Clause 20 - Late compliance with priority removal notice: damage to credibility

Nationality and Borders Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 26th October 2021.

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Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central 2:00 pm, 26th October 2021

I beg to move amendment 139, in clause 20, page 23, line 40, at end insert—

“(3A) For the purposes of subsection (3) ‘good reasons’ include, but are not limited to—

(a) evidence of post-traumatic stress,

(b) potential endangerment to the PRN recipient caused by collecting evidence for anything mentioned in subsection (1)(a) before the PRN cut-off date.

(3B) The Secretary of State must publish guidance including a non-exhaustive list of ‘good reasons’ within the meaning of subsection (3) within 30 days of this Act receiving Royal Assent.”

This amendment would illustrate potential interpretations of “good reasons” for late compliance and require the Home Secretary to publish a non-exhaustive list of potential “good reasons” to aid asylum decisions.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 154, in clause 20, page 23, line 40, at end insert—

“(3A) The Secretary of State or competent authority must accept that there are good reasons for the late provision of anything mentioned in subsection (1)(a) where—

(a) the PRN recipient’s protection or human rights claim is based on sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or sex characteristics;

(b) the PRN recipient is suffering from a mental health condition or impairment;

(c) the PRN recipient has been a victim of torture;

(d) the PRN recipient has been a victim of sexual or gender based violence;

(e) the PRN recipient has been a victim of human trafficking or modern slavery;

(f) the PRN recipient is suffering from a serious physical disability;

(g) the PRN recipient is suffering from other serious physical health conditions or illnesses.”

This amendment defines “good reasons” for the purposes of subsection (3).

Amendment 41, in clause 20, page 23, line 38, leave out

“, as damaging the PRN recipient’s credibility,”

This amendment would mean that – whilst late provision of information would still be taken into account – it would not necessarily be deemed as damaging the claimant’s credibility.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

I will try to be brief, because the amendments cover ground similar to our previous discussion. Clause 20 seeks to damage the credibility of claimants producing evidence outside the time period dictated by a priority removal notice. There is a general point to make here. As we all know well, completing processes in time is not really the Home Office’s strong point. What is worrying is that the provision makes things worse. As Women for Refugee Women has pointed out:

“As well as causing harm to women in desperate need of safety, these clauses are likely to lead to greater unfairness in the system, an increasing number of incorrect decisions and ultimately therefore an increase in the backlog of asylum cases.”

That is something we all seek to avoid.

Around 125,000 asylum seekers are currently awaiting a decision on an initial claim or appeal, or are expecting removal. Many have been in limbo for more than six months, and some for years. At the end of March 2021, 66,185 were people awaiting an initial decision, which is the highest number for over a decade. The number of people awaiting an initial decision for more than a year increased almost tenfold between 2010 and 2020, from 3,588 to 33,016.

The number of children—this will be of interest to my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark—awaiting an initial decision for more than a year increased more than twelvefold between 2010 and 2020, from 563 to 6,887. The idea has been created, and heightened by the appalling images we have all seen of channel crossings, that that is due to rising numbers, but the number of asylum applications actually fell.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby 2:15 pm, 26th October 2021

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that not all the delays are down to the Home Office? In many people’s view, the thousands of judicial reviews that are done, the vast majority of which fail, are there to buy more time for the applicant possibly to come up with a reason for an article 8 application.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

There is an exception to every rule, so I am prepared to accept that not all the problems are down to the Home Office. We discussed that issue earlier. The fact that some people may seek to abuse the system does not mean that the system should be changed to focus on those cases. We should operate on the basis that everybody has a right to access and utilise the judicial processes that are available.

As I was saying, the backlog has risen at a time when the number of asylum applications for the year ending June 2021 fell. We know that is reflected across the system; it is not just a problem with asylum. In the relatively straightforward area of EU settled status, recent data from the Home Office in response to a freedom of information request showed that, in June, more than 26,000 EU citizens had been waiting for more than a year for a decision; more than 216,000 had been waiting for more than six months; and more than 680,000 had been waiting for more than three months.

