Reception of Asylum Applicants

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Dr. Palmer: I welcome the quite liberal tones of the hon. Member for Woking. I was surprised when he suggested at the end of his remarks that there had not been a chance properly to address the matter in this Parliament. I refer him to the Scrutiny Committee's report, which notes that the Committee was considering the proposal for the sixth time. How many times does the Committee have to consider the matter before he feels that it has been consulted?

Mr. Malins: I should have been more accurate and said that what depresses me is that there are not more chances for the relevant Select Committee—in this case the Home Affairs Committee—to examine those areas and take evidence over months and months. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, and he will therefore probably understand mine.

Dr. Palmer: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification.

I should like to make three points, some of which were explored in a previous discussion, on the specifics of the draft directive. To follow up on my earlier exchange with the Minister, I accept her point on article 5(2), which deals with whether information should be supplied orally. In response to my question, she said that it would be desirable for information to be supplied orally where that was appropriate, but that that would not always be necessary because some applicants would be able to read and understand such information without further explanation. The last sentence of article 5(2) states:

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

The precise meaning of the sentence is that there will be occasions on which the supply of information would be appropriate but such information will not be supplied, which is why I feel that it would be better if the sentence were to state, ''Where appropriate this information should also be supplied orally.'' I am sorry to appear to be splitting hairs, but it would be helpful to raise that issue in the final drafting.

Article 16(3) relates to our discussion of emergency health care—

The Chairman: Order. Due to a problem with the sound recording equipment, I must suspend the Committee for a few moments.

5.52 pm

Sitting suspended.

6.5 pm

On resuming—

The Chairman: I apologise for the interruption. It appears at least that we have moved to a cooler Room.

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Dr. Palmer: I am sorry that my inflammatory remarks burned out the recording machine. I shall try to tone them down.

I was saying that I very much agree with the Minister that when a GP specifies that essential medical treatment is needed, treatment should be given even in situations in which a breach of the asylum application conditions has taken place. I am not a legal expert, but my reading of the directive is that it does not require that treatment be given. It is significant that there is a difference in wording between articles 15 and 16. Article 15 specifies that essential treatment of illness shall be given to applicants, but the phrase is left out of article 16. That suggests that certain member states may wish to reserve the power to refuse essential medical treatment to applicants who have breached their conditions.

My third point is about the Government's response to questions from the parent Committee on whether the directive might violate the European convention on human rights. The response states, inter alia:

    ''Withdrawal of support may engage ECHR Article 3 in some circumstances, however, we do not consider that destitution alone reaches the threshold required to be reached before Article 3 is engaged.''

I find that sentence slightly chilling. It appears to say that people may become destitute because of withdrawal of support under article 16, but that that is okay because it does not violate the ECHR. I am not sure whether even among people who are somewhat sceptical about asylum seekers, there would be widespread support for the view that people should be allowed to become entirely destitute.

Those two points about minimum standards worry me. If this or some future British Government were to introduce proposals that would deny essential medical treatment to asylum seekers who breached the terms of their applications or would allow them to become entirely destitute, I would not support them. I hope that the Government will press further to try to persuade our partners in the European Union to agree to stronger minimum standards in those two areas.

I believe that we all accept that some measure is needed to prevent people from wilfully breaching the terms under which their asylum application is being considered. I personally feel that detention in such situations is probably a more appropriate sanction—obviously, there is room for debate on that—but denying essential health care or leaving the applicant destitute are inappropriate responses.

6.10 pm

Mr. Hopkins: I may be out of political fashion—indeed, I am not a follower of fashion in any real sense—but, on political matters, I believe that one should do what one regards as sensible and not necessarily what is fashionable. I am unfashionable, in that I have a predisposition to accept that regulation is necessary. I am not always sympathetic to the headlong flight towards deregulation, especially if the regulation is rational, sensible, necessary and fair. That is why, by and large, we should support the directive and why I am glad that the Government do.

