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7.36 p.m.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, on highlighting the social impact of current policies. They will bear with great harshness on a limited number of local authorities. He was right to point them out. They will bear also on particular neighbourhoods, for example, Bayswater.

I shall do my best to nail the hoary old legend that this country is being swamped by immigration. In the 11 years from 1984 to 1994 inclusive, just over 2.3 million people left--

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I rise simply to take issue with the loaded and rather dramatic description of the country being swamped with immigrants. Nothing I have said, and nothing any noble Lord has said, during the debate justifies that kind of expression.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, the Minister is blameless. I should be the last person to accuse her or to place any imputation upon her words. Nevertheless, some extreme language has been used throughout the country. I am entitled to respond to it as I see fit.

As I was saying, 2.3 million people have left the UK during the past 11 years. They have left permanently. During those same years, 570,000 people were accepted here for permanent settlement. There has therefore been a net outflow of 1.7 million people. That pattern can be traced back much further than the years I mentioned.

Since 1971, immigration control has been firmed. Here I concur wholeheartedly with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. I draw from those facts the conclusion that now is the time to be generous. There should be an early amnesty for those whose immigration status is irregular if they have been here for five years or more, have no criminal record and no taxes outstanding and if they are considering British citizenship in due course--especially if they have children born in this country. They should be allowed to remain here. Such a proposal has, I understand, been made by the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland. I am happy to support it.

The Bill also gives us an opportunity to help two distinct groups, both of which have suffered severely. I hope that it will be possible to draft an amendment protecting domestic workers who have come to England under the Home Office concession of 1981. All too often these people have been physically abused and financially exploited. Some have been starved and imprisoned on their employer's premises. Many have worked excessive hours in wretched conditions. Your Lordships have debated the scandal on several occasions.

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Despite some positive palliative measures by Her Majesty's Government, serious cases still occur. I trust that Clause 8 will provide scope for an amendment to help those who left their first employer, who have no money to return home, and who are often supporting families in their home countries. It is hard to imagine a more deserving category.

Secondly, the Bill should make it possible to improve arrangements for genuine victims of torture at the hands of many brutal and despotic governments overseas and the wars, civil wars and repression caused by them. Here I must pay tribute to the excellent work done by the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. I am sure that the foundation would wish to salute many serving and retired members of the National Health Service who have given generously of their time and skill to support and rehabilitate these most genuine of asylum seekers.

Since 1986 the Medical Foundation has seen more than 8,000 survivors of torture. In 1995 alone it provided services to 1,600 people from 65 different countries. That work is a shining beacon for Europe and its influence is already benefiting countries as varied as Uganda and Israel. Yet the foundation has not shrunk from expressing its concern at the possible consequences of this legislation.

I am therefore grateful to Home Office Ministers for receiving a large delegation from both Houses of Parliament, of several parties and none, on Tuesday this week. Further meetings will follow between experts from the foundation and from the department. I trust that it will be possible to devise arrangements which will avoid and prevent three things. Genuine victims of torture need to be identified so that they are not subject to the fast-track procedure, returned to a transit country which is presumed safe, or detained in a prison or detention centre. If there are doubts about their cases they should be afforded the maximum possible help to put forward a well-considered application.

I turn to the general run of asylum seekers. I seek to persuade Ministers that genuine asylum seekers are here to find acceptance. They may have arrived by irregular or illicit means but they have every reason to conform to our regulations. It is not in their interest to abscond, unlike those facing a deportation order. That is a quite different category of person. At this moment, several hundred asylum seekers are imprisoned or detained, often far from the specialised solicitors and advisers they need.

I call on Her Majesty's Government to substantiate their repeated claim that detention is used sparingly and as a last resort. Much greater use should be made of voluntary organisations, housing associations and conditions requiring reporting to the police. I mentioned those on 30th January (Official Report, col. 342) and I repeat what I then said about allowing asylum seekers to take up work in this country during their first six months here. I emphasise that asylum seekers, when entitled to social benefits, should receive the full rate and not the 90 per cent. rate which was imposed until recently.

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I have said that the Bill may contain some potential for good. I have tried to be as constructive as I can and to thank Ministers where thanks are due. However, in fairness I am obliged to say that much is lacking in the Government's approach to immigrants and to asylum seekers in particular. The Home Secretary and some of his colleagues, followed in your Lordships' House by the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, and the noble Lord, Lord Reay, have mounted a bogus campaign which is not remotely justified by the available official statistics. They have instigated a culture of disbelief with harmful effects. It must be wrong to use far-fetched arguments to contest every sentence in an asylum application. What is the Government's reply to the charge that an arbitrary ceiling has been imposed on refugee status and exceptional leave to remain, the combination of which is about 20 per cent. of the total applications? What do they say to the claim that 5 per cent. or less is their administrative target for refugee status?

When the Bill was being drafted, were Her Majesty's Government even aware that it potentially contravenes some four international human rights conventions? Will they remedy that situation by accepting an amendment that the Act should be interpreted in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees? After all, the latter document was written into the 1993 Act, so the precedent clearly exists. Will Her Majesty's Government, even at this stage, heed the advice given to them by their own appointed bodies; for example, the Social Security Advisory Committee, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants? If they would do that and, above all, if they would allocate extra resources--as has been done for many years in the Netherlands and Germany--so as to cut the 84,000 backlog of asylum cases and the eight-month or more decision period, we can have some reasonable hope that an acceptable and humane Bill will emerge from this consideration.

