Reception of Asylum Applicants

[back to previous text]

Beverley Hughes: The directive does not address that issue, so I shall reply cautiously, Mr. Atkinson. No doubt you will stop me if I go beyond the scope of the debate. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that the proposals in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill to change our procedures are based on the important assumption that, to make our processes work better, we need to keep in contact with people throughout the course of their application. That will involve induction at the point of making an application; ensuring that we know where people are in accommodation centres or dispersed accommodation; and ensuring that people keep telling us where they are, with ourselves monitoring that. If a decision has been made to accept a person, they should be integrated as quickly as possible into the community. If there is a refusal, the appeal process should be gone through—again, maintaining contact and knowing where people are—so that the person concerned can be removed if the appeal is not upheld.

Our new measures are designed specifically to minimise the circumstance that the hon. Gentleman outlined, which was that people could simply disappear. Part of the reason for the proposal of accommodation centres—they are referred to in the directive and other member states have them—is very much to explore whether that method of housing people during an application is a better way to reduce the number of people who disappear, given that we can keep in contact with them.

Mr. Wilkinson: I refer the Minister to article 2(d)(i) and (ii) on the definition of ''family members'', as I would like some clarification. What is the present situation in the UK for an application by an unmarried partner in a so-called stable relationship? What about children of such a relationship born out of wedlock? Would such people have equal rights to asylum in the UK as married people and the children of marriages?

Beverley Hughes: Potentially, they have the same right, provided that they can demonstrate that the relationship is stable and has subsisted for some time,

Column Number: 14

and that the people have been living together as a married couple would do, albeit that they have not gone through a marriage ceremony.

Mr. Wilkinson: May I press the Minister further on that? The couples come from many places such as Afghanistan, Somalia, the Congo and Yemen, which by their nature—in their current tragic circumstances—are turbulent, to say the least. How can such relationships be proven to be stable? How can we prevent the immigration of adopted children of such unions, given that we all know that, on the subcontinent, the adoption concept can be fairly widely interpreted? For example, will DNA methods be used in that second case?

Beverley Hughes: The casework staff of the immigration and nationality directorate who make such decisions are very experienced. They will base their findings on interviews—they are experienced in putting such questions—and on the evidence of people's previous residency and so on. The IND has well-established procedures for making judgments on whether such relationships exist. DNA testing may help in taking some of the decisions about adopted children to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but I am not sure that it will often be feasible. However, we are still considering those matters; if we make any progress, I shall be glad to write to the hon. Gentleman.

Dr. Palmer: I am slightly puzzled by the last sentence of article 5(2).

Paragraph (2) instructs member states to ensure that applicants are informed of their rights in writing in a language that they can reasonably be supposed to understand. It ends with the words:

    ''Where appropriate this information may also be supplied orally.''

It would be strange if member states were to be forbidden from supplying information orally. I wonder what that means. It is not a purely frivolous question, but I imagine that some applicants may not be too literate and may not be able to understand their legal rights in the jargon sometimes used in such documents. It may sometimes be important for applicants to be informed orally. I wonder whether the ''may'' in that last sentence ought to be ''should''.

Beverley Hughes: My hon. Friend is right that what is written down may need to be explained orally to a number of people to ensure that they really understand. Article 5 is about ensuring that people understand the information, not simply that they have been handed a piece of paper. The word ''may'' is acceptable because it is conditional; it is permissive because not every person will need such an explanation. It is fair that the process should allow for oral explanation if it is thought necessary to ensure understanding. That is the key.

Mr. Wilkinson: I refer the Minister to article 7 on residence and freedom of movement. How can the right of asylum seekers to move freely within the territory of the host member state be compatible with being corralled into an area assigned to them by the member state? What is the Government's view on that? Will asylum seekers be able to move freely within a

Column Number: 15

certain radius of a reception centre, or shall we see here the same state of affairs that exists in Sangatte, where residents normally stay for a maximum of a month? The turnover there is such that, after a month, asylum seekers have normally got on a train through the channel tunnel because they still have freedom of movement. Will asylum seekers in this country be assigned to a designated area, or will they have total freedom of movement throughout the United Kingdom so long as they come back to bed at the reception centre?

