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Home Affairs - Minutes of EvidenceHC 71
Taken before the Home Affairs Committee
on Tuesday 11 June 2013
Keith Vaz (Chair)
Dr Julian Huppert
Mr David Winnick
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Natasha Walter, Women for Refugee Women, and Debora Singer MBE, Asylum Aid, gave evidence.
Q44 Chair: This the Committee’s inquiry into asylum, and could I ask all Members to declare any additional interests that they have over and above what is in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests; could I declare that my wife is a solicitor and sole practitioner.
Can I welcome our two witnesses, Debora Singer and Natasha Walter. You are the first witnesses in our inquiry on asylum, which the Committee has been keen to have for some time. Could I ask a general question and get a relatively brief answer-we will explore the answer with other questions-starting with you, Debora Singer: how would you describe the asylum system in Britain at the moment? Is it going well, is it in crisis, is it stable-
Debora Singer: I would not describe it as going well. Unfortunately, in my experience-I have been at Asylum Aid for nine years now-it has never gone well. There is report after report that shows the difficulties, particularly in relation to a culture of disbelief, and for all the changes that there have been-there have been some improvements and some of them to do with women’s issues-there are still a lot of problems, particularly in terms of the quality of decision making in the asylum system.
Q45 Chair: We will explore them as we go on the session. Natasha Walter, if you were giving a description of the system at the moment, how would you describe it?
Natasha Walter: I would describe the system as very problematic. I think it is often a very chaotic system. I think it can be an inhumane system as well. Obviously, I am also speaking very much from the perspective of what happens to women in the asylum process. I worked as a journalist, as a writer, and I was drawn to focus my energy on women in the asylum process to set up this organisation, Women for Refugee Women, because I was so concerned by the stories that I was hearing from women who had sought asylum in the UK and were being seriously let down by the asylum process. I think that is still the case. Although, as Debora said, there have been some changes on paper, I think in practice we are still seeing unfortunately the same mistakes being made again and again and again, and that represents a waste of resources and also a great waste of human life and it can be very problematic.
Q46 Chair: Let us explore some of these points. First of all, the number of women who win their cases on appeal tends to show that the initial decision making is not as robust as one would like. Obviously you do not expect the Government to win every single case before the tribunal, but it is quite a remarkable fact that women are more likely to win their appeal cases. The issue of decision making and the time it takes to make decisions is a difficult one. Do you see this being improved at the moment or do you think it is getting worse? One of the features of what this Government said-and it appears to me they are winning this particular battle-is that they want a quick decision, so they tell people, "Yes, you can stay," or, "No, you cannot stay". Having had many, many cases of this kind over the last 26 years, one of the things that most frustrates people is the fact it takes too long. Is that getting better, Debora Singer?
Debora Singer: I think the key issue is the importance of getting the decision right first time, and that obviously then makes things go quicker because you do not have the delays with appeals.
If I could just pick up the point you made about the overturn on appeals and explain that, the research that we did at Asylum Aid showed that the reason that women were being refused at the first initial decision making was because they were not being believed, and then when it came to appeal the immigration judges were believing them. We realised that what was happening was that they were using different standards of proof. The immigration judges were using the lower standard of proof, which is the one that they should be using; it is the one that the appeal courts have agreed, it is the one that is in the UNHCR handbook, it is in the case owner’s own guidelines, but when we looked at the cases of the women we researched, we saw that the case owners were using too high a standard of proof. They were using "beyond reasonable doubt", which is the criminal justice standard of proof, or sometimes the civil standard of proof, about the balance of probabilities. The issue with the standard of proof is particularly relevant to women because of the types of persecution that they have experienced.
Q47 Chair: Natasha Walter, there has been a 53% rise in the number of asylum seekers awaiting an initial decision for more than six months. Do you think it would be better to restore the target that was there before June 2010: that the initial decision had to be in six months?
Natasha Walter: There obviously has to be a balance struck between having quick decisions and giving women a chance to gather the evidence that they need to gather, and to be able to disclose what happened to them. It is important that decisions are made within a reasonable time frame. I would also like to mention the importance of dealing with the backlog with those legacy cases. I know that the Committee is aware of that.
Q48 Chair: Turning to the backlog, the last figures we had were 33,500. You obviously do not have fresh figures, because they come from the Home Office, but is that a concern to you-the fact that 33,500 are awaiting a decision?
Natasha Walter: This is a huge concern. About a third of those are likely to be women applying in their own right, and when you think of those 10,000 women, who may have fled very severe persecution-in our research and reviews we found that typically women seeking asylum in this country were fleeing extremely severe forms of persecution, often gender-related persecution such as rape, sexual violence, forced marriage, forced prostitution and so on. When they have been waiting four, five, six, seven or eight years for a decision, the impact on the individual life is severe.
I would love to just draw the Committee’s attention to one case study in the written evidence that we sent through of a woman who made her initial claim for asylum 11 years ago. She has no idea where that case is now in the system-letters from her, letters from her solicitors, go unanswered. John Vine I know has brought evidence on the unopened mail, and just the impact of that on an individual woman, who now has a couple of young kids and is not entitled to support, is extreme and severe.
Chair: That is very helpful.
Q49 Mr Winnick: Thank you. The Chair has spoken about successful appeals by women in asylum cases. Would you say that by and large the line that is taken by the Home Office, obviously before the cases go to appeal, avoids gender discrimination or otherwise? Everyone denies gender discrimination, don’t they?
