Select Committee on European Scrutiny First Report


RECEPTION OF ASYLUM APPLICANTS IN MEMBER STATES


(22428)
9074/01
COM(01) 181

Draft Directive laying down minimum standards on the reception of applicants for asylum in Member States.


Legal base: Article 63 EC; consultation; unanimity
Document originated: 3 April 2001
Forwarded to the Council: 18 May 2001
Deposited in Parliament: 20 June 2001
Department: Home Office
Basis of consideration: EM of 22 June 2001
Previous Committee Report: None
To be discussed in Council: No date set
Committee's assessment: Politically important
Committee's decision: Not cleared; further information requested

Background

22.1  This is one of a number of measures intended to set minimum standards in relation to asylum seekers as a first step towards establishing a common procedure and a uniform status for those granted asylum in any Member State. We have already considered the Draft Directive on minimum standards in asylum procedures;[40] the other measures in preparation are concerned with subsidiary protection, the replacement of the Dublin Convention, and the status of refugees.

22.2  As the proposal's legal base falls within Title IV of the EC Treaty, the UK has three months from its formal publication to decide whether to opt in to the measure (in accordance with the provisions in the Protocol on the position of the United Kingdom and Ireland annexed to the EC Treaty and the Treaty on European Union).

22.3  Our sister Committee in the House of Lords, which plans to undertake a short inquiry into the document, has received written comments from a number of organisations, which welcome the proposal in principle but identify shortcomings in it.

22.4  We understand that the Belgian Presidency accords high priority to this proposal, and that negotiations may proceed speedily.

The document

22.5  The aim of the proposal is to harmonise the assistance granted to asylum seekers while their applications are being considered, and to ensure that applicants have "a dignified standard of living" (paragraph 6 of the preamble). The proposal defines an asylum application as one made under the Geneva Convention, but allows Member States to apply the measure more widely.

22.6  The draft Directive provides minimum standards to be applied in relation to a number of reception conditions. Member States are required to take the appropriate measures to maintain the unity of asylum seeker families. They are required to provide housing (which may be in one or a combination of forms) and access to health and psychological care. Minors who are applicants, or the children of applicants, must have access to the education system under the same conditions as nationals. Access to the labour market and to training (for applicants and accompanying family members) must be given no later than six months after the lodging of the asylum application. "Material reception conditions" (including housing, food and clothing) may be provided in kind, or in the form of financial allowances or vouchers.

22.7  Although the draft Directive sets out the principle of free movement within the territory of the host State, there is provision for Member States to limit this free movement in some circumstances. Member States are not permitted to hold applicants in detention "for the sole reason that their applications for asylum need to be examined" (Article 7 (2)).

22.8  The draft Directive proposes a graduated approach to reception conditions, as stated in paragraphs 8 and 9 of the preamble:

    "The living conditions of applicants for asylum should in all cases be dignified, but they should be improved when applications are considered admissible and not manifestly unfounded.

    "The number and quality of reception conditions should be increased in relation to long lasting procedures in so far [as] the length of the procedure is not caused by negative behaviour by applicants for asylum."

22.9  In cases of "negative behaviour" (non-compliance of various kinds) reception conditions can be reduced or withdrawn.

The Government's view

22.10  The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Europe, Community and Race Equality (Ms Angela Eagle) considers that the proposal, which inevitably proposes a number of compromises in areas where the practices of Member States differ widely, will provide a good basis for discussion. She explains that the measure gives Member States a degree of discretion in how the minimum standards are to be achieved, saying:

    "For example, the proposal does not attempt to impose a formula for the level of financial assistance to be given to asylum seekers. Rather, it provides an obligation that financial assistance must be sufficient to avoid asylum seekers falling into poverty. Moreover, Member States would be able to decide for themselves whether this assistance would be provided by cash payments, benefits in kind or vouchers."

22.11  The Minister continues:

    "The Government hopes that the draft Directive will act as a catalyst to those Member States with less-developed reception arrangements to build upon and improve existing conditions. This would help to ensure that asylum seekers could expect similar standards of treatment, regardless of the Member State in which the application was being considered.

    "The Government considers that reception conditions in the UK are broadly at or above the minimum standards proposed in the draft Directive. We do not therefore expect to need to make significant changes to our reception procedures in order to comply with the Directive, once it has been adopted.

    "Our initial analysis is that the key area of divergence with current UK policy is likely to be in the area of access to the labour market. In particular, the UK concession usually allows access to the labour market in cases where an initial decision has not been reached within six months. The Directive appears to propose that access should be granted whenever an applicant has not exhausted, within six months, all the possible remedies provided by the Directive on asylum procedures. In addition, the UK concession applies only to principal applicants, whereas the Directive proposes to grant access to accompanying family members as well. We expect these issues to be the subject of detailed discussions in the Council working groups."

Conclusion

22.12  We agree with the Minister that this proposal provides a good basis for discussion. It cannot have been easy to draft. Any set of minimum standards runs the risk of becoming the norm; it is therefore important that the standards are not set too low. Moreover, if there is too much discretion about how the standards are implemented, harmonisation will not really be achieved.

22.13  We wish to see be kept informed about the progress of negotiations on this proposal, and about the Government's decision over whether to opt in to it. Meanwhile, we ask the Minister:

  • whether she can assure us that, where UK standards are currently higher than those proposed (as in access to education and health care, for example), there will be no move to lower them;

  • whether there are areas (such as access to education and health care) where she considers that the minimum standards have been set at too low a level, and, if so, whether the UK will press for them to be raised;

  • whether there are areas, in addition to access to the labour market, where provisions in the draft Directive diverge significantly from current UK policy and practice.

  • whether she has concerns about the graduated approach to reception conditions and the potential for reception conditions to be reduced or withdrawn as a result of negative behaviour;

22.14  We shall keep the document under scrutiny until we have the Minister's response.



40  (21947) 13119/00; see HC 28-viii (2000-01), paragraph 3 (14 March 2001). Back


 
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