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'the Secretary of State or an immigration officer'

and insert "adjudicator".

Amendment No. 179, in page 45, line 10, leave out "or matter".

Amendment No. 159, in page 45, line 12, leave out—

'the Secretary of State or an immigration officer'

and insert "adjudicator".

Amendment No. 180, in page 45, line 15, leave out "or matter".

Amendment No. 181, in page 45, line 18, leave out subsection (6).

Government amendments Nos. 233 to 236, 245, 246, 244, 247, 242 and 243.

Mr. Blunkett: We should pause for a moment to determine what it is we are trying to achieve, not only with the changes in the Bill, but in terms of the appeals system. We are trying to ensure, first, that those who have a legitimate claim that their life, liberty and well-being are being threatened are able to make such a claim in this country and have that considered, as we said earlier this evening, speedily and fairly.

At the moment, the volume of claims in this country by those who are subsequently not allowed to remain—because, through the adjudication and appeals system, their claim is turned down—is so substantial that it clogs up the legitimate system for dealing with first decisions and appeals, which, frankly, is grinding to a standstill.

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The amount of resource that has been allocated to the system, including support, and the prolonged nature of the way in which the appeals system works means that there is a danger that those who have a legitimate right to be here under the asylum system, as opposed to another form of migration policy, are in danger of being overlooked. We need to concentrate on the objective, which is, rightly, to provide for those who are genuinely at risk.

There is all-party support for this. On Second Reading, the shadow Home Secretary put it very well, when he said that he shared the objective of ensuring

I agree with that, as I think most people would. We need a system that works on that basis.

Lynne Jones: My right hon. Friend is correct to say that there is agreement on the objective, but he referred to the prolonged nature of the appeals system. In order to deal with that prolonged nature, surely it is necessary to have a robust analysis of the reasons for it. Has that been done?

Mr. Blunkett: Yes, it has. Many of the issues relating to the length of the procedure were outlined in the White Paper on 7 February, which is why we proposed an end-to-end review, starting with the question of induction and reporting, through to the existing dispersal of the new accommodation centres and to the removal provision, as well as a reassessment of the whole appeals process.

On Second Reading, I said that we were not satisfied that we had yet made sufficient progress in relation to the nature of appeals. The multiple opportunities for judicial review that exist—I remember spelling them out on Second Reading—lead to layer upon layer of delay. It is a question not only of the application of the resource that should be going into an assessment of the appeals that are made by those who have escaped from death and torture; there is also a diversion of expertise because it is not simply the resource that has to be applied.

We are doubling the number of people going through the adjudication system and we have massively increased the number of adjudicators in the last year alone. We have increased the staff of the immigration and nationality directorate by about 4,500 over the last two years and we are dealing with the largest number of new applicants currently in Europe, including Germany.

8 pm

It is not that we should not be taking, processing or granting the right to be here for those who have a legitimate claim. It is right for us to take a substantial number of those entering Europe, but we must be able to deal with claims fairly and properly. The shadow Home Secretary had a good point on Second Reading when he related this to Europewide objectives. He said:

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On Thursday in Luxembourg, at the Justice and Home Affairs Council, and at the Seville Council the week after, we will promote the idea of rapid improvement and change so that we can get a grip Europewide, collaboratively rather than competitively, on what needs to be done. We need to deal with asylum shopping, which is causing real difficulty, and on which we appear to be the last stop.

Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): Under the Home Secretary's criteria, do safe countries include all the applicant countries to the European Union?

Mr. Blunkett: No, there is no list at present, because we need to be clear that anyone who is to be returned under the category of a clearly unfounded claim would not have been at risk in any of the countries that they passed through to get here. We are talking about two categories: clearly unfounded, when people produce no evidence of having been at risk or that the country from which they came was unsafe for them; and the category of those who—there has been considerable debate about this in this country for some time—have not made a claim in any of the countries through which they have passed, where their asylum claim would have been quite legitimate and would have been heard in the same way, although not under precisely the same rules and processes, as in this country.

It is crucial that we are able to deal with those two categories sensibly and sensitively. We need to ensure that people whose claim is certified as clearly unfounded or those who have come through European countries where they would not have been at risk but where they failed to make a claim—so it could be presumed that they were heading for Britain for reasons other than that their life and well-being were at risk—are not returned through the undue use of Executive power. That is why it will be open to them to make an appeal against that certification under judicial review. Obviously, judicial review will establish a set of criteria in relation to the countries in Europe through which such people have passed, to determine whether those countries can be regarded as safe under the terms of the European convention on human rights and whether it is therefore appropriate to return people to them.