Debora Singer: They do. I think the system is not gender-sensitive and in that way it does discriminate against women. The wrong standard of proof is an example of that. So, when the women come, because of the types of persecution that Natasha has described, they do not come with documents in the way you would if you were a political refugee; you do not have documents when you have been subjected to domestic violence, for example. So, because they do not have documents, they are then forced to fall back on giving oral testimony. What we know about women who have suffered these types of human rights abuses is that the trauma affects their memory, they can’t remember everything, there are inconsistencies in their memory, and we know that the shame makes it very difficult to disclose issues; they either do not disclose them or they disclose them late. Because of the case owners using the wrong standard of proof, those issues are compounded, and that is what affects particularly the women in terms of the decision making. Yes, you could say that that is gender discrimination.
Mr Winnick: Natasha Walter, would you take the same view?
Natasha Walter: Yes. I do think there is still a lack of understanding in the decisions that I have seen, and talking to others that we work with, a lack of understanding of the kinds of persecution that women do face, in the Home Office and what was the Border Agency. Over the last few years, I think we would all agree that there has been a growth in understanding of the persecution women face around the globe. We now do have this initiative from the Foreign Office to combat sexual violence in conflict.
Mr Winnick: More sensitivity?
Natasha Walter: Much more sensitivity and understanding. We do have, I think, more understanding now in the police and criminal justice system about the nature and impact of sexual and domestic violence. What surprises me constantly is the way that this changing awareness, this learning that seems to be going on elsewhere in Government and in our society, does not yet seem to be reflected in the immigration departments at the Home Office. That is what we need to ask: why can’t the decision makers in the Border Agency or the new department bring themselves into line with this growing awareness elsewhere?
If I could just give one example that really struck me recently, when William Hague was on that trip to Goma recently with Angelina Jolie and saying to the women there in Goma, "We want to bring your attackers to justice. We want to end the culture of impunity. We believe you," at that very moment we were supporting a woman from Goma who had come to this country after being kidnapped and repeatedly raped over a period of months, and she was told to her face at the screening interview that they did not believe a word she said. She was sitting in Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre trying to resist removal while William Hague and Angelina Jolie were in Goma, and she felt bitterly when she saw that on the news. It is that connecting the dots. I am not saying, and Debora is not either, that anyone coming to this country claiming gender-related persecution should be given some kind of free pass through the immigration process; that would be absurd. We are just talking about a more dignified, humane process.
Q50 Mr Winnick: Some would say, under successive Governments, that officialdom has a sort of feeling that people are not always telling the truth, which you concede, and it would be odd if it was otherwise, and that every effort should be made to minimise the number against a backdrop where, certainly, the present Administration makes it clear it wants to substantially reduce the number of people coming in to live here from abroad. Would you say there is a sort of inbuilt suspicion?
Natasha Walter: Yes, I think there is an inbuilt suspicion, and at the moment the balance has shifted too far towards an emphasis on numbers and trying to increase removals and too far away from the understanding of protection and of the person seeking asylum as an individual with a true history of persecution.
Debora Singer: May I just add something to that? When you make the comparison with the other systems, with something like the criminal justice system-so, before I worked at Asylum Aid, I worked for Victim Support for 10 years, and I remember the special measures on vulnerable, intimidated witnesses coming in; I remember the Achieving Best Evidence guidance coming in, and senior police who worked on issues of serious sexual violence talk about the importance of believing the victim. It doesn’t always work.
At the moment in the media you will have talk about the historic abuse cases, but then you will get the people from the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Director of Public Prosecutions saying, "We need to believe the victims." The reason they do that is not because the police are some radical feminist organisation; they do it because they have worked out that that is the best way to build the case, to collect all the evidence they need to further the case that they are working on. Now, when we raised suggestions like that with the officials in the Home Office, they have not picked that up. They still work from this culture of disbelief.
Q51 Mr Winnick: The guidance given by the Home Office states, "For those without satisfactory childcare arrangements of their own, each UK Border Agency"-as it was named at the time-"regional office has its own arrangements in place to ensure that children are not present when parents are interviewed about their reasons for seeking asylum." Is that followed through in practice?
Debora Singer: Yes. What is interesting with the policy is that it didn’t come out as a national policy; it came out as regional practice on the back of a campaign that a number of us worked on. So, over the last few years, since 2007, there is now childcare provision in each of the regional offices except London. It was subsequent to that happening that it was put into the policy. Just as an example about how these gender issues have not been mainstreamed into the asylum system, the letter that goes out to people applying for asylum still says, "We do not have childcare provision. Do not bring your children." I have pointed that out to the right Home Office official for two years now, and that letter has not been changed.
Q52 Nicola Blackwood: I just want to take you back to the comments that you were making about the particular culture of disbelief surrounding violence against women and the point that you were making, that there is a wider sensitivity to these risks, particularly with sexual violence, coming from certain conflict states. Now, it is one thing to try to increase attitude changes, which can be quite difficult, but there is another challenge for the immigration teams where it comes to whether their actual guidance is appropriate and allows them room to use those attitude changes. So, I have an example here of the guidance, which says that forms of persecution may be different for women than men; discrimination may amount to a country seeking serious legal restrictions on women. Do you think that this guidance is appropriate and sufficient and allows those officials to make the distinctions that you think are necessary?
