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Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, can the noble Lord tell the House what is the reason that a genuine asylum seeker does not give when he is seeking asylum at the port of entry? Why does he not say, "I am suffering; I am a victim of persecution and I am seeking asylum"? Why does such a person come into the country as a student, or something of that nature?

Lord Hylton: My Lords, there are many reasons. One of them is that people arrive in this country exhausted by travel, and in a state of shock and trauma.

5.18 p.m.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I share the general concerns felt both outside and within the House about the regulations that are before us today. I rise to support the Motions which have been proposed. The noble Baroness, Lady Elles, talked of the prime responsibility of a government being towards their own citizens. As a citizen of this country, I feel that one of those responsibilities is to maintain the honourable tradition

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that we have had of behaving in a civilised and humane way towards those seeking sanctuary here in fear of persecution in their own lands. I believe that in putting forward these regulations the Government are failing in that duty of maintaining a tradition of civilised behaviour.

The general concerns have been mentioned. I rise to speak specifically about the concerns arising from the effects of these regulations on pregnant women and families with children. The importance of good nutrition in pregnancy is well known in terms of the outcome for the baby. When women are malnourished during pregnancy, as many asylum seekers have been in their own countries, the risk of their having babies with low birth weights who will therefore require expensive healthcare not only immediately after birth but possibly for the rest of their lives is greatly increased. I find it deeply shameful that we in this country would consider adding to the risk of malnutrition during pregnancy, and the effect on the subsequent baby, by removing financial support for women in this situation.

The Maternity Alliance in its submission to the Social Security Advisory Committee stated that, if pregnant asylum seekers with no financial means are denied access to social security benefits which would enable them to have a reasonable diet, it is inevitable that not only their health but also that of their babies will suffer in consequence. Those of us who have seen the demands put on neo-natal services by the babies of some refugees in this country, occasioned by their health status, are well aware of expense in this area. I suggest to your Lordships that it is deeply shortsighted of the Government not to consider giving adequate financial support to families before the birth of their children, but to accept the need for expensive healthcare after birth because of the failure of these policies.

The other issue I wish to raise is that of care of the children of these families. Although it is possible to change the social security regulations affecting the support for children of asylum seekers, Section 17 of the Children Act of 1989 maintains the duty on local authorities as regards the welfare of these children. Therefore if these children are destitute, as some of them will be, and if their parents cannot provide adequate support, the local authority will have to care for these children but will have no responsibility to care for the parents. There will be few local authorities who will face a disproportionate burden in this respect. We envisage local authorities providing expensive residential or foster care for children and facing the inhumane course of separating these children from their parents. I suggest that it is quite wrong to believe that we cannot support families who are in this situation.

The welfare of these children is dependent on, and intertwined with, the welfare of their parents. One cannot blame the parents and take action against them, and thereby penalise the children. The Government need seriously to consider the United Kingdom's obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. I believe that to penalise children for their parents' failure to apply for asylum at the port of entry

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is in fundamental conflict with the UK's obligations under the convention. I would be grateful if the Minister would address that point when he replies to the debate.

5.24 p.m.

Lord Vivian: My Lords, I have listened carefully to the speeches made by your Lordships who are so knowledgeable on asylum, immigration and social security matters. I apologise to your Lordships if I should be guilty of some repetition but I feel that some matters need to be emphasised again.

I speak as a taxpayer, and therefore on behalf of all other taxpayers in the United Kingdom. My reading of the report of the Social Security Advisory Committee--much of which I disagree with--is that, although it understands the Secretary of State's view that it is unreasonable to expect the United Kingdom taxpayer to support people whose reasons for coming to this country are purely economic, it does not recommend that the Government's proposals relating to asylum seekers, sponsored immigrants, non-contributory benefits and interim payments should be proceeded with.

I believe that the United Kingdom has a proud record of giving refuge to those fleeing genuine persecution, but our asylum procedures are increasingly being abused. For instance, as we have already heard, only 4 per cent. of those claiming asylum are deemed to be genuine refugees by the Home Office, and just 4 per cent. of appeals are upheld by independent adjudicators. Indeed, as many as 98 per cent. of claims from countries such as Poland, Ghana and Romania are rejected.

I am aware that there is a growing number of asylum claims by economic migrants who come to the United Kingdom simply to seek a better life rather than to flee persecution. Since 1988 claims for asylum in the United Kingdom have grown from under 4,000 to over 40,000 a year and the number for 1995 may well exceed some 50,000. The cost to the taxpayer is huge. The annual cost of those seeking asylum is now over £200 million in benefits alone, and if additional costs for health, education and social services of around £10,000 per asylum seeker per year are included, this amounts to a further £500 million. Some 700 staff now work on asylum cases compared with under 100 in the late 1980s. Some 25,000 asylum decisions were taken between June 1994 and June 1995, but even this does not keep pace with the number of applicants.

