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Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I thank the Minister for going through those points, which I shall look at with interest. But what about the situation affecting Nigeria? Does the noble Baroness say that 3,500 claims for asylum are bogus?
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am saying that they were all dealt with independently by the system and I cannot pre-empt what was decided either on application or appeal. However, I can say to my noble friend Lord Brentford, who referred to Nigeria, that all claims continue to be considered fully and substantively in accordance with the United Kingdom's obligations under the 1951 convention. That applies to claims from Nigeria as it does to claims from all other countries.
My noble friend Lord Brentford raised other points. He understood my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor correctly when he said that there are over 70,000 applications in the system. There has been a sharp rise in applications. There were over 4,500 last month, which means that further action is required. Our proposals should be seen in that context. All those who applied for asylum before 11th October, when the announcement was made, will continue to be eligible for benefit after 8th January, until a decision is made on their claims. Most in-country applicants enter the United Kingdom as visitors, tourists or students on the basis that they can support themselves. They should not be able to evade those requirements by later applying for asylum. Equally, those who enter illegally or overstay should not be able to evade benefit restrictions by claiming asylum. We must ensure that the benefit system does not provide an incentive to unfounded claims. Genuine refugees will gain from reduced exploitation of the system.
The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, referred to the benefit restrictions and asked whether there would be a provision for the most vulnerable asylum seekers with dependants. There will be no special provision for asylum seekers with dependants. Genuine refugees should claim on arrival. If they do so, they will be entitled to benefit. Those who gain entry on the basis that they will support themselves should be held to that, whether or not they claim asylum. Asylum applicants cannot expect the taxpayer to support them while they appeal.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, asked whether husbands and wives would be required to attend compulsory information sessions together under the provisions of the Family Law Bill. The precise nature of such information sessions will be consulted upon further and a number of models will be piloted before implementation. I can confirm that legal aid will be available for those for whom mediation is unsuitable.
The noble Earl asked also why regulations to withdraw income support from asylum seekers pending appeal were to be laid on 18th December, there being no opportunity for parliamentary debate before they come into force on 8th January. Again, I repeat what was said by my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. The urgency stems from the danger that the proposed curtailment may provoke a behavioural response which would have serious consequences for the Home Office and the DSS. Essentially, we cannot risk a closing-down sale.
The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, referred to a number of points in relation to proposed measures on the prevention of illegal working. In particular they mentioned the burdens on business, implications for race relations and the size of the problem. I appreciate the anxieties expressed about the dangers of racial discrimination. In developing our proposals we were most concerned that employers should not pick out any specific group for discriminating treatment on the basis of their colour or race. We will listen carefully to anxieties expressed in response to our consultation document. In any event my right honourable friend will ensure that employers are provided with advice and guidance on how to carry out checks on applicants in ways which will not discriminate against any group. We shall be consulting the Commission for Racial Equality to ensure that there can be no confusion.
The Family Law Bill was the subject of many speeches in the course of the afternoon. The noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, covered the matter comprehensively and referred to the protection of the weak. Mediators are trained to hold the balance between the weaker and the more powerful parties. If one party does not disclose assets, mediation will cease and the parties will be referred to lawyers. During negotiations legal advice rather than representation is what is needed. Legal advice will be available.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford welcomed provisions on divorce but emphasised the need for government support for marriage. The Government have set up an inter-departmental group to
The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, asked whether we will make further changes to the Family Law Bill as a result of minority views. The Bill will follow the usual procedure in both Houses of Parliament. That will provide an opportunity for full debate. It would not be appropriate to say what changes may be made in advance of the debate but my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has expressed his willingness to consider any points that are raised during the course of the debate.
My noble friend Lord Coleraine, in a moving speech, raised a number of points that were also raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, and my noble friend Lord Ashbourne. Divorce will not be possible until parties have made all arrangements relating to children, finance and the home. The court will be able to bar divorce where one party can show grave financial or grave other hardship. Parties cannot start proceedings within the first year of marriage. Divorce would take a minimum of 13 months and so divorce would not be possible within the first 25 months of marriage. That would stop parties rushing in and out of marriage. The reality of the present system is that parties can divorce very quickly and against the will and wishes of the other party. The bar on divorce only applies in five-year separation cases. In the new system the bar on divorce would be available in all cases.
The Government support the institution of marriage and would do nothing which would undermine marriage. But I note the feelings with which points were made by noble Lords who spoke against the Bill. The requirement to make allegations of fault does nothing to support marriage. Fault ensures a quick divorce without reflection and without facing the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood before divorce is final. All experience to date has shown that it is impossible to determine which party is to blame for the breakdown of a marriage. Allegations of fault serve to worsen the relationship between the parties to the detriment of children. Research shows that conflict between parents does indeed damage children.
Not too many noble Lords spoke about the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Bill but I hope the House will accept that the detailed points can be left to the Second Reading debate, which will be held very soon. However, I shall address the points raised by the noble Lords, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank and Lord Irvine of Lairg.