Debora Singer: A lot of training and guidance has been developed over the years and updated in relation to these issues, and a number of the stakeholders have been involved in that. That is all of a reasonable standard now, and the problem is not the lack of guidance or training or its content; the problem is that it is not implemented. That comes out time and time again. It came out in our research, and UNHCR has just published in the last two weeks-since all this training and guidance had been implemented-a report; Amnesty International has done a very recent report. It keeps coming out that the guidance is not being followed, and the concern we have is that it seems that there are no mechanisms, no performance management systems that come back to people when they do not follow the guidance, and that there is nothing that says, "If you do not follow the guidance, there will be consequences".
So, we would see that what is really important is a change in culture, so that you move away from this culture of disbelief towards a culture of protection-towards one that recognises human rights and equalities and gender issues. At the moment, it seems that there is an opportunity to do that, because of the Home Secretary disbanding the UK Border Agency and moving it into the Home Office and talking at that time about the need for culture change. There is the opportunity for a change in leadership, and there is also the opportunity to learn from other systems, like the criminal justice system, of what has worked for them, what the Metropolitan Police has done, what has failed-to learn from those successes and failures.
Q53 Nicola Blackwood: So, where these reports have come out and they have made these points about the different aspects of guidance not being followed, what has been the response of either the UKBA, as was, or the Home Office, to those criticisms? Have they ever accepted that there need to be adjustments and changes?
Debora Singer: I think they have accepted some of it, not all of it, and when they have accepted it they have updated their guidance. They are updating their guidance now on credibility because of the UNHCR report. They have brought in training for the first time specifically on women’s issues because of our research, "Unsustainable", but it is not implemented.
Q54 Nicola Blackwood: When did the training come in?
Debora Singer: The training was rolled out from May to about December last year.
Nicola Blackwood: So, was that the first training on women’s issues, from last May?
Debora Singer: Specifically on women’s issues, yes. But the problem is one of implementation.
Natasha Walter: I would agree with Debora on that. What we feel is that there is a real lack of accountability, that, as I said at the outset, we see the same mistakes being made over and over again and we do not have any sense that in the Home Office there is a real desire to learn from those mistakes. So, as you were saying, there often is quite good guidance on paper, whether in the gender guidance or in the country of origin information.
Q55 Nicola Blackwood: So, how many appeals do you think are granted based on these sorts of issues, women facing persecution or violence against women?
Natasha Walter: Gender-related persecution?
Nicola Blackwood: Yes.
Natasha Walter: I would really love the Home Office to start collecting transparent statistics on that, because Debora and I have both overseen research over the last few years that is really trying to shine a light on what the Home Office is doing-and Debora’s excellent research on the overturn rate at appeal-and we have looked at research of the impact of refusal on women seeking asylum. But I think it is very difficult for small NGOs to hold this big system to account, and it is really important that the Home Office starts to collect transparent statistics, looking at how many women are claiming gender-related persecution and the outcome of those claims. In our research, we found that about two-thirds of women’s claims involved gender-related persecution. The majority of those three-quarters were turned down because they were disbelieved.
Chair: Thank you. May I just say to the witnesses, what you are saying is fascinating and we will ask you further questions, but we are on a time constraint, and if you would give more succinct answers, I would be very grateful.
Q56 Bridget Phillipson: Just to clarify the evidence you have given so far, you are not arguing for preferential treatment for women; you are simply saying that there is a disparity within the system, and to make sure that decisions are fair the Home Office needs to take measures to address that?
Debora Singer: In order to get those fair decisions, you need to have a gender-sensitive asylum system.
Q57 Dr Huppert: May I first go back to the issue that you raised, Chair, about people waiting for a long time for an initial decision, and presumably you have both seen some of the consequences of people stuck in that position; the Oxfam report, "Coping with Destitution", for example. Do you have any comments on those specific issues around asylum support levels, uprating, section 4 support, and the idea that has been raised in a number of places that if the Government have failed to make a decision for six months-and I am aware of a number of my constituents-people should have the right to work to support themselves, rather than relying on state support?
Natasha Walter: We would strongly support the right to work for people seeking asylum who have been waiting more than six months for a decision. We also feel very strongly that people should not be left destitute without any access to support and housing. This problem is prevalent among people refused asylum. In our report, "Refused", where we looked at the experiences of women who had been refused asylum in the UK, more than half of those who had been refused but not removed had experienced destitution. This can be a very severe experience for women.
If you are thinking of a woman who may have fled severe persecution already and the vulnerabilities that that entails, to be left basically on the streets, we found that high numbers were forced to sleep rough or to work unpaid and it had a huge impact on their mental health, so that the vast majority felt depressed and more than half contemplated suicide. We were also very concerned about the way this makes women in particular vulnerable again to sexual violence or to having to engage in transactional sex, and we have some anecdotal evidence on that, which we presented in our written evidence.
Dr Huppert: That is in the Oxfam report quite substantially.
Natasha Walter: That is also in the Oxfam report. Obviously if that is the kind of experiences that a woman has fled from-I mean, I was just hearing the other day about a woman who had been trafficked for sexual exploitation to this country and was refused asylum. She was eventually recognised as a survivor of trafficking and was given refugee status, but while collecting the evidence to make a fresh claim, she was destitute and was exchanging transactional sex and did become pregnant. You just think a woman who was trafficked originally into sexual exploitation, then being put in that situation in this country-it is very upsetting.
Debora Singer: We do feel that there is a huge inequity in the fact that there is a policy-the Government has a very strong policy, and the previous Government did as well-against violence against women, and yet the policies that happen in relation to asylum create a situation where women end up being extremely vulnerable to violence against women in this country.