In February the Home Secretary announced that £37 million would be spent on extra asylum caseworkers and adjudicators over the next three years, which should enable the Immigration Department to process 37,000 applications a year from next year. This should help speed up the system, ultimately reducing costs to the taxpayer. I believe that it is essential to reduce this huge burden of cost to the taxpayer and, in so doing, it is necessary to discourage unfounded applications from those who are actually economic migrants and who live off our country, while ensuring that the United Kingdom remains a haven for those genuinely fleeing from persecution. I therefore support the proposed changes by the Government; namely, that benefits will be available

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only for people making an asylum claim at their port of entry, and entitlement to benefit will cease once the asylum claim is first rejected. There will be other changes as regards non-contributory benefits, sponsored immigrants and interim payments.

In this debate I wish only to refer to asylum seekers' applications on arrival and to rejected claims. As we have already heard, 70 per cent. of asylum claims come from people already in the United Kingdom. Typically, they enter this country as tourists, students or business people and undertake not to be a burden on public funds. The changes mean that those who claim asylum after they have entered the United Kingdom will no longer be able to claim benefits. That is reasonable. All foreign visitors to the United Kingdom are required to declare their reasons for coming to this country at their port of entry. Genuine refugees can be expected to declare that they are asylum seekers when they arrive in this country. Those who claim not to be asylum seekers at the port of entry but subsequently change their story will be allowed to pursue their claim for asylum but can scarcely be expected to be allowed benefits as well. The change will deter those who seek to make an asylum claim as a means of prolonging their stay at the expense of taxpayers. An exception will be made for people from countries where there has been a significant upheaval since their arrival in the United Kingdom. That was discussed earlier this afternoon.

I cannot agree with the Social Security Advisory Committee report as to why in-country claimants may not have applied for asylum at the port of entry. The report cites reasons of language difficulties, ignorance of procedures, the need to obtain legal advice or advice from friends and relatives in the United Kingdom and a deep rooted fear of officialdom. As for the latter reason, asylum seekers choose to come to the United Kingdom precisely because of our reputation for legality and fair play. Therefore the Government consider it unlikely that more than a handful of bona fide refugees are genuinely in fear of officials at UK ports. Perhaps more can be done to ensure that potential asylum seekers have greater knowledge of the procedures before departing from their home countries. Many arrive with visas; and surely it would be possible to brief people on asylum procedures at the consulate concerned.

To cease benefit for people whose claims have been considered and rejected by the Home Office will also save the taxpayer money, but it does not withdraw the right of the asylum seeker to appeal. This change will be another deterrent for bogus asylum claimants, who make up the vast majority of appellants, and should then enable appeals from the small number of genuine cases to be expedited.

In conclusion, I believe that the potential asylum seekers of the future will be fairly dealt with and, by the introduction of the government proposals for asylum seekers, I believe that the processing of cases will be expedited more competently, leading to an eventual reduction of case officers and adjudicators, while bringing about a saving of millions of pounds to the taxpayer.

I strongly support the Government on their proposals and I do not support the Opposition Motion.

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5.31 p.m.

Lady Kinloss: My Lords, from the many points and worries that have been expressed this evening, it would seem that perhaps there has not been enough preparation or realisation of the consequences that the changes in the regulations will have on the lives of those seeking asylum in this country.

When passengers arrive in this country, those who do not hold a British passport are issued with a disembarkation form. Could they not at the same time be given a short printed explanation pamphlet giving details of how to proceed if they intend to become asylum seekers? Perhaps it could be printed in more languages than one.

When they arrive, they should be given help in understanding the printed explanation. It is essential that they understand the need to claim asylum on entry in order to remain entitled to urgent cases income support until a decision is made on their case. There will probably be language difficulties, and perhaps sign language will be needed in some cases. Can the Minister confirm that in these cases, and if language difficulties arise, everything will be done to ensure that the applicant understands what is needed? Can the Minister say what immediate assistance will be given in particular to unaccompanied children, the elderly and the frail, especially those who are the victims of war and torture, as it would seem that under the new regulations they will all be denied benefits? Would the Government consider a government funded hostel, at least for families and the people whom I have just mentioned? Would a hostel be practical or too expensive to run? It would at least give asylum seekers a shelter, and if no benefits are paid food should be provided.