Beverley Hughes: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is talking specifically about accommodation centres, but when somebody is housed either in dispersed housing or accommodation centres, they are given a place to which they need to return to sleep. We will expect people in the accommodation centres, by and large, to come back to the centre in the evening. We have already made it clear that, short of that, people will have freedom to go in and out of accommodation centres. Subject to limitations on how far they can travel and, as with all of us, the means that they have to pay for travel, they will be free to go to other places.

Nothing in the article is inconsistent with what we envisage for people residing in accommodation centres or dispersed housing. It was drafted to reflect an example given by my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey, the then Minister, in another Committee. Her point concerned the practice in Germany, where the lander, rather than the Government, allocate housing to asylum seekers. In Germany, there is a restriction, in that asylum seekers are within the purview of regional rather than central Government and the drafting needed to accommodate that particular national circumstance.

The Chairman: If there are no more questions, we will move to the debate.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

    That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 8351/02, draft Council Directive laying down minimum standards for the reception of applicants for asylum in Member States; supports the Government's efforts to secure agreement on a Council Directive for reception conditions for asylum applicants which will promote a balance in the provision of reception arrangements throughout the Union; and notes the Government's commitment to secure agreement to the asylum measures within the time period envisaged by the Treaty of Amsterdam.—[Beverley Hughes.]

5.36 pm

Mr. Malins: I hope to make a few remarks, which will probably lack any shape or theme. They certainly will not be memorable and, in view of the heat and general humidity, I hope that they will not be too long.

We should all scratch our heads at finding ourselves here on a very hot Monday afternoon to debate a directive to which none of us has contributed; at least I have not, and I have some interest in asylum matters. It is an odd state of affairs when matters that are binding on this country are decided elsewhere whether we say that we like them today or not, especially when our own standards are pretty high. That is what I feel,

Column Number: 16

given that I do not feel the need to decide what standards apply in other EU countries. Personally, I think that it is a matter for them. I am a great bilateral man when it comes to agreements, and not a great centralist. I have got that off my chest; it had been boiling up for several minutes. I shall move on to a few—I hope not rambling—questions about these interesting provisions.

Glad as I am of the support of my hon. Friends the Members for Ruislip-Northwood, for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) and for Henley (Mr. Johnson) today, I shall focus briefly on a question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood. He talked about the spouse of an asylum seeker or his or her unmarried partner in a stable relationship. As we know, the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill, which we have just considered in Committee and which has just had its Third Reading, makes no reference to an unmarried partner of either sex in a stable relationship. There is no such definition. Clause 26 talks about how, if somebody misbehaves in an asylum centre, they and their spouse or dependent can be thrown out. Does the Minister envisage that an unmarried partner of either sex in a stable or not-so-stable relationship would be among those who could be thrown out?

As far as I can see, we do a lot better out of article 5 than out of anything else in the regulations. The article states:

    ''Member states shall inform applicants for asylum within a reasonable time not exceeding fifteen days . . . of . . . any established benefits and of the obligations with which they must comply . . . Member States shall ensure that applicants are provided with information about organisations or groups of persons that provide specific legal assistance''.

Will the Minister confirm that she expects the UK to do that much sooner? We never had a real debate about the so-called induction centres on Report. I drafted skilful amendments on the measures concerning those centres on Report, but yet again they were not reached. The Government envisage that people will spend up to 14 days in the induction centres. Does the Minister think that there is a prospect that they might spend much less time than that in those centres?

The first few days of an application for asylum are the most critical in terms of the availability of legal and medical advice and the provision of a full explanation to an asylum seeker. Will the Minister ensure that we do better than article 5 requires us to do by providing all the information and legal help at the earliest possible stage; preferably within a day or so of somebody arriving at an induction centre rather than an accommodation centre?

Is the Minister happy about article 7, which says that

    ''Applicants for asylum may move freely within the territory of the host Member State''?

Let us consider our accommodation centres. I appreciate that provision has been made that people should be in an accommodation centre but, importantly, article 7(2) says that we can decide on the residence of the applicants for reasons of public order, public interest or the swift processing of claims.

Column Number: 17

I can envisage a legal challenge coming from a resident of an accommodation centre who decides to push off for four or five weeks. The accommodation centre manager might not like that, and might tell the applicant that he has to go, that his benefits will be cut and so on. The applicant may ask why he has to stay in the centre, and might be told that it is in the public interest that he does so. He could reply that it would not be in the public interest, as he could live with some chums in London or visit his best friends and come back in a month.