Q58 Dr Huppert: I have to say that the idea of encouraging people to work rather than getting state support seems to fit with the Government thinking, so far as they have not gone for this.
But can I then turn to the issue about credibility, because in my experience with constituents, there is a huge problem with that. The most extreme case was a constituent who converted to Christianity in Iran who was sentenced to death, applied for asylum here, including a copy of the death sentence that had been passed against him, and that was not sufficient evidence that he was at risk. One wonders what people normally have as proof. He has now been able to stay. There is a question about how we get that, because we cannot, clearly, trust everything anybody says; that would not work.
One suggestion has been that all screening interviews should be video-recorded, so there is a chance for people later to have a look at what was said and how it was said, rather than notes and records of it. Is that something that you think would make a significant difference? Are there other tangible things like that that would make a difference?
Debora Singer: I think there are other things that would really help with screening. I think the issue of credibility and a poor credibility assessment at screening is a real problem, because one of the things it results in is people being sent into the Detained Fast Track, and for women that means they are then in a process that is much too quick for them to feel able to disclose what has happened to them. The research by people at UNHCR and Human Rights Watch has shown that there is a real lack of gender sensitivity within the Detained Fast Track. But also what happens at screening is if you are then in the normal asylum system, any inconsistencies or any omissions are then used against you.
We have suggestions about what would help at screening. One is legal representation, and another is to provide childcare. At the moment, everybody is expected to be screened in Croydon, unless they are particularly vulnerable, which means that there are pregnant women, women with babies and children, coming often on night buses, because they have to be there first thing in the morning, from all areas of the country. The worst example I have heard is from the Scottish Refugee Council, who were supporting a woman. They tried to get her screened in Glasgow; that was refused. She was pregnant. She came down to Croydon, and she went into labour on the steps of the asylum screening unit. So, being able to have your screening interview at the office that is nearest to where you live would make a lot more sense.
Also at the moment, you are asked at screening whether you would prefer to have a male or female case owner or interpreter. That is something we have lobbied for very strongly a few years ago. We were pleased when it was brought in at the time. What we have discovered since is that women often do not understand the implications of that question. They are not from countries where people say, "Would you like this official or that official?" and so what would make most sense really is for there to be an automatic allocation of a female screening officer, a female case owner and a female interpreter for women applicants. So, that is another of our recommendations.
In terms of videoing, I think we would have concerns about that, because at the moment what is happening is what you say at one place is then used against you at another place, so then if it is videoed, it would make it even harder, and I know Natasha will have ideas about how it affects women.
Natasha Walter: Yes. We were concerned about the idea of videoing at a screening interview because of the chilling effect that it might have on women and their sense of being able to comfortably disclose, but I was talking to a couple of solicitors prior to coming here and they were quite keen on the idea of the screening interview being audio-taped, in terms of the usefulness possibly to the applicant of being able to point to what they had said if there were any discrepancies with the written record. Apparently, audio-taping should be available for the substantive interview, but according to the solicitors I talked to, it often is not, and that is a concern.
Q59 Michael Ellis: May I pursue this issue of the credibility assessment, and pursue this point about guidelines, because you both referred to the issue of guidelines. I want to ask you a bit more about Home Office guidelines, but of course we must remember the meaning of the word "guidelines"; guidelines are just what they say they are, not a hard and fast set of rules. For example, there are sentencing guidelines in the criminal courts. Judges can and do, sometimes controversially, depart from those guidelines, but they are not hard and fast sets of rules, so I would assume that you would also concede that the guidelines are there as guidance and can therefore be departed from.
But looking at the Home Office guidance, it does state that the disclosure of gender-based violence belatedly, at a later stage in the determination process, should not automatically be prejudicial to the assessment of the credibility of the complainant. I presume you agree with that as a guideline. Do you think that guidance is being followed?
Debora Singer: May I just say quickly, before Natasha responds, that the guidelines-I am not going to answer on the sentencing guidelines, but this guidance, their asylum policy instructions-they are supposed to be exactly following them. I have had that from Immigration Ministers in the past.
Q60 Michael Ellis: So, the word "guidance" is a misnomer, is it? They should be called regulations?
Debora Singer: Yes. I think that would make sense, so they are absolutely supposed to follow that guidance and it can be used in appeals if they have not.
Q61 Michael Ellis: Okay. May I just draw you back to my question, which is that it does use the word "automatically", so it does say that a person making a complaint of gender-based violence at a later stage in the determination process should not automatically have that count against his or her credibility. Does that happen?
Debora Singer: It does happen, and one of the things that I think is interesting is that we see this happening regularly. There has been research on it that shows it happens. The most recent research is probably by Baillot et al; it is academic research. When you compare with the police, the police understand that just because somebody discloses something late, like rape or domestic violence, it does not mean it did not happen. And the guidance goes all the way up to judicial level.
Q62 Michael Ellis: Yes. May I just challenge you on it, because I want to give you the opportunity to pursue what others might say in answer to your point, which is, how else can the putative assessor assess someone if they do not disclose something? Put yourself in the shoes of the person making the assessment. You have both conceded that not everyone will come with an honest mind to these things, so how else can you detect untruthfulness if you cannot do that?
Natasha Walter: What we are arguing is that the assessment of credibility should be made more fairly and more humanely. When somebody’s credibility is destroyed-when we get those decisions that just say, "We don’t believe you," we often see that just one tiny little aspect, maybe a tiny inconsistency or a little bit of missing evidence, will be used to throw out the whole case and it is as though all the other evidence is not looked at.
