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5 Nov 2002 : Column 207—continued

Mr. Blunkett: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I inadvertently gave the House the wrong age groups when I addressed the issue of new additional family support for healthy eating and milk. I was correct in saying that we are going to provide an extra #5 for babies under the age of one, but I should have said that the extra #3 was for those between the ages of one and three, not one and five. My apologies to the House.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): The whole House will have heard the Secretary of State's correction, which is now firmly on the record.

Clause 69


Lords amendment: No. 127, in page 39, line 17, at end insert
X, and
( ) may appoint one or more adjudicators as Deputy Regional Adjudicator."

Beverley Hughes: I beg to move, that this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 128 to 153, 154 and amendment (a), 155, 156, 157 and amendments (a) to (f), 158 to 178, 179 and amendments (a) and (b), 180 to 183, 184 and amendments (a) and (b), 185 to 187, 188 and amendments (a) to (d), 189 to 191, and 215 and amendments (a) to (c).

Beverley Hughes: The amendments in this group are for the most part minor and technical and I do not intend to speak to them, although I will be happy to answer any questions. I should, however, explain why the Government tabled amendments to non-suspensive appeals provisions in clauses 82 and 101 which were fully discussed in the other place but which this House has yet to be able to consider. Without delaying the House, I hope that I can set the provisions in the context of what the Government are trying to achieve through their overall approach to asylum and immigration, as outlined in February's White Paper.

The strategy is threefold, and it is important to remember the three elements. The first is to return asylum to its proper purpose: a route through which

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people who are fleeing persecution can readily and easily be identified and, once they have gained permission to stay, be integrated properly and helped to settle here. So returning asylum to its proper purpose is a very important part of the strategy. The second element is the need to do a lot better at integrating refugees, including opening a gateway—with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—for people to come in directly from out of country. The third element, because we do welcome migrants generally, is the opening up of managed legitimate routes for economic migration.

Most Members will agree that we need to deal with the very large numbers who seek to remain here on the basis of asylum and human rights claims that are clearly unfounded, and whose motivation in coming has to do not with fleeing persecution but with other objectives—however understandable—that are outside the asylum system. The term Xclearly unfounded" is not defined in legislation, but the courts have held that it constitutes a claim that is obviously without substance, or is bound to fail. An example would be those who come here for economic reasons, or those whose fears—even if true—would not amount to persecution, or to inhuman or degrading treatment. It is essential that clearly unfounded cases be identified and dealt with quickly. There can be no justification for allowing a person who has made a clearly unfounded claim to remain here to pursue a hopeless case.

We debated the arguments for introducing non-suspensive appeals at an earlier stage. The amendments to clauses 82 and 101 build on this provision by introducing a list of countries where a claim will be presumed to be clearly unfounded.

Simon Hughes: The Minister rightly points out that we had a general debate, and we shall come to the more specific view that the Government have taken in the Lords. Superficially, the argument is very appealing, but will she explain why the Government are proposing such a rigorous response in terms of their definition of manifestly unfounded cases? Throughout the 50 years for which we have been signed up to the refugee convention, people have regularly come from other democracies with cases that were found to be good ones. Most importantly, the Home Office's own statistics for this year show that about 40 per cent. of Xmanifestly unfounded" certificates are being overturned on appeal to the adjudicator. It seems that, when looked at more carefully, apparently manifestly unfounded cases are not unfounded. That would trouble anybody, and it is, I hope, a reason for proceeding much more carefully than the Government's proposals allow us to do.

Beverley Hughes: I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, and it is a valid one, but he is not comparing like with like. Claims that have been dealt with will not go through the same system that we plan to use for the cases under discussion. I shall outline the system for the hon. Gentleman shortly, but I agree that we must ensure that the quality of the initial decision making, the care taken at that stage, and the building in of additional scrutiny are sufficient to ensure that decisions in cases so certified are robust and defendable. Those are very important points, and in view of the outcome of the cases that the hon. Gentleman outlines, we are building

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that degree of rigour into the initial decision-making system. I shall explain to the hon. Gentleman exactly what the stages are shortly.

This country has a long tradition of considering every asylum claim individually to see whether a person would face persecution in his or her own country, and that will continue. In tabling these amendments, we do not rule out the possibility that a person from a generally safe country could be a refugee. However, the fact is that the vast majority are not refugees. This is true of the 10 countries that are the first in the queue to join the European Union. These countries—they are listed in the amendments—are all democracies. They have functioning criminal justice systems, respect for human rights and a commitment to dealing with elements in their society who target minority groups. For these countries, more than 90 per cent. of those who appealed against a refusal to grant asylum had their appeals dismissed. As Members will know, at a recent meeting in Luxembourg the Justice and Home Affairs Council adopted a declaration that member states should start from the presumption that any asylum application from a national of one of the 10 states is manifestly unfounded. We are therefore in step with our EU partners in adopting this measure. A significant number of asylum applications from these countries contributes to the total number that we are dealing with.

Vera Baird (Redcar): Do not the Minister's own figures make it perfectly clear that 10 per cent. of people who applied from white list countries did have a valid claim? Under this system, how will they be protected?

Beverley Hughes: People will enter into the non-suspensive appeal process, but that will not remove the possibility of their seeking judicial scrutiny of their case by applying for judicial review. If an application were made, such a person would not be removed until the application was determined. If the application were approved, they would not be removed pending the determination of the judicial review itself.

We must recognise that the fact that tens of thousands of people are using the asylum system has a serious impact on our ability to identify and integrate refugees. That introduces a degree of chaos into the system, and we really need to rationalise it. If we do nothing about these problems now, they will simply get worse as our EU partners take a firm stance, and the United Kingdom perhaps becomes a more attractive destination.

8 pm

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey mentioned safeguards. Those affected by the measure will have safeguards to ensure that their claims are properly considered. They will have access to legal advice while their case is being considered. Their application will be considered by a specially trained officer. The decision to refuse—if that is the decision—will be checked by a senior officer. And random quality testing of decisions will be carried out by a legally qualified person. However, the measure will make it clear that very few applications from those countries will have a valid claim.

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Circumstances change, and there may come a time when other countries achieve the settled conditions that are enjoyed by those on the list of 10. In that case, if large numbers from one of those countries continue to seek asylum, it may be appropriate to add that country to the list. Clause 82 has constraints to ensure that other countries could only be added appropriately.

Mrs. Ellman: What powers will a Minister have to add other countries to the list and what scrutiny of that decision would take place?

Beverley Hughes: My hon. Friend will be aware of other provisions in the Bill for the establishment of an advisory group on in-country conditions. The Home Secretary has already made it clear that when he considers the range of evidence on the circumstances in particular countries that might justify inclusion in the list he will take the views of that group into account before reaching a decision. That decision would be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. Therefore, no country could be added without Parliament having debated and agreed its inclusion. Additions cannot be made unless the Home Secretary is satisfied that there is no serious risk of persecution in that state, or part of a state, and that removal to the country of the persons entitled to reside there would not be in contravention of the European convention on human rights. The opposite also applies: if circumstances change for the worse, the country can be removed from the list.

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