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House of Lords

Wednesday, 17th May 1995.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Newcastle.

Campsfield House: Asylum-seekers

Lord Hylton asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether, following the Chief Inspector of Prisons' report on Campsfield House, near Oxford, they will review the practice of detaining asylum-seekers.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): My Lords, the report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons on his inspection of the immigration detention centre at Campsfield House does not address the practice of detaining people who have applied for asylum when that is judged necessary, and there is nothing in his report to suggest any need to review the Government's policy on this subject.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, is the Minister aware that in March no fewer than 619 asylum-seekers were in detention and that they are costing the country about £20 million per year? Is she also aware that Amnesty International reckons that 44 per cent. of them were unnecessarily detained? Does not that make a strong case for an immediate review of the situation?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, what I am aware of is that the numbers detained account for only about 1.5 per cent. of the total number of applicants. There are something like 56,000 backlog applications waiting to be processed. If ever there was a need for efficiency, it is for turning round the speed with which those applications are handled. Indeed, 80 per cent. of the applications are bogus—and that does nothing to help us to speed up the processing of applications from those who are genuinely seeking asylum here.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, although not dissenting from the Minister's statement that we should try to speed up the processing of applications, bearing in mind that many of the cases that are now being dealt with are more than three years old and that people have been waiting all that time for the adjudication of their claim to asylum, does not the Minister agree that asylum-seekers are in a peculiar situation in that they cannot apply to a court for bail? Is the Minister aware that experience has shown that those who are allowed to go to a named address do not abscond? Is there not a ground for reconsidering the legislation which refuses asylum-seekers permission to go to a court of law to ask for their release, alone of all the people who are detained?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I hope that the House will put the whole issue into perspective. We are talking about 1.5 per cent. of asylum-seekers, and 80 per cent. of those who are detained either have their applications in the appeals system or are waiting to be deported. It is an immigration officer who initially detains someone. There

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is then a further review after 24 hours by an inspector of the immigration service. That is revised at least once every seven days by an increasingly senior member of the immigration service. Therefore, the position of all detainees is constantly reviewed. Furthermore, the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 provides a right of appeal for anyone who is refused asylum.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, the Minister referred to "bogus" asylum-seekers. Does not that reflect the undue climate and culture of suspicion which is too prevalent in the Home Office?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, no. The noble Lord made the point about the dissipation of precious resources and the fact that such claims stand in the way of genuine asylum-seekers. On considering applications it is found that many people use a false mechanism for seeking asylum. That causes enormous delay and dissipates very important resources. It is not the aim of the Home Office to do anything more than make the system more accessible to genuine asylum-seekers and to find speedy ways of doing that. Indeed, my right honourable friend is in the process of putting measures before Parliament to speed up the process so that we can get bogus applications out of the system to make way for genuine consideration of genuine asylum-seekers.

Lord McIntosh Of Haringey: My Lords, the Minister carefully and properly restricted her earlier answers to the issue of whether asylum-seekers should be in detention rather than to the issue of conditions at Campsfield House. Has she anything to say in response to the chief inspector's report on conditions there?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the Government have made public their response to the report. They have accepted most of its recommendations. We join Judge Tumim in his statement that the centre had a very difficult start. That was not surprising, given the particular challenges when it opened. The noble Lord will know that there was an unprecedented number of particularly difficult detainees at the time and that 140 of them went on hunger strike. That would test any management, but particularly an early management. Most of the recommendations have been taken to heart. Many are already implemented, and others are being put in hand. Where we have not accepted recommendations, I believe that we have a very good case for that.

Coal Privatisation: Expenditure

2.43 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What was the total cost of privatising British Coal; and what was the total sum, including fees and bonuses, paid to NM Rothschild as advisers in the privatisation.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Earl Ferrers): My Lords, expenditure on the privatisation of the coal industry from 1991-92 to 1994-95 amounted to approximately £36.8 million. A further

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£4.3 million, including VAT, has been provided for 1995-96. Details of payments to individual consultants are commercially confidential.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the cost so far to the taxpayer of privatising the coal industry is £700 million? Have any further payments of any kind yet to be made? In addition, why has it been necessary for the National Audit Office to publicise two things: first, that £1.6 billion was used to write off debts in anticipation of the privatisation of the mines; and that NM Rothschild has been given a bonus of £2 million, in addition to its fee of £5.5 million, for its work in privatising the industry? The Minister said that those are not matters for public comment. I suggest that they are. In any case, are not the last two matters I mentioned serious enough for public debate or debate in this House or another place?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the noble Lord asked a number of questions. He asked whether the cost to the taxpayer was £700 million. The cost to the taxpayer is in fact the £36.8 million plus the £4.3 million, which amounts to about 3.5 per cent. of the gross receipts. If the noble Lord were to sell his house through the services offered by an estate agent, he would find that by the time he had paid the estate agent's fees and the legal fees he would be running jolly close to 3 per cent., and presumably selling off coalmines is rather more complicated than selling his house. He asked whether there are any payments still to be made. The answer is yes, there are some still to be made, but they were included in the contract. He asked about Rothschild. Rothschild was chosen by competitive tender: eight people were asked to compete for the tender; five tendered; and three were called to interview. The interviews were carried out by officials of the Department of Energy and the Treasury and the accounting officer of the Department of Energy. As a result of those three interviews, a recommendation was made. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State accepted the recommendation. I believe that that is perfectly clear.

Lord Boardman: My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that the costs of privatisation were a mere fraction of the total costs of British Coal and the losses borne by the British taxpayer in the years before privatisation?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, my noble friend is, of course, entirely correct. In 1979 the operating profit was admittedly £45 million. In 1984-85 alone the loss was £9.7 billion. To get the industry privatised and working efficiently was in the interests of the coal industry, the country as a whole, and the taxpayer.

Lord Richard: My Lords, will the Minister confirm the two figures put to him by my noble friend—the £5.5 million to Rothschild and the extra £2 million by way of a bonus?

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, no, I am not prepared to confirm that, for the very good reason that these matters are confidential. As I explained in answer to the noble Lord, the work was done as a result of a competitive

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tender. If what everyone receives for their tender is known, it will increase the opportunities for others to make larger offers in the future.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, in view of the fact that rather more than had been expected was realised from the sale of the mines on privatisation, and that the international price of coal has subsequently risen substantially, does the Minister agree that the Government may have been ill-advised to allow the coal industry to be run down at such a rate before privatisation?

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