Clause 17 - Asylum or human rights claim: damage to claimant’s credibility

Nationality and Borders Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:00 am on 26th October 2021.

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Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 11:00 am, 26th October 2021

I beg to move amendment 39, in clause 17, page 20, line 22, at end insert—

‘(1A) For subsection (1) substitute—

In determining whether to believe a statement made by or on behalf of a person who makes an asylum claim or human rights claim, a deciding authority shall take into account any behaviour to which this section applies.”

This amendment would mean that – whilst attempts to conceal information, mislead, or delay the processing of a claim would still be taken into account – it will be for the deciding authority to assess what impact this has on the claimant’s credibility.

Section 8 of the Asylum and Immigration 2004 is hugely controversial, both on a point of principle and in its practical effect. It tells decision makers, whether at the Home Office or an independent judge, that if an applicant behaves in a certain way that must be taken as damaging their credibility. Clause 17 adds to the list of behaviours.

Amendment 39 would take us back to the point of principle by saying it is not for Parliament to tell decision makers, judges of fact, what to think about evidence that they have seen and we have not. Are the Government saying that they do not trust them to do their job properly? If we take a step back, the clause would represent the Home Office using legislation to tell decision makers what to think about evidence, in a dispute that it is party to itself. In that light, it is an outrageous principle.

The amendment would mean that those decision makers are asked to take into account the behaviour, rather than being told what to think about it. It is up to them to decide what they should read into late provision of evidence. What if the late provision of evidence is not the claimant’s fault? What if the lawyer made the mistake? What if a medical expert took too long to finalise a report? Ultimately, decision makers have to decide whether the person is at real risk of persecution. If late evidence provides compelling proof of that, they need to be recognised as refugees. Again, get on with fixing decision-making times and quality. From the point of view of principle, we should leave decision makers to weigh up the evidence themselves, without direction from legislators. It is as simple as that.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

I remind the Committee that this will also be considered a clause stand part debate.

Photo of Bambos Charalambous Bambos Charalambous Shadow Minister (Home Office)

As with clause 16, the Opposition are deeply concerned that clause 17 will contribute to a culture of disbelief that will harm vulnerable people who deserve our support. We will oppose the clause because we do not believe there is any way that it can be amended to be more reasonable. Clause 17 builds on the false premise established by clause 16 that evidence given after a certain date lessens the weight and, in turn, the credibility of the claimant. Clause 17 would extend that to the possible use of evidence in appeals.

Before I go further, I would like to draw the Committee’s attention once again to the startling statistics I referred to in the debate on clause 16. I do not believe they can be stated enough to illustrate the fallacy inherent in the culture of disbelief being pushed by the Government. Let me state again for the record: the proportion of successful asylum appeals allowed in the year up to March 2021 was 47%, and that has been steadily increasing over the past decade.

That is in a context where legal aid has been decimated. The Home Office is notoriously floundering with delays and a sclerotic process within the context of the hostile environment encouraged by the Government. If with those factors, nearly half of appeals are successful, how on earth can the Minister think it is fair to introduce another arbitrary hurdle for vulnerable people? What kind of civilised society implies that people who have escaped the most horrific situations imaginable are likely to be acting in bad faith? Clause 17, along with clause 16, will shame us and UK values if it reaches the statute book.

All the arguments that apply to clause 16 apply once again. As Ministers well know, there are many reasons why people who are escaping sexual abuse, gendered violence, torture and trauma cannot produce evidence by a particular date. Well-known psychological processes, such as dissociation, PTSD and denial of sexual trauma, militate against the so-called efficient delivery of evidence. That is before we get to the dysfunctional lack of legal aid and advice available, and the broken nature of the asylum system as a whole, as we discussed with reference to clause 16. Again, the Government seem to want to blame their own failings on vulnerable people, and scapegoat them for 11 years of a broken asylum system.

I will give an example of how unfair clause 17 is, and why someone’s credibility is in no way contingent on their ability to provide evidence by an arbitrary date. The example, concerning someone I will call “Gloria”, is a real case that was described to me by the excellent organisation Women for Refugee Women.

Gloria and her husband were supporters of the Opposition political party in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When the Government started to suspect that her husband was talking to journalists about human rights abuses, they targeted both him and Gloria. Gloria was raped by soldiers and taken to prison. Upon release, she and her husband fled the Congo, but they were forced back into the DRC and targeted by the Government again. Gloria was violently raped again by several soldiers and held in a detention centre from where she was trafficked to the UK.

