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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. He is giving the impression that we will turn people away at the port. That is not the case. It is not the case at all. The point is that applications for asylum at the port of entry will be accepted and the applicants will receive benefit; they will not be turned away.
My criticisms are not only directed at the British Government but also at the European Union. Safe lists have been adopted by Europe since 1992 and the Commission has been strongly criticised for that by the UN Commissioner for Refugees.
I realise that this is very much a personal and emotional appeal. But human rights are an emotional and personal matter. Others far better qualified than I have spoken and will speak of the legal and moral reasons why your Lordships should support the Motion. I speak simply out of concern that this inhumane legislation contributes to the destruction of the very values which inspired my parents to seek asylum here in the first place.
Lord Dean of Harptree: My Lords, we in this country have a long tradition of humanity and compassion for asylum seekers. One of the best known examples is the Huguenots fleeing from religious persecution, many of whom settled in this country and brought considerable benefits to our community and our economy. A more recent example is the Uganda nations, who again were forced out of their country and many of whom have settled here successfully. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, gave his own example, to which I am sure your Lordships listened with considerable attention and sympathy.
Long may that tradition continue. Human nature being what it is, there will always be genuine refugees and Britain should always be a haven for them. On the other hand, as my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter said a moment ago, the Government have a duty to guard against abuse of our hospitality. They must be an effective guardian of the public purse. When one looks at the figures, one can see that a serious problem exists.
My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Security gave some figures in a debate in the other place on 23rd January. He said that last year people claiming asylum, including dependants, totalled over 57,000 and that that represented a tenfold increase over 10 years. That suggests that an extremely serious problem exists that needs to be dealt with. It is significant also that the increases over that period appear to be smaller than the increases in other European Union countries where the benefits are usually less generous than ours or, in some cases, not available at all.
For example, in France and Belgium there is no benefit available after 12 months; in Italy there is no benefit available for any period, whereas in France and Holland asylum seekers are usually accommodated in
I suggest that in the light of the very great increase in applications in recent years no government can turn a blind eye and do nothing. At a time when the Government have made strenuous efforts to prevent domestic fraud against the social security system it would be neglect of a clear duty for them to do nothing about asylum fraud. Your Lordships will know that it is a bad thing for the genuine asylum seeker. A number of your Lordships have made clear in speeches this afternoon that delays occur in the processing of claims, which clearly are to the disadvantage of the genuine asylum seeker.
In his Motion the noble Earl, Lord Russell, used the interesting phrase "visible legal means of support"--but by whom? In a debate in another place on 23rd January the Secretary of State said that 70 per cent. of claims for asylum were made by people who claimed to be students, tourists, visitors or business people. If they are granted entry under those categories they have to satisfy the immigration authorities that they can support themselves while in this country. If later they change their minds and apply for asylum I do not see why the taxpayer should pick up the bill, unless the individual case involves special circumstances. Reference has been made to application at the port of entry. I believe this to be right. I do not see how the system can be effectively controlled and abuse prevented in any other circumstances, unless there are exceptional conditions.
Having accepted that, I seek three assurances from my noble friend the Minister when he comes to reply. The first concerns upheavals in the country from which the person has come. Let us say that someone is here legally as a student. Can he apply for asylum away from the port of entry if circumstances in his home country have changed to such an extent that his life will be endangered if he returns to that country? If so, will the application be dealt with speedily wherever the individual is living at the time? Secondly, while I accept that application at the port of entry should be the normal procedure, I ask the Minister to give an assurance that adequate facilities will be available at the port of entry, including interpreters for those who do not speak English. Thirdly, am I correct in thinking that those who claim asylum at the port of entry will have access to benefits while their claims are being determined? If my noble friend can give assurances on those three matters, I believe that the Government are amply justified in proceeding with this statutory instrument, and I shall have no difficulty in supporting them in the Lobby tonight.
Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, many years ago for the first time I witnessed the passing of a Bill through your Lordships' House in the course of one night. I refer to the so-called Ugandan Asians Bill. It
I thought then that it was a most unreasonable, uncharitable and dishonourable statement, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I would hear a Conservative Peer get to his feet and cite the Ugandan Asians as an example of a very successful form of immigration after such appalling behaviour in relation to that particular Bill. I entirely agree with the noble Lord that those who finally managed to get in are a very good example, but it is not to the credit of this House or the other House that they were not allowed in at the time we were first faced with that challenge.
Baroness Elles: My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will permit me to intervene. I happened to be one of the United Kingdom delegates in the General Assembly of 1972 when this issue arose. We were under instructions from the British Government to do everything we could to help in this particular situation. I well remember the visit of the then Foreign Secretary, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who went out precisely to negotiate for the safety of these people. It ended up with over 50,000 Asians being welcomed to this country. I am very glad to say that the vast majority of them have benefited from living in this country as a result of the action of the British Government of the day.
Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, negotiations for the safety of those people did take place, but there was a failure to honour the pledge that had been given by Mr. Macleod, which he acknowledged that he had given at the time--he wrote a very famous leader in the Spectator to support it--to let those people into this country in the way that we said we would without qualification. We let some in, and eventually we let in a great many, and we are all richer and better for it. That does not affect the fact that we behaved extraordinarily badly then.
