May I say how pleased I am to have this debate in the closing weeks before the summer recess? The topic is important, so it is right that we should air it again. I am also pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Angela Eagle, is present. I am sure that she will bring the same sympathy, compassion and dedication to her new role that she brought to her previous one.
Over the years, I have visited many refugee camps and prisons across the world. However, until I visited Cardiff prison two weeks ago with my hon. Friend Julie Morgan, I had visited only one prison in the United Kingdom, which was a women's prison in Bristol. There are 44 asylum seekers in Cardiff prison of 20 different nationalities, including people from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Kosovo, Albania and Zimbabwe. They have all been refused asylum by an immigration officer at a port or at their point of entry, and they have been refused bail while their appeal is under way. They usually have legal representation, but solicitors sometimes send agents, who are often inexperienced, to deal with bail applications.
The situation in Cardiff prison hit the press when asylum seekers were taken in handcuffs to a local hospital. That shocked many people in Cardiff and elsewhere. When we visited the prison, the authorities told us that asylum seekers were treated the same as other prisoners because they were in a prison regime.
Neither my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North nor I have any criticism of the staff at Cardiff prison. We found them sympathetic, and they were both concerned and resentful at being asked to perform a duty that they felt they should not have to perform. A constituent of mine, who is a prison officer there, told me, "I think it's absolutely disgraceful. These people should not be in prison." All the prison officials with whom we spoke echoed that view.
Most of the staff who deal with the asylum seekers receive some training. One group had visited Belmarsh prison. As far as we could ascertain, no extra resources are given to the prison authorities to educate asylum seekers. The asylum seekers are held in cells, in which they are usually locked up for 12 hours a day. We managed to talk to a few of them, but communication proved difficult because no interpreter was available. It was, therefore, a halting conversation. One asylum seeker had kitchen skills, but the others' skills were not known to the prison authorities, which concerns me. The authorities know little about the asylum seekers' countries of origin. Although they provide special food and prayer facilities, they do not know the circumstances from which those people have fled.
The capacity of Cardiff prison is tight; there are about 640 inmates. At present, Welsh prisoners are sent to English prisons because there is not enough room for them in Cardiff prison. In one cell, we met a Pakistani—a very cultured man—who was a scholar, and the author of 37 books. He would have kept us there all morning if we could have spent that amount of time with him. He could not understand why he was being detained. We met a Tamil from Sri Lanka, who had left Sri Lanka because of the daily violence there. He had owned his own bakery. We met an Iranian who was a technician in an oil refinery. Due to language difficulties, it was not possible to find out why he had left his country.
One of the prison officers told us that the staff were concerned that the asylum seekers were mixing with other prisoners and were being introduced to drugs. In spite of the best efforts of the prison authorities, drugs are brought into prisons. It was also alleged that asylum seekers were being taught how to forge credit cards. Obviously, that skill may be useful to them in future, but they should not be learning it.
We met a man from Kosovo, whose father and brother had disappeared. He was frightened for his life so he decided to flee. Everyone understands why people fled Kosovo at the time that he did. He did not know the whereabouts of his father and brother; he believed that they were dead. The day before we arrived, he learned that his mother was in prison in Tirana, Albania. We asked whether he had managed to talk to anyone and he told us that access to the telephone was very limited— something that others have confirmed. There is one telephone per 50 of the prison population. Even when I visited refugee camps in Macedonia with the Select Committee on International Development, one of the points that we made to the authorities there, and to the Government when we returned, was that the first thing that people wanted to do when they fled their countries was to make contact with their family or friends. It is essential that they are able to do that. We managed to convince the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to arrange for mobile telephones to be brought into the refugee camps in Macedonia so that people could make those important telephone calls. The Kosovan man was ready to go back to Albania. He wanted to go to Tirana to see his mother. I hope that he will be able to do that soon.
The staff of Cardiff prison have been attacked in the press, and I repeat that those staff are doing the best that they can in the circumstances. I would not want anything that I say today to be considered as a criticism of their difficult work. If asylum seekers cannot speak English, it is important that interpreters are available. Similarly, if those seeking asylum want to learn English, those facilities should be available. That is a basic right.
This morning I received a letter that was handed to the Refugee Council on
"As asylum seekers in this prison, we strongly object the inhuman treatment we are subjected to. We feel that there is a need for audience with both immigration and human rights support services within the country as we suspect that there is a conspiracy against us...Most of the detainees have relatives in England (London) but immigration have chosen to detain them in" a Welsh prison. He continues:
"This is meant to deter you from seeking assistance from well-wishers/relatives and in London, some had personal solicitors in London of which they lost contact with, due to tricky unwarranted movements. During this period immigration expects you to source additional evidence to support your claim in court yet they are hampering all your access to information and you call this justice...Here at Cardiff prison we are treated like animals as compared to criminal remand prisoners and those serving sentences. Some of us we have never been arrested before, and just found ourselves in a prison cell sharing facilities with convicts of different crimes people committing suicide and unwarranted bullying from prison officers. You try and seek explanation from the local immigration officer, why you are in prison, 'the answer lies with immigration in London' all he is instructed to help you go back to your country if you are fed up...Association is divided between criminal remand prisoners and immigration detainees but you find that preferential treatment is given to the former evidenced by the following. From Mon 19/03/01 to Mon 02/04/01 we only got 2 hrs free from every 48 hrs, locked in the cells. From Tues 03/04 to Friday 06.04 we were locked up for more than 78 hours...no shower and no explanation, but fellow prisoners were allowed out all the time. Again this is not surprising cause we are not British.
We don't know the difference between us and other asylum seekers as these are not subjected to the same conditions ie Campsfield Detention Centre (Oxford) people are free to receive calls and interaction throughout the day until late, but here we are only allowed £16 worth of phone cards each week equivalent to 15 mins talking time when calling a mobile. You are expected to discuss with solicitors relatives both locally and internationally using just this...We used to think that Britain was the Cradle of Justice, human rights and equality the world over hence this level of abuse only prompts one to conclude that this is an epicentre of racism it only confirms that MPs statement which states 'Asylum seekers are compared to rats in a bucket who create social tension'. This is what we are fleeing from and we wouldn't expect this level of torture from a developed country, more-so a signatory of the 1951 Human Rights UN convention." As I said, I have no way of checking that out.
