I beg to move,
That this House
has considered UK policy on torture and the treatment of asylum claims.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for making time for this important debate. I also thank the co-sponsors of this debate, Mr Carmichael and the hon. Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron). I am appreciative of the cross-party support for this debate. This debate on the UK’s policy on torture and the treatment of asylum claims is particularly important and critical right now.
Only last weekend we heard from the Home Secretary and from Max Hill, QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, that the current terror threat is severe. As we are all aware, that will probably continue for some time. My concern about our current level of terror is that there may be a concomitant rise in the idea that torture has a place and a use in our society. That came about, as people know, in January when the President of the United States was heard to comment on what is a deliberate near-drowning technique, also known as waterboarding. He declared his personal views, but used the phrase “fight fire with fire” and entertained the idea that torture can work.
I was therefore grateful that the Prime Minister very shortly and quickly afterwards stated that
“we do not sanction torture and do not get involved in it.”—[Official Report,
That is a clear statement from this country and its Government. The next day, the Leader of the House also made a clear statement about the Government’s position, when he said the Government were “resolutely opposed to torture”. Again, it is important right now that the Government are clear and frequently reiterate that. I hope the Minister will take the opportunity today to reiterate our very clear position.
We are leading the way on standards against torture, but our standards can be higher. That means being against torture and all cruel, inhuman or degrading treatments and punishments.
I agree absolutely with what the hon. Lady says. Does she agree with me, however, that there have been occasions in the not-so-distant past when we have allowed our standards to slip? The Government could demonstrate their bona fides for future intentions by taking a more open and transparent approach in settling cases such as the Belhaj and Boudchar case.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman very much for that intervention. I am aware of Supreme Court cases, but I do not want to mention specific cases today because I want to find as much common ground as possible with the Government, and I do not want to presume judgment of any particular cases, but I absolutely agree that the present statements by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House do not match our historical cases. That is why it is important today to be absolutely sure of where our standard is. I absolutely agree that in the past we have not lived up to our standards.
In view of the current global situation, I still believe we are the leaders, whether we choose to be or not. We absolutely need transparency about the past. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I am looking closely at the court cases. However, we must recognise that today we are not only the place to be against torture, but the place that can diagnose torture. People can get the best treatment for torture and can be rehabilitated to return to the community as fully participant members of society. That is the ultimate aim, and I do believe we lead on that.
Is there not a further test for us as a country? Not only should we have the higher standard in terms of rejecting torture and having the best treatment, as the hon. Lady, but when an asylum seeker comes to this country and alleges torture, it is our duty to take that case particularly seriously. Is the hon. Lady aware of concerns that people from Sri Lanka who have applied for asylum, alleging torture, have perhaps not had their cases inspected as rigorously as they might?
Again, I will not comment on individual cases. In my constituency of Twickenham in south-west London, I have come across the Tamil community. I have worked abroad in many countries, so I am aware of countries that have particular cases. I want the people of Sri Lanka who seek asylum to get the gold standard level of investigation and, if they seek asylum here, the best rehabilitation. I hope that answers the hon. Gentleman.
Historically, we have been at the forefront. After the second world war, we were a signatory to the universal declaration of human rights, which includes article 5 against torture. We signed up to the European convention on human rights, which led to our Human Rights Act 1998. We are also a signatory to the UN convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, which the UK ratified in 1988. I thank the Library for pointing out that in our common law we also have what is pertinent from section 134 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. On torture offences, we state:
“It is immaterial whether the pain or suffering is physical or mental and whether it is caused by an act or omission.”
We have signed the European and UN declarations, but our case law also sets a high standard. I said that historically we have done well. The late Lord Bingham mentioned that 300 years ago the English Bill of Rights stated that punishment that is cruel and unusual should not be inflicted. So our history goes back more than 300 years and has been at the forefront.
However, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland has said, our past has not always been adequate and may not be the standard we should attain now. Although the Prime Minister has said we do not sanction torture and do not get involved in it, I want the Minister to be clear today that we do not sanction complicity and are not involved in it. I want the Minister to say, “We do not sanction rendition and do not get involved in it”—I use the present tense because I do not want to influence the ongoing court cases.
Whether we like it or not, we lead globally against torture. That is important, because about a month ago I met a diplomat from another country and I talked about a torture case that is known to Amnesty International. When I mentioned the torture of sleep deprivation, I was corrected and told, “This is not torture. This is mistreatment.” Then I realised that although our law sets us against such treatment, whether physical or mental, or act or omission, we need to make it clear to other countries that we are absolutely and wholly against using such things as prolonged sleep deprivation, degrading treatment—the case I have referred to involved a fellow doctor in prison being made to eat his own faeces, while another prisoner was stripped naked and asked to crawl on all fours—and mental torture, such as when someone’s relative is executed or subjected to a mock execution in front of them. We must recognise such things as torture and not say that there are sub-levels of torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. We oppose it utterly and will lead in that field. I want the Minister to be clear about that.
Historically, we have done well at recognising and treating severe cases of mental and physical trauma. More than 100 years ago, we became specialists at treating soldiers who were victims of shellshock or who had been buried alive. Our medical specialists became adept at treatment and rehabilitation, and enabling people to be full members of the community. We led in that field. The late Helen Bamber was also a leader, with regard to knowledge of and respect for people who suffered torture, and their treatment and rehabilitation. There was a centre in Denmark, and Helen Bamber made our country one of the leaders in the field. Today we have specialist organisations, such as Freedom from Torture, which specialise in recognising the signs of torture, rehabilitating people who have experienced it and enabling them to be full members of the community. We have many success stories on which to build.
I therefore regret that although the Government have made clear statements against torture, which show the lead we are giving, they can and need to do better with respect to handling asylum cases involving evidence of torture. The Minister and the Secretary of State will be aware of the report “Proving Torture”, released in November, which contained a small number of clear instances where the decision to reject an asylum application, accompanied by a medico-legal report, was overturned by a higher tribunal because, worryingly, of the mishandling of specialist medical evidence. I understand that the Home Office may have done its own sample study. I am sure I have the Minister’s attention, as such instances are a waste of taxpayers’ money; however, the worrying thing is the additional distress caused to people seeking asylum who have been tortured, whether physically or mentally.