When she arrived here, Gloria was detained in a house and forced to have sex with several men for weeks, until a cleaner helped her to escape. This woman encouraged her to claim asylum, but Gloria was too scared to talk about her traffickers in the interview, so she could not explain why she had not claimed asylum earlier. Her male interpreter at the interview did not speak Lingala fluently and got angry with her when she tried to clarify points. She had no mental health support so was unable to discuss the extreme sexual violence she had experienced, and her lawyer never explained to her that the experience of being trafficked was relevant to her claim.

Gloria was refused asylum and taken to Yarl’s Wood, which she found highly traumatic, given her previous experience of incarceration in the DRC. She was released from Yarl’s Wood and then came to seek help from Women for Refugee Women, as she was homeless. She joined one of the organisation’s creative projects and, over time, began speaking about her story. Gloria now has a positive reasonable grounds decision and is preparing further submissions for a fresh asylum claim. Under clauses 16 and 17, Gloria could be prohibited from presenting evidence of the violence that she faced, with the ultimate risk of being returned to her persecutors. Gloria continues to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicidal thoughts.

Surely when hearing of cases such as Gloria’s, Ministers must pause and realise that provisions such as clause 17 are inappropriate. Worse than that, calling into question the credibility of people who are traumatised is severely harmful. As discussed with reference to clause 16, the ultimate risk of undermining the credibility of applicants and denying the validity of their evidence is refoulement and is in contradiction of the refugee convention.

The one-stop process being proposed in the group of clauses that include clause 17 would force traumatised women to raise all the reasons why they need protection at the outset. If they fail to do so, their credibility could be damaged, according to the clause. It is worth stating again that, as with clause 16, this goes directly against the Home Office’s guidance, which states that late disclosure should not automatically prejudice a woman’s credibility.

As highlighted, moreover, many women do not realise that their experiences of gendered violence may constitute an asylum claim. Poor legal advice compounds that problem, so women do not raise these experiences in their initial claim. Clauses 16, 17 and 23 will result in more women being wrongly refused protection and so becoming liable for detention.

Clauses 16, 17 and 23 create a mechanism that forces people to produce relevant evidence by a fixed date. If that deadline is missed, the evidence could be given “minimal weight”, which will impact on a decision maker’s assessment of an applicant’s LGBT+ status and/or whether they have a well-founded fear of persecution. That would be acutely detrimental to LGBT+ people because of the difficulties in gathering and providing evidence that helps to confirm their sexual orientation or gender identity. Many LGBT+ people may have spent a long time trying to hide their sexual orientation or gender identity from other people not only in their countries of origin, but in the UK. Further, it can be an enormous challenge, if not impossible, to obtain supporting evidence from former partners, friends or family members in their country of origin, who can be too afraid to write a witness statement. For trans people specifically, many are unable to access healthcare in their countries of origin and to receive timely support in the UK, and, again, struggle to offer supporting evidence as a result.

If LGBT+ people get evidence such as letters from those who can testify to their sexual orientation or gender identity, proof of membership of LGBT+ organisations or photos at Pride, it may not be until they are more comfortable and confident in being open about their sexual orientation or gender identity, and therefore easily after any deadlines for evidence are imposed by the Home Office.

Clauses 17, 20 and 23 direct or encourage decision makers, including immigration judges on appeal, to exclude evidence or reject the credibility of a claimant. That exclusion or rejection is arbitrary. It is not on the basis of the decision maker’s assessment of the relevance or probity of the evidence or truthfulness of the claimant. It is not on the basis of any individual assessment of all the relevant material and circumstances.

Unless Ministers wish to make the charge that decision makers, whether Home Office staff or independent tribunal judges, are incapable of fulfilling their responsibilities, they must surely anticipate that this can only increase the likelihood that some people with good asylum claims are made unable to substantiate them. What then? It cannot be expected that people who are in real fear of persecution, for what will be good reasons, will be willing to accept a return to torture or execution, or some other serious harm. There will be greater obstruction to the Home Office, because it will be charged with carrying out the return of someone who, quite justifiably, will not co-operate and, similarly justifiably, will wish to take every opportunity, including by making a fresh claim and pursuing litigation—appeal or judicial review—to substantiate their good claim to be a refugee. Home Office and other limited public resources, including legal aid and court time, will be spent pursuing what should not be pursued and what may and, it must be hoped, will turn out to be unattainable. That will not merely add directly to delays and backlogs. It will have a wider impact in diminishing confidence in the asylum and immigration system, particularly where the treatment and outcomes for people are manifestly unequal for no reason properly related to the strength of their claim.