Iraq, Sri Lanka, the Republic of Yugoslavia, Iran, Somalia and Afghanistan accounted for about half of all UK asylum applications last year. Serious human rights abuses, including torture, occur in all those countries, as even the British tabloids cannot deny. As Europe tightens its immigration controls, it is now virtually impossible for someone fleeing persecution to reach safety in the UK legally. Those asylum seekers who have entered Britain illegally may have had no other option.
Britain has signed the 1951 United Nations convention relating to the status of refugees, which gives anyone the legal right to claim asylum. Anyone who has claimed asylum has a legal right to remain in the UK until the claim has been assessed.
The truth is that we do not bear the greatest asylum strain—the world's poorest countries do. Most refugees have always gone to neighbouring countries and will probably always do so. I want to put the problem in context. Iran currently has something like 1.8 million refugees from Afghanistan. Pakistan has 1.2 million refugees. Britain had just 76,000 new arrivals last year. Some of us have visited refugee camps and have seen, for example, Kurdish refugees fleeing over the mountains to Iran or Turkey. In 1991, the Turkish border came down pretty fast; the Iranians kept their borders open for much longer. When we see the plight of those people, we realise that they leave their homes not because they want to, but because of persecution.
At the end of May, about 1,787 refugees were detained in British prisons. Some 396 were detained in an immigration detention centre, 247 at Oakington detention centre and 1,144 in prisons. During the passage of the Immigration and Asylum Bill, the Leader of the House of Lords, Lord Williams of Mostyn, told the other place that he accepted, on the Government's behalf, the principle that
"no detainee ought to be kept in the prison regime. That cannot be brought about overnight, but we accepted the principle immediately...David Ramsbotham was absolutely right, and we said so at the time."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 19 July 1999; Vol. 604, c. 717.]
The Government's report "Fairer, Faster and Firmer" stated that we needed a statutory framework for detention centres. It proposed to seek the power to regulate the rights and responsibilities of detainees and detention centre managers. Those rules have been approved by Parliament, and reflect the fact that detention centres must account for the difference between asylum seekers and criminals. The Refugee Council believes that if the rules are to serve their purpose and protect detained asylum seekers, we should cease to use prisons for that group.
Amnesty International's 2001 report notes with concern that, at any given time, there are about 1,000 asylum seekers in detention. The British Medical Association's new handbook for doctors on human rights says that the routine use of prison detention is an abuse of asylum seekers' human rights. The UNHCR's detention guideline 10, "Conditions of Detention", says that asylum seekers should not be detained in prisons. The "Sanctuary in a Cell" report on the detention of asylum seekers in Northern Ireland has found that
"the moral and legal obligation to grant sanctuary to those fleeing persecution is being systematically undermined by the criminalisation of asylum seekers in Northern Ireland."
The chief inspector of prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, has on several occasions stated that he does not consider the detention of asylum seekers to be a fit and proper role for the Prison Service. In January he said:
"I don't think it's right to hold people who have not been accused of or committed a crime, in prison conditions...prison rules do not apply to those who are wholly innocent of any offence".
The chief executive of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders said that prisons
"are wholly inappropriate for people in a distressed and vulnerable state." The UNHCR's United Kingdom representative, Hope Hanlan, has also attacked using prisons in such a way. She says:
"There is nothing to justify putting people in prison. Once you do that you raise all sorts of humanitarian issues." She added that no other country in Europe did that. The Asylum Rights Campaign has produced a summary of its concerns about how asylum seekers are detained, particularly in prison. It makes the point that prisons are understaffed and overcrowded and that there are excessive lock-up times, sometimes between 16 and 18 hours a day.
On the possibility of applying detention centre rules in prison, governors said that it would be impossible to run separate regimes for convicted remand and immigration detainees in a single establishment. An old Victorian prison such as Cardiff is in much need of refurbishment. The conditions are pretty bad for people who are meant to be in prison. When we visited that prison on a very warm day, we found the conditions to be particularly oppressive.
At the end of last year, the Government announced that a further 500 places for asylum seekers had been secured from the Prison Service. Ministers in the previous Government claimed that that was a temporary measure. The previous Minister said that prison places would be used as an interim, short-term measure. In 1999, Sir David Ramsbotham said of Rochester prison:
"Most of all I must express my concern at the poor treatment and conditions of the numbers of asylum seekers, immigration detainees and other foreign nationals who form almost half the prison population.
Detainees were treated as if they were unconvicted prisoners. This approach seemed to be based on guidelines from the Immigration and Nationality Directorate and was adopted by prison staff in their dealings with them."
The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture sent me this week a study of Pakistani torture survivors who come to the UK that makes particularly disturbing reading. It has recorded 11 cases in which torture victims were detained in mainstream prisons instead of receiving temporary admission. I urge people to read the study. It states:
"Holding asylum seekers in prison, where they are forced to mix with people accused of serious criminal offences, conflicts with the Government's own policy as stated in the same White Paper. ...
In each of the eleven cases, the asylum seekers were imprisoned—on average for just over 9 months, but in one case for more than 20 months—despite giving evidence of torture during initial interviews with immigration officers about their reasons for fleeing into exile.
Medical examination by Foundation doctors found that each of those held had scars—some a dozen or more—and other marks on the body fully consistent with the account of torture. One man had 32 scars, although when he was screened on arrival in prison, the word 'Nil' was entered in the section headed 'Abnormalities, scars etc.'
In only one instance was an asylum seeker quickly freed after being examined by a Foundation doctor. The others remained in prison for months after a medical report from the Foundation had been prepared."