Whether the Minister refers to the clear cases presented by Freedom from Torture, or the cases that I believe have been looked into by the Home Office, he will recognise that there is a problem in the system, and that every caseworker needs some training on cases where torture may be involved. It is perhaps somewhat akin to the situation of general practitioners: they are not specialists, but they need knowledge of every specialty to be able to give adequate treatment and make a referral.
I shall cover my hon. Friend’s points in more detail when I sum up, but I wanted to point out that just because an appeal or further legal process can overturn the original decision, it does not necessarily mean that that decision was made wrongly on the basis of the facts. It may be that new facts come to light, and the decision can be based on better available information.
I appreciate what the Minister says, but I have seen a handful of cases—confidentially, without the names—and, without being a specialist myself, have talked to one of the doctors involved with the charity. From the small number I have seen, the decisions have been overturned not because of extra evidence, but because the evidence presented to the first caseworker was not handled adequately. On appeal, the information given was found to give sufficient grounds for granting asylum. It is not my field, but I have some relevant background and have had some experience in different countries of the simple treatment of people returning to a community having been tortured, so I have a great deal of respect for the specialty. I cannot believe that without training a non-medical caseworker would be able to understand the medico-legal report with respect to the need for asylum. In the 21st century, a specialist is needed to diagnose the invisible mental scars.
I gave an example earlier of the torture of one prisoner of conscience. For me, even saying the words “mock execution of a family member” upsets me. However, if the Home Office is talking about using specialist caseworkers, it must watch out that the specialists do not become hardened by having to hear and read such material day in, day out. Again, there is a similarity to what happens in therapeutic counselling, in which I do have a background. There are models in other fields and professions. It is mandatory for therapeutic counsellors to have regular supervision to check their bias and their own mental health. I do not believe that the Home Office is giving sufficient weight to the needs of the Home Office caseworkers. The great thing is that we have the expertise. Freedom from Torture, a UK-based organisation, is one of the global leaders in the field. The training programme has already been agreed by the Home Office, but just not rolled out for all caseworkers.
I support what the hon. Lady is saying, and it will be interesting to hear the Minister’s response. According to the Freedom from Torture report for this debate, in many of the torture-related asylum cases it examined, where a refusal was overturned on appeal, the immigration judge specifically referred to the strength and high quality of the medical evidence. That suggests that the hon. Lady is right and that if the Home Office asylum caseworker had handled the case better, there would have been no need to go to appeal.
I thank the hon. Gentleman and hope that Freedom from Torture and all the staff involved have heard his words. Again, I believe that we are leading. The specialty is a difficult one, so we should be proud that excellence has been attained in it. Asylum seekers should have confidence in our system. However, to refer back to the cases that I saw, without the names, it is depressing when a caseworker questions expertise on that level, with respect to understanding how distressed someone might be as a result of a particular mental torture. I would not question a specialist in that way if I were not in the field. The hon. Gentleman’s point was well made.
Better training is needed for all caseworkers. I am sure that the Minister is aware that many asylum cases do not initially present with evidence of torture, especially if the scars are invisible. It would be advantageous for the Home Office if training were rolled out for everyone. If it wants a specialist unit, it must be very careful about how to protect the members of staff from fatigue and maintain excellence. It takes time to do those small samples, and where the Home Office and Freedom from Torture did some, I believe that the quality assurance and the audit for these cases is lacking.
I fear that in the 21st century the number of cases is not going to decrease, so the Home Office needs to up its game. We have a 300-year history of being leaders on this issue. Right now there is a vacuum in the world for setting the standard. We have to fill that vacuum, because we are able to, and we have shown that historically. We should be transparent when we let ourselves down—it is not just letting down the people who have suffered; it is letting down the United Kingdom. I want the Government and the Minister to reaffirm our position as heading the world in standing against torture and all cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments.
Order. I intend to call the Front-Bench spokespersons at 4 o’clock, if not earlier. Other speakers should bear that in mind when making their contributions. I remind Members that the principle of parliamentary privilege does not prevail over the requirements of the sub judice rules if they are referring to current court cases. I ask them to take that very seriously in their remarks.
I pay tribute to the hon. Members for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) and for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), my hon. Friend Kate Green and Mr Carmichael for securing this debate on a hugely important topic. I commend the way in which the hon. Member for Twickenham introduced it.
I have the privilege of representing a significant number of residents who were born in Sri Lanka. Over the years, a number of them, particularly those from the Tamil community, have contacted my office or visited my advice surgery for help with their claims for asylum. A number of them have alleged that they have been victims of torture in Sri Lanka. Freedom from Torture has informed me that Sri Lanka remains its top country both for those receiving therapy and for medico-legal reports on torture in custody. That reflects a trend that it has seen over several years. How we treat the asylum cases of people from Sri Lanka who make allegations of torture is surely one of the key tests for how the Minister and the Home Office more generally handle asylum cases involving torture.
In its 2016 annual report, Amnesty International stated:
“Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees—including sexual violence—continued to be reported and impunity persisted for earlier cases.”
That is in relation to Sri Lanka.
“Suspicious deaths in police custody continued to be reported. Detainees died of injuries consistent with torture and other ill-treatment, including beatings or asphyxiation. Police claimed suspects committed suicide or in one case drowned while trying to escape.”
That is a 2016 Amnesty International report describing the situation in Sri Lanka.
In 2012, Human Rights Watch published a report about allegations of torture and other ill-treatment in Sri Lanka. It documented a number of cases of refused asylum seekers who were returned from this country to Sri Lanka to face ill-treatment and persecution. Indeed, the family member of a constituent of mine was returned to Sri Lanka, where he was subjected to torture.
