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The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, provision of a lift to enable those with mobility problems to have access to the crypt was included in the most recent summer works programme. However, English Heritage asked for the proposed access point to be changed. After investigation by the designers, revised details for listed building consultation were provided to Westminster City Council. The agreed period for its decision expires on 9th December. We understand that agreement is probable and we hope to proceed with installation of a lift soon thereafter.

Lord Carter: My Lords, will the Chairman of Committees confirm that when the refurbishment of Fielden House is complete it will be fully accessible?

The Chairman of Committees: Yes, my Lords, I am pleased to give that assurance.

Lord Imbert: My Lords, could other able-bodied Members of your Lordships' House be asked politely

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not to park in the disabled parking space near Peers' Entrance, because that prevents a disabled Member from coming here?

I have another point that may sound trivial but is even more serious. Could able-bodied Members be asked not to use the disabled toilets on any floor? A disabled person has no choice and, if the toilet is occupied, must go up or down a floor. I declare an interest in that, having gone down a floor only to find that toilet also occupied by an able-bodied Member of your Lordships' House.

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I have great sympathy with the noble Lord and hope that no noble Lord who does not need to would use the disabled toilets nor any of the disabled parking places. If there is a requirement for more disabled parking places, they can of course be provided.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, may I make three brief points? First, English Heritage is too frequently used as an excuse for people to avoid taking on their responsibilities. Secondly, lifts need not be ugly and distasteful; they can be installed well and unobtrusively. Thirdly, there are stages at which it becomes absurd to provide full access for disabled people—let us take the clock tower as an extreme case. We must not destroy what people value in this building in an artificial effort to make everywhere absolutely accessible for a minority.

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, on the latter point, we could not possibly make everywhere accessible, for the reasons given by the noble Lord. On the point about English Heritage, I fear that the House has an obligation as a major listed building to take account of what it says.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, will the Chairman of Committees tell us what arrangements are made for access by disabled people to the galleries of your Lordships' House?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I fear that I am not entirely sure of the answer to that; I shall have to investigate and write to the noble Lord.

Lord Ackner: My Lords, six months ago, I would not have thought that I would have been involved in asking questions on this subject. First, I should like to say how extraordinarily helpful are the staff to all those who have a disability, and how immensely helpful are one's colleagues. However, there is one area in which access could be improved: the steps up to the lift by what were once the Lord Chancellor's premises. The steps there could support a ramp, which some people could use—at present, me; but I expect that soon that will not be possible.

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I am sure that the whole House would join the noble and learned Lord in thanking our excellent staff for all that they do to assist all of us—not just those of us with mobility

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problems. As for the particular points he raised, I shall have to look into the matter; I shall do so after the end of this Question.

Baroness Darcy de Knayth: My Lords, does the Lord Chairman agree that huge progress has been made, and of a very high standard, regarding access for wheelchair users? We need to think more about the ambulant disabled getting to places as quickly as possible, given the distances to be covered. Thanks to the electric wheelchairs that we are now allowed, we can cover the distance in the right amount of time.

Secondly, are there any plans for sorting out any problems that the visually impaired may have for getting around this place?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness; I agree that a lot of progress has been made. As far as visually impaired people are concerned, there was a proposal for a kind of colour coding, but it would not be a practical solution. Rather than providing special facilities it is much easier if, every now and again—after all it is a fairly rare event—people are guided by members of the staff, who are always willing to do so.

Asylum: Independent Documentation Centre

3.10 p.m.

Lord Hylton asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they intend to establish an independent documentation centre for countries of origin to provide objective and up-to-date information in relation to asylum applications.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, there are no plans to establish an independent documentation centre. We recently established the independent advisory panel on country information under the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 to make recommendations on the country information material produced by the Home Office and help to ensure that it is as accurate, objective and up to date as possible. The panel is chaired by Professor Stephen Castles of Oxford University and held its first meeting on 2nd September this year.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply. Does he accept that an advisory panel is no substitute for what I am asking for? Is he aware that a report in September of the semi-official Immigration Advisory Service showed that the Home Office is relying on flawed and out-of-date information about countries of origin, resulting in poor quality of first decisions? Will the Government therefore study the independent system that has been functioning in Canada for several years in order to produce something similar here on which we can rely with confidence?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I cannot agree with the noble Lord's assertion. The IAS report was

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published on the day that the advisory panel held its first meeting. The Country Information and Policy Unit is closely considering the issues raised in that report and, where appropriate, amendments have been incorporated into the country reports to be published at the end of October. Not all the comments in the report were unfavourable, and some, I suggest, were a matter of subjective opinion.

As to the Canadian model, which I know the noble Lord is very interested in, it is interesting that the Canadians are exploring the options for establishing an in-house operation very much along the lines of the CIPU because of its greater ability to access what one might describe as "focused information" from government sources. But we are well aware of its operation and obviously we pay close attention to it and the way in which it works.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether information collected by UNHCR, Amnesty International and other non-governmental organisations form part of the information that is being used by the independent advisory panel? Is it possible to put that information in the Library of the House so that Members are aware how decisions on asylum applications are reached?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we of course take great cognisance of the UNHCR's report. It no doubt provides important intelligence on which the Country Information and Policy Unit bases and compiles its reports. It is worth reminding the noble Lord that the reports are not there to determine the outcome of individual cases but to provide background and independent advice and support so that general decisions can be made. That is the function and purpose of the work that the Country Information and Policy Unit undertakes. It is now held accountable, in a sense, through the advisory committee, which I am sure will play a very important and independent role.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, are the Government contemplating any further steps to ensure that those processing asylum claims have ready access to reliable, impartial and objective information about applicants' countries of origin, as recommended in the Home Office report published in September?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we do not have any immediate plans, but of course this is constantly kept under review. No doubt the advisory panel will have views to express on the quality and origin of the information. It has a vital role in holding the policy unit and its work to account.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the problems with the Country Information Policy Unit is that it only updates its reports once every six months and is often late with the revisions? Where a country such as Zimbabwe is rapidly deteriorating, the CIPU reports are miles out

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of date. Therefore, the independent adjudicators do not have access to information which may be material to particular applications.


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