All the asylum seekers described in the study had endured various torture methods in Pakistan. I will not go through them, but one in five of the sample had suffered sexual torture, some of whom had been raped. In spite of all the evidence of torture in Pakistan that human rights observers have provided, the Home Office made a formal legal declaration in 1996 that, in its view, there was generally no serious risk of persecution in Pakistan. Earlier this year, however, the Appeal Court confirmed the ruling that to characterise Pakistan in that way was unlawful and irrational.
The study concludes that the Home Office hardly ever makes a proper evaluation of the evidence of torture from the individual's testimony, or from what is known of torture in Pakistan and from medical evidence. The Medical Foundation also found the same deficiencies when the Home Office examined asylum applications made by its clients from Turkey, India and Sri Lanka. The foundation maintains that such deficiencies lead to a systematic failure by the UK to honour its international obligations to protect asylum seekers with a history of torture.
Over the past couple of days, Asylum Link Merseyside, which the Minister may know of, has faxed me a petition with 1,700 signatures. It is headed "Free asylum seekers held without trial in Walton prison". It is addressed to the Home Secretary.
"As our newly appointed Home Secretary we the undersigned urge you to use your office to release asylum seekers held unjustly in Walton (Liverpool) prison and other high security prisons. This situation is an outrage and cannot be justified and we ask for immediate action to release all asylum seekers so that they can be given access to decent conditions whilst awaiting a review of their claims for refugee status. We know you are an advocate for human rights and request you give this matter your urgent attention."
"We take the view that the system is so flawed and now so expensive in comparison with giving benefits to asylum seekers while their cases are being considered that it should be scrapped. ...the application of this system is causing widespread misery and has not had the intended effect of deterring asylum seekers from coming to the UK."
The Select Committee on International Development visited Montserrat in the early days of the volcano crisis and followed that up a year later with another visit. We discovered that the use of vouchers was one of the things that caused people on Montserrat the greatest concern. We managed to get the voucher system scrapped. If we can do that on Montserrat, we should also do so in the UK.
The Refugee Council has provided me with considerable briefing material, as have other organisations. It believes that asylum seekers should be detained only in exceptional circumstances and that they should not be detained in prison. It notes that something is seriously wrong if asylum seekers can be detained, sometimes in prisons, for long periods—sometimes approaching two years. The council calls for the Government to publish a regular breakdown by nationality, gender and so on of the number of asylum seekers detained under the Immigration Act 1988. I have tabled a question on that subject, which is awaiting a reply from the Minister. The council also believes that the bail provisions of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 should be implemented as soon as possible.
"we must never cease to be a country offering refuge to the genuinely persecuted. Never forget, in all this fuss about the false cases, that there are still many people fleeing racial, religious or political persecution, who without our help would face death or destitution. We have a proud history of helping such people and many of them, their children and grandchildren are pillars of our society today." So I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to bear in mind the points that I have made.
I visited a camp that the British Government in Hong Kong ran for the Vietnamese boat people. Those people were caged, and held in appalling conditions. That was some years ago, and I remember coming back to the House and saying that that was no way for the Government to treat people who were fleeing their country, for whatever reason. The vast majority of people flee for perfectly legitimate reasons.
During our visit to Cardiff prison, my hon. Friend and I again saw asylum seekers who were caged. It is simply not good enough, in 2001, to treat people like that when they are fleeing persecution and have left their own countries and families. It is not easy to flee one's country—talk to refugees in any country in the world. Most of them do not want to do it, except with very good reason. I am sure that we all recognise that. We should all be deeply ashamed of the appalling things that have been said during the past few months about asylum seekers in this country.
Order. With the winding-up speeches due to start no later than 10.30 am, I appeal to those hon. Members who seek to catch my eye to bear it in mind that four more Members wish to contribute to the debate.
I shall be brief. I thank Ann Clwyd for raising this important issue, and particularly for focusing on the treatment of asylum seekers in our prisons. I shall speak briefly about the conditions for asylum seekers in Winchester prison in my constituency, and I shall focus on three matters—first, the pressure that holding asylum seekers puts on the Prison Service; secondly, the inappropriateness of holding asylum seekers in prison; thirdly, I shall ask the Minister to comment on some time scale questions about the use of prisons in general and particularly about Winchester prison.
First, I agree with the hon. Member for Cynon Valley about pressure in prisons. I have no criticism of the staff or the governor of Winchester prison. Publicly, they tell me that they can manage. However, some prison staff have told me privately that they find it extraordinarily difficult to do so, and that they feel extremely uncomfortable about it. They are not prepared to say that publicly, but I know that the prison authorities are worried that prison staff are finding it difficult to cope. Like many other prisons, Winchester is busy and it is under enormous pressure.
I do not make a direct connection between that pressure and the figure that I now cite; I raise the subject to point out the difficulties that the prison faces. During the past five years, Winchester prison has seen about five times more suicides than the average in prisons. Winchester clearly faces considerable difficulties and pressures and it can well manage without that additional burden. Will the Minister say what financial arrangements are made when prisons are used in that way? What sort of financial assessment is made of the difficulties that face prisons, and what additional financial resources do prisons have to help staff cope with the pressures involved?
The second issue is the appropriateness of holding asylum seekers in prison. When talking to folk in my constituency about that, I focus on the fact that putting such pressure on the Prison Service makes no sense. Asylum groups in Winchester have made public another important moral issue, which is that imprisonment is completely inhumane and inappropriate.
In informal conversation with those who have been held in prison and with those who have worked with them, I have heard concern expressed about asylum seekers' access to lawyers, and I have heard some pretty troubling stories about lawyers not being able to get through to them at the right time. It is worrying that many individuals who have been detained in prison are removed from prison late on a Friday evening, taken to centres near an airport on Saturday and have to leave the country on Sunday. As one of those trying to help, I have quite often found it difficult to challenge such decisions late on a Friday night or a Saturday. I know that lawyers can find it difficult to get into the prison on that final day in order to make what can often turn out to be a last-minute appeal. Access to lawyers for asylum seekers in prison troubles me greatly. I would appreciate it if the Minister were to give an absolute assurance that being held in prison was not a barrier to asylum seekers gaining access to the specific legal help that they need in such complex cases.
