Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Avebury: At an earlier stage, we discussed the situation in Northern Ireland and the Minister said that special assistance will be given to the RLC and the IAS to establish an office in Belfast. Will he tell the Committee in what other parts of the United Kingdom special assistance will be given to those bodies to establish offices? Will they have offices in Scotland, Newcastle or Eddisbury? I was interested to hear the noble Lord's reference to that constituency, which was once represented by my grandfather. I dare say that anyone living in Eddisbury will have to travel to Manchester. I do not know how much the fare is, but I am sure that it is more than the £1 which the noble Lord mentioned as being the amount a person will receive for one day.

Even if provisions are made for the establishment of RLC and IAS offices in the principal centres of population in the United Kingdom, unless the dispersal policies of the Home Office ensure anyone sent to the provinces will be within easy reach of such an office, a large proportion of their disposable income will be spent on travelling there.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: With respect to the noble Lord and the noble Baroness, I do not believe that any of these amendments is necessary. From the drafting, it appeared that the concern was directed to the fact that the asylum seeker should be entitled to have the legal representative of his choice. In the course of the speeches, that has changed to providing them with legal advice. Legal advice and assistance is already available to asylum seekers in accordance with the provisions of the Legal Aid Act 1988 and will continue to be available under the provisions of the Government's Access to Justice Bill.

In addition, the Home Secretary makes grants under Section 23 of the 1971 Immigration Act to the Immigration Advisory Service and to the Refugee Legal Centre, which are two voluntary organisations which provide free advice, assistance and representation at asylum appeals.

The amendments propose that an asylum seeker should have legal advice from a representative whom he or she has chosen. As the noble and nimble Baroness spotted, that gave rise to problems about unscrupulous immigration advisers, a concern which we all share, so she gave an oral amendment to her amendment--that it should apply to those on the registered list. In that context, at the request of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor--and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, raised the issue with my noble friend Lord Williams of

21 Jul 1999 : Column 1070

Mostyn--the Legal Aid Board has published detailed proposals for contracting immigration and asylum work to ensure that asylum seekers have access to good quality legal services. The Government are considering those proposals and will make their response known soon. The proposals are contained in the document Access to Quality Services in the Immigration Category. The proposals will limit the firms able to provide advice and assistance to those holding immigration and asylum contracts with the Legal Aid Board or Legal Services Commission. Contracting will improve the overall quality of advice and assistance provided and guarantee that asylum seekers receive competent advice.

The report also proposes that legal aid funding should be extended to allow contracted firms to provide representation before immigration adjudicators and the Immigration Appeals Tribunal. Therefore, under the existing framework, legal aid and assistance are available. It is a matter for the Legal Aid Board as to how they are provided. In the document to which I have referred, it is consulting on the best way to provide it. The means it suggests would get rid of the unscrupulous immigration advisers and would seek to ensure that the advice is competent and widely available. That deals with the first two amendments.

The third amendment, which was pushed hard by a number of Members of the Committee, relates to travelling expenses. The Government carefully considered that point when at an earlier stage they decided to provide under Clause 94(7) for the reasonable travelling expenses of appellants to asylum support adjudicators. The noble Lord's amendment would extend this to an entitlement to reasonable travelling expenses throughout an asylum seeker's time in the United Kingdom whenever he or his legal representative felt that a meeting was advisable.

We do not believe that such a wide-ranging power is an appropriate use of resources. For one thing, the making of an asylum application does not require legal advice. Asylum seekers can present their cases to the Immigration and Nationality Directorate without the need for any assistance from a legal adviser.

I would draw the attention of the Committee to Clause 86(1)(c), where the power is taken for the asylum support scheme to pay expenses incurred in connection with an asylum claim. The kind of expenses with which noble Lords are concerned--namely, travelling expenses to the legal representative--would fall under this power. The power is there in the appropriate case. It is better that it should be a discretionary power than a power as of right. In these circumstances, I believe that every point has been dealt with. I hope that the noble Lords will feel able to withdraw their amendments.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: Before the noble and learned Lord sits down, I should like to raise two points with him. I have before me the advice of the Legal Aid Board, which is of course described as recommendations to the Lord Chancellor. Before this moment, we had no reason to believe that those recommendations had been accepted--I do not know whether they have been. In the document, the Legal Aid

21 Jul 1999 : Column 1071

Board points out, as we have done, that good quality advice and assistance should be made available at the earliest possible opportunity, but the board itself goes on to say that, in a number of cases, refugees and asylum seekers do not find it easy to obtain legal help and that it is widely acknowledged that individuals tout their services to new arrivals at main ports of entry.

We are anxious to make sure that the individual asylum seeker or refugee is assisted to gain access to the legal advice which will help him, and not to anyone who happens to be cruising around. In that regard we have the Government's own wishes at heart. We simply suggest that the recommendations of the Legal Advice Board be accepted, and made viable for people who have been dispersed beyond the area where they can easily travel to obtain that legal advice.

Finally, I very much welcome the Minister's comments on the refugee legal centres and the AIS, both of which we greatly respect in this Committee. However, the problem still arises that, at the moment, as far as I know, they have a very limited number of offices where the people who work for them can interview and see asylum seekers. I am sure that that is why the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, raised the issues that he did in speaking to Amendment No. 171.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: The document to which the noble Baroness refers indicates that the Legal Aid Board is addressing the very problems which she raises. We cannot create high-quality immigration services throughout the country, where there are none. The amendments seek to make it a right for an asylum seeker to have the lawyer or legal assistance of his choice. In the course of this debate that has been expressed as the necessity of making legal aid available. It is available; the basis is set out in that document. As I have said, the Government are considering those proposals and will make their response known shortly. I do not believe that much more can be done on the face of the Bill.

I recognise the importance of the point raised on travelling expenses, but would that not be best dealt with by a discretionary power to provide travel expenses where that is considered appropriate by the asylum support group? I am not sure what more one could do.

Baroness Williams of Crosby : That point would be met by the earlier issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, who said that it might be dealt with in another way. We are simply concerned about the possible effects of dispersal on some asylum seekers' ability to obtain legal advice. Therefore, we should wish to see whether the matter could be dealt with in some other way. Perhaps the Minister would like to suggest another way, possibly through regulations or guidelines to the asylum support directorate. We shall obviously be concerned if the Minister feels unable to provide any assurance of any kind about what will happen to someone dispersed some distance away from any reputable legal centre. There are indeed such places--I

21 Jul 1999 : Column 1072

can think of several--where the only advice available was advice that I should not for one moment recommend anyone to take.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: The effect of the acceptance of the Legal Aid Board's proposals would be that there would then be a definitive list of those people who were respectable and those who were not. That would go quite a long way towards getting rid of the fly-by-nights by whom no one would like advice to be given. With regard to the asylum support scheme to pay expenses incurred in connection with an asylum claim, which would include travel expenses to see a lawyer, I should imagine some guidelines would be set down and that the question of whether they would be provided would be dealt with there.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 84 [Interpretation of Part VI]:


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page