Again, in the written evidence, we put in the case of Ella, which is another very recent case-a woman who was fleeing extreme domestic violence and her husband was very influential in a small African country. She had good evidence, very compelling evidence, but she was put into the Detained Fast Track, despite the evidence she had. Her refusal said, "We don’t believe you were married to your husband because you couldn’t remember his date of birth," and did not look at any of the other evidence. Brilliantly, because she speaks excellent English and because she knows how to use the internet, she had her marriage certificate couriered over from The Gambia to Yarl’s Wood Detention Centre in time for the appeal, but how many women would have time to do it? So, that is what we are talking about when we are talking about unfair assessments of credibility. We know that sometimes it is very difficult if somebody is not giving a wholly coherent account; how much time can you give them? These are judgments that have to be weighed up fairly, and, as I say, we are not talking about just giving everyone a free pass.
Michael Ellis: To be fair, there will be people who are dishonest.
Natasha Walter: Yes but everyone deserves a fair hearing. At the moment, we seeing these decisions that are so unfair, so weighted against the evidence that is brought.
Chair: Thank you very much.
Q63 Bridget Phillipson: In terms of the country of origin information, you have been quite critical of that. Is it that you think the information within the country of origin information is not of a high enough quality, or is it that it is not being properly implemented and used by decision makers?
Debora Singer: There are a couple of points there. The quality of the country information has been improving over the years. The most recent research by Heaven Crawley did show that there were gaps, particularly in relation to risk on return and in relation to internal relocation. Our own research showed that the country information was being used selectively. The worst example we had of that was somebody whose refusal letter said, "The country information says"-this was in Iran-"that women will be safe if they go to the police station", and when you look at the country report, the sentence above says, "Women are at risk of being sexually assaulted by the police if they go to the police station". But our key point really is that the best-quality country information, and it being used completely appropriately, will not do any good if you start by not believing the women.
Natasha Walter: I would agree with Debora, that I feel that it is more a question that it is often used very selectively and cherry-picked and not looked at in the round or with proper attention to the specifics of somebody’s case. Although there is room for improvement in the country of origin information, it is often the way that it is then used so selectively in decisions that is often very troubling.
Q64 Bridget Phillipson: When immigration judges look again at decisions, what is it that tends to lead to immigration judges overturning cases that had previously been refused? Is it the country of origin information?
Debora Singer: I would not say it is always, but in our research it was literally always the standard of proof. It is about using the correct standard of proof, which is a lower standard of proof than the case owners were using. It is actually in their guidelines to use that lower standard of proof, and they are not implementing their own guidelines.
Q65 Bridget Phillipson: So, it is not a question of information then being presented later?
Natasha Walter: With successful appeals it can also be a question of better information being presented, and more understanding on the part of the judge, more, the readiness to look in the round at that country of origin information and think about risks of return. A poor initial decision is not always about disbelief; it can also be about the trivialisation of gender-related persecution, so we do see those decisions that rest on, "Yes, we do believe that all these things happened to you. However, there is no reason why you should not go back to the same place and rebuild your life." I think we have seen-in my personal experience-that judges on the tribunals seem to have more understanding of the nature and impact of gender-related persecution and are less likely to trivialise it in that way and more likely to look again at those risks on return, as well as the credibility.
Q66 Chris Ruane: The March 2013 "Violence Against Women and Girls Action Plan" contains a number of commitments to improve the asylum system in relation to gender issues. Is there sufficient commitment within Government to ensure that these will be implemented?
Debora Singer: Those additional action points in the violence against women action plan came about because of a major campaign that we led through the "Charter of Rights of Women Seeking Asylum". What we are very aware of is that that strategy has really, up until now, shown a gap-that is why we called our campaign Missed Out-that women asylum seekers were missed out. It has a lot of activity in relation to women in this country. For example, I know this Committee has been interested in forced marriage as an issue. There is legislation against forced marriage, and it has been strengthened recently; there is legislation and activity in relation to preventing female genital mutilation, and yet when women come from abroad because they are at risk of forced marriage, they or their baby daughters are at risk of female genital mutilation, they have great difficulties in getting their cases understood and in getting protection.
Then the violence against women strategy also has a strong part in it now about what is happening abroad-violence against women abroad and protecting them. Natasha mentioned the Foreign Secretary’s initiative to prevent sexual violence in conflict. One of the countries that is very active in is DRC. We know that the proportion of women who come from DRC and seek protection here and are refused an initial decision is 67%, and that is in a country that people here know, through the media, as the rape capital of the world. So, we are very pleased that there are the additional points in the violence against women action plan, but we do feel that there needs to be a more robust joining up of issues across the Government, because from our point of view, whether a woman is in this country or whether she lives abroad or whether she comes from abroad to this country, all women deserve the right to dignity and respect and protection.
Natasha Walter: Yes, I would go along with what Debora said. Obviously we welcome the fact that there are these statements in the "Violence Against Women and Girls Action Plan"; I think it is important to see women asylum seekers included there. We do not yet see the real commitment from Government to make sure that this happens and that there is a real change on the ground for women seeking asylum. I really welcome the opportunity to be here today, and I do hope that this Committee will help the Home Office to see what is important now to take forward and try to stimulate that commitment and to challenge that culture of disbelief.