I am equally concerned about the language difficulties. Prison staff have pointed out the impracticability of moving asylum seekers around the prison from day to day because in some cases it is virtually impossible to communicate with them. Can the Minister say what kind of back-up and support there is for prisons in relation to language?
There are also simple things that would help. For example, can we do more to ensure that a range of newspapers is available? Such measures would make a great difference to the lives of individuals held at Winchester prison. Will the Minister talk about such pastoral issues, and what sort of financial support is available so that prisons can buy newspapers?
My final point is about time scale. When Winchester prison was being used towards the end of last year, I and others raised a number of issues with Ministers and with the prison. We were told that it was a short-term measure—a matter of five or six weeks—and that the individuals who were being kept at the prison had gone through every possible appeal process and were to be sent back to their countries. The position then changed. I received a ministerial response stating that it was the Government's intention that the use of remand accommodation at Winchester prison would cease by the end of October 2001. I probed again a couple of weeks ago and received a slightly different ministerial response, implying that that October deadline would not be kept. I was told that
"even in the long term, for reasons of geography, security and control, there would continue to be a need to hold some detainees in prisons."—[Hansard, 3 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 100W.] This is of concern, in that the goalposts seem to have moved every time that I have asked about the time scale. I hope that the Minister can today give an absolute assurance, first that the commitment given to me in a ministerial response on
There is much about the treatment of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom that causes concern—the voucher system, which is being reviewed, some aspects of the dispersal policy, which has started well in Cardiff, and the care and welfare of asylum-seeking children, which has been raised by Save the Children and other voluntary organisations.
However, I want to concentrate on the policy of holding asylum seekers in prison and I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend Ann Clwyd on securing the debate. As she has said, one of the impetuses for it was our recent joint visit to Cardiff prison. The policy of holding asylum seekers in prison is inappropriate. I welcome the presence of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department and hope that she will be able to indicate when the policy will end.
During our visit to Cardiff prison we were told that the original intention had been that the asylum seekers would stay there until October, but that the prison staff had been told that they would be there until December. I hope that the Minister will cast some light on the policy and tell us when there is likely to be an end to holding asylum seekers in Cardiff prison. The policy has been strongly condemned in Wales. I have been inundated with representations from voluntary groups, the Refugee Council and the Churches. They all find it unimaginable that we are holding asylum seekers in Cardiff prison in the capital of Wales. The National Assembly for Wales, where all parties have condemned it, has come out against the policy and it is hard for people in Wales to understand that Welsh Members of Parliament have not been able to influence it.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley said, 44 asylum seekers were detained in Cardiff prison when we visited it. Since the policy started in February 2001, 78 detainees have been received at Cardiff prison, of which 27 have been bailed, seven deported and 44 held. As Cardiff solicitors have become more used to the circumstances, the number of cases in which bail has been granted has shot up, which shows that when asylum seekers have an opportunity to put their case they are granted bail.
Like my hon. Friend, I have no criticism of the prison staff. They were welcoming and open to us, allowing us to go anywhere and see anyone we wanted. They gave us a list of all 44 detainees, and we were able to pick whom we wanted to see. We saw people in cells, and went to the landing where the detainees stayed. It is not fair to make the prison staff responsible for looking after a group of people whom they were not employed to look after. They have not had training in such work and do not have background knowledge about the detainees' difficulties, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley said.
The detainees have many needs that are different from those of the remand prisoners on whose wing they have been placed. Many of them have no or limited English. They have been transported from all parts of the United Kingdom and have no contacts in Cardiff at all. Many have families in other parts of the UK, and the fact that the detainees have been moved such a distance causes problems, as their original solicitors are based elsewhere in the country. They need access to telephones to find out information about their families and what is happening in their own countries, but their access is the same as that of the remand prisoners.
Above all, the detainees have not been charged with crimes. Most of them are awaiting appeal. They are not at the end of a long process, as I was given to understand when I was told that asylum seekers would be held in prison. They are not waiting to be deported. Since February, only seven have been deported and 27 have been bailed.
In Cardiff prison, the asylum seekers are on a separate landing on the remand wing, but they mix with the remand prisoners at association times. That has advantages and disadvantages. My hon. Friend mentioned the fact that prison is a learning ground for crime, as we all know, and that asylum seekers were being taught how to deal in drugs and forge credit cards, despite the efforts of the prison officers. However, one can understand why it is the policy that everyone on the same wing should mix at association times and not be kept apart.
The detainees are held under the same conditions as the remand prisoners, which means that they are handcuffed when they go out to have vaccinations, X-rays and other medical treatment. In the Welsh press, there has been outrage from all political parties in Wales about the fact that people not convicted of crime have been subject to that public humiliation. It has been hard for the Welsh public to understand why that happens. I do not criticise the prison staff, who are in an awkward situation. They have been told to treat asylum seekers as remand prisoners, so they use the same guidelines.
No additional money has been given to the prison to cope with the diverse demands of holding asylum seekers so it has not been possible, for example, for detainees to learn English as a second language, as asylum seekers in the community can at no charge. Only now has the Prison Service taken money out of its budget to ensure that asylum seekers in prison have that opportunity.
Now that local solicitors are geared up to what is happening, many more asylum seekers are granted bail. We ascertained reasons why the asylum seekers were in the prison, and some did not seem serious. One person told us that under the dispersal scheme he had been sent to one address and then to another in a nearby block of flats. The letter asking him to report to the immigration authorities went to the first address, so he did not receive it and he was arrested and put in Cardiff jail. He was trying to contact a solicitor to establish what was happening. When he first went to Cardiff jail in February the service was not under pressure. Now, as we all know, the figures for people in prison have shot up. I was given anecdotal information yesterday by a Cardiff probation officer that all the Cardiff and valleys remand prisoners who would normally go to Cardiff jail are going to Park prison in Bridgend. There is not enough room in Cardiff prison, which already has a wing out of commission for refurbishment.