The context underlines the point that it is vital that any claim for asylum must be assessed fairly and thoroughly, given that the stakes are so high. I pay tribute to those who work for the Home Office as asylum cases—it is far from a glamorous job, but it is hugely important to this country—and maintain the integrity of our borders and this country’s reputation as a place that takes allegations of torture seriously. We want to continue to be a place where those who have been tortured and have applied for asylum are taken particularly seriously. Thankfully, there has been some political progress and improvement in human rights in Sri Lanka since that 2012 report, but it is not yet enough.
I want to ask the Minister a number of questions about the way asylum claims are processed. The Freedom from Torture report that I referred to when I intervened on the hon. Member for Twickenham certainly fits with the experiences of some of my constituents. At the crux of any claim for asylum is an assessment of the claimant’s credibility. To be granted refugee status, asylum claimants need to show that there is a “reasonable degree of likelihood” that they will face persecution if they return to their country of origin. That is significantly lower than the standard of proof in criminal cases. Evidence of past persecution, and particularly of torture, is likely to be a strong indicator of the risk of future persecution, but asylum seekers are unlikely to be able to gather documentary evidence methodically as they flee, so medico-legal reports are among the most persuasive evidence available for the assessment of their claims. However, I have seen cases in which the evidence of a medical expert has been dismissed or questioned by a caseworker who has little or no clinical expertise. I have also seen cases in which one part of the claimant’s story is not believed, and is used to argue that their whole claim should be dismissed as incredible. The injuries documented by a medical expert are explained away as having occurred some other way.
Freedom from Torture described five ways in which medical experts work, which are not always considered properly by asylum caseworkers. It is concerning that caseworkers currently receive only a very short, one-hour slot in their induction training on handling medical evidence of torture. That clearly is not enough, given the problems in decision making that Freedom from Torture identified and that others in the House are aware of. Will the Minister respond to the first recommendation in the Freedom from Torture report and explain why the full-day training module that has been developed has not yet been rolled out for asylum caseworkers? Will he confirm that it will be rolled out as soon as possible?
Getting the decision right first time is clearly better for the claimant and is surely better for the taxpayer, too, as it spares the expense of a costly appeal. Crucially, it allows the claimant to get on with their life. Will the Minister give his view on whether the changes to legal aid in the previous Parliament have affected asylum seekers’ access to the legal advice that they might need to obtain a proper medico-legal report?
About 10 years ago, a pilot scheme was set up to try to improve the quality of asylum decision making. It involved closer collaboration between asylum caseworkers and legal representatives at an early stage in the process to ensure that a decision is make after all the facts of the case have been considered. I understand that it was followed up by the early legal advice project under the coalition Government. Will the Minister give his view on why those measures were not pursued further and whether that type of approach may be beneficial when considering asylum claims involving an allegation of torture?
Next week is International Women’s Day and so I want to ask the Minister for his views on how claims involving allegations of rape and sexual violence are considered. Does more need to be done to protect some of the most vulnerable asylum claimants, in particular in light of a number of disturbing revelations from Yarl’s Wood detention centre in recent years?
Furthermore, it is well known that anxiety disorders or post-traumatic stress disorder are triggered by distressing or frightening events of the sort that the hon. Member for Twickenham outlined, and that they can cause problems with concentration and memory, which may well affect sufferers’ ability to present their case properly in an asylum interview, in particular as they are asked to relive and relay those traumatic experiences. Is that proper consideration in the asylum decision-making process? Does more need to be done to give adequate training to decision makers?
Finally, on human rights abuses and torture in Sri Lanka specifically, I ask the Minister to take this away to colleagues at the Foreign Office. At the height of the conflict in Sri Lanka, Britain led the way in Europe on the removal of Sri Lanka from the GSP plus trading arrangements under the generalised system of preferences. GSP plus is granted only to countries in the developing world that have made significant progress on human rights. The European Commission’s removal of GSP plus from Sri Lanka signalled Europe’s concern, very much including Britain’s, about reported human rights abuses and, notably, the use of torture.
Last year Sri Lanka applied to access the GSP plus scheme again. Earlier this year the European Commission found that in its view Sri Lanka now met the criteria. As I said earlier, there has been some progress in addressing human rights concerns in Sri Lanka, in particular following the election of President Sirisena, but significant concern remains that human rights abuses including torture are ongoing in parts of the country and that, in particular, there will be no independent international involvement in the judicial process to examine allegations of such abuses and torture that have already taken place, especially at the end of the 2009 conflict.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and indeed the Foreign Office’s most recent human rights report all state that concerns about human rights abuses in Sri Lanka remain. I will be grateful if the Minister gives his view of what support for Sri Lanka’s re-entry to the GSP plus scheme says about Britain’s commitment to tackle torture throughout the world, in particular at a time when others, notably our friends across the Atlantic, seem to be stepping back from their leadership on the issue.
I am grateful, Mr Bailey, that you have found time for me to make a brief contribution to this important debate. I very much welcomed the words of my hon. Friend Dr Mathias, who spoke eloquently on many of the matters that I might otherwise have covered.
In the United Kingdom it is not new for us to be talking about torture. In fact, we have been talking about torture in this House for much of the past 1,000 years—although we were ordering much of it for an awfully long time, too. Various people including, most famously, Guido Fawkes were taken from inquisitions to appear before politicians, often in the Star Chamber, and ended up being tortured in places such as the Tower. We have long experience of torture in this country.
From bitter experience, however, we know that torture does not work—people get the answer they want, or think they want, rather than the answer they need. That is why sensible countries, ones that realise that the rule of law is about discovering the truth and not about exacting punishment, do not practise torture. I am proud that our country set the model on that through two Acts: the Bill of Rights; and the Treason Act 1708, which included Scotland—I say that for the benefit of the Members representing Scotland, Margaret Ferrier of the Scottish National party and Mr Carmichael from those various islands of our wonderful country.