<?oasys [tb ?>I know this point has been made; this is not an enormous problem in terms of numbers. It is quite small numbers of people now coming to this country to seek asylum. The proportion of women is just a minority of those. We are only talking about 5,000 to 7,000 women who seek asylum every year. It is not a huge problem in terms of numbers; it is huge in terms of its human impact. But it is something that I think it would be possible to see real change on if there was that commitment from Government to the Home Office.<?oasys [nb ?>
Q67 Chris Ruane: Finally, what has been the impact of the introduction of the gender champion and the trafficking champion?
Debora Singer: We are not aware of a trafficking champion, but for the gender champion, that came in because it was a recommendation in the "Charter of Rights of Women Seeking Asylum", and a gender champion was appointed from the senior management team in the spring of 2010. So we are really pleased there is a gender champion. We would see their role as being limited by not having the time and resources because it is an add-on to the rest of their work. Ideally, we would see them as having more of a role in sharing a vision across the asylum system. I think the changes in culture that we were talking about earlier would be a beneficial point placed with that gender champion to then have a role. It would be easier for them to be putting forward the suggested changes we have been discussing.
Q68 Chair: Some very quick final questions with quick answers: first of all, do you think that asylum seekers should be allowed to work while their cases are being considered? A quick yes or no.
Debora Singer: Yes.
Natasha Walter: Yes. From what Julian Huppert said, if they have been waiting for more than six months for their case to be decided-
Q69 Chair: So, that is what it should be; if they are waiting longer than six months, they should work?
Natasha Walter: That seems to be a good benchmark. We would also like to add on to that that it is very important to retain support for those seeking asylum for those who are unable to work.
Q70 Chair: Secondly, the £5 a day Azure card that they use; there are a lot of problems with this. It cannot be used in certain shops. It can only be used in certain ways. Do you have worries about that?
Natasha Walter: Huge worries. We think it is very difficult, particularly for women and children. I understand that the Azure card was introduced as a tool to be used for the shortest possible period of time. Because of the backlog that we have spoken about, we see women living for long periods this kind of asylum support.
Q71 Chair: Because they cannot use it on the bus, can they?
Natasha Walter: They can’t use it on a bus. You just need cash for your daily life, in order to make ends meet. It is horrible for very vulnerable people to be forced into this situation.
Q72 Chair: Debora Singer, finally, on the COMPASS programme-the £883 million contract that has gone to G4S. Are there concerns about it? We have received evidence that some of the sub-contractors are pulling out and G4S is not managing it effectively.
Debora Singer: Yes.
Natasha Walter: Yes. We have huge concerns about it. From all the evidence that is coming back, G4S clearly does not have mind to the needs of vulnerable people in this contract. We do not feel that they are the appropriate people to be taking this forward.
Q73 Chair: Was it a mistake to take it away from the original contractors and give it to G4S?
Natasha Walter: Yes. From the evidence that we have coming back, it is hugely problematic. We hate hearing about women and children in these dreadful situations being unable to be housed with dignity and safety.
Q74 Chair: The Committee will be visiting some of these places.
Natasha Walter: We would welcome it.
Q75 Chair: You have mentioned particular individuals whom you have highlighted in your written evidence. If you would like us to meet in private, we are very happy to do that as part of the inquiry that we are having. Thank you very much indeed for coming in to give evidence. If there is something you have missed out, please write to us or send us a message and we will follow it up. Thank you.
Natasha Walter: Thank you very much.
Debora Singer: Thank you.
<?oasys [pg6,cwe1] ?>Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Sonya Sceats, Freedom from Torture, and Catherine Ramos, Justice First, gave evidence.
Q76 Chair: Ms Sceats, Ms Ramos, thank you very much for coming to give evidence. You are going to have the excitement, I think, of a Division in the middle of your evidence, which means we are all going to disappear and come back, but we will try to get through as many questions as we possibly can in the short time we have available.
Thank you so much for coming to give evidence. We are going to concentrate in this part of the evidence session on some of the international dimensions, and specifically to do with torture. What do you think the scale of the mistreatment of returnees is? Sonya Sceats.
Sonya Sceats: That is a very difficult question to answer, obviously. We at Freedom from Torture have direct knowledge in the context of Sri Lanka of 30 Tamils who were harmed after returning voluntarily to Sri Lanka from the UK. We are directly involved in a further three cases of people who were harmed after forcible return from the UK.
Q77 Chair: Is it your view that people should not be returned to Sri Lanka because of the evidence that you have received? Or do you think that the Tamil community should continue to be sent back?
Sonya Sceats: After a very careful consideration of the specific evidence coming through our clinical intake, our position is more nuanced than that. What we have said is that any Tamil returning from the UK who has real or perceived links with the LTTE at any level, those people are unsafe and those people should not be forced back to Sri Lanka.
Q78 Chair: Catherine Ramos, you are the author of the Justice First report, "Unsafe Return". Is there a list of countries that you have or the organisation has, which you have told the Government are unsafe countries as far as returning people is concerned?
Catherine Ramos: No. I am not aware of that having been done. I have monitored what happened to Congolese returnees, and so I have concentrated particularly on that. I have followed what happened to some Cameroonian clients that were sent back, but I have concentrated on DRC.
Q79 Chair: As far as the Congo is concerned, the Home Office went on a fact-finding mission to the Congo following the publication of your report. Do you know whether the country guidance has been updated? Has there been any change as a result of the report that you published?
Catherine Ramos: The fact-finding mission went to the Congo after the country of origin information was updated. That was updated in March 2012. The fact-finding mission went to Kinshasa in June 2012. A country policy bulletin on returns was published, which drew on the fact-finding mission report. But I am concerned that there are inconsistencies between the two reports, which I have highlighted in written evidence.
