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Lord Waddington: My Lords, is it or is it not correct that some countries which are signatories to the convention, including some countries in Europe, and their courts do not accept that persecution by other than an agent of the state attracts the protection of the convention?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am sure that with the noble Lord's experience in these matters as a former Home Secretary he will know that it depends very much on how one defines "an agent of the state". However, the noble Lord's point is a valid one and one that bears careful consideration in a complex international legal minefield.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, is the Minister aware that when I attended a meeting called by the UNHCR representative in London under the Three Circles Consultation, which the Minister has mentioned, I do not recall any representative of his department being there? However, it may be that such a representative was present but did not bother to say anything. Can the Minister enlighten the House on whether a submission was made to the UNHCR in response to the invitation to the Three Circles Consultation? If so, could that be published?
Lord Renton: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that in the 50 years that have expired since the 1951 convention was agreed circumstances have changed fundamentally all over the world? There are people now who have tried to rely upon the convention in order to maintain that they are refugees but who have not been persecuted in the way that the convention described and envisaged. The convention is now being abused and it is high time that it was revised and brought up to date. Any attempt that the Prime Minister or his successor makes in order to improve matters will prevent the convention being abused by people coming to this country who have no right to rely upon it.
Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, in the light of the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, does the Minister consider that changing the United Nations convention would be at best a long-term business and that the situation is urgent? Will the noble Lord confirm that there are twice as many asylum seekers now as there were four years ago and that three-quarters of them are refused admission on the 1951 criteria? Does he further recognise that the Government's policy of dispersal has failed on a test either of efficiency or humanity and that it is time to introduce reception centres, which we have promised to do?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am always greatly intrigued when noble Lords opposite raise the issue of reception centres. To my certain knowledge, our Government have provided for a detention centre at Oakington, but noble Lords opposite seem to forget that it is a Conservative council that has blocked the planning application for a similar centre in Kent. Conservative Members struggle to identify further and additional sites. If we were to satisfy the political wishes to which the noble Lord has given expression, we would probably need 50 similar centres, at a cost of £2 billion, for which I am not clear the Shadow Home Secretary has policy clearance. The policy is a rather mystifying one. I recall that Miss Widdecombe observed that it would take her some four or five years to incarcerate the entire asylum population, whom she would like to lock up prior to their applications for asylum being given fair consideration. It is a strange and baffling policy. I am struggling to understand how it could be easily implemented.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that locking up all asylum seekers would be in direct contravention of Article 31 of the Geneva convention, which says that those who arrive, even unlawfully, should be given freedom of movement until their position has been established? Will he also confirm that, in an attempt to avoid what would be a deeply demeaning competition to see who can be harsher to refugees, we might consider the possibility of employing some of those who are in this country, in the way that other countries do, at a time when we are recruiting from South Africa, the Philippines and elsewhere the teachers and nurses that we desperately need?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I listen carefully to what the noble Baroness says on these matters. She always raises them with great concern and with a feeling of humanity regarding the issues involved. Her interpretation and understanding are probably quite right. What we as a government have to do is a very difficult job. We have to strike the correct balance. We must treat people decently, fairly and properly when they come here seeking asylum but we must also ensure that we properly carry out our immigration and asylum legislation so that those who make unfounded claims are eventually returned.
Moved, That Standing Order 40 (Arrangement of the Order Paper) be suspended until the end of the Session so far as is necessary to give Her Majesty's Government the power to arrange the order of business; and that Standing Order 46 (No two stages of a Bill to be taken on one day) be suspended for the same period.--(Baroness Jay of Paddington.)
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, these amendments are before the House by common consent. We are happy to oblige. We listened carefully to what noble Lords opposite had to say about these matters. I took away the amendments and gave them careful consideration. All the amendments in the group work together. Four are consequential on the first. I hope that this will now ensure that matters are much happier when the police are deciding whether to extend a closure order. I am sure that it will make for the better order of that business. I am happy to support the amendments.
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