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5.33 p.m.

Lord Haskel: My Lords, I have a long-standing speaking engagement tonight which I have postponed until as late as possible. However, it may well be that I must leave before the end of the debate and I apologise to the House and to the Minister. I shall read carefully the report of the debate in Hansard tomorrow. When we debated three Motions regarding asylum seekers on 30th January I spoke of my personal experience as an immigrant. I do not wish to cover that ground again. I mention it only because it explains my concern about the matter. It has become obvious from that debate, and today's, that concern and compassion for asylum seekers is not limited to any one side of the House. Neither is the wish to save taxpayers' money the prerogative of any one side of the House, nor the wish to exclude economic migrants. What divides us is the way in which we distinguish between genuine asylum seekers and others.

It is not an easy matter. Apart from the problems of language and culture, immigration officers have to deal with devious people who are really economic migrants. They may be glib and articulate and have learnt how to operate the system. They may be of an industry about which the noble Lord, Lord Hesketh, spoke. On the other hand, there are deeply traumatised people who have suffered terribly. They are inarticulate, terrified of officialdom and desperate. Not surprisingly, their education and background has not prepared them nor given them the resources needed to cope with this situation. Added to that are the distressing cases of unaccompanied children seeking asylum--incidentally, they are detained with adults, contrary to the Children Act--and they demand our special concern.

Dealing with people is very imperfect and therefore my hope was that the new regulation and the Bill would enable the authorities to find out the truth with the least possible chance of error in refusing entry to genuine asylum seekers. However, the main purpose of the Bill is to deal with abusive claims quickly but not necessarily to differentiate between genuine and abusive claims. My concern, therefore, is with the first part of the Bill regarding entry, specifically Clauses 1, 2 and 3 which deal with the fast track mechanism and the rights of appeal.

I shall not deal with the other matters concerning refugees once they are here; for instance, the difficulties which people have in supporting themselves, the risk of criminalising those who give legitimate advice, or the members of the family community or Churches who give support. Neither shall I deal with those who employ immigrants but are unable to verify whether or not they are illegal. All that would undoubtedly damage race relations, in spite of the proposed procedure mentioned by the Minister.

I welcome the Government's intention to reduce the time taken to resolve appeals because those applying for asylum, in order to circumvent immigration controls, are

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far less likely to do so if an appeal can be resolved in one or two months instead of up to 19 or 20 months, which has been the case in the past. As the Minister said, of course it is much more difficult to expel people after all that time.

However, I too have a number of concerns about the speeded-up appeals procedure. First, will the asylum seeker have the facilities to organise an appeal? I understand that there are large numbers of bogus advisers but I do not understand why the Minister will not introduce a registration scheme. Sadly, it is impossible for us to judge the procedure because no draft of the actual rules has been published. I wonder why the Government will not publish those rules. None of us wishes to be in the position where we have approved tighter regulations yet removed the safeguards which result in genuine refugees being refused admission; and this reduction in numbers is, in turn, taken by the Government as proof of the success of the new system.

Yet, under the existing rules, a fast track appeal has to be lodged within 10 working days and the hearing must be within seven working days. That is fine. If those limits are in the new rules, will the facilities announced by the Minister be of a sufficiently high standard for both the asylum seeker and the Government to resolve appeals in that short time? It may be necessary to spend even more money on the fast track system in order to reduce the time that people spend here. Are the Government willing to do that? I hope that they are. Eliminating the safeguards by speeding up the system but denying the asylum seeker the means of using it would be a gross denial of natural justice.

My next concern is the white list. The Minister will have seen the briefing from Conservative Central Office dated 21st February. It suggests that there should be three criteria for a country being on the list: first, that it generates a significant number of asylum applications; secondly, that a very high proportion of applications from that country proved to be unfounded; and thirdly, in general there is no serious risk of persecution.

