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Lord Williams of Mostyn: A number of noble Lords have suggested a maximum period. The two amendments are different in that Amendment No. 198 refers to an absolute maximum period, and Amendment No. 69 refers to a maximum period of continuous detention. I understand that the thrust behind both is the same.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, and other noble Lords, spoke of people being shunted around between different places of detention. I simply point out that we are trying to stop people being shunted about. The group of amendments starting with Amendment No. 79 would provide humane, decent opportunities for people to have their bail applications heard without being shunted about, but at least two noble Lords--namely, the noble Lords, Lord Clinton-Davis and Lord Hylton--want to bring about a situation where that could not happen.

During the next three years we shall build two new purpose-designed centres to replace the facilities at Harmondsworth and Rochester. Following David Ramsbotham's critical report, it is fair to say that the Government accepted the principle that no detainee ought to be kept in the prison regime. That cannot be brought about overnight, but we accepted the principle immediately and there was not the slightest demur. David Ramsbotham was absolutely right, and we said so at the time.

The noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, asked me about the up-to-date figures for those who have been held for more than six months. May I research those figures and write to him as soon as I may, and deposit a copy of my letter in the Library?

The average time spent in detention, according to my information, is about 63 days. It is therefore unlikely that spaces would be created by a time-limit of six months. That does not go to the fundamental point made by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Hylton; it is simply designed to deal with the question put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury.

In reply to the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, there should be as short and certain a period as possible. That is why we have said that for families it should be two months, with an opportunity to appeal

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in a further four months; and that if that is not achieved, the new scheme cannot be made to operate. That is a discipline we would be imposing on ourselves. We are setting ourselves ambitious targets which we believe are deliverable. No one wants anyone kept in detention for longer than possible. The right reverend Prelate mentioned the public expense involved. None of us wants that; we all want certainty and efficiency. However, quite a lot of people do not want their cases to be determined finally in a short period of time, and it is quite easy for them to manipulate the system.

Reference was made to Mr Nicholas Blake's views. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, will remember his intervention in the case of Chahal, which led to the first Bill I introduced after the election. The Bill was intended to provide an appeal system for people like Chahal. The Strasbourg court held that in extreme cases involving national security, detention may be justified, and be compatible with the section referring to the lawful arrest or detention of a person to prevent him effecting an unauthorised entry into the country, or of a person against whom action is being taken with a view to deportation or extradition. That does not go to the heart of the matter because we are all adept at producing, not quite Biblical quotations but at least Conventional quotations, to suit our arguments.

The subjects of torture and children were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I again draw the attention of the Committee to paragraph 12.4 of the White Paper, which states:

    "Evidence of a history of torture should weigh strongly in favour of temporary admission".

Paragraphs 12.5 and 12.6 state that children are detained only in exceptional circumstances and as close as possible to the removal at the end of the process, and that unaccompanied minors are detained exceptionally. According to my information, that means only overnight detention, pending removal or placement into care.

Either Amendment No. 69 or Amendment No. 198 would set the target date, which is, of course, a target date for the Government and for those who have to go through the processes; but they would also set a target date for those who want to abuse the process. It is not unknown for people to apply, to appeal, to try for judicial review and to manipulate the system with applications and representations, or simply non-co-operation. Once someone has got beyond the six months they have to be released, unfortunately often with little safeguard for the public.

There will be some instances in exceptional cases (where there is perhaps a history of absconding or breaches of national security or public order) where people may, if they do not co-operate with the system, be able to manipulate the system. No legal system can work without a degree of co-operation.

We have allowed two months for married applicants with children and four months thereafter for appeal. We believe that that is an achievable target.

It has been suggested that nobody should be kept for more than six months without Home Office or ministerial approval. I understood the whole thrust of the debate was that no one should be kept without

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judicial approval; yet noble Lords are urging that the matter should go back to the executive. There is a well meaning contradiction there. The noble Baroness spoke of the Gulag. There is no automatic application after seven days paid for at public expense, nor after the further period paid for at public expense. No reasons are given in writing. There is no presumption of bail. I take the point, but we have produced a series of circumstances which are infinitely better than that. They are very significant advances. We seek to attack a machine which is not subject to judicial overview or written reasons without a presumption of bail. Without the automatic first and second routine bail applications, applications for bail can be made, or applications for judicial review.

There is some virtue in applying our minds very carefully to the terminal point, which is a very fair point, as to how long in almost all circumstances it is legitimate to detain people. I shall invite officials to consider that point. I doubt whether it will ever be set in statute or stone, but it is a fair question that requires a reasoned answer when we return to it on Report. It may not be entirely satisfactory--and it may be that I shall by then have obtained more material about how very few people are, in fact, detained for more than six months--but I promise to deal with that issue in my reply to the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford.

At the moment and for the future, I cannot anticipate the amendments being accepted in their present form.

7 p.m.

Lord Hylton: I thank all noble Lords who have supported the amendment. Every person who has given a good deal of thought to the matter has been in favour of the amendment. The Minister is in a minority of one. I sympathise with him--I know that he has a heavy cold--but it is not a happy position in which to be. He was not quite up to his usual form in suggesting that a considerable number of people are in the prison system because that is what they prefer.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: With the greatest respect, I did not say that. I said some will have to be kept perhaps for beyond six months on national security or public order grounds; and some--I did not say that there were hundreds of them--undoubtedly manipulate the process; and I believe that that is right.

Lord Hylton: I do not deny that people who manipulate the process exist. However, I have heard of only two cases where people remained inside for a very long time, for reasons of their own. One was the case of Chahal referred to by the noble Lord. The other was a man from Hong Kong who held the record, I think, for the length of time spent in our prisons before eventually being extradited. There may have been some cases of non-co-operation, but they are not as widespread as the Minister implies.

I was grateful for the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, on torture cases. There is a linkage between previous torture cases and attempts at suicide. We know that the Minister is a prison reformer and wants to eliminate, if possible, the incidence of

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suicide in prison. It is perhaps even more important in the context that we are discussing today. I and others have detected a tendency within the Home Office to deny that torture has occurred in asylum seeking cases. It likes to water the matter down and talk about ill treatment. I hope that that will be corrected, because there is no doubt that torture occurs.

The Minister did not seem able to answer the question about when prisons will cease to be used for detentions under the immigration legislation. Perhaps that will be forthcoming. Perhaps the noble Lord will write to me.

As regards children and young people, the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, correctly pointed out that we shall return to the issue on Amendment No. 114--to which I have added my name--and Amendment No. 115. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for his remarks about the shunting of people from one place to another and the harm that that practice does to the preparation of their cases in particular for asylum. I believe that those movements lead to the multiplication of appeals and to an increased number of cases for judicial review.

Detention before individual cases have been decided is a blot on the landscape. It is a matter of which we should be thoroughly ashamed. There is an urgent need for a time limit. It is a matter to which we shall have to return at the next stage of the Bill. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 70 to 77B not moved.]

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