The problem of delays is endemic in the Home Office, and there were no JRs involved in those numbers. In the asylum process, delay is not only seriously detrimental to the individuals, but—we have returned to this point a number of times, and will again—hugely costly to the taxpayer, so any measure that will exacerbate rather than correct the issue is unconscionable.

The assumption behind the measures in clause 20 and related causes is that those trapped in the system are to blame, as was echoed in the exchange we just had. Blaming others is a common approach of the Government on a wide range of issues such as covid, where GPs are the lightning rod for discontent, and Brexit, where we blame everybody going other than those who negotiated the deal. That ignores the reality that those trapped in the system want decisions to be expedited as soon as they can. They want to move on with their lives. Those who are successful want to take the opportunity to work and contribute to our society.

We need more resources from the Home Office to tackle the backlog. It is welcome that there has been some acknowledgement of that. I saw that the permanent secretary said at the Home Affairs Committee last month that the Home Office is planning to almost double the number of caseworkers, which is extremely positive. It is delayed recognition of where the problem might lie, but they should not be seeking to undermine applicants, which subsection (3) of clause 20 does by specifying that the Secretary of State or the competent authority must consider evidence being brought late as damaging to a claimant’s credibility unless there are good reasons why it was brought late. We come again to this issue, which we debated in relation to an earlier clause, of good reasons.

As there is no explanation before us, either in the legislation or in the explanatory notes, of what might constitute good reasons, amendment 139 seeks to help the Government, in a collegial spirit, by inviting the Secretary of State to publish a framework that allows the consideration of the effect of post-traumatic stress and potential endangerment on the provision of evidence. I do not think that any of us could object to the idea that post-traumatic stress and potential endangerment would be good reasons, so I will be interested to hear the Minister explain, if in fact he does not embrace the amendment, why that is the case, because we go on to suggest that he might also publish the other factors that would be seen to be good reasons.

The clause serves to shift from a presumption of guilty until proven innocent, again echoing an earlier discussion, back to our legal system’s norm of innocent until proven guilty. As it stands, unamended, it is not in the spirit of the law or of British values, and it should not be in the Bill.

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship again, Ms McDonagh. As the hon. Member for Sheffield Central said, clause 20 instructs decision makers to take into account

“as damaging the PRN recipient’s credibility…the late provision” of information and evidence. I absolutely support the hon. Gentleman’s amendment to explore “good reasons” for evidence, including post-traumatic stress. Our amendment 154 provides other examples, such as mental health issues or where a person has been a victim of torture or other crimes that can impact on their ability to provide information. That is similar to debates we have already had.

Amendment 41 revisits earlier arguments about taking into account all the evidence, including lateness in providing it, when assessing a case. It is not appropriate to tell decision makers what conclusions to draw. We say decision makers will often find people to have credibility if lots of new information is provided with respect to that explanation. That is a matter that should be left to them. It is not for parliamentarians to tell decision makers how to analyse claimants.

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

Clause 20 introduces the concept of a priority removal notice and, under subsection (3), specifies that the Secretary of State or the competent authority must consider evidence being brought late as damaging to a claimant’s credibility, unless there are good reasons why it was brought late.

As we have made clear during the course of the Bill’s passage, the Government are trying to make it harder for refugees and asylum seekers to gain protection here in the UK. That is undeniable. The priority removal notices regime is part of a package of measures and provisions to achieve that end, both in deterring refugees from seeking protection and in making it more difficult for refugees admitted to the UK to be recognised as such.

One of those measures is directing decision makers, including judges, to doubt an applicant’s credibility if they fail to provide evidence under the strict conditions described in clauses 18 and 19. It is worth noting that the Home Office and the courts have always been able to consider the timing of a claim as a factor in determining credibility, and that might determine an appeal. None the less, clause 20 seeks to reduce the weight that is given to any evidence that is submitted after the cut-off period stipulated by the PRN.

According to the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association:

“Rather than allowing decision-makers to sensibly consider whether the late provision of evidence is a reason to doubt its credibility, weighing all the evidence on the whole, the government proposes to strait-jacket decision-makers with a series of presumptions. The caveat that decision-makers will be allowed to use their own judgment if there is a ‘good reason’ why evidence was provided late does not mitigate these concerns.”