Those fundamental Acts set out what we now think of as a universal right under the United Nations or European conventions, which is the right not to be tortured. Unlike other rights, that right is completely unqualified: there is no situation in which torture is possible; there is no situation in which a country may derogate from that right; and there is no situation in which torture is ever tolerable. Even the right to life, we admit, is not absolute. If it were, the intervention to prevent people dying would be absurd, or a battle to protect our nation’s interest would be impossible. Torture is not like that; torture is an absolute, and it is so because it violates the very principles of a free and democratic society. It violates absolutely the integrity of the individual. It violates totally the right to life and the principles that have grown up in various ways from Judaeo-Christian and Islamic tradition. That is why it is so utterly abhorrent to us.
I am glad that we are holding this debate because it allows us to reinforce those views of torture and, I am sure, for the Minister to reinforce them on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government, and to remind ourselves why they matter. Those views are not simply about carrying a banner of principle for us to wave at others in some sort of virtue-signalling way. That is not what they are about. Our views of torture are about protecting ourselves. The reason why we do not torture is not only a moral but a selfish one. We do not torture because it is wrong to do so, and because it leaves us more vulnerable and not better protected. Torture would leave us more exposed and in greater danger. That is why we do not do it.
The debate today is focused on asylum; that is not only about people coming to us but about stopping people needing to come to us. It is about nations with whom we very often and in many ways have good relations, whether in trade, culturally or historically—we often have very good relations with countries that practise torture. Part of our duty as a responsible, free and democratic state is to help our partners and, yes, even our friends to understand that torture is wrong, not only for moral reasons but because it is bad for them. Torture promotes violence, instability and the very unrest that many countries are seeking to prevent.
I will leave it there, except to pay tribute to some organisations, such as those that Mr Thomas mentioned when talking about the forms of torture that often are not recognised or are overlooked. I also pay tribute to an organisation that has done a lot to promote human rights—that is not to say that I agree with every one of the cases it has brought, because I certainly do not. The AIRE Centre—Advice on Individual Rights in Europe—did an awful lot of work with some of the new accession states to the European Union and with some of the states newly freed from Soviet tyranny to help them understand what rights are, why they matter and, in that context, why torture is always wrong. There are such organisations out there, and I very much welcome the work of Her Majesty’s Government to support them. I am glad to see cross-party support in the debate on such an important issue that is fundamental to our democracy and our freedom.
I, too, express my gratitude to the members of the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us the time to debate this subject. I commend Dr Mathias for her leadership in securing the debate. I note that, in a minor way, the pronunciation of the constituency of Dr Cameron risks becoming, for some people, an instrument of torture in itself.
Mr Thomas posed some very relevant and pointed questions to the Minister regarding the training of caseworkers in the Home Office. I will not repeat them, but they were pertinent and ones with which I would very much wish to associate myself.
Like others, I place on the record my appreciation for the many non-governmental and campaign organisations that work in this field. Freedom from Torture was mentioned, and I was present in November at the launch of its most recent piece of work, “Proving Torture”. I have been associated with Reprieve for many years and have campaigned with Amnesty International in different parts of the world over the years, principally on the abolition of the death penalty but also on human rights concerns more widely.
Whenever I have been in other parts of the world, it has struck me that however much we may beat ourselves up about our past misdeeds, foreign policy failings and other things, we are still seen, by and large, as a force for good in the world. That goes to the point that Tom Tugendhat made about the counterproductive nature of torture. It also touches on the point made by the hon. Member for Twickenham that we are a world leader in this area, and it is more important now than ever that we maintain that position.
At Foreign Office questions some time ago, I asked the Foreign Secretary whether he had raised the possibility of sharing intelligence with the Trump Administration in the event that they reverted to the use of torture, such as waterboarding or, as the President said during the campaign, something
“a hell of a lot worse”.
In the House, the Foreign Secretary said that that was an operational matter that he would not comment on —I think it is more a matter of policy myself—but in later correspondence he returned to the quote that the hon. Member for Twickenham offered us from the Prime Minister, who said that
“we do not sanction torture and do not get involved in it. That will continue to be our position.”—[Official Report,
Those sentences should be on the desk of every Home Office and Foreign Office Minister. I would like to hear a more express statement about the possibility of sharing intelligence with any country in the world that uses torture, both because of our leadership position and because we must atone for some of our quite recent failings in this area.
The right hon. Gentleman heard me speak, I hope very clearly, about my views. I merely caution that we should use slightly more modified language than, “We share no intelligence with anyone who uses torture.” That would exclude so many people with whom we need a relationship built on trust. In many ways, our intelligence services, rather than NGOs or diplomats, are some of the best people to preach the message of freedom from torture.
That is a fair point. I put it in those terms—I know the hon. Gentleman’s background—because we have some damage to repair.
I am mindful of your strictures about the sub judice rule, Mr Bailey. We now have the final Supreme Court judgment in respect of the Government’s preliminary points in the Belhaj and Boudchar case, which I referred to earlier. I will not talk about the substance of that case, because that would clearly be inappropriate and I would be ruled out of order, but it is a matter of public record that the Government so far have spent £750,000 pursuing those unsuccessful preliminary points. The case will presumably go through the courts to whatever conclusion is reached, but it is worth reflecting that we have got this far at the cost of £750,000 but we are just back at the starting line, and a lot more could still be spent on that case. The plaintiffs have offered to settle for £3—£1 each from the Government, the former Foreign Secretary and Sir Mark Allen, whose involvement in the case is fairly well documented.
The al-Saadi case, which was very similar, was settled out of court without any requirement for the case to be taken. More significantly, Belhaj and Boudchar want an apology as well as their £3. No apology was made in the al-Saadi case, but it cost the British taxpayer some £2.2 million. That is why it is important that as we enter a new phase of international relations with a new Administration in the White House, rightly or wrongly, we should have concerns about their approach to torture and put out there the highest possible standards. We should not forget—the Crown Prosecution Service has already said this—that Sir Mark Allen sought political authority for his actions in the al-Saadi and Belhaj cases, so it is difficult for us as a country to deny any knowledge or complicity in them.