In the context of the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, asked whether we would place in the Library of the House the responses we received to the consultation paper on disclosure. The consultation paper invited views on the Government's proposals. It gave no indication that those views would be published. Some of those who responded made it clear that their views were given in confidence; others did not do so but gave no indication that they expected their views to be
The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, also gave notice that he would like me to explain during the debate on the Second Reading of the Bill how its provisions differed from those in the consultation paper on disclosure. I shall do so. I shall also, if I may, respond on that occasion to his comments on the Government's attitude to the proposals on disclosure made by the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice. The noble Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, explained that his party would wish to scrutinise the Bill very carefully in the context of miscarriages of justice, from which arose the current disclosure requirements. I understand the point he makes, and if your Lordships will allow me, I shall address those points at Second Reading.
Perhaps I may refer to other Bills. The Security Service Bill was referred to in the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Cuckney. In opening the debate, my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor referred to the Bill which is shortly to be introduced in another place and which will enable the Security Service to support the law enforcement agencies in their work against serious crime. I am grateful for the warm welcome the Bill has received from my noble friend Lord Cuckney. The Bill will be a small but significant one. It will ensure that the valuable skills and expertise that the Security Service possesses can be deployed in the fight against organised crime. It is one of a series of measures that the Government will be introducing over the coming months, all of which are designed to make certain that the resources being directed against organised crime are used to maximum effect.
The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, referred to the peace process in Northern Ireland. I can assure him that the peace process remains at the top of the Government's agenda and that we shall continue in our efforts to find a just and lasting settlement, based on consent, to which all the people of Northern Ireland can lend their allegiance. The noble Lord also raised the question of the transfer of prisoners. It is open to any prisoner to apply for transfer to another UK jurisdiction. Each request is considered individually, on its merits, in accordance with criteria announced in Parliament in 1992. Requests for transfer to the Republic of Ireland will also be considered on their merits.
My noble friend Lord Brookeborough pointed out--I believe, with considerable perception--that it remains incumbent on Sinn Fein to take the necessary steps to move the peace process onwards. These must include an end to the beatings, kidnappings and arson attacks and progress must be made on the decommissioning of illegal weaponry. No political party committed to peaceful means needs to have Semtex or Armalites behind it. Perhaps I may assure my noble friend that all the responses that the Government have made to the changed circumstances of the cease-fire have been made
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilberforce, referred to law reform matters and the omission of an arbitration Bill. He felt that they should be brought forward as soon as possible. I welcome his comments on the progress made on the Law Commission reports. I also noted that he reminded the House that there is considerable scope for more progress to be made. He gave examples of Bills which he thought can be brought forward. He suggested a rolling programme of legislation. I shall take the points made by the noble and learned Lord back to my right honourable friend and ministerial colleagues in the department.
The noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, referred to the Education (Scotland) Bill. I listened carefully to the points made by the noble Earl about that Bill. As regards nursery education vouchers, we believe that over time they will stimulate provision. Full coverage in rural and urban areas may take some time, but we expect parents' desires for places to be fulfilled so that choice is put in the hands of parents. We recognise the importance of clarity over the status of education awards and the Bill will make a significant contribution to that.
The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, referred to the housing Bill including measures to meet the needs of young people leaving care. I understand that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has received representations on this matter, which he is at present reflecting on.
My noble friend Lord Pearson pressed the Government to develop village communities for people with learning disabilities rather than the Government policy of community care. He also asked for the results of the research study undertaken by the Department of Health. Guidance to local authorities on the development of services for people with learning disabilities already gives considerable flexibility as regards the provision of residential services. The evaluation is intended to help authorities to make best use of resources in implementing current policy. There is no reason why authorities should not proceed with plans for the development of individually-based services. My noble friend with ministerial responsibility will write to my noble friend with information about the research study on village communities to which he referred.
Perhaps I may now race through some of the other points that have been raised. The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank referred to the relationship between the Home Office and the Prison Service. He referred specifically to Kate Jenkins, who was one of the three authors of the report to the then Prime Minister which led to the establishment of executive agencies.
The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, and my noble friend Lady Faithfull, referred to changes in probation training. Probation work is highly skilled and probation officers should be properly trained. But the training that they receive should be geared to defined competences and should take account of the skills and experience of applicants. I believe that the result will be better training and not worse, for probation officers.
The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, also referred to the crime prevention agency. The creation of such an agency will not require primary legislation and that is why it was not included in the gracious Speech. All I can say to the noble Lord at this stage is that the aims of the agency are to initiate, develop and promote innovative ideas to help prevent crime and to reduce the fear of crime. The aims are also to work with the police, local authorities, business, industry and the voluntary sector, the community and others, to target specific types of crime. We want Britain to be a world leader in crime prevention. We believe that the agency will provide the impetus for achieving that.
The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, referred to having had some correspondence with my department and the Prison Service. I made inquiries during the course of the afternoon after the noble Lord raised the matter. I understand that a letter was sent to him on Friday. The delay in dealing with this correspondence is completely unacceptable and I shall do what I can. I apologise profusely to the noble Lord for the delay. I hope that he will accept my assurance that I shall look into the delay over this matter. In parenthesis, perhaps I may also say that I have read the letter that went to the noble Lord and it does not justify the months of delay that he suffered before receiving it.
There is much more to which I could refer in this debate, but, as I said at the outset, I should prefer to write in greater detail to all noble Lords who have raised specific points that require an answer. I shall place copies in the Library so that other noble Lords may read them. With that comment, I conclude my remarks.
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