There is no logic, justice or point to the policy of keeping asylum seekers in prison. The practice of keeping them in Cardiff prison should stop for the sake of everyone involved—prison staff, remand prisoners who need local places and, above all, asylum seekers. The practice should stop throughout the United Kingdom. As my hon. Friend has said, on
My visit to Cardiff prison had a profound effect on me, as I know that it did on my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley. Treating asylum seekers like criminals is bound to make the public believe that they are criminals. It is bound to exacerbate race relations problems and to make the dispersal system less likely to succeed. So far, that system has been going well in Cardiff.
As I stood on the third landing in a wing of that old Victorian prison, in hot sunshine, talking to people from all over the world who had come to this country seeking asylum, it seemed unimaginable that this was Britain in 2001, with its great human rights tradition. I hope that my hon. Friend will seriously reconsider the policy and reassure us about the time scale involved.
While the debate has focused mainly on prisons so far, I want briefly to raise some other issues.
I recall debates on the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. It struck me then, and still does, that the fundamental problem with our treatment of asylum seekers is that the system established by that Act was designed to be punitive. It was quite deliberate. The Act was about deterring people from making applications. To that end, a tough regime was introduced, which applies equally to every asylum applicant, whether genuine or not. What is happening now with the voucher system and detentions is an inevitable consequence of the Act.
I am glad that the Home Office is bringing the applications backlog down at long last, and making progress, but I have never changed my view that if we are serious about dealing with asylum applications we need to make decisions efficiently and quickly, and enforce them. I know that that means that some people must be removed. We must face that. However, it is far and away the best approach.
I would like to make some brief points on several separate issues. I apologise if I become a little disjointed, but there is not enough time to go into detail. First, I would like to deal with the operation of the National Asylum Support Service. I spent the best part of a day at NASS a few weeks ago and what struck me when I talked to people there and saw what they were doing was that there were a lot of people working hard to make an impossible system work. The voucher system has been reviewed, and I do not want to go into that this morning because I hope that when that review is published there will be some fundamental changes. However, there are still some problems that need to be tackled.
There are delays in processing applications at NASS. As a London Member of Parliament, I tend to see people who are not being dispersed but are applying for vouchers. I cannot understand why people who apply for vouchers only are waiting six, seven, eight, nine, or 10 weeks to get decisions on their applications. What on earth are they supposed to live on during that period? If they are applying for vouchers they are, by definition, claiming to be destitute and in most cases they genuinely are. The issue of how to deal more efficiently with applications for voucher support only must be tackled.
Then there is the question of who gets dispersed. There is an ongoing discussion about what happens to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children when they reach the age of 18. Before that age, they are in the care of local authorities, but when they turn 18 they become the responsibility of NASS. Just because they are asylum-seeking children does not mean that they are not covered by the provisions of the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, which refers to the continued responsibility of the local authority. Arguments seem to be going on between the Department of Health and NASS about how those children should be treated. NASS, having originally drafted some guidance that said that 18-year-olds would be treated as exceptional cases, now says that it will "consider" treating such children as exceptional cases. That needs resolving.
Another dispersal-related issue is that of people with health problems. I have been contacted more than once by medics in London who deal with people with HIV. Such people are dispersed and then find that they do not receive treatment. That raises serious public health concerns.
Figures have been quoted about detention. The figure of 1,800 people detained is a snapshot. The last set of figures that I saw for a complete year showed that something like 15,000 people had been detained at some point during the year. In the past couple of years the Home Office has said that it is unable to answer parliamentary questions on the matter and does not have the figures for people detained whose cases have not been determined. When those figures were supplied, a year or two ago, such people were in the majority.
How many of those people who are detained are then given refugee status or exceptional leave to remain? Some of them certainly are, but I suspect that the Home Office does not know how many. Probably, if one examined the figures, one would find that the rate of acceptance of those detained was not very different from the rate for people who were not. Detention generally has no rational basis and is often more connected with the nationality of the person than with anything else. The bail provisions of the 1999 Act have already been mentioned. It is important that they should come into force.
My final point is on decision making. Huge numbers of people are now being refused asylum on grounds of non-compliance. All that we are doing is shifting many of those cases into the appeals queue instead of having a proper first look at their case. We must give people longer to put the forms in—or, at the very least, ensure that the forms are translated into appropriate languages. There are notes to go with the forms, but they do not always get to people when they have to fill them in.
The issues that I have highlighted in regard to the way in which the system is working—in the context of my fundamental disagreement with it—need serious attention.
Thank you, Mrs. Roe. I shall be brief. First, we owe a great debt of gratitude to my hon. Friend Ann Clwyd for raising the matter today and for visiting Cardiff prison with my hon. Friend Julie Morgan. That has given us the opportunity to highlight the treatment of asylum seekers in this country. I recall parliamentary answers from five years ago that stated that 700 or 800 asylum seekers were held in custody in prisons, police stations or detention centres at any one time. My latest information is that that figure is now more than 1,700 and rising. Not one of those people has been charged with any crime, anywhere, or had the opportunity of appearing before a court. They are held solely under immigration law. That means that 1,700 people are being held without charge or trial. We should be ashamed of that figure.
Anyone who has visited people detained under immigration law in prisons, detention centres or police stations finds a sense of incomprehension on the part of those people. I visited Rochester prison and several other prisons and detention centres last year. People look at me with pleading eyes and ask, "Why am I in prison, when I thought I was fleeing the regime in Afghanistan?"—or Iraq, or wherever it happens to be. When we condemn inadequate judicial systems in other parts of the world, we should reflect on our own.
Quite rightly, our attention has been drawn to the conditions under which people are held. I do not blame prison staff. I had long discussions with prison staff in Rochester and other prisons. They deal with the cases as sympathetically and decently as they can. However, such conditions as shared association time for asylum seekers and people charged with serious criminal offences are a recipe for long-term disaster. Similarly, the police do not want to hold asylum seekers in police stations. The immigration service is so inefficient in dealing with asylum cases that it often does not know exactly where asylum seekers are. Police officers have told me that they constantly phone the immigration service to say that they are not allowed to hold asylum seekers beyond a certain amount of time without putting themselves into an illegal situation; they ask the immigration service to come and do something about it. It is simply outrageous that we should detain asylum seekers in police stations. I hope that the Minister will address that in her reply.