Indeed, there are many so-called bad reasons that evidence might be provided late that do not indicate dishonesty, and many more reasons that it may not be possible for someone to present all relevant information in support of their claim at the earliest opportunity. We have already heard in detail the problems felt by certain groups and individuals with this approach, such as LGBTQ asylum seekers and victims of torture, sexual or gender-based violence, or trafficking.

One long-standing concern for the sector, which we have yet to cover in detail, is failings within the asylum process itself, particularly poor-quality, shortened or inadequate interviews. The consequences of poor interviews conducted with an individual can be devastating in the moment and potentially have grave long-term effects, including the risk of being returned to persecution because the Home Office did not have the information it needed to make a fair and informed decision.

For the Home Office, asylum appeals have been rising steadily over the last decade, which points to the importance of protecting asylum appeals as a vital safeguard for the most vulnerable and to the fact that the Home Office often gets decisions wrong first time. More widely, a system that relies on the appeal process to correct its errors is inefficient, costly and inhumane. For that reason, we can describe the asylum system in the UK as broken, and we can point to the last 11 years of Conservative government as a reason for us having that broken system.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Would the hon. Gentleman include foreign national offenders who are being removed, who may have committed crimes including rape and murder or been involved in the drugs trade, among the people who should be given the sort of latitude he is talking about?

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

Priority removal notices will apply to all people to whom they apply. If they qualify, they will qualify under that regime. I do not think people can be distinguished on the basis on their offences.

Clause 20 and the wider proposals around priority removal notices will penalise the most vulnerable and those who have been failed by the system by reducing the significance of any evidence submitted after the applicant has been through the one-stop process. That could include independent expert medical evidence, such as medico-legal reports, which often prove determinative in asylum appeals.

Ultimately, the provision around late compliance risks people not being given protection even though they deserve it and are in need of it. For the reasons I have specified, we will oppose clause 20 standing part of the Bill.

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

By introducing the statutory requirement to provide information or evidence before a specified date, clauses 16 and 18 will contribute to the swift resolution of protection and human rights claims, enabling decision makers to consider all the evidence up front and, where appropriate, grant leave. It is right that where evidence or information is provided late, that should impact on a person’s credibility, and that the decision maker must consider whether to apply the minimal weight principle, unless there are good reasons why it was brought late.

Clauses 20 and 23 both recognise that it may be harder for some people to engage in the process and provide evidence before a specified date. That may be the result of trauma they have experienced, a lack of trust in the authorities or the sensitive and personal nature of their claim. Amendment 41 removes the possible credibility implications stemming from late evidence in response to a priority removal notice. It is right that where evidence or information is provided late, that should impact on a person’s credibility, unless there are good reasons why it was brought late. Where there are good reasons that information or evidence was provided late, the penalties in clauses 20 and 23 will not apply.

Clause 20 recognises that there may be good reasons that evidence was provided late. Where there are good reasons, the associated credibility provisions in clauses 20 and 23 will not apply. Therefore, amendment 41 is unnecessary, as the clause already meets its aim that late evidence should not necessarily be damaging to the claimant’s credibility. As with amendment 39, by removing the possible credibility implications stemming from late provision of evidence, amendment 41 would make such a measure inappropriate for primary legislation and render it pointless. Amendment 154 places a statutory obligation on decision makers to accept that there are good reasons for late evidence where an individual’s claim is based on certain factors, or the individual falls into a particular category. That would apply to Home Office decision makers and, under amendment 154, the competent authority as well as the judiciary.

Compelling a judge to accept good reasons for late evidence based solely on the grounds of the person’s claim raises significant issues and interferes with their fact-finding role. It also ignores the possibility that a claim may fall within a particular category or that a person may identify as one of the listed categories, but their evidence may be late for unrelated reasons. The amendments would therefore create a blanket acceptance for late evidence in specific prescribed circumstances, yet a vulnerable individual who does not fall within the specified groups may have late evidence and face a different test for whether or not they have good reasons. That is unfair.