Local authorities now have responsibility for children under the Children Act 1989. The Government have said that they will give the local authorities additional funding, but so far they have not said how they will allocate any funding, which will surely cause difficulties for those local authorities which need it. Can the Minister say what the rest of Europe does? Would this new legislation bring us into line with the rest of Europe; and should we not all offer equal treatment?

I apologise for asking so many questions, but I hope that the Minister will be able to answer some of them. Meanwhile will the Government reconsider their decision on the question of asylum seekers?

5.34 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, as a relatively new Member of this House, I have been extraordinarily impressed by the sincerity, dedication and quality of the debate. I feel proud to be a Member of a House which can debate these astonishingly serious matters in the way that noble Lords have done this afternoon. In particular, I have been very impressed by the intense interest and concern that those engaged in the voluntary sector and the Churches have brought to bear.

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I turn, first, to what the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, said about the Statement by the Secretary of State for Social Security. I should like, too, to draw attention to the wording of the Statement. It states that the rights to asylum of genuine refugees,


    "will not be curtailed in any way by these regulations or the Bill".

In the strictest and most narrowly legal sense, that may be true. But the report refers to genuine refugees, applying either in country or at the port of entry, who will not be able to be sustained during the appellate process. I find that, to say the least, somewhat misleading. If, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees states, a person who seeks to appeal against the decision of an immigration officer cannot be physically or economically sustained during the period of that appeal, then his rights may be false for he cannot exercise them.

Secondly, in the Statement, the Secretary of State says that,


    "those who ... seek asylum at the point of entry will continue to have access to benefits while their claims are considered by the Home Office".

Again, it is strictly correct that while the claims are being considered by the Home Office, applicants will receive benefit. However, they will receive no benefit at the point at which their claim to the Home Office, having been disallowed and appealed against, is considered by the adjudicator. That period currently averages 116 days after the papers have been placed with the adjudicator by the Home Office. It means that the actual period is considerably longer. As other noble Lords have said, we are looking at periods which may vary from six months to five years.

The Statement continues:


    "Well over 90 per cent. of those claiming asylum are eventually found not to be genuine refugees".

A number of noble Lords have drawn attention to that figure and have accepted it as correct. We have already heard during the course of the debate that in addition to the 4 per cent. originally granted asylum, some 19 per cent. are given extended leave to stay. Therefore the figure of 90 per cent. is strange if 19 per cent. are given extended leave to remain, unless we assume that immigration officials are giving people leave to remain who are not genuine refugees; and I do not assume that any noble Lord makes that claim.

However, as regards the 71 per cent. rejected--I do not refer to those given either extended leave to remain, an original grant of asylum, or even the further grant of asylum on appeal--one has to ask in the light of evidence put before noble Lords in the past few days whether some of those are not genuine refugees. The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture has sent a number of us an extremely harrowing list of cases which have been rejected on application for acceptance as a genuine asylum seeker. I shall not bore the House with more than a few details. There is the case of the Kenyan man who was beaten on his heels, sexually assaulted, saw his house go up in flames and his elder son and his father both burned in that attack.

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He was refused entry on the grounds that he was not a genuine asylum seeker. However, on the face of it, he would seem to have a good case.

There is the case of the Nigerian man believed to be involved in the effort to try to retain democracy in Nigeria against one of the most disagreeable dictators the world has seen for some time. He saw his father beaten to death before his eyes. He was himself repeatedly beaten with rifle butts. He finally managed to escape to this country but was refused recognition as a genuine refugee. Again, one has to ask: what more was he supposed to prove? Both those men and a third case which I shall mention briefly were shown by medical doctors in this country to have signs of extreme torture on their bodies. That is according to the Medical Foundation whose chairman is a distinguished Conservative Member of another place.

The third and last case which I shall mention--although I could give many more--falls directly into the group described by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford. An Iranian woman was attacked because her brother happened to be a supporter of a previous regime in Iran, one which was regarded as a friendly state by this country. Her home was continually and repeatedly entered and destroyed in large part by security guards of the present Iranian state. She herself was, in most extreme terms, sexually assaulted. When she managed to escape and come to this country, she too was rejected as not a genuine asylum seeker.

I wish to read what was said about her case by the adjudicator to whom she appealed. She will now have to appeal with no financial support. The document from the Medical Foundation states:


    "In granting her appeal and recognising her as a refugee with a genuine fear of persecution, the Adjudicator commented that the Home Office refusal letter was inaccurate, not ... reflecting what [she] said".

The adjudicator said:


    "I saw the acute distress of the appellant giving evidence to me ... it is clear she still finds it almost impossible to talk about her treatment".

When the Iranian woman arrived in this country, she was speechless with sheer shame at what had happened to her. It would be inconceivable to imagine that she would be able to make a coherent case at the port of entry.

