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House of Lords

Thursday, 16th July 1998.

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

The Earl of Portsmouth-Took the Oath.

Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Lord Judd asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they are taking with the European Union and other appropriate multilateral organisations to promote an internationally agreed strategy towards migration and towards respect for, and protection of, the rights of refugees and asylum seekers.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, the Government co-operate fully in the relevant European Union, United Nations and Council of Europe structures in these areas. The Government attach great importance to the protection of the rights of genuine refugees and asylum seekers as well as co-operating with other member states in countering abuse of the asylum system.

Lord Judd: My Lords, while I naturally welcome that reply in relation to co-operation, does my noble friend not agree that there is a major strategic issue facing the human community at this juncture? It is difficult to imagine the economic, social, emotional and psychological stress for those who are removed from their homes or who must leave their homes for reasons beyond their control. In view of our commitment to human rights, is it not essential to maintain the spirit of a commitment to human rights in all we do in relation to the administration of policy on refugees and those seeking asylum? As the numbers are so great, is it not absolutely essential that we give major attention to working out a viable international approach to that issue rather than finding ourselves concentrating inevitably on the negative aspects of it in terms of how many we can absorb in this country?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the basis of what my noble friend says is something with which I can entirely agree. His Question is deliberately framed quite widely. It deals with migration and therefore includes economic migration as well as refugee and asylum matters. Those are extraordinarily difficult questions. It seems to me that the noble Lord is right to say that no single country can deal with them. I can perhaps help my noble friend to the extent that there is to be an audit of immigration rules and policies prior to incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into United Kingdom law. That is an extremely important step.

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Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, is the Minister aware that unless a decision to the contrary is taken tomorrow by the Council of Ministers, the budget lines for civil dialogue and the support of NGOs concerning, for example, victims of torture will cease as a result of a legal case brought by the previous government and the ruling of the European Court of Justice on that case, which is likely to lead to the suspension of all help for NGOs within the area of civil dialogue, human rights and issues concerning violence against women? Will the Minister comment on that?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Baroness is right. The Government will obviously have to review the circumstances as they are found to obtain. As she says, those matters are extremely important. However, I stress--I think rightly--that no single government are capable of solving all those problems without co-operation on an international basis.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, following on the Minister's reply to the noble Lord, Lord Judd, does he agree that the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees' definition of a refugee, namely, that he or she should have a well-founded fear of persecution in his own country, is now out of date and far too subjective? It may have been appropriate in the 1930s and the 1940s when people were fleeing before invading armies but it is no longer appropriate. Will the Minister work with international colleagues to arrive at a much more sophisticated definition that would take into account, for example, the human rights record of the country, economic conditions and the means of transport out of the country in order that we should be able to return economic migrants much more quickly but at the same time identify and protect genuine refugees much more quickly?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, that is the critical tension between the two aspects which the noble Lord rightly identified. There is a view which I have heard expressed that the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees, being now somewhat elderly, needs review. Of course, the test there is not entirely subjective. It is an objective view of someone's subjective beliefs. Therefore, it is not entirely subjective.

The Government are quite clear. We do not have an open door; we cannot, for economic migrants. Equally we have a proper, civilised approach to the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. The key is to be firmer, faster and fairer because that serves the proper interests of all those concerned.

Baroness Anelay of St. Johns: My Lords, what will the Government do to ensure that the forthcoming enlargement of the European Union does not in any way jeopardise the concessions which have been negotiated for Commonwealth citizens?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I do not believe that the concessions for Commonwealth citizens will be affected at all by enlargement. We have an

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existing commitment to Commonwealth citizens and I know of no proposal to do away with their present position.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, has not Commissioner Anita Gradin come up with a much more imaginative solution recently in the European Commission; that is, that we should move some way towards financial burden-sharing with the case of Bosnia in mind, which was not exactly a model for a common European policy on migration?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. Economic burden-sharing has its virtues because obviously by definition it means that there is not a single country shouldering the burden, which should be shared on a pan-European or even more international basis.

Lord Elton: My Lords, can the Minister enlarge on his reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams? Are we to understand that there is to be a period during which the much-needed government funding to NGOs, some of which do vital work in support of refugees, is to cease? If so, how long will that period be and will the Government take steps to shorten it?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am not in a position to give a definitive reply to the noble Lord, Lord Elton. However, I shall research further the extremely important questions which he has raised. I undertake to write to him as soon as possible and place a copy of the letter in the Library. I cannot give a more precise answer than that at the moment.

Lord Judd: My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the recent Strategic Defence Review has imaginatively understood the kind of turmoil which the world is likely to face in the future and how we should respond to it? We have clearly been giving major inter-departmental attention to that. Will my noble friend accept that he would have all possible support from all sides of the House if the Government would give a strategic lead not only in Europe but internationally in looking at the whole issue on an international basis and examining what the international strategy should be?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I take my noble friend's point on the Strategic Defence Review which was, I believe, generally acclaimed by all sections in this House as a masterly piece of work. However--and I say this, I hope, not too harshly--it is a much more simple question to attend to when one is dealing with one's own SDR, as opposed to the whole spectrum of pan-European and international problems. My noble friend is right; indeed, he is really reaffirming my earlier answer. We will get no solution on a single country basis and no solution on a selfish country basis.

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Building Society Repossessions

3.9 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is the present rate or number of owner-occupied houses being repossessed by building societies due to the lapse of mortgage repayments.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, figures are not available separately for building societies. The most recent figures for all mortgage lenders are those published by the Council of Mortgage Lenders in January. These show that 32,770 properties, representing 0.31 per cent. of all mortgage loans, were taken into possession in 1997.

Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, as I understand it--perhaps my noble friend the Minister will correct me if I am wrong--those figures represent a substantial reduction as regards the situation that we faced a short time ago. Although that is very acceptable, should we not keep up our guard on behalf of those people who seem to face interminable increases in their repayments because of the fluctuations in the bank rate? Can my noble friend the Minister tell us whether the Government have any initiatives in mind to help people in such situations in the future?

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