Amendment to the Motion

Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 (Amendment of List of Safe States) Regulations 2024 - Motion to Approve – in the House of Lords at 8:00 pm on 19 March 2024.

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Lord German:

Moved by Lord German

At end insert “but this House regrets that His Majesty’s Government have not provided a clear explanation of why or how they have determined that India and Georgia are safe states for the purposes of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002; and that it is unclear how this policy change will work in practice.”

Photo of Lord German Lord German Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I declare my interest in the register—I am supported by the RAMP Project. This regret amendment is not about whether Georgia and India are safe countries for trade or tourism, but safe from a serious risk of persecution of nationals of these countries, and where removal to India or Georgia of nationals of those countries would contravene the United Kingdom’s obligations under the human rights convention. It may well be that, for certain groups of people, a return to these countries would fail these tests.

There are two main issues at fault with this legislation: one of process and one of policy. I will deal with process first. Currently, as the Minister said, the list of safe countries is all those in the EEA—the European Economic Area—plus Switzerland and Albania. Being included in the list of safe states means that an asylum or human rights claim from an Indian or Georgian national must not be considered unless exceptional circumstances apply.

It is very unusual for the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee of this House to lay such an extensive report before us, but its conclusion is:

“These draft Regulations are drawn to the special attention of the House on the ground that the explanatory material laid in support provides insufficient information to gain a clear understanding about the instrument’s policy objective and intended implementation”.

My supposition is that the Government are adding some countries to the safe list because more people can be returned to their home countries without their asylum claim being even considered; and that this legislation was produced in haste, without the necessary conditions for scrutiny being fully considered.

The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee states that consideration of

“the operation of ‘exceptional circumstances’ is critical to understanding and scrutinising the policy”.

In reply, the Government said they would issue guidance in—those famous words—“due course”. Given that this statutory instrument was laid on 8 November 2023, and that we are now discussing it more than four months later, I submit that “due course” has run out, as no such document has appeared.

In response, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee said:

“At a minimum”—

I use that word carefully—

“the guidance describing how it will operate in practice should have been published alongside the instrument. However, we have also consistently taken the view that factors that will influence critical decisions about a person’s life or benefits should be included in the legislation considered by Parliament, not left to guidance”.

It adds that

“proper scrutiny is not possible if the guidance is not published before the debate on these Regulations takes place”.

No such document has been produced and, as a result, the Government have failed to meet the appropriate parliamentary standards required for processing this statutory instrument.

I now turn to the policy issues raised by this. As the Minister said, the criteria for deeming a country to be safe are set out in Section 80AA of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, as amended by the Illegal Migration Act 2023. The rules by which the Secretary of State may add a state are that they must be satisfied that

“there is in general in that State no serious risk of persecution of nationals of that State, and … removal to that State of nationals of that State will not in general contravene the United Kingdom’s obligations under the Human Rights Convention”.

Those are the two reasons why it can be put forward. But, in deciding that they are substantially true, the Secretary of State

“must have regard to all the circumstances”— not just some—

“of the State (including its laws and how they are applied), and … must have regard to information from any appropriate source (including member States and international organisations)”.

We have just heard two things from the Minister: first, “exceptional circumstances” was repeated and, secondly, we heard that the information has been taken from many sources. But, crucially, we got no detail—because, of course, we are discussing this after it has been to the committee that would look at this detail—about exactly where these sources of information are, where they have come from and how balanced they are. So, this House can draw only on conclusions that we think would be appropriate for judging whether these countries are safe.

I will draw only on the United States of America and the Home Office—the very department that makes this decision. The SLSC quoted the United States Government’s 2022 country report on human rights practices in Georgia:

“Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: torture or inhuman, cruel, or degrading treatment; arbitrary arrest or incarcerations … substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; refoulement … crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons and activists”; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of national, racial, ethnic and minority groups based on religious affiliation, social status or sexual orientation; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex persons; and the existence of forced and compulsory labour.

The Home Office’s country policy and information note on Georgia says:

“High-profile government opponents and managers of media channels opposed to the government may be subjected to politically-motivated prosecution and detention with a politically-biased judiciary”.

That is from the United States and our Home Office. There are plenty more examples. You must add to that the position of South Ossetia in Georgia, which is under Russian control, and the considerable interchange of information between the Russian secret services and Georgian officials.