Freedom from Torture’s “Proving Torture” report contains several highly concerning statistics from the sample of cases that it examined, and I will remind the House of some of those. Some 76% of the cases that Freedom from Torture studied in preparing that report eventually resulted in successful appeals. I take the Minister’s point that new information is sometimes provided on appeal that was not there in the first instance. Appeals may succeed for any number of reasons, but the fact that 76% of cases resulted in asylum being granted on appeal should concern Home Office Ministers. I suspect that if a judge sitting in a sheriff court in Scotland or perhaps a Crown court in England had 76% of his or her cases overturned on appeal, the Lord Chancellor would look carefully at the way that judge went about his or her business.
There is more context in that report to support my contention that the 76% figure is concerning. In 74% of the cases examined by Freedom from Torture, asylum caseworkers substituted their own opinion for that of clinicians, and in 30% of cases, asylum caseworkers disputed or queried clinicians’ qualifications or expertise. Those things should cause concern. They give context for the 76% of successful appeals that I referred to and relate to the points raised by the hon. Member for Harrow West.
The hon. Member for Twickenham was absolutely right to say that the Home Office has a duty of care towards people who do such enormously difficult and taxing work, from which significant political pressure is never far away and which is done in the professional context of an occasionally toxic debate. I worked as a public prosecutor for some years a long time ago. No one was supposed to work for more than six to 12 months at the very most on cases involving the sexual abuse of children, because they were such difficult and taxing cases, and the people who were involved in that sort of work ended up being burnt out. For that reason, I suspect that rotation among caseworkers who do asylum work should be taken a bit more seriously than it appears to be.
I am mindful of your strictures about time, Mr Bailey, so although I could probably say a great deal more about this subject, I shall conclude my remarks and allow others to take part.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I extend my appreciation to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias), who, along with other Members, was responsible for securing this important debate. I thank everyone who has taken part in it.
I should begin by stating my party’s position. The Scottish National party believes that asylum seekers and refugees must be treated humanely, fairly and with dignity, and that their rights must be upheld at every stage of the asylum process. Indeed, Freedom from Torture has welcomed the SNP’s efforts to put pressure on the UK Government to influence immigration and asylum policy to protect survivors of torture across the whole of the UK. We will continue to use our position in Westminster to influence policy areas across the whole of the UK.
Asylum seekers are among the most vulnerable groups in society. Having fled their home countries, often they will have left all of their possessions behind. They may have been subjected to torture or witnessed their loved ones being killed, or sometimes both. Often, their health and wellbeing will be seriously affected. The findings of the recent Freedom from Torture report “Proving Torture” make for tough reading. The organisation’s expert clinicians provide in-depth evidence, in line with international standards, documenting torture scars and psychological trauma as part of a torture survivor’s asylum claim.
Bureaucracy and poor decision making mean that torture survivors can be wrongly refused asylum and experience months—often years—of disbelief and uncertainty. When a survivor of torture is wrongly refused asylum, they experience unimaginable distress. For many people, it is life or death. They know that when the wrong decision is made, they could be forced to return to their torturers. Mr Thomas mentioned that, after being denied asylum, some of the Sri Lankans who have been returned have faced ill treatment, abuse or worse back in Sri Lanka. Legal appeals are harrowing for these people and, as has been mentioned, let us not forget that they are costly to UK taxpayers.
The precise number of torture survivors seeking protection in the UK is unknown. The Home Office does not collect statistics on the number of asylum claims involving torture allegations. A recent study suggests that 27% of adult forced migrants living in high-income countries such as the UK are survivors of torture. Perhaps when the Minister responds he could expand on why those statistics are not routinely collected. I am very concerned that our system is letting down extremely vulnerable individuals.
What survivors of torture need is safety and access to rehabilitation. That cannot even begin until a sound decision is made on their claim, yet the report found that survivors seeking asylum in the UK can find it almost impossible to prove to the Home Office that they were tortured.
As we have heard, many of the report’s findings focus on the role that caseworkers play. I take on board what was mentioned by
There appear to be so many failures when cases are assessed, with some of the charges being levelled including: failure to apply the correct standard of proof for asylum claims; caseworkers replacing the expert opinion of a clinician with their own; and taking the wrong approach to medical evidence when assessing the credibility of the asylum claim. That will likely come as no surprise, unfortunately, to any Member who has dealt with an asylum case. There certainly seem to be failings in how asylum seekers are dealt with. I appreciate that there are some fantastic people working for the Home Office, dealing with incredibly difficult histories and vulnerable people. From my experience, however, there certainly seem to be occasions when the process is lacking in fairness and dignity. At the core of the problem seems to be bad practice. I certainly hope that the Minister will seriously address that when responding.
The chief executive of Freedom from Torture has said:
“Most of the bad practice revealed in our research clearly contravenes Home Office policy guidance for asylum caseworkers on the correct treatment of medical evidence of torture. The Home Office has an excellent training programme to help caseworkers implement this policy correctly but has never rolled it out.”
Home Office employees should be adequately resourced to carry out their duties in a humane manner and training should be the cornerstone of that. That training is crucial if guidance is to be appropriately followed.
In a joint letter to the immigration and border policy directorate, signatories from several organisations including Medical Justice, Liberty, the UK Lesbian & Gay Immigration Group and Women for Refugee Women expressed concern that, in their experience, Home Office caseworkers do not regularly or properly apply the full rigour of guidance in relation to the “very exceptional circumstances” for detention of vulnerable individuals. Those detained individuals are being failed by the system.
“which have consistently received poor inspection reports by HM inspectorate of prisons and have been deemed unsafe for women.”
Perhaps the Minister in response would care to address that point and the application of guidance in that regard.
The SNP believes that the Home Office also needs to drop its proposals on the definition of torture for asylum seekers, which further erode safeguards for torture survivors, and institute a process that properly protects vulnerable detainees. The fact that the most recent change in the Home Office rules on definition of torture in December was rejected by the courts after 21 days is yet another example of the Government’s disregard for the treatment of asylum seekers in their pursuit of toxic policies toward refugees.