If, when we get these changes into statute, certain countries have been allowed into the European Union and have been seen to be providing all the necessary safeguards, it will be ridiculous if the regulations continue to debar us from doing an automatic return to them. Because it would be wrong to have a white list, safe countries must be determined on the evidence provided and in a way that ensures that safeguards are in place.

There is a wider issue—obviously, the Opposition will raise this, and I would have to be very silly not to pick it up, because there is a clear theme running here—concerning whether the assessment of countries is sufficiently clear or rapid. If it is not—which we do not accept—we need an advisory committee to assist us. Such a committee would have to be open and transparent and prepared to have consultations with the Government and the two main Opposition parties on its make-up. It would have to help us with the process without removing the existing formulations, which draw down all the known

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available evidence. It is important to put that on the table immediately, because no one should get the impression that we are going to put people at risk.

Simon Hughes: The Home Secretary has anticipated that we strongly oppose the new clauses and will seek to divide the House on them later. I do not understand how the Labour party has completely changed its policy over the past few years. In the run-up to the 1997 election, the Home Secretary's predecessor said that removing people before they appeal undermines justice. What has changed? His own figures—validly applauded by himself—show that the rate of making decisions is getting faster, appeals are being held in record numbers and the removal rate of failed applicants has increased. If the system is improving, which we welcome, why is there suddenly a need to do things that many people in the House and elsewhere find thoroughly obnoxious and morally reprehensible?

Mr. Blunkett: It would be obnoxious and reprehensible if we were to return people to regimes that put them at risk or if we did not give them a clear opportunity to make a claim in a legitimate European country, because they wanted to come to Britain. We have to ask why people want to come to Britain. Is it to escape death or torture or because of particular benefits to be found here; or should they be claiming through the new economic migration routes, because they want to work here? Given the number of people who fail to make a valid claim right through the appeals process, there are clearly many who want to work here and are not coming to escape death or torture. That is a simple fact.

The electorate do not fully understand why people who have crowded through the rest of Europe have not chosen to exercise a claim there, even though their reason for being there was escape. Asylum is not a matter of whether people would rather be here. It is fair dos if people really want to be here because they have learned our language over the internet or have friends or family here. Those people should apply through the other routes, many of which we are just opening up in new ways. That is a different matter from facing death or torture.

We need sensible ways of dealing with the matter, especially if we are to open new routes through the United Nations, so that people can claim out of country rather than clandestinely making it through the tunnel or on the ferries or coming through airports with false documentation, which is what many do. Many others make an in-country claim after having been here for a substantial time, sometimes on human rights grounds, having made no such claim at the time of arrival but having decided that it will help them stay. We all know that to be true, because we all see it all the time in our constituency surgeries.

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's direct question is that unfounded claims massively clog up our ability to use the extra staff and resources that we have provided fairly and properly, thereby negating the investment that we have put in. People out there think that we are crackers, and if they think that, they will not warm to the other things that we are saying about tackling prejudice and racism. We need to build trust in the system, so that people welcome warmly those whom they know to have been facing death or persecution.

I am trying to develop a system that does not involve a white list, but which has some common sense built in and which includes proper safeguards for those who

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genuinely face persecution. That is why there is the right to review and to challenge the decision taken on whether a person's life and liberty is threatened by reason of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, and whether certification should therefore have been made. If those points prove true and the life or well-being of the person concerned is threatened because of that, they would not of course be returned, and their appeal would be heard in this country. The same is true of all who present some founded claim the moment that they arrive, or who have some legitimate proof that they were at threat or that their country of origin had presented a threat in recent times.

I accept that we were fairly slow on the uptake in respect of Zimbabwe, but we did not put people's lives at risk. We halted the returns and listened to what was being said, including by my own party and the Opposition parties. I mention my party because I was touched by the deep concern expressed earlier today by members of the Conservative party for my well-being within my own ranks. It was clear that I had their support in taking into account Labour party views, and that certainly made me feel much better.

The second criterion is that we will not send someone back to a place from which they will be sent to another country, other than in accordance with the refugee convention. In other words, we will not return people in circumstances in which they will not enjoy the protection of the 1951 convention. Those safeguards are built in; we are simply trying to turn away people who have no right to be here, and to send them back even in cases where we will grant them an out-of-country appeal.

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