Last year the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees criticised the British Government for their treatment of asylum seekers. We take pride in our ability to house asylum seekers and give people fleeing from fear of persecution some safety and security—yet the UNHCR has condemned our treatment of asylum seekers; we should think about that for a moment. Some of the rhetoric used in the election campaign by the Leader of the Opposition did much to stir up racism and, indeed, feeling against asylum seekers.
I ask the Minister for help on three issues. First, when does she expect the review on the voucher system to be completed? Many people feel that the voucher system is inadequate. It causes many asylum seekers who are not in custody to live in terrible poverty. It is also deeply disturbing and embarrassing for children whose parents receive the vouchers when their parents have no cash to pay for school trips and the small things that are so important in life and make a difference for children. Many teachers dip into their own pockets and handbags to help children out, because they cannot stand to see children living in such poverty.
My second point relates to housing, the dispersal policy and all the associated problems. Many private bed-and-breakfast landlords are ripping off the public with the amount that they charge for housing asylum seekers, often in disgraceful conditions, which leads to health problems. Constant changes of address mean that many asylum-seeking children drop out of the education system. They move from school to school so often that their parents cannot keep up and no schools are available for them.
Finally, I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to acknowledge, as I am sure that she will, that we understand the reasons why people seek political asylum—the horrors of the killings in Algeria, the civil war in Sri Lanka and all the problems with the Taliban in Afghanistan and so many other places around the world that we have a responsibility to consider in our foreign policy.
The previous Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend Mr. Straw, made noises about a new United Nations convention on refugees—that is, rewriting the 1951 Geneva convention. I become very nervous when I hear such remarks, as the 1951 convention is an important benchmark and the basis on which the world treats people who flee from oppression and violence for their own safety. If we rewrite it, put up borders around the wealthy countries and say, "It's nothing to do with us," we become part of the problem, not part of the solution.
I congratulate Ann Clwyd on an excellent speech and on having initiated today's debate. I followed her when I made my maiden speech in 1997, and I came to the conclusion that perhaps I had been wrong and Parliament was full of people of integrity, compassion and dedication. I am not sure that that has always been borne out by events, but it has in her case. She always makes a useful contribution to debates in the House and has done so again today.
Jeremy Corbyn referred to the 1951 UN convention relating to the status of refugees. It is worth reflecting, 50 years on—we celebrate that anniversary this year—on the reason for that convention. After the second world war, the international community was determined that people would never again be unable to escape persecution such as Europe had just witnessed. The 1951 convention is an expression of what is best in international politics, and we tamper with it at our peril. Unfortunately, some people want to slip back from those high ideals and adopt what some people—not me—might call a pragmatic approach. One hundred and thirty-nine countries signed the convention. It is an important international document.
I, too, deplore the fact that before the last election a minority of people, including politicians, tried to exploit the asylum situation for narrow political benefit. That is disgraceful. It is worth remembering that in this country the number of asylum seekers is a pale shadow of that in other countries. It is not even the problem in number terms, if people want to view the matter in those terms, that applies elsewhere. For example, in the last decade of the 20th century, 424,000 asylum seekers came to the United Kingdom. The figure for Germany is 1,765,260, so refugees do not even necessarily come here. The big problem that some people perceive is a shadow of that in other countries.
I agree with Mr. Gerrard that the legislation introduced a couple of years ago was an attempt to deter asylum seekers, which is bound to fail. Asylum seekers do not look at the legislation in this country and ask themselves whether they will get slightly more for a voucher and whether they will be satisfactorily housed. They come here to escape treatment such as torture that endangers their lives and genuinely threatens them. The countries from which the UK receives the most asylum seeker applications have appalling human rights records—Iraq, Sri Lanka, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia and the like. The idea that they can be deterred by something that the House does about the voucher system is ludicrous and inhumane. We should not go down that road, and I am sorry that we have.
The Government are almost embarrassed about allowing asylum seekers into this country. Their policy is seen as weak by a sector of the electorate; it can be attacked by the Conservative press and is considered to be a vote loser. There is an idea that appearing tough will protect the Government's standing with elements of the population. Asylum seekers should not be used as pawns in that game when the Government deal with the press.
It is virtually impossible for asylum seekers to enter the country legally, which is contrary to the 1951 UN convention. Will the Minister spell out how it is possible for an asylum seeker to enter the country legally? I do not think that it is possible.
If asylum seekers come here illegally and are stigmatised by that, they are faced with considerable difficulties. They are given 14 days—10 working days—to complete the necessary paperwork to satisfy requirements on arrival. They must complete a 19-page statement of evidence form in which they outline their asylum claim. They must secure a legal representative within that short time scale even if they are dispersed around the country. Failure to submit the form in time or to complete it in English will be given as a reason to reject the asylum claim on grounds of non-compliance. Last year, more than 26,000 asylum claims were rejected for that reason alone. No consideration was given to whether the claims were genuine, or the claimants had been subjected to torture or intimidation in their own countries. The claims were ruled out of order because the claimant had failed to meet a very short deadline. I suppose that that appears tough, but it is not a sane, mature or compassionate way to deal with asylum seekers.
The voucher system is appalling and degrading, and it is an insult to a civilised country that people are expected to live on 70 per cent. of income support. The Minister will know, from her previous incarnation, that income support is defined as the minimum that a person can live on, yet asylum seekers are expected to be able to live on less. I do not believe that they can. To add insult to injury, the voucher system prevents the supermarkets giving change. Even the supermarkets object to that. Those bastions of freedom and civil liberty—Sainsburys and other supermarkets—say that the asylum system does not work and that they object to making profit at the expense of asylum seekers. Good heavens, do we want lessons in morality from Sainsburys—although in this case it is saying the right thing? Why do the Government not listen to Sainsburys when they normally listen to it and to their big business friends? They should listen to Sainsburys and change their policy. It is insulting that asylum seekers get only 70 per cent. of income support and cannot get change from vouchers.