It is utterly shameful that that was introduced despite mounting criticism of the welfare of vulnerable people in detention, including in the Shaw report, which the Government have yet to respond to. The direction of travel is particularly worrying; the detention of vulnerable people used to happen only in very exceptional circumstances, but now there is guidance that the Home Office should seek to balance risk of harm in detention against the individual’s immigration factors. Again, the principles of fairness and dignity appear to have been all but discarded.
In summary, I would appreciate it if the Minister could address the following. Why are statistics on the number of asylum claims involving torture allegations not available? Will the Home Office commit to rectifying that? An investigation needs to happen on the allegations of bad practice among Home Office caseworkers. Will he also address the reasons why the training programme has not been rolled out and the Home Office’s intentions in that regard, and the issues with applying guidance on detention of vulnerable individuals?
As the hon. Member for Harrow West stated, the UK takes allegations of torture seriously. It would be good if the Minister would consult with his Foreign Office colleagues on torture happening around the globe and ask them to use their influence positively to try to change the thinking of some of the worst perpetrators of torture throughout the world.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate Dr Mathias on the persuasive case she made at the start and on bringing the subject to the House today. I congratulate Mr Carmichael, the hon. Members for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) and for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) and my hon. Friend Mr Thomas on their speeches, too.
As we have seen in the debate, all political parties are united in their complete rejection of torture and mistreatment. Torture is illegal and it is internationally banned. When allegations are made, it is vital that they are fully investigated and that the public have confidence in the process and its outcome. In this Parliament we have seen the pressure mounted by the British Parliament contribute to Shaker Aamer’s release. It is therefore vital that, while we preach that there is no place for torture or mistreatment of detainees abroad, that applies at home to people on British soil. We have moral and legal obligations to asylum seekers. In order to stop torture from happening around the world, it is crucial that Britain sets an example as a country that respects and upholds its human rights commitments.
While the Opposition have a proud record of standing up for the rights of everyone, there are certain slightly worrying developments in the current Government that make their commitment to human rights look a bit more questionable. When the permanent secretary to the Foreign Office appeared before the Foreign Affairs Committee, he said that human rights were
“not one of our top priorities.”
That is quite a frightening statement; ethics should be on the Foreign Office’s map. I think that he was attacked by Crispin Blunt for making that statement. Britain’s voice in the world is a reflection not only of our economic prowess but of the moral leadership that we demonstrate on human rights. If they are no longer a top priority, we cannot lecture the rest of the world about the rule of law and freedoms and rights that every human being is entitled to.
I am relieved and pleased that the contract between the Ministry of Justice and Saudi Arabia to build a prison was cancelled in the end. I understand that the then Foreign Secretary, who is now the Chancellor, accused Michael Gove of being naive on that matter, which gives the impression that perhaps some Government Members do not want to prioritise human rights, which, by extension, include subjects such as torture.
I was very happy with the cross-party support at the November presentation of the “Proving Torture” report. I give credit to the Queen’s Counsels from the hon. Lady’s party, who were arm in arm with similar Members from my party. I believe that this has cross-party support from both Back-Bench and Front-Bench Members.
I do not doubt the hon. Lady’s commitment to human rights, given everything she has said on them in the Chamber. The Home Secretary is due to visit Saudi Arabia later this month; it will be interesting to see if she will use that opportunity to challenge one of our “closest allies” on some of the less palatable aspects of its record on human rights and torture. At a recent Prime Minister’s Question Time, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister to condemn President Trump’s comments on torture. He has supported things like hooding, which is sensory deprivation, stress positioning and waterboarding, which the hon. Lady mentioned. President Trump seems to have a gung-ho attitude to those and does not equate them with torture. I would like to hear stronger statements from our Prime Minister condemning those comments.
I have limited time and the hon. Gentleman spoke at length earlier; I will be happy to speak to him afterwards. I think any special relationship should also be friendly. We can be a critical friend to countries and point these things out; maybe not holding their hands but holding them to account in some way. We are debating the UK asylum system and not any of these other people, so I will get back to that.
We all seem to have seen the same figures from Freedom from Torture’s “Proving Torture” report. Other Members have made those points very graphically. We have to consider the moral dimension to this, as well as our legal obligations; we are talking about protection for the most vulnerable in our society. The statistic just quoted was that 27% of adult forced migrants living in high-income countries have survived torture in their country of origin, yet we continually hear stories of their humiliating treatment when they seek to prove it. The standard of proof seems to be very high, and it is often confusing when they have to prove what happened to them. It is a chicken and egg situation. There is little other than medical evidence to prove their torture, but it is nigh on impossible after the fact to prove that it was torture, even when extensive medical evidence is presented; we hear that medical evidence is often disregarded, mistreated, misinterpreted or ignored by the Home Office. It would be good to hear the Minister clarify how that can be tightened up.
Hon. Members also quoted the fact that 76% of such cases that are unsuccessful are overturned on appeal, which is alarmingly high when compared to just 30% of standard asylum cases and indicates a serious problem in the Home Office’s handling of asylum claims. As the hon. Member for Twickenham pointed out, that requires correction by a judge in a specialist immigration tribunal, which comes at considerable cost to the public purse—UK taxpayers.
Not only is it International Women’s Day next week but apparently March is also International Women’s Month, so it is worth pointing out that rape is shockingly not recognised as torture for women asylum seekers. I think that will come as a surprise to many hon. Members. Women remain particularly vulnerable to deportation. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West referred to legal aid for asylum cases; I know that that is probably another debate for another day, but I flag it up as it is connected to this debate. I have also had constituents from Sri Lanka pressing me. There was a debate in this place last week that I was unable to attend, but I am glad that my hon. Friend expressed his concern about the Sri Lankan Government’s torture record and that we should treat asylum seekers from that country with the respect that they deserve.
I wanted to be brief, but while I am here I will flag up my concern that we may be led out of the European Court of Human Rights; I believe that the plan has been shelved for this Parliament, but it could still happen. It is a live policy.