I wish to make one further point about the so-called bogus applicants for asylum in this country. It has been pointed out by other noble Lords in terms of time. Over a series of years we have seen the proportion of those seeking asylum who are accepted change dramatically, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, pointed out. It is difficult to conceive that somehow in 1989 there were far fewer bogus applicants than there are today. If so, at least some of us would wish to know what explanation and evidence are offered for it.

As a further example, currently 70 per cent. of those who apply to Canada for refugee status are accepted; and of the over 150,000 who apply to the United States, 50 per cent. are accepted. Both those facts appear to bear out the statement made by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees that the figures for refugees

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accepted as genuine as a proportion of the total has more to do with the culture and attitude of the country concerned in terms of its liberality or strictness in interpreting what makes a refugee.

Thirdly, I wish to touch on the position of those who are sponsored. We have already heard about that in the debate and I have no desire to prolong it. I wish to ask the Minister about the case of a student sponsored by his or her government and who is therefore here bona fide, and able to pay the necessary fees. If there is an upheaval in that person's home country, such as has occurred in recent years in Nigeria, will he or she be considered in the same way as those on the so-called "white list", or will he or she be bound by the terms of the regulations? Those regulations state quite straightforwardly that it is only in the event of the death of a sponsor that the position of those sponsored can be reconsidered. In the case of such students, that would be an extraordinarily harsh act of injustice.

I wish to refer to the problems dealt with by many of my right honourable friends and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, and the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. We would like to know exactly what position is being taken by the Government with regard to the circumstances of those who are likely to find themselves thrown back on the final resort of local authorities. Will the local authorities be bound by their present obligations under the Children Act?

Finally, as regards the issue raised on the immigration Act 1968, my noble friend Lord Beaumont of Whitley referred to the actions of the party opposite. With great respect to him, I wish to dissociate myself from what he said. I believe that every now and then a matter comes up which is so painfully wrong that even those bound by loyalty to the Government of the day feel themselves obliged to stand out against the normal commitment of party loyalty. In the way in which it dealt with the position of the East African Asians, the immigration Act 1968 fell into that category.

I am not at liberty to tell the House what actions I took then, although I certainly acted. I am at liberty to say that on that occasion the actions of Mr. Iain Macleod were in the highest possible traditions of this place. He said: "I gave my word to these people and I will keep it". By "this place", I mean this country of ours, not just one particular House of Parliament. It was wrong of the Labour Government of that era to refuse to uphold and accept the commitment made by Mr. Macleod. It was right of Mr. Heath, the subsequent Prime Minister, to stand by that commitment in 1972 when the East African Asians came under the threat of being expelled and in some cases killed by the Government of Uganda.

However, two wrongs do not make a right in an instance where once again the House has to consider what one can only describe as a profoundly shameful proposal by the Government. In saying that, I am not moved by the colour of the Government on the issue. It is simply wrong. That has been said eloquently on both Front Benches of the Opposition parties and also by many Cross-Benchers and some Members of the party opposite. I beg them to consider their position carefully

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and ask themselves whether on this occasion conscience and humanity should take first place over any other consideration.

5.50 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, perhaps I may start by saying that I hope my noble friends will not take a lesson in loyalty from the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, and that they will in fact retain a greater sense of loyalty than she is trying to encourage them to show.

These regulations form an important element of the Government's overall policy on asylum seekers. The policy has three aims. The first is to ensure that the United Kingdom remains a safe haven for those genuinely fleeing persecution. The reason genuine refugees come to the United Kingdom is to share our freedoms, not our benefits. Their rights to asylum will not be altered in any way. That is why, unusually, I intervened during the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Haskel. I was extremely concerned that he seemed to have misunderstood what was happening and assumed that we should actually turn people away at the port of entry if they claimed that they were asylum seekers. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have no intention of doing that. Those people who claim asylum at the port of entry will be allowed in, their asylum claim will be considered and, while it is being considered, up to the point of decision by Home Office officials, they will be eligible for benefit. Therefore it is simply not true, as I fear the noble Lord was suggesting in his personal example, that he and his family might in the new circumstances have been returned to persecution having been turned back at the port of entry. I hope that the noble Lord can accept my assurance that that will certainly not happen.

On this point about the port of entry, the noble Lady, Lady Kinloss, and my noble friend Lord Dean of Harptree asked whether interpreters are available. A very considerable and impressive range of interpreters is available at the major ports of entry. On the rare occasions when an interpreter is not available, the applicant will be given temporary admission until an interpreter can be found. That would in no way affect his or her status as a port applicant, although he or she would obviously be in the country before the application was actually made. It would not affect status at all. I hope that the noble Lady and my noble friend will be reassured on that point. As I have just underlined, we are ensuring that anyone who arrives as a refugee claiming asylum at the port of entry will have access to benefits while the Home Office determines that claim.