The Opposition are deeply concerned by clause 17. It will contribute to a culture of disbelief that will harm vulnerable people who deserve our support, including women such as Gloria. Under clauses 16 and 17, Gloria could be prohibited from presenting evidence of the violence that she faced, with the ultimate risk of being returned to her persecutors. That is unconscionable. We will therefore oppose this clause, as we do not believe that there is any way in which it can reasonably be made better.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet 11:15 am, 26th October 2021

The Chair has no desire to curtail comment, particularly from the Front Benches, but we do have to remain within the scope of the matter under discussion. I am conscious that that is difficult when there are related clauses, but the hon. Gentleman has strayed into referring to clauses 20 and 23. The Chair will bear that in mind when we come to those debates; I would not expect repetition on the subject.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

Amendment 39 would render clause 17 inoperable. Clause 17 introduces two new behaviours into section 8 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004. That section provides that a decision maker shall take account, as damaging the claimant’s credibility, of the behaviour to which the section applies. Without the consequent amendment to section 8, which amendment 39 seeks to remove, there is no penalty for late evidence or not acting in good faith, which would make such a measure inappropriate for primary legislation and would also render it pointless.

Clause 17 is not prescriptive as to how decision makers, within both the Home Office and the judiciary, determine credibility or the claim itself. It has always been the case that decision makers must consider egregious conduct by the claimant. It is then open to the Home Office or the courts to decide the extent to which credibility should subsequently be damaged. Amendment 39 simply seeks to do away with that well established principle.

Let me build on the point about the judiciary and the point that was raised by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East. He asked, “Aren’t judges best placed to determine the credibility that evidence should have? Why be prescriptive?” The point that I will make in response is that clause 17 is not prescriptive as to how judges determine credibility or the claim itself. It adds two new behaviours to the existing section 8 of the 2004 Act. That section provides that a decision maker shall take account, as damaging the claimant’s credibility, of the behaviour to which the section applies. I think it is important to clarify this. It should be noted that clause 17 applies to all decision makers. That includes Home Office staff who make the initial decision on protection and human rights claims. Clause 17 adds new behaviours to the existing behaviours that should already be taken into account as damaging to credibility under section 8 of the 2004 Act. The concept that certain conduct should be damaging to credibility is nothing new. It has always been the case that decision makers must consider egregious conduct by the claimant. It is then open to the Home Office or the courts to decide the extent to which credibility should subsequently be damaged.

Clause 17 will also not be determinative of a claim. Decision makers will still be required to consider the claimant’s credibility in the round, as they would currently as part of their decision-making processes.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

Clause 17 further compounds the damage potentially arising from clause 16. When answering the question about a child rights impact assessment, the Minister seemed to talk about an equality impact assessment. I wonder again whether a child rights impact assessment, as developed by his colleagues in the Department for Education for schools, would benefit the Government, to prevent them from imposing conditions that fall foul of other Government legislation—

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Order. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, but we have gone past clause 16; we are now on clause 17.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

But having a child rights impact assessment would prevent the Government from implementing clause 17 in a way that harms children and causes the Government to lose legal cases further down the line, so I believe it is relevant, Sir Roger.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

I will allow the question.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

Thank you, Sir Roger. I want to pick up on a couple of other points that were raised in responding to amendment 39. I should clarify that clauses 17 and 23 do not apply to consideration of modern slavery referrals. Claims are considered holistically, and credibility is not by itself determinative of a claim. It is important to emphasise that point. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate raised the case of Gloria. Obviously, I am mindful of talking about individual cases because of the difficulties associated with that, as I am sure that he will appreciate, but clauses 17 and 23 do not prevent someone from providing late evidence. Late evidence will still be considered in full. Where there are good reason for lateness, a person’s credibility will not be damaged and clause 23 will not apply. I wanted to provide clarity on that point. With that, I ask that the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East withdraw amendment 39, and that the Committee agree that clause 17 stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

As a point of principle, I object to Parliament telling decision makers what to think, but having made my point I am happy to leave it there for now, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question put, That clause 17 stand part of the Bill.

Division number 17 Nationality and Borders Bill — Clause 17 - Asylum or human rights claim: damage to claimant’s credibility

Aye: 9 MPs

No: 7 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 7.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 17 ordered to stand part of the Bill.