The Home Office’s country note on India says:

“Human rights abuses, including rape, torture, and deaths in custody are reported to be widespread and conducted with impunity. Excessive force by security forces in areas of conflict are also reported, including extra-judicial killings, rape, torture, arbitrary detention, kidnappings and destruction of homes”.

Finally, there were the comments and responses from Members and Ministers representing the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office here last Thursday about concerns over Muslims, Dalits and other groups in India.

These facts demonstrate that, for some groups of people, there will be a risk of persecution or a failure to provide them with human rights security under our international obligations. Since the Illegal Migration Act was passed, we do not give people the sort of interview we would need to work out whether they are subject to that persecution. In response, the Government say that these are all “isolated incidents”, not general matters of concern—“isolated” and “general” are two important words here.

Just look at the contradictions within the Home Office, let alone between government departments, on this response. Home Office view A is that human rights abuses, including rape, torture and deaths in custody, are reported to be widespread and conducted with impunity; contrast that with Home Office view B that “isolated incidents” may have been reported but the “scale and extent” of concerns were not such that the test under the Act was failed. There you have it —the Home Office looking in both directions at the same time. Widespread or isolated—both cannot be right.

I have some questions for the Minister. Are the “widespread” and “significant” human rights abuses reported by the Home Office and the US Department of State consistent with the requirements of the 2002 Act, as amended? Why has the promised guidance not been produced in the four months between the laying of this SI and this debate? Given that a significant proportion of recently processed claims from Georgia were accepted, can the Government’s description of applications from Georgian nationals as “unfounded” be justified? Given the backlog of claims from these two countries, will existing claims continue to be processed as previously or will they be deemed inadmissible retrospectively, whenever these regulations come into practical effect? Finally, why are the regulations being introduced now, when they will have no practical effect until the relevant provisions in the Illegal Migration Act 2023 are brought into force? Unless the Minister can answer these questions satisfactorily, this statutory instrument has surely stepped over the line in terms of both parliamentary process and policy. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness D'Souza Baroness D'Souza Crossbench

My Lords, India is indeed a safe country if you are a straight male Hindu citizen. It is far less safe if you happen to be female—women from religious and cultural minorities face the most gender-based violence—Muslim, Dalit, Adivasis, Sikh, Christian or a member of the LGBT community. These sectors of the population constitute about 280 million people. More than 10,000 people have been arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the majority from minority groups.

Unprecedented internet shutdowns have signalled a campaign against media critical of the Government. The Canadian Prime Minister alleged the involvement of the Indian Government in the assassination of a Sikh Canadian citizen. The UN Human Rights Council documented in 2022 a catalogue of abuses by state organs in India; in 2002, following the violence in Gujarat when Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister, during which 2,500 Muslims were killed, the US, the UK and some European nations imposed de facto travel bans on all but the most junior officials from that state, including Narendra Modi.

Last week, I asked the Minister what measures the UK Government are taking to address the increasing implementation of those laws in India contributing to political, media and civil society restrictions. In response, the Government regularly repeat their extreme concern about abuses of human rights and that they take any such actions very seriously. It is difficult for noble Lords to be convinced of this concern when there is credible and growing evidence of a widespread crackdown on fundamental rights in India today.

However, here we are, by means of regulation, pronouncing India a country from which future asylum claims cannot be considered due to the apparent safety of India’s democratic institutions. Would all, or indeed any of those, in the unacceptable categories, namely non-Hindus, be designated exceptional cases and therefore eligible to have asylum claims considered by our immigration officials? That is a question to the Minister.

Whatever the authorities decide, it cannot be stated that India is a safe country for anyone but Hindu nationals. This constitutes a breach of the UK’s obligations to help prevent future religious and other violence against minorities in any country, but most particularly in a Commonwealth country.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat 8:15, 19 March 2024

My Lords, very briefly, I wish to protest that the Home Office is, again, living in the world of fantasy and fiction when it comes to safe countries. We have had the charade over the Rwanda Bill, which is going through ping-pong at the moment, and we are here again.

The Minister says from the Dispatch Box very passionately that the Government have taken a number of sources into consideration when determining whether Georgia or India are safe countries. I have done quite a bit of research myself over the last few days; I have looked at reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Home Office’s own country report and the US’s country report, and the reports of Freedom House, the UN and the EU on both countries. All those sources raise considerations and concerns—in some cases significant—about the human rights position in both countries.

