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House of Lords

Thursday, 20th June 1996.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Southwell.): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Zaire: Home Office Country Assessment

Earl Russell asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is the Home Office country assessment for Zaire.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): My Lords, each asylum application is considered on its merits and in the light of its particular circumstances. We have no current plans to publish a country brief on Zaire: the Asylum Directorate takes account of all available relevant information from whatever source.

Earl Russell: My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that her reply may cause some surprise in this House? Is she further aware that Home Office refusal letters for applicants from Zaire frequently say, for example, that the Secretary of State does not accept that membership of the Opposition UDPS would be likely to result in arrest or harassment? If that opinion is not the result of a country assessment, is it the private opinion of the official concerned?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, no, it is not a private opinion. It is an opinion based on taking advice and information from a wide range of sources. It includes the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and, in the case of Zaire, Zairian human rights organisations. A great deal of information is gathered and used as background for those applications, short of having a formal assessment that is in the public domain.

Many Zairians seek asylum primarily for economic reasons and although political opponents of Mobutu, human rights activists and Opposition journalists may be harassed, there is no systematic persecution of Opposition parties and their members. Almost all of the Zairian applicants are without documents and the accounts that they give lack credibility.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, of course in many cases it is difficult to make an assessment. However, will my noble friend the Minister confirm that as at present advised, on all the evidence available, it really would not be right to say that there is systematic persecution of the Opposition, or any members of the Opposition?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, every case is considered on its merits, as indeed it should be. The Asylum Directorate takes account of all available information.

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I have already given some sources. Not only is the evidence considered substantively; there is an appeal system and, currently, even appeal to tribunal before cases are finally determined. I believe that everything that can be is taken into account in these cases.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead: My Lords, the noble Baroness's original reply implied clearly twice that there was a country assessment but not in the public domain. I believe that a list of six countries is published by the Home Office. In order to allow us to appraise this matter objectively, can the Minister tell us why she is not allowed to put this country assessment in the public domain? The original Answer makes clear that such an assessment exists.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, no. I made clear that it does not exist in quite the form the noble Lord suggests. I said that in the course of determining applications, information is gathered in from many sources. It has not been put together in the form of a formal assessment, but would act as information relevant to a particular application.

Formal assessments are prepared. Indeed, we have already given notice that assessments for Cyprus, Bulgaria, India, Pakistan, Ghana, Romania and Poland will be assessed. They will be formal and will be placed in the Library of both Houses, as indeed are two assessments already.

I cannot rule out for all time that there will not be a formal assessment placed in the Library of both Houses, but Zaire is not a priority for that purpose at present.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, I am delighted to hear that every asylum case is considered on its merits. However, as regards Zaire is it not the case that the writ of the central government does not run in all parts of the country; that the army has a great deal of power and is constantly at loggerheads with various political parties?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the noble Lord makes an interesting point. It is a point taken into account. Since 1990, with the ending of the one-party system, there has been instability. The noble Lord will be aware of that. But in April 1994 a transitional constitution was agreed which provided for a broad-based government. Elections were planned for 1995. It may be to the knowledge of the noble Lord that Kengo wa Dondo sought to reduce inflation and corruption. There are still problems with the military--the point that the noble Lord made. Elections have been postponed until 1997. However, so far as concerns the Opposition, under Etienne Tshisekedi, the leader of the Opposition, there is a surprising level of toleration of political opposition. Although the broadcasting media are under state control, there is a highly partisan opposition press in Kinshasa.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Minister said fairly confidently that there was no systematic harassment of the Opposition in Zaire. I have no inside knowledge to enable me to contradict that. But is the Minister not aware that it is a characteristic of regimes of that kind that they control the media and information sources? Should not the noble Baroness be

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wary of making confident assertions as, on many occasions, rulers like President Mobuto have died, or have been overthrown, and significant abuses of human rights have been found subsequently?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I was giving matters of fact and some chronology. The conditions and situations in those countries are taken into account. I have given some of the sources of that information. Where information is material to a particular applicant, it will weigh heavily either with the first hearing, as part of the appeal process, or with my right honourable friend the Home Secretary.

However, Zaire has been a major source of fraudulent multiple applications, often with a view to benefit fraud. Although that situation has reduced, there is still a higher than average incidence of non-compliance refusals for Zairian applications.

Lord Gisborough: My Lords, in view of the fact that Zaire is already grossly over-populated, with twice the population of China per square mile, is it not right that applications should be directed towards countries that are not grossly over-populated, such as America, and others?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, perhaps I may repeat what I said. We have a firm but very fair system for considering asylum applications. We in this country have a proud record of being fair to genuine asylum seekers. I shall spend much of today talking about something like 80 per cent. to 90 per cent. of asylum seekers who for one reason or another do not have a genuine case for asylum in this country. It is absolutely right that we should seek to have a firm but fair policy.

Viscount Waverley: My Lords, when will the so-called "white list" be extended to include other countries?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I do not talk of white or black lists. If the noble Viscount is talking about the third countries that we deem to be safe countries which are at this moment members of the European Union, I hope he will resist an amendment later today to take away the power from my right honourable friend to extend that list. We are thinking of Canada, America, Norway and Switzerland. As for the designated list, in the course of answering this Question, I have already named seven countries that we intend to designate. At this time we have no plans to extend it, but we shall have the power to extend it.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her assurance that all cases are considered on their merits. However, does she agree that the assessment of the merits in the case of someone who alleges persecution because of membership of an opposition political party may be influenced by the country assessment? Does she understand that under these circumstances the House may legitimately wish to scrutinise the country assessment?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, there is an appeal system to scrutinise the country assessment. The appeal system

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will take all of that into account. If an applicant believes he has been treated unfairly, and that the conditions in the country which he claims to be material to his case have not been considered, there is an appeal system. The formal assessments will be placed in the Library of the House. As I said, we have no current plans to place an assessment for Zaire in the Library of the House.

School Playing Fields: Sales

3.11 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

    How many playing fields have been sold since the issue of the Education (School Premises) Regulations (S.I. 1981/909) by the Department of Education and Science; how many sales are currently under consideration and whether they have any plans to change the policy.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Lord Henley): My Lords, it is the Government's policy that playing fields that schools need should be retained. We have no plans to change this policy. My department does not collect information about asset disposals at LEA-maintained schools. Grant-maintained schools may dispose of surplus land with the consent of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. Since the advent of grant-maintained schools, consent has been given in 14 cases and nine applications are under consideration.

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