Jackie Ballard: The Minister said that someone fleeing persecution should seek refuge in the first safe country that they reach. Will she describe the circumstances in which the UK would be the first safe country?
Mrs. Roche: Sometimes people fly directly to an airport in the UK. The hon. Lady must recognise that the convention never contemplated asylum shopping, whereby people look around to decide where they want to go. That has to be sharply distinguished from the basic and fundamental human right to claim asylum.
Mr. Lidington: May I press the Minister further on exceptional leave to remain? If subsidiary forms of protection are to be formalised within a Community legal instrument, it is inevitable that exceptional leave to remain will cease to become a discretionary measure to be applied by the Secretary of State and will instead become a transparent measure whereby decisions are taken in accordance with published criteria. Surely, there will have to be either a right to appeal or judicial review, because third parties will make judgments as to whether those criteria have been properly enforced. The measure proposes a big change in what we now term ``exceptional leave to remain''.
Mrs. Roche: Not necessarilythe devil will be in the detail. The criteria for granting exceptional leave to remain are quite transparent at present; we provide information about how we arrive at our decisions. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this is a big subject, but I do not think that it will necessarily have the consequences that he has outlined.
Dr. Palmer: Traditionally, refugee status has been associated with physical flight from the country in which persecution takes place. With modern telecommunications, it will become increasingly feasible for people to seek asylum from the country that they want to leavefor example, someone in Afghanistan who feels threatened but has not yet left his countrywithout being detected by censors or putting themselves in danger. Does the Minister believe that this would be a legitimate way, in principle, for someone to seek asylum?
Mrs. Roche: I understand my hon. Friend's point, but it is difficult to envisage the circumstances in which that would be the position. The convention stipulates that people must be outside the country that they are leaving before they can make a valid asylum claim. Undoubtedly, some people will want to consider that issue in the global consultation that the UNHCR has initiated.
Jackie Ballard: The Minister disparagingly used the term ``asylum shopping''. Is she implying that the only consideration for someone seeking asylum should be safety and that they should not have the right to make a choice on the basis of knowledge of a host country, language or historical or cultural links with a particular country?
Mrs. Roche: My comments were not meant to be disparaging. Asylum shopping does occur, and the hon. Lady must know that from her experience. The answer to her question is, yes, the strongest consideration must be protection. Why is the convention so important? The reason why it is important, why we should commemorate the 50th anniversary, and why it has a special status in the UK is that it provides the unique right to protect oneself from persecution. That right was developed after the second world war and secondary conditions should not be part of it. It has to be ring-fenced.
Mr. Gerrard: May I return to the question of subsidiary status? Does it generally imply that someone will be in the country for a temporary period? That has been true for specific programmes such as the humanitarian evacuation programme from Macedonia. Clearly in this paper the Commission envisages situations in which people need international protection. It refers to article 3 of the European convention on human rights, which will perhaps become more important for our case law. Is it really sustainable to have a long-term situation where people are given what we should perhaps describe as additional, rather than subsidiary forms of protection, with lower standards and lesser rights?
Mrs. Roche: I believe that it is right, for the reasons I have given before, to distinguish between the unique nature of refugee status and others. By their very nature, some of the subsidiary protections may well be temporary. There may be a sudden movement as a result of drastic events such as an outbreak of war or civil unrest. At the end of the day, most people want to return to their homes and their communities. It is therefore right to draw such a distinction.
Mr. Lidington: May I turn to the Commission's proposals for minimum standards of reception that it adopted on 3 April? What implication does that proposal have for the present system in this country?
Mrs. Roche: The hon. Gentleman will know that we are not discussing that document today.
Mr. Lidington: It is mentioned.
Mrs. Roche: Nevertheless, I shall not stray too far. In general, the proposal will not necessitate too many changes for us. As hon. Members will know, the Committee in another place recently reported on it and, broadly speaking, concluded that our procedures are in line with the standards that are being proposed. We will, of course, respond fully to that Committee as soon as we can.
Dr. Palmer: It is fairly clear that we will be the first safe country less often than Italy, Austria and a number of other countries. Does the Minister welcome the stress that the paper puts on resettlement assistance? Does she agree that the UK has a particular role to play in helping those of our partners who have to do more to help refugees for whom they are the first safe haven?
Mrs. Roche: Resettlement and integration are important subjects that sometimes get neglected. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. We are launching a national integration strategy for those given refugee status and others who have leave to remain. We are trying to look at best practice in this area. Much good practice has taken place in various parts of the UK and we are anxious to bring that together. Certainly, we will also look at what is done in other countries. We hope to communicate our experience to other EU member states too.
Jackie Ballard: Many people think that one of the pull factors that encourages asylum seekers to come to the United Kingdom is what is perceived as a generous benefits or voucher systemthe financial support given to asylum seekers. Does the Minister think it desirable or likely that among the common procedures used by European Union states would be a common system of financial support for asylum seekers while their application is being processed?
Mrs. Roche: We are shortly to consider a draft directive on minimum standards of reception, which will consider some of the different methods operated throughout the European Union and what the minimum standards should be. I am sure that that will excite much discussion.
Dr. Palmer: The background paper helpfully circulated to the Committee by the Home Office noted that research has shown that, in fact, claims for benefit were no greater among immigrant and asylum communities than among the indigenous population. Does the Minister agree that there is no research evidence to show that the size of benefit is really a significant factor in people's decision whether to apply?
Mrs. Roche: The research paper to which my hon. Friend refers is the document on migration that we published in January. I was grateful for the helpful comments made by the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) and other Committee members about that document. Of course, it was about migration, not asylum, but I am happy to confirm that one interesting thing was that it showed the net positive financial contribution that migrants make to this country.
Mr. Lidington: I want to press the Minister further on the draft directive on reception, which is mentioned on page 10 at paragraph 2.4 of the document. The full text of the Commission's draft proposal is not yet available in the Library. I hope that the Government will make a copy available. Is the Commission proposing entitlements to legal advice and the facility of an interpreter, when appropriate? If that is in the directive, will that not require certain changes in our domestic arrangements?
Mrs. Roche: The hon. Gentleman will have to forgive me, but we are not yet at that stage. To make the position clear to the Committee, the reception directive that the hon. Gentleman mentioned is not the same as the procedure directive, which was the subject of a report in another place. The reception proposal was published by the Commission on 3 April and has not yet even been presented to the Council. We have not seen its details yet, so it is too soon to comment, but the hon. Gentleman has my assurance that as soon as we are able, we will make our views known to the Committee.
Mr. Gerrard: The Commission appears to envisage a two-stage process in which we start with relatively limited common procedures and then move to an integrated procedure. The second stage would imply restricting options in spheres in which the first stage allows a degree of flexibility. Should we not ensure that when we have higher national standards it is possible to retain them, even with the move to common procedures at the second stage?
Mrs. Roche: I think that it is too early to say; we are at such an early stage. It is safe to say that, as all the draft directives are now being published, a great deal more progress has recently been made. My starting point is that all member states are signatories to the convention, to the principles of the European convention on human rights and to other conventions such as that on torture. All European Union member states are democracies, with highly developed parliamentary and legal systems. A common system must be negotiated; nothing can stay the same and there must be discussion. It is too early to say what those discussions will be about.
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