Can the Minister tell the House what sources the Home Office has looked at, other than the ones that I just read out? Would he lay before the House as a matter of urgency the content of those sources? I cannot find sources which state that both India and Georgia generally are countries that have and uphold international standards of human rights for the vast majority of their citizens.

For example, the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, mentioned specific groups in India. There are 172 million Muslims in India—14.2% of the population—that are having constitutional rights significantly taken away from them. Is it generally safe for the 172 million Muslim citizens of India? Would the Minister like to comment on whether it is seen as generally safe?

I believe that the Home Office has, again, gone down the rabbit hole of believing the fantasy and fiction, rather than giving us specific facts and sources. As I say, I have looked, and I cannot find sources which would determine that these countries are generally seen as safe for human rights. It is particularly galling when the Home Office’s own country report talks about “widespread” abuses in India. Could the Minister explain the difference between general and widespread, and how the mention of widespread abuses in the Home Office’s own country notice brings it to then say that generally India is safe? It is preposterous that this has happened.

It seems to suggest that the numbers of claims determine whether the Government now look at whether a country is safe. Surely the fact that cases are rising may determine that conditions are actually getting worse, and more people are seeking asylum based on genuine issues and genuine fear for their own safety back in the countries where they lived. I am not clear what the correlation is. At the Dispatch Box, the Minister said that the numbers seem to determine whether countries are looked at by the Home Office and decided to be safe or not. If I got that wrong then I apologise to the House, but numbers have absolutely nothing to do with determining whether a country is safe, and the reverse of what the Government seem to be suggesting is that conditions could be getting worse.

I look forward to the Minister giving us the sources that the Home Office has looked at, and the evidence of those sources, to determine that India and Georgia are generally safe countries.

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, these regulations mark a step towards the implementation of the few parts of the Illegal Migration Act 2023 that have come into force since it received Royal Assent. The key sections on the duty to detain and remove asylum seekers arriving by small boat, among other provisions, have apparently been accepted as unworkable by the Government, at least for the time being.

The current list of safe countries of origin from which it is expected that, in general, people will not have grounds for asylum in the UK is set out in Section 80AA of the 2002 Act, as amended by Section 59 of the Illegal Migration Act, as was explained by the Minister. Historically, during the time in which the UK was part of the EU, the designation of safe countries of origin applied mostly to other EU and European Economic Area member states. Those countries remain on the list, with the more recent addition of Albania, and with Georgia and India now marking the first significant expansion of that list beyond the EU and the EEA.

We support these changes in principle, notwithstanding a few important questions. It is right that the Government go into some detail about how these changes would work in practice and how Indian and Georgian nationals, who under exceptional circumstances face harm or death, can still seek refuge in our country. The grant rate for Indian asylum seekers has stayed at under 10% in recent years, but for Georgia it has swayed between 15% and 30%. I understand that there are fewer applications from Georgia in numerical terms, but it would be useful to hear from the Minister how those successful applications translate into appropriate cases of exceptional circumstances in the future.

There is little detail on how exceptional circumstances would apply. The example tests for exceptional circumstances set out in the 2002 Act will not apply to India and only one—the ECHR test—will apply to Georgia. The Government have stated to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee that guidance will be published to caseworkers in due course. Do the Government mean to say that the guidance does not currently exist? How are decisions made now, before that guidance is in place?

As others, including the noble Lord, Lord German, have pointed out, given that the Home Office’s own policy notes on India speak of the existence of serious human rights abuses, including rape, torture and death—and, for Georgia, they note politically motivated prosecutions —it is vital that discretion can be exercised for individuals in those countries in appropriate circumstances.

I hope that the Minister can outline today how this guidance will work, whether it will be in place when these regulations come into force and whether it will be published. Can he also outline what is being done to improve returns rates for both Indian and Georgian nationals? The UK has migration returns agreements with both countries, but the current returns rate of Indian nationals seeking asylum stood at less than 7% in the year to September 2022. Can he outline what the returns rate is so far for Georgia, given that it has been a year since the bilateral returns agreement was signed? Depending on his answer to that question, and given the low rate of Indian national returns, can he outline what the Government are doing to improve returns rates for both countries? Finally, can he say how the introduction of this list impacts outstanding claims? Will it apply simply to new claims, or will it be retrospective? I look forward to his replies.