First, the order is wrong. The number of cases generated by a country is irrelevant. What is relevant is the human rights situation in that country. As my noble friend Lord McIntosh implied, one does not have to be a professor of history like the noble Earl, Lord Russell, to know that persecution or denial of human rights is never general; it is usually particular. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon told us that persecution is directed at specific minority groups--ethnic, social or political enemies. All that may be going on in the absence of general persecution. Those criteria seem to be most inappropriate. Will the Minister tell us what the criteria will be?

Then there are the safeguards concerning an applicant who arrives via a transit country. Asylum seekers do not travel like businessmen. They are not in a position to take a convenient, direct flight. Indeed, I should be suspicious of an asylum seeker who had done so. However, Clause 3 allows an immigration officer to return an asylum seeker to a third country provided that it is deemed safe and any appeal is then made from that country.

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If an out-of-country appeal is successful, does that give an automatic right to enter the United Kingdom? That is unclear. If it does not, that is all rather meaningless. We can all imagine the practical problems of appealing from a third country, even if it is a European Union country. I should like the Minister to tell the House what safeguards exist to ensure that that third country rule will not be used as an easy option just to keep down the numbers.

It is obvious that a large part of the Bill is designed to keep down the numbers. Certainly, some of the asylum applications are designed to circumvent immigration controls or, indeed, avoid deportation. But the Government must acknowledge that much of that results from the delays in processing. I welcome the speeding up of the process to improve the efficiency but not by removing safeguards. As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees noted, regarding the new measures in Europe:


    "these new measures make it as difficult for genuine refugees to enter the process as those who are not".

It is our duty to see that every safeguard possible is in place because refusing entry to a genuine asylum seeker is rather like capital punishment: there may be no opportunity to rectify the mistake.

5.43 p.m.

Baroness Elles: My Lords, I believe that it is agreed on all sides of the House that our country has a long-standing reputation for harbouring those who have been or are in danger of being persecuted in their countries of origin. We all agree with that. That is not in doubt. I believe that that reputation cannot be tainted by the provisions of the Bill before your Lordships.

Our race relations, both in policy and in practice, are held in very high regard by our fellow Europeans and I should like to mention that in debates and reports which come before the European Parliament, the United Kingdom has always been singled out as one of those countries with the highest reputation for the best treatment of all those who are legally within the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom.

The provisions of the Bill in no way undermine that view. The Government have produced legislation which must be seen to be fair--and it is--and to improve and ensure effective immigration control and to speed up the procedures. I have no doubt that during the later stages of the Bill, there will be discussion on the detailed provisions of the Bill which my noble friend Lady Blatch explained so ably to the House this afternoon.

But governments have duties and obligations to their citizens, whatever their colour or race, to control public expenditure and to cut it where it is excessive or inappropriate. That is a duty on any government, whichever party is in power. Of course, we must also observe our international legal obligations. Again, that applies to any party in government. The noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, has already outlined some of

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the earlier provisions in regard to, in particular, human rights aspects of immigration control during the past 30 or 40 years. I am grateful to him for that.

One of the problems to be faced is the excessive number of asylum seekers of whom a good many applications are apparently manifestly unfounded and are doing harm and impeding fair treatment for those who are genuine asylum seekers. That is one reason why I support the Bill and for that reason alone, the Bill is justified. I understand that there are still more than 80,000 asylum seekers who have not yet had their cases decided. Probably at least one half of those will not be genuine. I know that sometimes the Government's figures are questioned but I should like to quote some figures that I have dated 3rd February from Agence Europ with which, I am sure your Lordships will agree, the Government have no close interconnection. Page 9 of that edition states:


    "The number of asylum seekers registered in the European Union in the first nine months of 1995 continued to decline after the 1994 drop in all member states except in the United Kingdom".
Those figures are from the EC Statistics Office, from EUROSTAT, and are in a document entitled Population and Social Conditions No. 1 1996. Therefore, those figures do not come from a government department.


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