Our second objective is to deal more speedily with genuine claimants so that they can get on with their lives. In response to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford, I absolutely agree that we have to try to do better when it comes to processing asylum applications. Indeed, we are trying to. However, one of the problems is that, as we put resources in, the numbers increase. We are almost in a Catch-22 situation. The Home Office has already increased the number of caseworkers seven-fold, from 100 to 700, since 1988. An extra £37 million is being transferred from my

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budget to the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department to expand its asylum work further over the next three years; and the Home Office is planning a major initiative to computerise the handling of asylum cases. Above all, the Asylum and Immigration Bill currently before Parliament will help to streamline the handling of cases.

However, these objectives cannot be met if the system continues to be clogged up by vast numbers of unfounded claims. Therefore, our third objective is to remove from the benefits system the incentive for unfounded applicants--the great majority of them, as my noble friend Lord Vivian mentioned, economic migrants--so that they can no longer be on benefit and claim asylum in the United Kingdom.

The rising tide of asylum seekers represents a major problem which no responsible government can ignore. We are not the only government to have to tackle this problem. I shall come to that in a moment. Last year, the total number of people claiming asylum in the United Kingdom exceeded 57,000, including dependants. The figure for the previous year was 42,000. That is a ten-fold increase over 10 years. A decade ago, in 1984, 1985 and 1986, for example, the United Kingdom received 4,000, 6,000 and 6,000 applications. Over the past three years the figures were 32,000, 28,000 and 42,000; as I said, applications rose to 57,000 in the year just ended. That is a very considerable increase.

As my noble friends Lord Brabazon of Tara and Lady Elles pointed out, the situation in Europe, which mirrored ours, has now taken a considerable downturn as a result of steps taken by European countries. Belgium, for example, found that applications rose to 26,900. Following steps taken in 1993, its applications are now down, at 14,300. I mentioned Italy, which managed to bring down its applications from 31,000 in 1991 to 1,800 in 1994.

It is interesting to note that the UK's share of all those coming to Europe and claiming asylum a decade ago was roughly 4 per cent. over a three-year period, give or take a per cent. or two. The figures were: 4.3 per cent., 3.8 per cent. and 2.9 per cent. In the past three years they were 4.7 per cent. in 1992, 5.1 per cent. in 1993 and 13.2 per cent. in 1994. We have not collected the full annual statistics from the rest of Europe; however, it is perfectly clear to me, using a calculator, that the likelihood is that the percentages for 1995 will go well into the twenties.

If one excludes Germany from this calculation--Germany dominates the tables because of its proximity to the refugee influx from Eastern Europe over many years--the position for the rest of Europe is even more graphic: from about 6 per cent. in the three years a decade ago, we have seen the position move from 12.7 per cent. in 1992, to 12.3 per cent. in 1993 and 22 per cent. last year; and my calculator tells me that if the trends in the half-year figures continue, we shall certainly be in the region of 40-odd per cent.

30 Jan 1996 : Column 1352

UK claims have risen by something like 45 per cent.--and that as a share of Europe's asylum seekers. We have therefore seen our share increase quite dramatically. Indeed, over a decade it has trebled. That point underlines the problem that we have to try to do something about it.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon said that figures were important. Indeed they are. And these figures are very, very important indeed. Amnesty International recognises that. It states:


    "The truth of the matter is that, since 1992, immigration controls and asylum procedures--particularly those applied at the border--have been tightened far more in some European countries than in the UK".

It adds that this,


    "no doubt works to make the UK a more attractive destination for would-be asylum-seekers than some other European countries".

So the tightening up by our friends and neighbours in Europe has helped to make our problem the greater. People see that if they cannot go to some of those countries, they can perhaps come to the United Kingdom.

We do have a serious problem. It is not helped by the remarks that we heard in this debate. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, made some points about Bosnian refugees. I can tell the noble Earl that in 1994 there were 1,385 applications from the former Yugoslavia. Of those, 140 were granted refugee status--80 at the port and 60 in the country--and 1,365 were granted exceptional leave to remain. Of that number, 765 were granted permission at the port--where the noble Baroness would have one believe that everyone is so traumatised that they cannot think about asking for asylum--and 595 in-country. In addition, we agreed to take 500 Bosnians under the quota scheme of the UNHCR. I hope that the noble Earl will appreciate that we have played a very big part in trying to help people who are fleeing some of the serious problems in the former Yugoslavia.


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