I have said that I will press on without interventions on this occasion. The ECHR is one of the most effective torture prevention tools in history, and it was drafted by British lawyers, including Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, then a Conservative Member of Parliament. Having our own, unilateral British bill of rights seems to send the signal to countries with questionable human rights records, such as Russia and Turkey, that international human rights obligations can be shirked or are an optional extra. It also undermines the Government’s foreign policy objective of championing a rules-based international system.
I know that the Minister has received a lot of questions from other hon. Members, but I have one for him. I think the systematic decision-making errors that we keep hearing about in these cases are a matter of quality control and auditing. Will the Minister reaffirm the UK’s position as a champion for the absolute ban on torture? I am optimistic that he will. Will he also implement immediate measures to improve decision making in asylum claims made by survivors of torture to address those weaknesses?
We live in tumultuous times of turmoil and turbulence, when the only predictable thing is unpredictability. The UK has a proud history of standing up for human rights and taking care of people in need, and it has never been more important to reaffirm that commitment and make sure that it works in practice.
I thank my hon. Friend Dr Mathias for raising these important matters. It is a subject that she rightly says is a global issue, and one which, aside from the academic and clinical debates, has profound human consequences for individual survivors of torture. I am proud to share this Chamber with all colleagues who have spoken today, although I take exception to the use of the word “toxic” by the Scottish National party spokesperson when describing the Government’s policy; I certainly do not recognise that.
I will restate the Government’s position: torture is one of the most abhorrent violations of human rights and human dignity, and we unreservedly condemn its use as a matter of fundamental principle. The Prime Minister and the Leader of the House have made that point quite recently. The United Kingdom Government will continue to raise concerns about such flagrant abuses of human rights with relevant foreign Governments at every opportunity. I commend the work of organisations that support survivors of torture, and I believe our policy on handling asylum claims based on torture provides effective protection to those who need it.
All asylum claims lodged in the United Kingdom, including those involving claims of past torture, are carefully considered on their individual merits. Decision makers are fully aware of the importance of making the right decision and the consequences of refusing those who need protection. I assure hon. Members that such decisions are not taken without full consideration. Our published policy on considering asylum claims in which torture is raised and, in particular, when medical evidence is also provided is very clear and requires decision makers to approach such cases with sensitivity, to allow reasonable time for medical evidence relevant to the decision to be provided, and to carefully consider such evidence to reach an informed decision.
In an area such as this, one can never be satisfied, because that sounds like complacency. Indeed, staff development and training is something we constantly have under review. Some of the points made in this debate show that we do not always get it right. Tribute was paid, I think by the hon. Gentleman himself, to the staff who do this work. It is often a thankless task, and they do it with a degree of professionalism that we can all admire.
The Minister will be aware that I referenced a full-day training module that was rolled out to some asylum caseworkers, but not all, when the last asylum policy instruction was issued in 2014. Will he now instruct the relevant civil servant to ensure that all asylum caseworkers benefit from that full-day training module?
I absolutely agree that it is important that staff get the relevant training. It is also important that staff with the most experience are directed to the cases where their experience can be most brought to bear. I will continue to engage with officials to ensure we are doing that as well as we can. I take this very seriously indeed.
When considering asylum claims made in the UK, it is absolutely right that we offer protection to those who face torture on return to their country. However, that does not mean that all survivors of past torture will automatically qualify for protection. An individual needs to show there is a real risk of serious harm or persecution on return to their country. In some cases, the situation in a country can become normalised and change. We welcome it when conflict finishes or particular situations are resolved in countries around the world.
I appreciate concerns about decision quality and how we consider medical evidence in practice, which was highlighted in the Freedom from Torture report published last year. However, I would point out that the sample of cases in that report represents less than 1% of all asylum decisions made last year, and some of the cases used are nearly three years old. That does not mean that I do not take those individual cases very seriously. I must stress that Home Office officials are committed to approaching cases involving allegations of torture with the utmost sensitivity.
My officials have also recently met Freedom from Torture representatives. While we believe the findings in the report are not representative of the wider asylum system, we are nevertheless taking steps to further improve the decision-making process. That will include forming a specialised team who will review and sign off all cases where a medical report is provided. We are also reviewing the training programme delivered to new decision makers. I can assure Members that we are committed to getting decisions right the first time and to working with expert organisations such as Freedom from Torture to ensure that survivors of torture get the support they need.
I am pleased to hear about the engagement with Freedom from Torture, and I encourage the Minister to consider that. I think that Freedom from Torture acknowledged when it launched the report that it was a small sample of cases. Its finding that 76% of asylum cases involving torture were granted on appeal is something that the Minister’s Department should be able to confirm or contradict. Is he able to do so?
I will see what stats we have on that. I am aware that where there are judicial reviews against us in such cases, we win virtually every one—I think the last figures I saw showed that we have lost 45 cases out of 18,000. It is not always the case that cases brought to us are successful.
Mr Carmichael mentioned medical reports from specialists. We do not restrict who can provide a medical report for the purposes of submitting evidence in support of an asylum claim. There are accepted international legal standards, as set out in the Istanbul protocol, “Manual on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment”, which applies to the documentation of torture. We believe it is appropriate that, as a minimum, those guidelines are followed in preparing reports.
All asylum decision makers receive extensive training on how to consider asylum claims. That includes vicarious trauma training for caseworkers, to guard against hardening. We are well aware of how people can become—dare I say—used to hearing stories such as these, which is really worrying. As previously highlighted, we are committed to continuous improvement.
Let me be clear: torture has no place anywhere in the world, and we must do all we can to stamp it out. The UK Government consistently raise concerns about the use of torture, enforced disappearances and alleged police abuses, and will continue to do so. I am sure Members will be aware that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Mr Ellwood, regularly raises human rights concerns in his dealings with overseas Governments and officials.
My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham raised the position of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister’s position is clear: the UK stands firmly against the use of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. In no circumstances would we consider approving a request from a foreign Government to conduct an extraordinary rendition through the UK or one of our overseas territories.
I appreciate the Minister giving way again. Does he accept that torture is still a significant problem in Sri Lanka?