7.47 p.m.

Lord Vivian: My Lords, there is no doubt in my mind that there is an urgent need for this Asylum and Immigration Bill if the chronic abuse of claiming asylum under existing legislation is to cease. In my contribution I shall touch on some of the proposals which, if agreed, would overcome that abuse and the illegal employment of immigrants. I should also like to consider one or two anxieties that have already been expressed about some of the proposals in the Bill. I shall not speak about the benefits issues because that was addressed in your Lordships' House on 30th January in a debate in which I took part.

I apologise to your Lordships if I repeat some of the major issues that have been addressed today but they are important matters and I believe that they are sufficiently important to be emphasised again. I shall not labour the figures for asylum seekers, except to remind your Lordships that out of some 44,000 applications only 5 per cent. of those claiming asylum last year were genuine and just 3 per cent. of the appeals were upheld by independent adjudicators.

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However, despite all the improvements to the speed of the asylum system, some 80,000 cases are still outstanding. From what I have said it can be seen that even after the increase of staff, about which we have heard, amounting to about 800 and an injection of about £37 million to spend on extra asylum case workers and adjudicators during the next three years, the number of cases is increasing in an alarming way.

Asylum applications are rising in this country while falling in the rest of western Europe as a result of other European countries having taken action to strengthen their asylum and immigration laws. For instance, in western Europe the numbers claiming asylum fell from more than half a million in 1993 to 320,000 in 1994. As a result of recent legislation in the Netherlands, the number of people seeking asylum fell substantially in 1995.

There is an urgent need to process asylum claims more quickly and this Bill will tighten and strengthen existing legislation; otherwise, we shall risk being caught in a vicious circle of growing delays attracting more abusive claims. The increase in the number of asylum seekers contributes to the delay in dealing with asylum applications. That leads to a higher benefits bill and greater costs to the taxpayer.

I should now like to focus on some of the proposals which I believe will help to prevent bogus asylum claims and stop illegal employment of immigrants. I cannot comment on the drafting of Clause 1 which has already been mentioned this afternoon, but I am glad to see that Clause 1 will widen the definition of "without foundation" cases. What that will include has been stated already by the Minister and I shall not repeat it.

I am glad to see also that Clause 1 will extend the accelerated appeals procedure to all "without foundation" cases and no longer restrict them to those who claim asylum on arrival and those who are liable to be removed or deported.

Clause 1 will also enable my right honourable friend the Home Secretary to designate certain countries as not giving rise to a serious risk of persecution. Claimants from those countries would not be automatically refused but they would face a rebuttable presumption against their claims. Those people who are unable to rebut that presumption would still be able to appeal to an independent adjudicator but would have no secondary appeal to the immigration tribunal.

Any country on that list will need to meet three criteria which seem most reasonable: first, the country concerned generates significant numbers of asylum applications; secondly, a very high proportion of applications from that country have to be unfounded; and, thirdly, in general there is no serious risk of persecution.

Germany and the Netherlands have already taken similar steps along those lines. On Second Reading in another place, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Poland, Romania, Ghana, India and Pakistan were regarded as countries meeting those criteria. It may be that that may need further investigation in view of what has been said in your Lordships' House this afternoon.

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In view of the fact that 98 per cent. of claims from Poland, Romania and Ghana are rejected, that action should reduce the number of people claiming asylum, knowing that they do not qualify for it as they are not fleeing persecution but are simply coming here to seek a better standard of life. Some people have said that to have a designated list of countries is racist. I submit that there is nothing racist about designating countries where people are unlikely to be persecuted and which produce large numbers of unfounded asylum cases. The list is as likely to include countries from eastern Europe, which are producing increasing numbers of largely bogus claims, as it is countries from Africa. There is no question of a blanket ban on asylum applications from the countries on the list. Claims will continue to be decided on a case-by-case basis.

I welcome the fact it will become a criminal offence to help people gain further leave to stay in the United Kingdom by deception--for example, by arranging bogus marriages--and to employ someone who is not entitled to work in this country. Other European Union countries have recognised those problems and have responded. Britain and Ireland are the only two countries which do not have such controls in place. I do not regard checking that a prospective employee has a national insurance number as a burden in any way. By that action, an employer would safeguard himself from any prosecution.

Indeed, the CBI as well as the Government do not believe that proposals of that nature would impose significant burdens on employers. The Bill's provisions on illegal employment will not lead to racial discrimination, as the Government will consult the Commission for Racial Equality to make sure that the advice and guidance given to employers will not encourage racial discrimination in any way. The new measures in this Bill do not provide any excuse for racial discrimination. Any employers who discriminate on grounds of race will have to answer complaints of unlawful racial discrimination before industrial tribunals.

In conclusion, we need urgent action and, at the very least, our asylum and immigration laws should be no weaker than those of our European partners and I should prefer that they were stronger. The United Kingdom must not be seen to be a soft option. We must strengthen our legislation to streamline our decision-making and appeals processes and deter the horrific number of rising bogus asylum claims and prevent illegal employment.

This is not a racist Bill. It is a Bill which has been introduced to tackle those genuine problems. The Government have always believed that a firm but fair immigration policy is a prerequisite for harmonious race relations. The Asylum and Immigration Bill before us now is both firm and fair and its provisions should overcome the existing abuse of current legislation and illegal employment. I strongly support the Bill.

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