Amendment 139 would have a perverse impact, with some vulnerable claimants facing different evidential requirements and penalties, simply because their particular vulnerability was excluded from the amendment. Individuals may be unable to provide evidence as a result of the trauma they have experienced, without having been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. They may be unable to provide evidence for practical reasons for example, where an expert report was not available. That would be outside the scope of amendment 139, but that does not make it any less valid. In addition, amendment 139 could create a situation where individuals who do not fall into one of the categories identified by the amendments could abuse the process by falsely claiming that they did.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark 2:30 pm, 26th October 2021

This comes back to the point that we were discussing this morning about PTSD. The Minister seems to be saying that if PTSD were on the list and someone could not prove that they had it that would advantage those who could prove that the condition had been diagnosed while disadvantaging those who had not had a diagnosis. However, they would not get a diagnosis within the timeframe specified in the legislation. Perhaps a means to address that anomaly is the Government providing their own list of good reasons that could be used to distinguish between cases—on a case-by-case basis—based on how long someone has been in the process and whether they are undergoing assessment for PTSD. That could be a way to resolve that predicament. As it stands, the Minister seems to be saying that he cannot accept the amendment because it would advantage those whom the Government’s plans disadvantage.

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

Our intention is to publish guidance to help operationalise the measures in the Bill that will set this out in more detail. We would expect, as I have said in relation to several amendments and clauses, that caseworkers will consider those factors properly when reaching judgments about individual cases.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

I am sure the Opposition understand that when someone is given a police caution when they are about to be arrested they are told, “It may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something you later rely on.” Is the clause not basically about the same principle being applied to immigration cases?

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

I am trying to explore the contradiction in what the Minister has just said. He said that the Government intended to produce guidance that set out what good reasons were subsequent to the legislation, but he cautioned against requiring good reasons, because that would exclude some people from justice. Would he square that circle for me?

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

We think that the appropriate place to be clear about these matters is in the guidance, rather than the Bill. As I say, I would expect decision makers to take into account all the relevant factors at play in an individual case when making decisions relating to it. Rather as we have discussed in relation to other clauses and amendments, there is flexibility in certain circumstances, where good reasons can be shown as to why evidence would not be produced sooner. We recognise that people may be in difficult circumstances and that issues arise in their lives. We want the system to be responsive to that and to take proper account of it, which is why we are proposing to proceed as we are doing.

To return to the point that I was making on amendment 139, it would perpetuate the issues that the clauses are designed to address to the detriment of genuine claimants, undermining their usefulness. Amendment 139 would also introduce a requirement to publish guidance on good reasons within 30 days of the Bill receiving Royal Assent. That is an arbitrary deadline and it is not necessary to include it on the face of the Bill. As I have indicated, good reasons will be set out in published guidance for decision makers and will be made available when the measures come into force.

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

It is a brief intervention. I am reminded of what the right hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby said about being cautioned by the police. Will the good reasons clauses cover children specifically? We need to know, given that they represent almost a quarter of asylum claims, and given the issue of age and maturity.

Moreover, what evidence would a gay man trying to escape Iran or another oppressive have to provide in order to prove his circumstances? What would the threshold be, given how hard it has been to provide proof in multiple cases under the existing system?

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

I can confirm that it will refer to children. To conclude my remarks, I respectfully invite the hon. Member for Sheffield Central to withdraw the amendment.

On clause 20, the unnecessary provision of late evidence, statements and information delays justice for those with genuine claims, and wastes valuable resources. Clause 20 will work in parallel with clauses 18 and 19 to support the new priority removal notice. Its focus is on encouraging persons liable to removal or deportation to provide at the earliest opportunity any information or evidence in support of their protection or human rights claim, or, for potential victims of modern slavery, in relation to a decision by the competent authority. Where information or evidence is provided on or after the cut-off date, as set out in the priority removal notice and without good reason, it is right that that should be taken into account as damaging to the person’s credibility. I hope that the Committee will agree to the clause standing part of the Bill.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

I am afraid that I am unconvinced by the Minister’s response, so I wish to press amendment 139 to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 20 Nationality and Borders Bill — Clause 20 - Late compliance with priority removal notice: damage to credibility

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 8.

Question accordingly negatived.

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

Division number 21 Nationality and Borders Bill — Clause 20 - Late compliance with priority removal notice: damage to credibility

Aye: 8 MPs

No: 6 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 6.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 20 ordered to stand part of the Bill.