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House of Lords

Wednesday, 23rd February 2000.

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


Lord Judd asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they agree with the recommendation by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe that the right of asylum should be incorporated into the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, we are not convinced that there is any need for such an amendment. There are more signatories to the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees and its 1967 protocol than the European Court of Human Rights. That has allowed a comprehensive and relatively co-ordinated approach to be taken world-wide to the question of identification and protection of genuine refugees. We are seeking, along with the rest of our European partners, to establish minimum standards in core areas of asylum practice and procedure as required by the Treaty of Amsterdam.

Lord Judd: My Lords, will my noble friend accept that that reply is inevitably a little disappointing and that there will be a great deal of hope in the Council of Europe that the Government will be able to look seriously at the recommendations that have been made there? Will he further accept that, at a time when there has been a great deal of debate about the abuse of asylum and about the treatment of asylum abusers, there is a tremendous need to reassert the principle of asylum in a world where there is still too much tyranny, oppression, torture and fear? Does he not agree that in Britain we have a distinguished and honourable reputation and record in this respect and we look to the Government to enhance it in future years?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right in his summation of the situation. We have a long and honourable record in this respect. It was for that very reason that the Government took steps last year to introduce a new Immigration and Asylum Act. We wanted to ensure that our measures, procedures and practices were fair and right and that they treated people properly and took careful account of their individual circumstances and of those unfortunate and sometimes tyrannical regimes in

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other parts of the world. The legislation sets out that fairer and firmer framework on which people can justifiably rely.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. On Monday I asked him whether there are any ways in which a genuine asylum seeker can enter this country legally and claim asylum. Does he not agree that our immigration and asylum laws are devised to keep out ineligible people rather than to protect the legitimate right to come here and claim asylum under the UN charter on refugees?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I believe that our procedures are right. They are strong and robust and that is in the best interests of race relations and of a sound and secure immigration and asylum system. That is the way we intend to operate in the future. There are legal ways in which people can come here and claim asylum status. We think that we have the balance right in terms of the law and the way in which it should be approached. We also believe that our system protects the interests of genuine refugees and works to exclude those who are simply moving here, quite understandably, because they see the United Kingdom as a very pleasant place to settle as economic migrants. We think we have that balance right.

Lord Elton: My Lords, given the fact that we are already bound by Articles 2 and 3 of the European convention, can the Minister tell us to what extent the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, would extend any right of appeal? Will he bear in mind that any extension of that right of appeal will absorb the time in the appeals process at present intended to be saved by the provisions of the one-stop appeal in the Act which is about to come into effect?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord has touched on an important point. Our view is that if we were to incorporate the proposals referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, well intentioned as they are, it could act to confuse the current situation. What we do not want to do is to introduce other layers of appeal that would further protract the system. That is what we were trying to get away from in introducing the Immigration and Asylum Act last year. We want those practices to be properly incorporated and to become effective because we believe that they are in the best interests of all concerned.

Lord Renton: My Lords, while I share the pride of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, in the principle of asylum, perhaps I may ask the Minister what the Government will do when the number of people granted asylum becomes so large--before long it could reach 100,000 a year--that it will not be reasonable to ask the British people to put up with the social and financial problems which that would involve.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I cannot accept the alarmist picture painted by the noble Lord. Yes, in

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the past two or three years there has been a steady increase in the number of people seeking asylum within the United Kingdom. But we believe that the measures we put in place last year will discourage unfounded asylum claimants and enable us to concentrate our time, energy and resources on properly processing those who are fleeing unpleasant regimes in all parts of the world. If one looks carefully at the statistics, one sees that the bulk of the problem is undoubtedly concentrated in certain parts of Europe, such as the Balkans, and in Afghanistan, Somalia and other places where there have been profound problems for people living in those countries. They are seeking to claim asylum in other parts of the world which are far safer; and that is understandable.

Lord Kirkhill: My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House whether the Government would support the creation of the additional protocol that would be necessary to give effect to the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Judd?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, for the reasons I outlined in my initial response, we do not think that we should. We feel that the approach we have adopted is proportionate, right and consistent and that it works well, particularly with our European partners.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, am I correct in reading into the Minister's first Answer the fact that there are no countries which are members of the Council of Europe which do not subscribe to the United Nations convention, which mainly governs asylum? If that is the case, the only effect of following the course set out by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, would be, as my noble friend Lord Elton suggested, to extend the appeal system, probably by two years or more. We know that there are great delays at the Strasbourg court. Therefore, the Government are quite right to resist it. Indeed, I believe that they should resist it even more firmly than the Minister suggested.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord is essentially agreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Elton, in his analysis of the situation. That is a conclusion which we broadly accept and support. We do not want further confusion in our immigration and asylum system. We have sorted it out. We believe that we have firm, fair and proper procedures in place and we think that that, and working carefully with our European partners to solve some of our common problems, is the best way forward in this policy area.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the course suggested might also complicate our present opt-out under the Schengen agreement, which would presumably need some renegotiation? That also could be a difficulty.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Baroness has touched on an important consideration which is part of our thinking in this area.

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Child Prostitution

11.10 a.m.

Lord Hylton asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What action is being taken to prevent child prostitution and to provide escape routes for young people involved in it.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Government have a well-developed agenda of action to prevent children from becoming involved in prostitution, to divert children out of prostitution and to re-integrate them into society. That includes the publication in the spring of new guidance on children involved in prostitution. In the summer, we shall be publishing our national plan to combat the commercial sexual exploitation of children.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, I thank the Minister for what I am sure is intended to be a helpful reply on a very serious matter. Does he agree that more than mere guidance is needed? Will he also accept that, so far, the criminal justice system has by and large failed to protect a very vulnerable group of people? Will the Government therefore ask police and prosecutors to act more strongly against pimps and other exploiters and abusers so as to bring them to justice?

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