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The details are of concern, particularly to the Select Committee, which is why it has referred the matter to the Scrutiny Committee. Without much more information, I find it difficult to make many precise judgments on the proposal. However, I am concerned about whether the different member states will adhere to the directive as and when it comes into force, because this Committee has observed on a number of occasions that different states have different degrees of enthusiasm for enforcing directives, regulations and other EU law. I hope that this directive will be adhered to equally by all member states.

The directive is necessary because the different states have different standards, and we want to make those standards not only the same throughout the EU, but fair. They seem likely to benefit asylum seekers, in that they will guarantee a reasonable, civilised and humane reception in all countries. The difference in how asylum seekers are received may be a factor in secondary migration within the EU. One wants above all to end that difference in treatment, because it means not only that asylum seekers feel obliged to move from one country to another—with more disruption to themselves and others—but that there are tensions between member states. None of us wants that, and the fact that there has been tension between France and Britain on this matter may be related to differences between how asylum seekers are received in these countries.

One hopes that, over time, these minimum standards, and the gradual move towards harmonisation mentioned by my hon. Friend the Minister, will lead to a situation in which asylum seekers do not choose to hop from one country to another within the EU. That is particularly important to the UK because we are at least perceived to be a target of secondary migration. The alarmist media may exaggerate that, but it is possible that we provide better standards for asylum seekers than other member states do. We must ensure that other member states at least reach our standards and that, in time, we all move to a standard that we can all accept as civilised.

In that sense, I strongly support the proposal, but the Select Committee has raised concerns that have been brought to this Committee for scrutiny. I am not completely confident that I can make a good judgment on them, so I shall trust that the Minister has taken full account of the Select Committee's concerns, that we are all in agreement and that further concerns will not be raised.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe referred in passing to Europhobia. I suspect that he is hinting that I am a Europhobe, which I am not. Although I am strongly critical of the EU on economic matters, as many of us are, I strongly support the principle underlying the directive.

Dr. Palmer: I am happy to assure my hon. Friend that I do not believe that he is phobic about anything, except possibly the euro coin.

Mr. Hopkins: I have certain phobias, but they are nothing to do with the EU. I would like to see more regulation on, for example, fishing, which should be tightly regulated within the EU. We should get rid of

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the nonsensical free-for-all that has seen most of the fish disappear from the North sea.

6.15 pm

Beverley Hughes: I shall try to deal with Members' points before concluding what has been an interesting debate.

The hon. Member for Woking referred again to stable relationships and non-married partnerships. With regard to asylum applications and any subsequent decisions on withdrawal of conditions as a result of breaches, the partner of the principal applicant who is claiming asylum on the basis of experiences in another country is part of that application. The partner is tied to the applicant's claim whether they are married or unmarried.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about information. He has been part of the debate for longer than I have. However, I can tell him that we envisage that people will be at induction centres ideally for short periods, although we have allowed for 14 days in case there are any issues to deal with. We do not envisage that it will be necessary for legal advice to be on-site, because part of the purpose of induction is to give people all the necessary information to ensure that they know what will happen to their application, and to start to get the necessary advice from elsewhere to help them to progress it.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to article 7 and gave the scenario of someone who wanted to go away for three or four weeks once their application had been lodged. He asked whether we would anticipate a legal challenge. I refer him to article 7(4), which allows member states to make the provision of material conditions, as we are calling them—in this case, the accommodation—conditional on actual residency in a particular place. In other words, a place in an accommodation centre is conditional upon the person to whom it is given being there. We do not anticipate that that will be contrary to the directives.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned article 10 on accommodation centres. The sentence that refers to education being provided on-site was not just a UK insistence. Several countries have accommodation centres, although the practice varies. In some countries, the education is off-site, but in others—for example, Denmark—it is on-site. Several countries support the possibility for on-site education within the terms of the directive.

I must have given an unforgettable response to the Conservative party's amendment on standards of housing, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that if he looks in Hansard, he will see that that was raised on Report. I gave him something of a reply but, obviously, it has not burned itself into his memory.

 
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