very grateful to the European Union Select Committee for organising this debate and to all noble Lords who have contributed to it. As has already been explained most eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Roper, another naval person, this debate is the first of its kind and is intended to enhance Parliament's role in scrutinising the application of our opt-in for justice and home affairs business. As the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, stated, this is very important for the House for that reason. With that in mind, I welcome the points made this evening and in the committee's report as a means of informing our deliberations on opt-in in relation to the two proposals for directives on asylum.

The noble Lord, Lord Roper, asked whether there was an opportunity post the eight-week period for any inputs to come in, because it is after eight weeks that the Cabinet committee take the collective government decision. I reassure him that, because this will not happen immediately on the conclusion of that eight-week period, there will probably be two or three weeks when further influence can be exercised in relation to that committee. But that said, there will be occasions in the future where debates are going on in Europe which mean that we shall need to take very quick decisions. In those cases, as the noble Lord, Lord Roper, concluded, it will be preferable to receive views as soon as possible.

The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and a number of other noble Lords talked about tightening up procedures and how the procedures should go. I agree with that very good point. This needs to be looked at very closely, and it will be. I would have preferred this matter to be taken earlier and I think we all understand the pressures that there were on the usual channels in this House to try to do that. In general terms, we should try to take it as early as possible. This was reinforced by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, who mentioned Knights of the Round Table. I should declare an interest as Knight President of the Society of Knights of the Round Table.

The enhanced scrutiny process does, none the less, reserve to the Government the final decision concerning the UK's participation in such measures and I must say that these directives do cause us real concerns. Consequently we would not be able to support a Motion urging us to opt into them. The key question for us will be whether the directives will help us to maintain the grip that we have now got on the UK's asylum system. The noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, touched on this. The past few years have seen substantial improvements. Asylum intake is at less than a third of its 2002 peak. We have transformed the asylum system by introducing end-to-end case management by a single case owner. We now conclude more than 60 per cent of asylum cases within six months. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said some kind words about UKBA on that. However, I do not agree with him that a legally binding time limit is the best way of bringing this down even more. I think that probably practical co-operation with other member states is a better way of doing that. The key principle that drives our approach is very simple-those who need protection should get it quickly and those who do not should be sent home.

Our decision-making system was the first in the world to have its quality assurance endorsed by the UNHCR, and where protection is needed, we will provide it proudly. But we need to recognise that the majority of asylum claims are not well founded and are rejected-78 per cent in the last quarter and 72 per cent in the quarter before that, according to the most recently published statistics. Unfounded claims are often abusive claims, and dealing with them diverts resources that would be much better spent on genuine refugees, whom we want and need to support.

The key issue facing us and other member states is therefore to distinguish quickly and fairly between those who have well founded claims and those who do not. Sadly, our initial assessment is that the directives will make it harder, not easier, to achieve that aim. That is the hard-headed view we have taken. It is not fear of the Daily Mail, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said.

The procedures directive is perhaps the more radical of the two. We have real concerns about many of its proposals, particularly restrictions on accelerated procedures and non-suspensive appeals. I know that the European Union Committee has, in the past, expressed concerns about the use by member states of accelerated procedures, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Jopling. An accelerated procedure is really nothing more than a way of deciding asylum claims more quickly than normal. Provided those subject to it have access to all the usual guarantees, there is no reason why an accelerated procedure should not be applied to any claim, as the current procedures directive allows. The new directive would allow this only in certain circumstances; for example, where the applicant comes from a listed "safe" country. That would stop us from operating our existing detained fast-track system (DFT), which provides fast and fair decisions on the applicants who go through it. It is an excellent way of managing the sort of asylum claims that are capable of being decided quickly and it also provides a deterrent to false claims as those making them will be refused quickly. The decisions it makes are fair-97 per cent of them are upheld on appeal. We therefore could not accept the restrictions proposed.

Non-suspensive appeals are a key tool that allows us to manage unfounded asylum claims. They are not given lightly. We have to be satisfied that an application is clearly unfounded-that is, so weak as to be bound to fail-before we can make the appeal non-suspensive. The directive would place additional and unnecessary restrictions on these appeals which would place an unnecessary burden on our asylum system and encourage unfounded claims. Other parts of the directive would create further restrictions. For example, more generous rules on translation will cost us probably in excess of £3 million a year. The attempt to specify in European legislation the training curriculum that asylum decision-makers should follow is a classic example of overregulation.

Overall, the directive, as drafted, strikes us as over-complicated and over-ambitious. We have real doubts about whether it would be sensible to opt in in its present form. The new qualification directive makes fewer changes but three in particular cause us concern. The first and most worrying is the amended definition of a family member-in particular, its extension to include the parents of unaccompanied minors. This carries an unacceptable risk of requiring us to admit the parents of unaccompanied minors who are granted status. We fear that this would create an incentive for children to be sent on ahead to member states in the hope that they will be granted status and their parents will be able to join them later. That would introduce a new threat to the welfare of children by incentivising their separation from their family units. We are already extremely concerned about the number of children and young people sent to the United Kingdom and the risks they face in making the journey, in particular those who are trafficked. We believe that the proposals for family reunion would simply lead to more children being put at risk. We also fear this would lead to a big increase in the number of applications we receive from minors-currently about 3,500 a year or 12 per cent of our intake-with very serious financial implications, given that at the moment the Government spend more than £140 million a year oin caring for these people.

We believe that the technical changes to asylum law that appear in Articles 7 and 8 referred to by a number of speakers risk leading to a big rise in the proportion of asylum claims that are granted. Of course, we have no problem with granting protection to those who need it-quite the reverse-but the people who may benefit from this would be those who do not need asylum because they can be protected adequately in their own country, either by a non-state agent or by relocating to another part of that country. We know that asylum intake is very sensitive to policy change in the UK. For example, it dropped sharply after we tightened our policy on permission to work and stopped automatically granting leave to remain to certain nationalities in 2002-03. Intake from Zimbabwe went up dramatically after a court judgment favourable to Zimbabwean asylum seekers in 2008.

Both directives are bound to be amended during the course of negotiations-as referred to by a number of speakers-both by member states in the Council and by the European Parliament. The debate is whether we should be inside the tent or outside the tent. It is not, at this stage, possible to predict the outcome of these negotiations. Even if we were able to convince other member states to agree to remove those parts of the directives that we do not like, the European Parliament's approach to the asylum proposals to date indicates that it would be very likely to want to keep most of the original proposals, or even to go beyond them, and a compromise would need to be reached. This, in our view, means that there is a real risk that the directives eventually agreed will contain measures that we do not feel we can accept. Because of this, although we will reflect on the arguments that have been made tonight, we are minded not to opt in to the directives at this stage. That would not mean that we would be out of them permanently.

Under the treaties, we have the right to apply to take part in an instrument after it has been adopted if we have not opted into it from the start. If we did not opt in to these proposals, we would therefore remain engaged in the negotiations-not as fully as we could be, as has been said, but we are still able to influence them-and make our concerns known.

If the final directive addresses those concerns, we may well apply to take part. I can assure the House-