Photo of Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord Sharpe of Epsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this relatively short debate. These regulations, by themselves, do not introduce a new process or policy. It is not for us to debate today the safe country of origin inadmissibility provisions; those provisions have been a long-standing part of our asylum laws and have been expanded via the Illegal Migration Act 2023. These regulations seek to expand this list further to incorporate Georgia and India as generally safe. I acknowledge that, in considering whether it is appropriate to do so, questions have been asked today about how the list will be used.

The inadmissibility of asylum and human rights claims from nationals of safe countries aims to deter abuse of our asylum system from those who would seek to abuse it and do not need to seek protection in the UK. It will reduce pressure on the asylum system and allow us to focus on those most in need of protection. Treating asylum claims from EU nationals in this way is not new: it has been a long-standing process in the UK asylum system that is also employed by EU states. But EU states are not the only countries that are safe countries; therefore, it is right that these provisions have been expanded through the Illegal Migration Act 2023.

Once commenced, Section 59 of the 2023 Act introduces the new Section 80AA(1) safe countries of origin list, so that these provisions would apply not only to EU nationals but, as I mentioned in my opening remarks, to those from the other EEA states of Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein, as well as Switzerland and Albania.

For a country to be added to the list of safe countries of origin, it must be assessed as safe as per the criteria set out in the new Section 80AA(3) of the 2002 Act, as inserted by Section 59 of the Illegal Migration Act. The test sets out that a country may be added to the list if

“(a) there is in general … no serious risk of persecution” there for nationals of that country,

“and (b) removal … of nationals of that” country

“will not in general contravene the United Kingdom’s obligations under the”

European Convention on Human Rights.

We do not draw conclusions on the general safety of a country based on information from single sources or isolated examples. Whether a country is safe for the purposes of inclusion in Section 80AA(1) is an assessment of whether the country in general is considered safe. Our assessments of the situation in the respective countries are set out in the relevant country policy and information notes, which I will come back to in more detail. Those are available on the GOV.UK website and are kept under constant review and updated periodically.

To tackle unfounded and unnecessary protection and human rights claims from people in safe countries, we have considered whether any further additions to the Section 80AA(1) list should be made, focusing on countries in which we have seen an increase in the volumes of asylum intake. For this reason, consideration was given to both Georgia and India. We have reviewed and considered a wide range of relevant and reliable information and evidence on both Georgia and India, including consideration of their respect for the rule of law and human rights. To answer the question of the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, I say that this included consideration of relevant case law, information from academia, reputable domestic and international media outlets, national and international organisations including from human rights organisations, and information from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and other western Governments where appropriate. We are satisfied that both Georgia and India meet the criteria to be considered generally safe. It is considered appropriate to add these countries to the Section 80AA(1) list of countries of origin.

Photo of Baroness D'Souza Baroness D'Souza Crossbench 8:30, 19 March 2024

Is the Minister able to name the human rights organisation that has deemed the countries safe?

Photo of Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord Sharpe of Epsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am afraid that I do not have that information. As I said, all the information we use is published on GOV.UK.

Regarding reporting from single sources, or drawing on isolated examples, these might not consider the situation in context or be reflective of the general situation, which is what we are required to consider. We consider evidence from a wide range of sources and source types, as I have said. We compare and contrast information across those sources to reach a balanced and, we believe, accurate view of the situation.

We recognise, of course, that groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International produce reports that are sometimes critical of human rights records. We also consider what sources are reporting as well as how, when and why they have reported. This assessment and the inclusion of these countries on the list will be regularly monitored and reviewed.

The noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, asked about the ongoing investigations by Canada and the US into alleged Indian state involvement in various activities. We remain in close touch with our Canadian and US partners about what are very serious allegations. However, I am afraid it would be inappropriate to comment further during the ongoing investigations by their law enforcement authorities.

Even if a country is generally considered safe, it is acknowledged that there could be exceptional circumstances in which it may not be appropriate to return an individual in their particular circumstances. That is why the consideration of exceptional circumstances, incorporated into the safe country of origin inadmissibility provisions, will act as an appropriate safeguard. Where the Secretary of State accepts that there are exceptional circumstances why the person may not be removed to their country of origin in an individual’s particular circumstances, they will not be.

Once Section 59 of the Illegal Migration Act is commenced, a national of a Section 80AA(1) listed country who is subject to the duty to remove or power to remove would not be removed there if it is accepted that there are exceptional circumstances as to why they cannot be removed there. They will instead be removed to a safe third country. For all other nationals of Section 80AA(1) listed countries, if there are exceptional circumstances why their claim ought to be considered in the UK, it will be.