The manager might then say that it was in the interests of public order that the applicant stay in the centre; this will be difficult for Hansard because I am having an imaginary conversation. The applicant might answer that the decision had nothing to do with public order because he was behaving perfectly properly. The manager could reply that the applicant's stay was to do with the swift processing and effective monitoring of his application. The applicant might say that it was not, as he had just made his application and all his paperwork was in order; and that as he was expecting no result for a month, he would be off.

Is the Minister troubled by article 7, or the legal challenges that might be made under it? Article 7(5) says:

    ''The applicant shall not require permission to keep appointments with authorities and courts''.

Can she confirm that that provision also relates to keeping appointments with lawyers and the like? I should not want anyone to put a block on that.

Is the Minister entirely happy with how article 10 on education reads? I notice that it includes the sentence:

    ''Such education may be provided in accommodation centres.''

Can she confirm that that provision was included because of the British Government? I do not think that the phrase ''accommodation centres'' operates in many other countries. The provision is a rather neat way of getting round the Government's problem with their Back Benchers and the fight that the two nearly had in the Chamber the other night on whether education should be provided on or off-site.

Article 10 says that the education for children of applicants shall be

    ''under similar conditions as nationals of the host Member State''.

What does ''under similar conditions'' mean? Is the Minister saying that some youngster being educated on-site, perhaps by specialist teachers in language, is being taught in similar conditions to nationals of the host state? The conditions are not similar; they are wholly different. The child is in a different place and has a different type of education; he has a different type of social intercourse—not a phrase that I like, but I could not think of a better one—and mixes with other people.

I dealt with the question of the labour market and asked the Minister whether she supported her MEPs, who take the view that, after four months, applicants should be entitled to do some paid work. She has not answered that, but I hope that she will deal with the point. Is the period of four months right? Or will the

Column Number: 18

Government say, ''No. Our MEPs are wrong on that point''?

Article 14 refers to the provision of housing in

    ''private houses, flats, hotels, or other premises adapted for housing applicants''.

The Minister will remember that we tabled a new clause when discussing the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill on Report that would enforce proper standards of housing for asylum seekers. Discussion about that was never reached in the debate. We were worried about slum landlords and the possibility of asylum seekers being housed in conditions that would not be regarded as satisfactory in this country. I look forward to receiving a response from the Minister about that new clause and the adequacy or otherwise of such housing.

Paragraph 7 of article 14 refers to legal advisors being granted access to reception centres. I do not understand the meaning of ''reception centre''. It has no place under our law. We do not have reception centres. What is a reception centre? We have induction centres and accommodation centres. Will the Minister confirm that the power means that legal advisors will have full access to induction centres? Will the Minister confirm that if people are to spend 14 days at induction centres—the Bill permits that—legal advice will be present on-site at the induction centre, so that its full benefit can be obtained early?

Does the Minister think that my proposition makes our position compatible with that of the EU directive? I think that the Home Secretary said that if an asylum seeker breaches conditions of residence in this country, his asylum application would be materially affected by the breach, and that that would have an effect on his credibility. That is a critical point. There is a parallel to be drawn under the criminal law. If you were put on bail—well, you would not be put on bail, Mr. Atkinson; you would be remanded in custody. [Laughter.] I apologise.

Let us suppose that I were put on bail under the criminal law, and a bail condition was to live in a hostel. If that were breached, there is no question of one's merits at the trial being affected. That is not even mentioned. Why should it be? It is separate matter, and I would be charged with a bail offence. It would not be held against a person if he had broken the bail hostel condition. I do not want someone who, for example, is guilty of some footling breach of a condition in respect of an accommodation centre finding that he will then be threatened with the fact that an adverse inference will be drawn about his asylum application.

I conclude as I began; by saying that it should also be of concern to members of the Committee that such an important document cannot be changed. It is a pity that our system does not permit a Select Committee, a Special Standing Committee or a Back-Bench Committee to discuss such matters well before they reach this Committee. We are presented with a fait accompli. We can ask a few questions; we can raise a few points. A few of our questions are answered, but we cannot change matters. In terms of the services that we provide for asylum seekers, this country treats them

Column Number: 19

very well. That is only right and proper. If, as a result of the directive, other countries do better, that is all to the good. For that reason, the Opposition remain somewhere between neutral and positive about the regulations.

5.49 pm

 
Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index


©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 17 June 2002