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House of Lords

Wednesday, 18th June 2003.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Chester.

Asylum Seekers: Processing Centres

Lord Greaves asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What progress is being made with their proposal to set up joint European Union holding and processing centres for asylum seekers outside the boundaries of the Union.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, the ideas put forward by the Government in March have evolved through constructive consultations with other member states and international bodies. We are encouraged that both the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the European Commission agree on the need better to manage asylum-related flows to make such protection both equitable and sustainable in the 21st century. We are looking to address these issues in partnership with countries in the region and will report back to the House in due course.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Several months ago, the Government's policy was that some people who applied for asylum within this country or at ports of entry should be immediately transported to camps outside the borders of the European Union for their applications to be processed. However, on Monday Beverley Hughes said in the House of Commons:

    "We currently have no plans to process asylum seekers on the borders of the EU . . . There is no prospect of any camps".—[Official Report, Commons, 16/6/03; col. 13.]

Will the Minister confirm the welcome news that this policy has been dropped and that the Government have abandoned the highly undesirable policy of transporting persons claiming asylum in Britain to unspecified far-away places before their claims have been properly assessed and determined in this country?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I can certainly confirm that the information given by my honourable friend Beverley Hughes in another place is correct. However, I cannot agree with the way in which the noble Lord described our policies. We know that

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there is a lot of speculation about what the policy might be. We welcome the comments made in the European Commission's recent communication and the support that we have received from the UNHCR and we will continue to work with it in relation to these matters. On transportation to unspecified places, we are working with the UNHCR to ensure that we have a robust position.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, is not the underlying principle of the 1951 refugee convention that applications for asylum should be made in the first safe country reached by those wanting to apply for asylum? What consideration are the Government giving to enabling people to make such applications in the first safe country they come to for asylum in the United Kingdom without having to use the monstrous and expensive services of people traffickers?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. The convention does provide for the first safe country to be the place where succour is sought. The Dublin II convention enables us to do that most effectively. We have to consider three areas: the support and assistance needed by the regions that suffer most from this difficulty; the value of a common asylum procedure, which we are developing with the UNHCR; and the appropriate provisions that we should take domestically to ensure that our system is fair and safe for all.

Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the UNHCR has nevertheless expressed serious concerns about the workability of this project, and that the Refugee Council has condemned it as unprincipled, unworkable and expensive? Does she not agree that the only solution to this continuing problem is the quota system advocated by my party?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I hear what the noble Viscount is saying in relation to the quota system. However, I cannot agree with some of his earlier comments. Noble Lords will know that the High Commissioner, Ruud Lubbers, is very supportive of the United Kingdom's proposals. His approach is similar to ours. We welcome the constructive role played by the UNHCR. Our proposals are very much in line with his Convention Plus initiative that will be formally launched at the end of this month. They, as we, recognise that we need a refugee protection and asylum processing system that is fit for the 21st century. We are now on the way towards crafting such a programme.

Earl Russell: My Lords, although I welcome any readiness by the Government to consult on and modify their proposals on asylum, is it correct that the original thrust of this policy arose from the desire to reduce the number of applications? Does the Minister yet understand that any success achieved by such a policy must be purely coincidental, because the levers that

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direct the number of asylum seekers to this country are not, never have been, and cannot be, under the control of Her Majesty's Government?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, of course I do not suggest that the levers are all under the control of Her Majesty's Government. That is why I said to the House that it is important for us to have a three-pronged attack. Some people are in desperate need and they flee places of terror, but it is a tragedy that many of the most vulnerable are incapable of fleeing. Sometimes, those with greater advantages fall into the hands of traffickers and others who abuse them.

As I said earlier, to reduce the numbers of applications made here, we need a three-pronged attack. First, we must support the countries at source. Secondly, we must work together with our European partners to fashion an equitable system. Thirdly, we must ensure that the system in this country is robust and fair and provides proper support for those who merit our support.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, the Minister said that she supports the quota system mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, but is that not a rather reduced system? Given the new policy of working closer with Europe, is this now not going to take a back seat?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I said that I heard what the noble Viscount said on that; I did not say that we agreed with it. Of course we are seeking to fashion something that will be fit for purpose, and we are doing that with the European Commission which has been supportive of what the UK has done. In fact, the European Commission's recent communication said that the UK paper was a very timely one, as it linked well to the global momentum created by the agenda for the Protection and Convention Plus initiative. It also said:

    "The UK paper provides the right analysis of the deficiencies in the current international protection regime and asks the appropriate questions, helping to address the challenges the EU asylum system faces".

The European Commission thinks that we have got it right, and I respectfully agree.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, since the Minister was unable to confirm that the transportation system has been abandoned, will she answer the reverse question and tell us whether it remains the Government's wish to carry out such a policy?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I can only say to the noble Lord that the Government are trying to look creatively at determining the most effective and efficient means of dealing with what we all know to be an extremely complex position. When we have a clear position, I will of course, as I said in my first Answer, report that to the House.

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Museums: Education

2.43 p.m.

Lord Harrison asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will fund a free annual museum visit for every child, as recently proposed by the Museums Association.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Lord McIntosh of Haringey): My Lords, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Education and Skills are developing a joint strategy for museums education. The Museums Association's imaginative proposal will certainly be considered, alongside others.

All the national museums offer free access, not only to children but to all visitors. In addition, new funds that we have allocated to regional museums will enable these institutions to increase the educational services that they can provide.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, in thanking my noble friend for that positive answer, I suggest that this proposal will help many schoolchildren to develop a lifelong love of their local museums and galleries. It will help teachers to deliver the national curriculum by making the best use of the museums and their education officers. It will help museums—which are often cash strapped—and it will encourage museums to ensure that their holdings are presented in the most user-friendly way. Will the Minister consider this proposal as an adjunct to the stunningly good government development of making entry to our national museums and galleries free?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, that is exactly why I described the proposal as imaginative. It is a real and important way of bridging the gap that exists between many children and the real objects that one finds in museums.

As a word of warning, on the Museums Association's own estimate, about 6.5 million children would qualify for support of this kind. Even if that is multiplied by the 10 that they estimate it would cost, not for entry to the museum, but for transport, instruction and help afterwards and before—and I suspect that that is an underestimate—it is still a great deal of money.

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