That question is probably better directed to the Foreign Office. I know that the situation is much improved in Sri Lanka, which we welcome, but the hon. Gentleman might have evidence that he wishes to make available to Foreign Office Ministers, so that they are aware of it. I am not fully briefed on the situation in Sri Lanka. I know things are improving, which is good news, but from the points he has made, we know there is still some way to go.
We must support those in need of protection to claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. That is the fastest route to safety. International obligations under the refugee convention do not require us to consider claims made outside the UK, but we continue to support refugees in-region through our substantial aid contributions and resettlement schemes.
I will say a few words about the background of our “adults at risk” policy. The adults at risk in immigration detention policy came into force on
Measures put in place under the Immigration Act 2016, along with a new policy on adults at risk in detention and other improvements to casework processes, represent a comprehensive package of safeguards for all vulnerable detainees in the immigration system, including pregnant women. Those measures have been developed in response to Stephen Shaw’s independent review of detainee welfare. Indeed, I have made a point of visiting some of our immigration removal centres to see the conditions there. I am well aware that many people associate detention with the torture they have had inflicted upon them, and therefore there is a concern that people will see detention as bringing back the terrible experiences they have had.
Certainly. We get a number of requests. I know there has also been some discussion with the Home Affairs Committee, and we are particularly keen to prioritise that visit if we can, because it is important that the Committee sees that as part of its work. However, I will look at that request and see what we can do to accelerate it.
I want to make it absolutely clear that where people are detained, it is for the minimum time possible. The dignity and welfare of those in our care is of the utmost importance. I would like to leave a few minutes for my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham to sum up, so I will make a final comment. We are clear that the claims of those who seek asylum in the UK will be carefully considered by well-trained and conscientious decision makers, who are expected to take into account all available evidence to reach an informed decision.
I would like to repeat the question I asked earlier about the number of asylum claims involving torture allegations. There is no log of that at the moment. Will the Minister give a clear guarantee that he will look at that and put in place a log, so that we know how many asylum claims involve torture allegations?
Interestingly, I have asked the same question myself, and the answer is not quite as simple as it may seem, because in some cases multiple reasons are given for an asylum claim, and in other cases in which asylum has been refused on one ground, a new ground has then been put forward. Sometimes the figures are not quite as easily come to as perhaps we would like. I will certainly see what I can do, but I have been asking the same question myself and have been told, “It isn’t as simple, Minister, as you would like to think.” There are often quite complex cases involving a number of different reasons that may have been submitted at different times during the legal process.
I sense that the Minister is perhaps trying to get to his peroration, but if I may, I shall take advantage of the time remaining. In the course of my remarks, I referred to the Belhaj case. I am mindful of all the strictures on that, but does the Minister agree that it is in the national interest now, given the judgment of the Supreme Court, that we have an early resolution of it?
I am always very cautious about commenting on specific cases. The right hon. Gentleman is smiling, probably because he is getting the answer that he expected, but he has certainly raised the issue, and it is particularly important that we ensure that all the legal processes that we are involved in are conducted in the best interests of the taxpayer and the best interests of those who are vulnerable and need our support.
We are clear, as we make these informed decisions, that those who would face torture if returned will be granted protection here in the UK. I believe that our current policy delivers on these important goals: it supports those genuinely in need of protection in the UK because they are at risk of torture if returned, and it is absolutely consistent with our international obligations.
I thank everyone who has taken part for such a wide-ranging discussion. I appreciate every single contribution.
I express particular thanks to the Minister for his sensitivity and clarity. I note that, on behalf of the Government, he unreservedly condemns the use of torture. I am very grateful to him for being clear about not using even British overseas territories for rendition. I am sure that we will get equally clear statements from the Government about complicity.
The Minister said that the published policy was clear. I hope that he will take back to the Department the information from all hon. Members present that we feel that, in practice, it is lacking. That is a cross-party message. I applaud the fact that the Minister will continue to engage with officials and that he is concerned about the quality of decision making. I reiterate what was said by other hon. Members and, in particular, the point made by Margaret Ferrier that we need an audit. We need quality assurance in the Department, and an audit.
I appreciate the Minister’s clarity and I urge the Home Office to do a proper audit of asylum claims in which torture is involved or suspected. I am glad that the Minister acknowledges the issue of case hardening, but a strategy needs to be in place. There was mention of claims made outside the UK. The point is that we can be a global leader. We might be able to send our experts and, hopefully, Home Office caseworkers; if they improve their expertise, we can then also guide other countries.
I pay credit to Mr Thomas, who expressed concern for constituents with a background in Sri Lanka, which is still of exceptional concern. Unfortunately, I do not believe that we have heard today that the full day’s training has been rolled out; that does not appear to be the case.
I appreciate the words of my hon. and gallant Friend Tom Tugendhat. I absolutely agree that the right to be free from the experience of torture is an unqualified right; indeed, it is an inalienable, non-derogable right. The point was very well made that we realise in this country that torture actually makes us more vulnerable.
I do not know how serious Mr Carmichael was, but I think it was a good point that on every desk in the Home Office and Foreign Office should be the words: “We do not sanction torture and are not involved in it”. I agree with him on that. He raised a very important point about the ethics of, and clarity about, sharing intelligence with countries that practise torture. I think that shows that we need more time for this debate—I am sure that the Backbench Business Committee will take note of that today. Again, we need auditing; we need statistics.
As Dr Huq said, Foreign Office statements should be clear. I do have some disagreements with the hon. Lady. I do not believe that we should be lecturing the rest of the world; I believe we should be engaging with them and leading. I have really valued the cross-party tone of the debate and I value the Minister’s sensitivity. I am sorry, because I have a lot of respect for the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton, but on these policy matters, I do not believe that we will be successful, as a House of Commons, by trying to exacerbate any divisions. Apart from that contribution, I think we have power in this debate.
My final point is to show how the UK leads in this world where torture exists. We beat torture by rehabilitating people and making them full members of our community. I pay respect to those in the Public Gallery. You will not be able to know which one of those people has been tortured, because they are a full member of, and contributing valuably to, our community.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered UK policy on torture and the treatment of asylum claims.