Having embarked upon that, your Lordships may be slightly surprised to hear that I share a number of the presuppositions on the Government Benches. The only reason I add my voice to those of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams--who are much more able to cope with the situation than I--is that I come from a slightly different background. I believe that we face a major problem with the prospects of immigration and population. I believe that we will need to have a population policy, which we do not have at the moment. I also believe that in future the number of people who want to emigrate to this country will increase enormously and will present us with a major problem. Therefore, I do not challenge the Government about what they say is their basic attitude toward refugees. I do challenge them on the competence with which they deal with the issue and what appears to
It is from that background, of thinking that we have to be fairly strong on the subject of immigration, that I take up another point that has been raised, in particular by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, the problem of whether refugees, or anyone at all admitted to this country on any understanding whatsoever, will be allowed to become destitute or starve. A long time ago a very famous judgment was made--the Mansfield judgment--which stated that any slave who set foot on English soil immediately became a free man. I believe that it is equally important that any person admitted legally onto British soil should be protected from destitution and starvation. If they are not, we cannot regard Britain as a civilised country.
I heard the challenge made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. I shall not repeat it. I too shall listen to what the Government have to say. If they can convince us that there will be no cases of destitution or starvation whatsoever--I mean whatsoever--I shall reconsider how I cast my vote. But if, as I suspect and as previous speakers have demonstrated, there may be a situation in which people can become destitute and starve on the streets of Britain, I shall certainly vote for this Motion.
Before I sit down, I should like to ask the Government what they are doing about helping the local authorities. I have heard from friends and colleagues of mine of various professions, including the clergy, in the south-east corner of England, where many people land up. They say that there will be very real problems. They do not know how they will cope if they find people destitute and starving on their streets. People will land up in such areas. It is very important, whatever happens as a result of this evening's vote, that the Government take special measures to make certain that the local authorities which have to deal with these problems are supported and helped.
Lord Brabazon of Tara: My Lords, from what we have heard this afternoon, there is no doubt that the problem of asylum seekers is a very great one. I understand that there has been a tenfold increase in claims for asylum since 1988. I am certainly prepared to believe that the world is not an entirely happy place, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union and other positive events that have taken place in recent years. But I am not prepared to believe that the situation is 10 times worse than in 1988. Even Amnesty International--I do not always agree with everything that organisation says--states:
Only four out of 100 claims are deemed to be genuine refugees by the Home Office, and just 4 per cent. of appeals against refusal are upheld by independent adjudicators. Some noble Lords have criticised the criteria which have been set. But my understanding is that the appeals are held by independent adjudicators.
The cost to the British taxpayer is enormous--over £200 million in benefits alone. That is money which, I should have thought, noble Lords all round the House, and in particular those sitting on the Opposition Benches, might feel would be better spent on genuine UK benefit claimants. I ask my noble friend the Minister why we are the only European country seemingly to have failed to tackle the problem so far. Between the beginning of 1994 and last November the number had nearly doubled. I understand that the figure for 1993 was 22,000 and last year it was over 50,000. Yet in western Europe as a whole numbers fell from over half a million in 1993 to 32,000 in 1994. Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Germany, Norway, Spain and Switzerland all have had large falls in numbers. We get some 40 per cent. of total European applications, excluding Germany.
All those countries have taken steps either by shortening their procedures for dealing with unfounded claims or returning claimants to third countries from whence they came and where they are not at risk. Other countries also seem to be far less generous in the benefits that they give. That is perhaps why the United Kingdom has gained a reputation, as my noble friend Lord Dean of Harptree said, for being a soft touch. I am glad that my noble friend Lady Blatch is sitting next to the Minister. She will be aware of my not wholly uncritical remarks in the past about the operation of the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act. She will be aware that up to this time last year airlines and ferry companies had been fined a total of £75 million for bringing in illegal immigrants of one kind or another, many of whom, I suspect, will have been bogus asylum seekers. I do not know whether my noble friend has any figures on that. I hope that one advantage of these regulations will be that they will at least reduce from that point of view the burden on airlines and shipping companies.
On the point about claimants coming from other safe third countries, such as across the Channel from France, Holland or Germany, surely it would be simple to return the claimant to that country. The claimant can hardly claim to be at risk on the other side of the Channel and to take such action could not possibly be in breach of our international obligations. Presumably, the reason that bogus economic migrants want to come to Britain is because our benefits are so much more generous than they are in other European countries.
I welcome the changes that the Government have made in the transitional arrangements that have been announced. But surely the message that we in this country need to put across is that we will not be a soft touch in the future and only applicants who are genuine asylum seekers are welcome. Noble Lords on all sides of the House do not wish to see any genuine asylum seekers prevented from coming here. But those who are only economic migrants need not apply.
I have listened carefully all through the debate. I have not heard a single word from noble Lords opposite who are critical of these regulations about how they would attempt to deal with the problem and how they would deal with the cost to the British taxpayer.