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Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. If he is passing from his rosy account of the 1999 Act, is it only by inadvertence that he has, I believe, failed to mention the disgraceful voucher system and the statutory theft of asylum seekers' money which it perpetrates? Will he deal with that matter because I did raise it?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I was hoping to come to that in my later comments. However, the

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noble and learned Lord has raised the issue. Of course, we recognise that problems exist in relation to the voucher system and, for that reason, we set up the review. We are satisfied that it is consistent with our obligations under the Human Rights Act. The review is considering evidence and allegations that have been made about the voucher scheme--for example, that it is stigmatising and humiliating. Obviously, if problems exist, we shall seek to tackle them. Undoubtedly the review will be thorough. We are most grateful for the contributions made by Members of your Lordships' House and others and by organisations which, quite rightly, represent the interests of refugees and refugee communities.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for making that point. I am most grateful to him. Can he tell us what is being done in relation to the matter of change, which several of us asked about?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, undoubtedly that is one issue on which the review will pass an opinion. I shall not pre-judge the outcome of the review. It would be quite wrong for me to do so, and I am sure that the noble Lord would not expect that.

In a debate in this House on 1st March last year on the subject of asylum, I believe that it was the noble Lord, Lord Renton, who said:


    "It is for consideration whether we should now consult other countries, especially Germany, which has absorbed even more immigrants, as to whether the Geneva Convention should be modified".--[Official Report, 1/3/00; col. 579.]

Perhaps I may re-emphasise that we are committed to meeting our obligations under that convention. However, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has begun a debate within the EU and beyond about how we can develop a more rational and effective international protection regime--one that enables us to devote less time and effort to dealing with unfounded claims for asylum. As several noble Lords, and notably the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, said, the convention was conceived in different times. There is an urgent need to develop an international protection regime which is better suited to this new and different age. I am glad to say that that is being recognised by the UNHCR.

In the meantime, we must work closely with our partners in Europe to develop practical solutions. We are working closely with the French Government. Security at Calais has been tightened. We have agreed on the introduction of juxtaposed controls for Eurostar passengers. Juxtaposed controls will enable UK officers to operate our immigration control at stations in France which serve the Eurostar.

In addition, at the Franco-British Summit last Friday in Cahors, we reached agreement to extend those controls to all passengers using Eurostar, whether they intend to travel to the UK or only to Calais. That is a significant improvement in our security, given that in January alone 458 inadequately documented passengers arrived here, having boarded the Eurostar with a ticket for Calais.

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The French Government intend to have those measures ready for implementation by June this year. I believe that that demonstrates their understanding of the great concern which the abuse of this route causes to the United Kingdom Government and our citizens. We have also agreed to work together closely in developing a replacement to the Dublin Convention in a way that operates more effectively than the current convention, which does nothing to discourage asylum shopping.

We are also working with other countries to tackle the organised criminals who control the traffic of human beings, particularly through the Balkans. We are extending the immigration liaison officer network in the western Balkans and other countries. Officers will be sent to Zagreb, Budapest, Vienna and Rome as soon as possible. We are working with the Italian Government and other EU member states to provide hands-on assistance, advice and training to help the authorities in that part of the Balkans.

As a follow-up to the discussions at the informal Justice and Home Affairs Council on 9th February, the United Kingdom hosted a meeting of officials on 12th February to take that work further forward. In accordance with the conclusions of the Nice European Council, we are looking for early agreement on measures to impose tough penalties on traffickers across the EU.

We have a comprehensive strategy to deal with asylum. We are investing substantial additional resources. We are streamlining procedures to deal fairly but more quickly with asylum claims. We are putting in place new measures, such as the civil penalty and new fingerprinting systems, to tackle illegal immigration and to deal with those who abuse the system. Those are tough measures. During the passage of the Immigration and Asylum Act, the noble Lord, Lord Cope, said,


    "indeed, it is tougher in some important respects than the approach of the previous government".--[Official Report, 29/6/99; col. 183.]

We are also taking action at the international level to deal with asylum pressures, which affect the whole of Europe.

Only a few minutes remain in this debate, and I am aware that many questions were raised on which I have not touched. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, asked how many appeals were dismissed because appellants could not turn up at an appeal hearing. Statistics on appeal outcomes are the responsibility of the Immigration Appellate Authority. Although about 80 per cent of appeals are dismissed, I understand that figures for those dismissed because the appellant did not attend are not available.