I will deal with a couple of specific questions in terms of published guidance—

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister in mid-flow. The exceptional circumstance rule is absolutely vital to understanding the operation of this statutory instrument. The Act refers only to two forms of exceptional circumstances: EU law or not signing up to the European Convention on Human Rights. Could he run through the Home Office’s view on exceptional circumstances for these two countries? What is expected to be in the operational notes, which he referred to?

Photo of Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord Sharpe of Epsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I was just about to get to that.

These regulations seeks to add India and Georgia to the list of countries in Section 80AA(1) of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, as I have already said. They are not about the inadmissibility provisions, which already rely on the exceptional circumstances safeguard.

Section 80A already applies to EU nationals. Only when Section 59 of the Illegal Migration Act is commenced will the safe country of origin list be actionable in terms of its application to the revised inadmissibility provisions at Section 80A of the 2002 Act and to the removal provisions at Sections 4 and 6 of the Illegal Migration Act.

Section 80A(4) of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 sets out some examples of what may constitute exceptional circumstances in that context. Section 6(5) of the Illegal Migration Act sets out the same examples, but these are not exhaustive, nor do they purport to be. They will not be relevant in some cases. Exceptional circumstances are not defined nor limited in legislation, but will be considered and applied on a case by case basis where appropriate. When we commence and implement the wider Section 59 measures, we will provide updated guidance to assist caseworkers in their consideration of exceptional circumstances and the wider provisions.

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, asked me to go into a bit more detail on Georgian asylum applications and grant rates. I am happy to do so. In 2023, there were 1,071 applications—23% fewer than in the year before, but more than four times higher than in 2019. For cases where decisions were made, the grant rate at initial decision was 12%—based on 24 grant decisions out of a total of 205. That was lower than the grant rate of 23% the year before, but higher than the 8% in 2019. Where withdrawals, which numbered 621, were included as part of the decision total, the grant rate was only 3%, compared to 5% the year before and 2% in 2019. The grant rate for Georgians is far below the average grant rate across all asylum claims. We should note that the number of Georgian applications with an outcome in each year before 2023 was low—120 cases in 2022 and 88 in 2019. I apologise for that blizzard of statistics, but I hope it answers noble Lords’ questions.

I hope that I have satisfactorily explained the Government’s position on the inclusion of both Georgia and India in the Section 80AA(1) list of safe countries of origin. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord German Lord German Liberal Democrat

My Lords, if I were to ask the House to consider whether the five questions I posed have been answered in sufficient detail, I would probably have a negative answer. It is my view that we have tried to find a rationale for a workable procedure. We do not have the sort of information we would need in order to make a proper judgment. That was what the Select Committee advising this House decided. We were asked to test this out because they did not have the information to do so. I do not think we are much wiser.

It was pretty fundamental for us to know the sources of information on which the Government made their decision. If I were asked what a reasonable, workable system might be, I would say that there are people who could be safely returned. I am in favour of returning those who have no right to be here. Equally, as we have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, there are people who would definitely be in trouble if they were returned. These are not just individuals but groups of people. We would like to understand and know where people who, because of the group they are in, would be unsafe in going back to India and Georgia. This would aid the balance of decision-making. All the time we have talked about it being for the individual to make it clear that they believe they have exceptional circumstances, not for the Government to understand it. The danger is that people get used to what these circumstances are. If, for example, you are a Dalit and know that you are likely to be persecuted, or if you were politically active in Georgia and caused some uproar, you will soon be testing this out as an individual within a group of people. It strikes me as being unhelpful to put all those individuals who are in that circumstance through costly court and other procedures one at a time to make sure that it works.

Guidance was fundamental to the view of the Select Committee that advised us. All we know from this discussion so far is that the guidance is to be updated, but we do not know what it is. I and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, asked about retrospection. Will this apply to people who have the right to have their case heard, or will it apply only to people who have come in subsequently? We did not get an answer to that question either. I would put it down as an all bar one answer to the queries that we have put so far. We are having this discussion in the Rwanda Bill and these discussions will be ongoing. If this House continues to be without the information upon which we can judge whether the procedure that the Government are adopting is correct, then the Government are in for a bumpy ride for the very few months they may have left to make these decisions.

This is a matter which we will return to and one with unanswered questions. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment to the Motion withdrawn.

Motion agreed.