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Simon Hughes rose

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus) rose

Mr. Blunkett: To varying degrees, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Finland have policies that allow out-of-country appeals to be heard. They are not countries that anyone would describe as illiberal, albeit that the changes are being introduced in Denmark are draconian. However, I am talking about the situation before the recent parliamentary debate and the legislation that was passed by the Danish Assembly.

Simon Hughes: The Home Secretary knows that we support the introduction of resettlement programmes and other routes into the country for people who are genuine economic migrants. We welcome that initiative and have said as much publicly and privately. However, does he accept the view of British courts that out-of-country appeals are in many cases almost valueless? The reality is that many people do not appeal, and in effect the system is making it impossible for many to do so. The system appears intentionally to be driving down appeals. The Home Secretary and I seemed to agree in an earlier debate that between 40 and 50 per cent. of all claims in the past 10 years were accepted under one heading or another. It is surely wrong, therefore, for significant numbers—at least one in five—to be forced out of the country before their cases, which might eventually be accepted, can be determined here.

Mr. Blunkett: That would be true if they were at risk in the country to which they return, but I am desperately

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keen to ensure that they are not so at risk. If they have a personal reason for wanting to pursue the appeal, we should facilitate their doing so. It is a lot easier to do so now than it was even five years ago, thanks to the internet and other communication methods, as well as to more traditional ways. Incidentally, it is not uncommon for paper appeals to be heard in circumstances where a person cannot attend an appeal in this country or in other European countries. Lawyers are familiar with such situations.

A person may well not appeal in a country that operates an out-of-country appeal because they recognise that they have no ground for an appeal and that it will prove unsuccessful. So long as legal support, asylum support and accommodation is available, and so long as another appeal is available somewhere along the line, people are inclined to use it. Indeed, the fact is that many lawyers are inclined to encourage them to do so. That is why our process is so prolonged. As I have said, that distracts from those who have a legitimate right to have their appeal thoroughly aired.

8.15 pm

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and I had not a disagreement but a useful exchange on Second Reading about the percentage who stay. I agreed that if we added in the cases of exceptional and indefinite leave to remain, his figures were correct, so we eventually concluded that we were both right. Indeed, I remember the exchange well. However, the trouble is that exceptional leave had to be used in cases where everyone accepted that the country in question was not safe to return to. In Afghanistan—I mention it purely as an example—a great deal of heartache and human and military resources, have been expended to re-establish safety and civilisation and to put Afghans back in charge of their country. However, what is to say that such people will still not attempt to come to this country? Some 9,600 have done so in the past year. Exceptional leave to remain was granted, even if the claim was not accepted, because we did not wish to return people.

Of course, the point is rapidly coming where we can encourage and support people in returning to Afghanistan—with the help, I hope, of the rest of Europe. We can then ask whether it is legitimate to suggest that they remain at risk from the Taliban, given that the Taliban no longer run the country. Such simple questions must be asked and answered, so that people who are genuinely fleeing persecution can be helped. I do not want to over-egg the point, and I know that many hon. Members will want to intervene, not least to clarify certain matters. However, in terms of returning people to European countries from whence they came, proper certification, judicial review and establishing which countries can legitimately be regarded as safe constitute a reasonable set of presumptions through which to get the matter right.

Mr. Weir: I understand the Secretary of State's argument, but his concentrating on countries rather than individual cases gives me cause for concern. A particular country could be safe by and large, but it might not be so for certain individuals. A current example is India. By and

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large, someone returning to India may be relatively safe, but that is not necessarily true if they originate from Kashmir, for example. In concentrating on the country rather than the individual, the danger is that injustice might be done.

Mr. Blunkett: If a person can provide any evidence whatsoever that clearly shows a founded fear—within the terms that I have described, and with which we are all familiar—their claim would still be heard. They would not simply be returned. However, India is not a good example. We are discussing not countries that are threatening each other with military conflict, but people who are persecuted and threatened with death or torture by a particular state or—under the wider definition of the 1951 convention—other organised groups that put them at risk.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): I appreciate that a person could make an appeal from overseas that deals with the merits of the case, but I am concerned about judicial oversight of the process of certification. Many people find judicial review an expensive, alien and complicated process, to which they do not necessarily have easy access. Is there not a way to ensure some oversight of the certification process? I have a lot of confidence in the Secretary of State, but not in every possible holder of that office. I am concerned that the certification process could be misused in such a way that someone who is genuinely in fear of persecution might not have their right to asylum protected.

Mr. Blunkett: Given the long-standing and deep interest that my hon. Friend has in those issues and her knowledge of them, I take seriously what she says. We would all wish to ensure that the initial decision—the certification—is carried out by professionals trained for the job, and that the possibility of review is readily available. I envisage that on issues relating to the nature of the risk in a particular country, we will wish to facilitate a rapid testing of the initial decision. We will also wish to be able to test the situation further, following any changes in that country. We are keen to establish a pattern that will be checked by the judiciary on certification to provide us with a base on which to make common-sense decisions. People will then know that the system is fair and credible.

The same is true of returning people to other European countries. In the end, a sensible bilateral agreement with those countries, as part of a longer-term revision of the Dublin agreement, must be the way forward. I will take every step possible, after next Sunday's concluding election in France, to do that. The interim Interior Minister has shown a willingness to achieve that aim and our position will be strengthened by the vote tonight. The interim Minister accepts entirely the rule of law and has written to me to indicate that he accepts the spirit of the new clauses and the way we are proceeding. Some tough negotiations will be necessary, but to have the ability to return people to France—we have been able to return almost 6,000 people who came for other purposes but did not claim asylum—makes sense.

We return almost 6,000 people a year, as I have said before—including during the question and answer session on the White Paper—but we do not return those who mention the words "asylum claim" when they hit our turf, even though they might have just come from France or

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Belgium and did not claim asylum there. We are trying to get the position right in the way that the Danes and the Germans have managed to get it right. Other countries are also keen to achieve that. The problem needs to be seen in the context of bilateral and multilateral agreements across Europe, with us taking a lead rationally and sensibly, instead of clamping down unacceptably as Denmark has, which has led to great disquiet and social uncohesion—if there is such a word.

Lynne Jones: Will one of the proposals that my right hon. Friend puts to the new French Government be an agreement that UK immigration officers should visit places such as Sangatte and interview those people who are attempting to reach this country as asylum seekers, so that their claims can be assessed there?

Mr. Blunkett: As part of bilateral and multilateral Europewide agreements, I would not rule out the use of our immigration officers and support staff working on other national territories, but I do not wish to be tempted into discussing what might be agreed for Sangatte, because that might start some hares running that I could do without. I have not even started negotiating on Sangatte, despite the Catholic weekly magazine and the interview with the interim Social Affairs Minister that led the Leader of the Opposition to write an intemperate article in the Daily Mail that presumed I had already given all my cards away. In fact, I am trying my best to strengthen my hand tonight with a few aces and I hope that the Opposition parties will assist me in doing so.

In the end, we want Sangatte closed under proper procedures that do not result in people on the streets of Calais and surrounding areas. We do not want people trying to get here in, on or under trains, or by other routes across the channel. We want people to come here fairly, under Europewide agreements that allow us to assess and return them if that is the sensible approach. That is what I will suggest on Thursday in Luxembourg, and in that spirit I ask the House to support the new clauses and the associated amendments.

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