The hon. Members for Cynon Valley and for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) and my hon. Friend Mr. Oaten rightly referred to detention. My hon. Friend quoted the written answer that he received on
"even in the long term, for reasons of geography, security and control, there will continue to be a need to hold some detainees in prisons."—[Hansard, 3 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 100W.] Why will there be a need to hold detainees in prison? There is no explanation for that. Is it beyond the wit of the Government to find an alternative solution that is humane and consistent with our requirements under the UN convention, or must people be in prison because someone at the Home Office says that that is more convenient?
I have two questions for the Government. On what date will the last asylum seeker be removed from prison and be dealt with humanely in this country, and when will the voucher system be abolished? I understand that the last Labour party conference—I was not there—said that it did not want the system. We still have it, so when will the system disappear, or do the Government still think that it is appropriate?
There is also a wider question: will the Government stand up for the convention that they signed up to? Will they stop acting like a whisky priest, and start standing up for what I think that they believe in their heart? Will they stand up for what is right and moral, and stop kow-towing to the Tory press? In short, will they make their asylum policy more humane?
I congratulate all the hon. Members who have participated in the debate, and I pay particular tribute to Ann Clwyd. She spoke movingly and passionately about the asylum seekers whom she had encountered, and about their appalling incarceration in Cardiff prison.
I want to make two initial points. First, the criticism of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition by Jeremy Corbyn was exaggerated and unwarranted. However, every politician has a duty to avoid using language that inflames or exacerbates tensions. I also want to point out that, although asylum policy is an important national issue that should be debated, I did not refer to it in any of my election leaflets, because it is by no means the biggest issue—other subjects were of far more importance to my Buckingham constituents, and I chose to focus on them.
I believe that there is a consensus that it is wrong to incarcerate asylum seekers in prison; it is chronically inhumane, and it constitutes a flagrant abuse of the purpose of the institution of the prison. Julie Morgan rightly pointed out that that consensus exists in the National Assembly for Wales.
I take as my starting point the statement that was made on
"that only detainees who are at the end of their application for leave to remain should be detained at Cardiff prison." She went on to say that she had been informed by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green that the
"period of detention should...be secure and for a short period". However, I think that the Minister will acknowledge that, at present, those criteria are not always met.
Detainees have been taken for hospital treatment in handcuffs. We have been told that such incidents happen because prison staff have little or no discretion in implementing the Home Office guidance, and there is a consensus that prison staff are doing their best in difficult circumstances. The normal day for detainees on the remand wing includes only one hour of exercise, and two hours of association outside the cells, excluding meal breaks. Prison staff accept that it is not appropriate that detainees should spend 18 hours each day in their cells. I agree with the solicitor who represents those asylum seekers that the key issue is not whether handcuffs should have been used but whether such people should be in prison at all. They should not.
There is, however, scope for legitimate disagreement between Members of Parliament about the question whether the applications of a substantial number of asylum seekers are not genuine. I shall word what I say very carefully, because there was a recurrent theme in the contributions of the hon. Members for Lewes (Norman Baker), for Cynon Valley and for Islington, North that the great majority of asylum seekers are genuine. I presume that the implication of that contention is that those people should be entitled to stay in the country. I say to those hon. Members that there is a widely held view that, although substantial numbers of people are fleeing persecution and should, therefore, be granted asylum or exceptional leave to remain, substantial numbers of people have abused the system over a lengthy period. We must take account of, and reflect in our policy, that widespread perception, if we believe that it is true. I do believe that it is true, and the sincere contributions of those hon. Members who have spoken this morning have not dissuaded me from that belief.
We have a proud tradition of offering sanctuary to those fleeing persecution. I believe that it is incumbent on us to do so in a pluralist democracy and the faithful honouring of that tradition is a hallmark of a decent, civilised society. However, we know that the system is in crisis and there remains a massive backlog—applications in May were 290 up on April. We also know that the processing of applications is breathtakingly slow. In May, we discovered that the slow process of determination continued. In the first five months of 2001, there were 45,620 appeals, but only 19,030 went to the appeals authority to be heard.
We know—the Minister would be hard pressed to deny it—that the amnesty granted by the previous Labour Government assisted 21,000 people to remain in this country who had no justification to do so. An average time for decision making of 14 months is not acceptable. Nor is it acceptable that the Government were loth to implement the law against illegal working. They said that they would not do so, then did a U-turn and said that the extent of abuse was so considerable that they were obliged to reconsider their position. However, only eight prosecutions took place last year, and only one the year before. Serious problems exist. Notwithstanding the observations of hon. Members who spoke earlier, 78 per cent. of applicants are rejected for asylum or exceptional leave to remain.
I respect the sincerity of the hon. Member for Lewes, and it pains me to sidle up to the Government, but he is unjustified in suggesting that the Government are trying to curry favour with the Conservative press. That is an unworthy charge to level at them. We should work on the basis that all parties are pursuing policies and advocating measures that they believe are right, on principle and on grounds of pragmatism. For the hon. Gentleman to behave in that characteristically Liberal Democratic, sanctimonious, holier-than-thou fashion does not advance his cause.
I would like to say something about the dispersal policy, not least in the context of the Royal Institute for International Affairs report, which said this month that the policy is fuelling racial tension and that the "cluster areas" policy has not been implemented. It continues:
"In practice what has happened is that dispersal is very much determined by the availability of cheap accommodation...housing is contracted through private suppliers"— a point made by the hon. Member for Islington, North—
"and this has led to many asylum seekers being sent to inappropriate accommodation in areas of high social tension without sufficient consultation with local authorities, and this has led to the sorts of problems we have been hearing about." I regard that as disturbing. It is also disturbing to observe the verdict of the Asylum Education Legal Fund:
"People are just being shunted into places where there is no one qualified to help them."
We need to know how the Government intend to address those problems. With only 12 minutes of the debate left, I am happy to resume my seat and I await the Minister's response with eager anticipation, bated breath and beads of sweat on my brow.