The noble Lord said that interviewing asylum seekers immediately on arrival was unfair. It is our objective, as it was of the previous government, of whom the noble Lord was a member, to interview asylum seekers as soon as possible after they make their claim. That is part of our effort to speed up the process, and it is an effective approach.

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The noble Lord also questioned the arrangements for statement of evidence forms to be returned. We will soon ensure that guidance about the completion of those forms is available in the 60 languages that are most commonly spoken by asylum seekers. We believe that the time limit for completing the forms, which represents about one quarter of the two-month period for making the initial decision, is fair. About three quarters of applicants complete the form on time.

The noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, asked about the measures that we are taking to integrate graduates and skilled workers. We are committed to ensuring that refugees should have every opportunity to rebuild their lives in the community for their benefit and that of their families. Last November, I believe, we launched the full and equal citizens initiative, which examines the ways in which government and the wider community can do more to help with integration.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked about the number of asylum seekers who did not want accommodation but did want vouchers. As of 29th January, 33,300 applications for support had been received, and 9,100 were for subsistence support vouchers only.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked whether the Immigration and Nationality Directorate would cease to use prisons for the detention of asylum seekers. Some 500 prison places are provided for detention of asylum seekers. That is only a temporary arrangement, which will last for roughly 12 months. It is not desirable for that part of the prison system to be used in that way.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, asked when we would announce the conclusions of our consultation process. I have dealt with that point. There have been many useful representations. Earlier this year, we said that they would be drawn together and that is still our intention. I shall of course ensure that the correspondence to which the noble Lord referred is chased up. It is important for Members of your Lordships' House to have a timely response to the important questions that they ask.

The noble Lord also asked whether case workers could go to asylum applicants to interview, rather than vice versa. That matter was raised in the noble Lord's correspondence. Without pre-empting that matter, I doubt whether such an arrangement would in all events be practicable. The conduct of an interview requires suitable premises and often an interpretation facility. It is essential to use our operational capacity to best effect. However, we are increasing capacity in Liverpool and Leeds to enable additional interviewing in the regions.

I have tried to answer as many questions as I could during the debate.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, I asked a question to which the noble Lord did not respond; namely, about the costs of the process. The suggestion

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was that it was 600 million, but a letter from the Home Office in The Sunday Times said that it was 834 million.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I willingly confess that I struggled to find the figures in my briefing notes. I shall endeavour to correspond with the noble Lord--I always do, and find it very amenable. He will be provided with those figures.

This has been a useful, valuable and stimulating discussion. We have moved the debate on. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, is to be congratulated on that achievement this afternoon. We have had a civilised debate--such debates should be conducted in that way--and the noble Lord will help us along that important path.

5.35 p.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, this has been a moving debate on an important subject and I thank all those on all sides of your Lordships' House who took part in it. The debate has been singularly free of political cant, as several noble Lords said, and it explored several issues that are of continuing importance in this context.

Several noble Lords referred to the failure of the voucher system. In response to the winding-up speech of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, I have to say that the matter will not rest there. Those who are in receipt of a voucher may find that deeply unsatisfactory, for all of the reasons that were mentioned. It is no good to be told, "It will all be sorted out one day". Recipients need to know when that will be done. Those noble Lords who raised the matter will doubtless return to that matter.

I suspect that the same is true of the question of dispersal, which is of great importance. My point about the long interviews conducted at airports of people who had just arrived after a difficult 12-hour journey from another part of the world needs further investigation, as does the time for filling in statement of evidence forms. We also need to ensure that notes are available in the right language for those who fill in those forms.

The debate has moved this difficult issue forward. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, and my noble friend Lord Garel-Jones for supporting my suggestion that we should find a place in the immigration statistics and rules for details about economic migrants. Such migrants might, in due course, be able to come to this country for some years as guest workers.

Finally, I was struck by the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. He referred to charities in the North East that helped refugees and illegal immigrants, and said that that demonstrated a civilised world to those who had lost touch with civilisation. I hope that our debate this afternoon will be seen by the outside world as a step in the same direction. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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