Q80 Chair: Which we have. Your figures are pretty shocking. Fifteen of the 17 returnees to the Congo had experienced some kinds of violations. Is that right?
Catherine Ramos: Yes.
Q81 Chair: Violations included electric shock treatment, sexual abuse, being arrested at the airport, and two out of the five women had been raped. These are very serious.
Catherine Ramos: Yes. Men admitted to having been sexually abused, but that is what they admitted to-just sexual abuse during interrogation.
Q82 Chair: So, as I put to Ms Sceats, is it clear to you that nobody should be returned to the Congo until there is a satisfactory explanation as to what is going to happen to them?
Catherine Ramos: I don’t think people should be. I also think that, as the Amnesty International researcher for DRC said in April 2012, all information relating to DRC should be reassessed in the light of the violence during the election, pre and post election. It is said that there has not been a change in country conditions that would warrant a change in policy. But I think that information must be reassessed. Perhaps it has been.
Q83 Chair: When those 15 people out of the 17 were here, they must have told the Home Office in support of their claims to remain here that this was what they feared would happen to them if they returned.
Catherine Ramos: Yes. They were found to be of a lower level. They were lower-level activists in DRC. Even though certainly the Justice First clients whose cases I know better were involved with the Combatants, the Resistance Council, they were still deemed not to have come to the attention of the DRC authorities. But I have given the Committee members the International Crisis Group information.
Chair: Yes. Indeed; we have received it. Thank you.
Q84 Mr Winnick: Your organisation and others have made the allegation that the Congolese and Sri Lankan authorities monitor the activities of low-level political activists. What would be your definition of "low-level"?
Catherine Ramos: It would be the definition of the Congolese authorities as to what was low-level.
Q85 Mr Winnick: Would any political activity come within some definition as far as they are concerned?
Catherine Ramos: Yes. Again, during talks with people from Amnesty International, they felt that there was no distinction between high and low-level. That was this year, when I put it to them, "No, there should not be a distinction." Also, the International Crisis Group information that I gave you today states that the authorities are well able to monitor even low-level activities.
Q86 Mr Winnick: Are you surprised that the May 2012 operation guidance notes of the UKBA, when it was so known, say, "As regards political activity in the UK, no evidence could be found to support the allegations that the DRC authorities"-I do not know why Congo describes itself as a democratic republic, but there you are-"have either the capacity or capability in the UK to monitor low-level political opponents, including those participating in anti-government rallies in the UK"? Where would the Home Office come to that from?
Catherine Ramos: We have to ask who they are asking for evidence. I asked International Crisis Group, and I received a reply that they are capable; that the secret services receive high-level, high-quality training and are able to monitor. During my research I have been told, and I believe, that there is a national intelligence section within the embassy in London.
Q87 Mr Winnick: And of course social media and all the rest of it would be monitored.
Catherine Ramos: Again, that is in the fact-finding mission, that the national intelligence has operatives in Vodacom; that they monitor Twitter and Facebook for political activities. I have not been able to verify this further, but I believe that people handing in envelopes to DHL in Kinshasa have to hand in the envelopes not closed; open. I think that will of course affect anybody in the UK or in Europe or in any country who is having to find further evidence as part of an asylum claim, because usually DHL is used to send this evidence between countries.
Q88 Mr Winnick: Have you challenged the Home Office with the quote that I have given you? Have you or your colleague said to the Home Office that this is not so and included your evidence?
Catherine Ramos: I am in the process of finishing an update to my "Unsafe Return" report. That is what I am concentrating on.
Q89 Mr Winnick: Surely what the Chair asked you about, the number of people who had been allegedly tortured on return, is all bound up-it must be, presumably-with the way in which those authorities monitor what is happening, and if such people refuse permission, then such information is very useful if they want to persecute them.
Catherine Ramos: I think the fact-finding mission found the NGOs, who are all described as credible, being able to give independent, impartial evidence, refer to a blacklist. If there is a blacklist, somebody is putting names on a blacklist. There is also a code, P32, which identifies those who are involved in anti-Government demonstrations. Again, the UKBA document suggests that there is monitoring. Also, the NGOs refer time and again to the danger to UK activists or opposition to the Government because the UK is seen as a centre of political resistance to the Kabila Government.
Sonya Sceats: Would it be possible for me to add something to that set of questions on the Sri Lanka dimension?
The other dimension to this is of course what is happening in interrogations of people who are going back to these countries. In the Sri Lankan context we have a lot of evidence that those in that risk category that I set out before, going back to Sri Lanka, are being interrogated about low-level activities; whether it is about fundraising for the Tamil Tigers; whether it is about protests; whether it is about networks and so on. So, another way in which they are getting at this information is through people who are going back, which creates all sorts of very serious questions around the risk on return to certain groups going back.
Q90 Chair: Indeed. That is why I am surprised that your organisation has not called for a ban on Tamils being returned to Sri Lanka.
Sonya Sceats: We have been very careful to be faithful to what our evidence is telling us. When we have looked at the profile of our clients-and don’t forget that when I was giving you those figures before, these are really high numbers when you consider that these are only the ones who have been able to get out of detention, to flee, to make it to the UK and then to access our services. We have never seen numbers like this from any other country in our 27 years of people who have been tortured after going back from the UK to a particular country.
Chair: That is very helpful.
Q91 Bridget Phillipson: How easy is it for both the Congolese and the Sri Lankan authorities to identify failed asylum seekers on their return?