I congratulate Ann Clwyd on securing this debate and on her long-standing and doughty interest in human rights, which she pursues with determination everywhere she goes.
Hon. Members and others have many worries about the treatment of asylum seekers and the use of detention, especially when it is in prison accommodation. I share those worries. It is important to remember that few asylum seekers are detained. The power to detain, which is exercised by immigration officers, is used only sparingly and for the shortest necessary period. To put it in perspective, at any one time, only 1.5 per cent. of those who are liable to detention are detained. That said, depriving anyone of liberty, even for a short period, is a serious step, not to be taken lightly. A balance must be struck between recognition of the seriousness of any deprivation of liberty and the fact that effective enforcement of immigration control requires some immigration offenders to be detained.
A legitimate issue raised in this morning's debate is where such people are to be detained, and what regime is in force there. The Government have made it clear—this remains our position—that there is a presumption in favour of temporary admission or release. Detention must be justified in the case of the individual concerned and is normally justified only in these limited circumstances: first, when there is a reasonable belief that an individual will fail to keep the terms of temporary admission or release; secondly, when there is an initial need to clarify a person's identity as the basis of their claim to enter, or remain in, the UK, which applies because many people arrive with no papers or identification; and thirdly, when removal is imminent. In addition, a person whose asylum claim appears to be straightforward and can be decided quickly may be detained at Oakington reception centre.
In addition to the three dedicated detention facilities, the Prison Service made available 500 places for immigration detainees in a small number of local prisons throughout the country: Cardiff, Elmley, Liverpool, Holme House, Winchester, Wandsworth and High Down. The total number of places available in those prisons is 445.
The regime in those local prisons is clearly very different from that which operates in the dedicated detention facilities. In my view, that is what we are talking about today. Immigration detainees in the prisons are held on unconvicted or remand wings and are kept separate from convicted prisoners as far as possible, although there is some unavoidable contact as my hon. Friends have mentioned. Many hon. Members who have contributed to the debate have commented that that is undesirable.
The use of local prison places began in November 2000 as a temporary measure to help make up the identified shortfall in immigration detention capacity while the immigration service detention estate is being expanded. It was designed to support our removals targets for those whose claims for asylum have failed. The places were offered by the Prison Service within what was, at that time, surplus remand accommodation in various parts of the country. Only men aged 21 or over can be allocated to them.
The Government are determined to pursue a strategy of detaining people in dedicated detention facilities and reducing reliance on Prison Service accommodation. We fully recognise that the use of dedicated detention facilities is preferable to prisons in the vast majority of cases. We shall be discussing the timing and arrangements for withdrawal from the prison places, which has to be planned properly, with the Prison Service as soon as it is practicable. I can tell my hon. Friend that we hope that Cardiff prison will be emptied of its asylum seekers by Christmas.
As hon. Members know, we are engaged in an ambitious expansion of the immigration service detention estate, which will enable us to move people from local prisons into much more suitable accommodation. New detention centres will open this year at Harmondsworth near Heathrow, Yarl's Wood in Bedfordshire and Dungavel in Scotland, providing an additional 1,500 spaces. Overall detention places will have increased from 900 at the end of 2000 to 2,790 by the end of 2001.
On Cardiff prison, as at
On the conditions at Cardiff prison, I understand that strenuous efforts have been made to accommodate the particular needs of detainees, within the constraints of a prison establishment. It is recognised that immigration detainees' needs differ from those of remand prisoners and where practicable such needs have been accommodated. However, it is true that the regime is much more restrictive than that of an immigration detention centre. That is why prisons are not the first choice for the detention of asylum seekers and why the Government wish to withdraw from those arrangements as soon as is practicable.
On telephone access and some of the practical, pastoral points that hon. Members raised, detainees in Cardiff prison have greater access to telephone cards than is the norm for remand prisoners, and rightly so. However, I acknowledge that problems might arise when accessing telephones during periods of heavy use. I have asked officials to look into the matter in conjunction with the prison authorities and to find out whether there is a particular problem that might be improved.
Detainees have free association periods, but they are kept in their cells for longer than is normal in a detention centre—nor do they have access to activities that are available in dedicated detention centres.
Immigration service staff visit the prison three times a week to give advice and serve papers. Local solicitors and legal advice agencies visit twice a week. Special arrangements have been made to enable legal advisers to use a converted cell for interviews with detainees. They are unsupervised, although the door is left open for security reasons. Legal representatives may also visit detainees under the usual legal visits arrangements.
A range of dietary needs, including halal, is catered for by the prison's catering service, and menus are supplied in eight languages. Information on other matters is also available in different languages. Where translation is required, immigration staff use a telephone translation facility known as the language line. An interpreter is used for longer or more formal interviews and is paid for by the immigration service.
The hon. Gentleman should listen carefully to what I am about to say. The Government intend to withdraw from those allocated spaces as soon as is practicable. It has been said that we will be able to fill up the new detainee estate in a day, but that cannot be done—one must fill up detained spaces gradually. Certain practical steps must be taken to ensure that the regime does not break down. Within those constraints, we will do our best to withdraw from the arrangements as quickly as is practicable. I am sorry that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman greater satisfaction, but I do not want to give a date that I am not certain we can keep to. I hope that he will appreciate the way in which I have attempted to answer his question.
Although it is important to realise that these practical issues are important and that those concerned find their situation distressing, we should remember that the number of people involved is small. As my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard and others have noted, the answer is for the determination system to operate much more efficiently. We are dealing with that, although there is a legacy of backlogs. The most important thing is to ensure that we have an efficient and sensible way of dealing with asylum applications. It is also important to recognise that there are people who claim asylum in this country who are economic migrants. That is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is initiating a debate on how we might more effectively balance a migration policy with an asylum policy.
I reiterate that the Government are determined to pursue the strategy of holding people in dedicated detention facilities, not prisons, and that we will work hard to achieve that aim as quickly as is practicable.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley for raising an extremely important issue.
The fieldwork on the voucher review has been done and we are considering it. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will make an announcement when we are in a position to do so.