Sonya Sceats: That is a very difficult question for an organisation like ours, without in-country operations in Sri Lanka, or DRC for that matter, to answer. Our supposition is that it is fairly easy to guess that somebody coming back on a charter flight or somebody on a scheduled flight who is accompanied by an escort is likely to be a refused asylum seeker. There is also the question of information-sharing practices with the receiving authorities, and I am aware of-I have seen-correspondence from the Treasury Solicitor’s Department to the Administrative Court here in the UK suggesting that in around 14 cases there has been information passed to the Sri Lankan authorities identifying certain Sri Lankan nationals as refused asylum seekers, which begs lots of very serious questions, I think.
Catherine Ramos: As for the situation with the Congolese authorities, again I have given Committee members some of the documents that were handed to the Congolese authorities at the airport when a man was removed in 2011. He was handed these as he was being held in an office at the airport. They referred to him as being a member of Apareco and also as having taken part in demonstrations in the UK against the Government. The Congolese immigration officer I spoke to when I was in the Congo-it is in my report-said that they should be passed the names of people who are being sent back, and once they are passed the names that they would do a check. If that person has had any political problem before leaving the country, then the information in there would be passed to the national intelligence agency. Certainly, it seems from my monitoring last summer and what is identified by NGOs and the fact-finding mission, that returnees were taken from the airport into DGM detention in Kinshasa and from there they were taken to national intelligence for interrogation. Again, I was told that the travel document identifies the person as a failed asylum seeker. Even if the person does not have a political problem, if they have left the DRC on a false passport, they will still be imprisoned. The country policy bulletin has identified all of those who are being interviewed by Congolese officials in our immigration removal centres as either failed asylum seekers or foreign national offenders.
Q92 Michael Ellis: May I take the opportunity to thank you both for the work that you do, which is clearly very valuable and important.
I want to ask you about country of origin information. I note that both of you have been critical about the information that is published in what are known as country of origin reports and such things as operational guidance notes and country policy bulletins. This is the information provided to those interested about the countries in question. Can you outline what your specific concerns are? Can you be a bit more particular about what your concerns are with such country of origin information? Where is it going wrong? Why is it going wrong?
Sonya Sceats: In the Sri Lanka context, Freedom from Torture operates as a source of country of origin information for the COI service at the UKBA. We have generally found that service to be fairly responsive to the evidence that we put out in the country of origin information reports. It is a wholly different matter when it comes to the policy, and it is the policy that we really do implore this Committee to look at very closely.
Q93 Michael Ellis: Is this the country policy bulletins?
Sonya Sceats: Exactly. The country policy is found either in the operational guidance notes or in the country policy bulletins, and we have very serious concerns about the safety of the country policy bulletin for Sri Lanka.
Q94 Michael Ellis: Would you agree with that?
Catherine Ramos: Yes.
Q95 Michael Ellis: So, as far as the country of origin information is concerned, you are both happy about that, and you say that if you wanted to make some input into changing something about a particular country, you can do that and you know the mechanisms for doing it and they tend to work satisfactorily?
Sonya Sceats: We found, for example, that they have been very quick to put out updates where we have put new information out about, for example, the risk to certain categories of Tamil returnees.
Q96 Michael Ellis: And they have adopted that?
Sonya Sceats: They have, in so far as they have reported it, but these reports do not contain analysis. We have an example of where we have lodged an objection to an extraordinary allegation that was sourced apparently from the Sri Lankan security intelligence officials themselves that the Tamils were scarring themselves in order to fabricate torture claims. We put in very strong objections to that on the basis that there was no medical evidence to support the claim, and after our objections were lodged they did agree to withdraw that.
Q97 Michael Ellis: When you put in your points, you provide some medical evidence, or some sort of evidence, to support your contentions?
Sonya Sceats: Freedom from Torture is one of the world’s largest torture rehabilitation centres, so most of the evidence that we put forward is grounded either in the forensic medico-legal reports that we produce or in the clinical treatment that we provide.
Q98 Michael Ellis: How would you recommend this Committee deal with the issue of the policy bulletins? Where do you think the changes ought to be made there, and how do you think they can be made?
Sonya Sceats: In the Sri Lanka context the current bulletin is deeply flawed. It fails to reflect the evidence that we and many other NGOs have put out identifying risks to certain categories of Tamils. Not only that, the current policy bulletin does not even acknowledge the extraordinary information that was disclosed to us via a Freedom of Information Act response, which we have annexed to the written evidence that we have supplied to the Committee. That evidence demonstrates that in up to 15 cases the UK Border Agency or the Tribunal here has granted protection to people who were previously refused protection, put back on planes to Sri Lanka, made it back and then alleged torture. What they did not tell us, what they refused to disclose, was the number of those allegations of post-removal torture that were found credible by either the UK Border Agency or the Tribunal, and it is really imperative that you get to the bottom of that. Among other things, there is a very serious risk that Parliament has been misled by Ministers, who have repeatedly being saying that there are no substantiated allegations of post-removal torture.
Q99 Michael Ellis: Unwittingly, of course.
Sonya Sceats: This is for you to look at. One of the things that we would love this Committee to do is to call for a cross-departmental review, including not just the Home Office but also the Foreign Office and the Attorney-General’s office, to look at what has gone wrong in the handling of the evidence from the NGOs about the risk facing certain categories of Tamil. We think the terms of the reference for such a review should be looked at by you.
Q100 Michael Ellis: Briefly, do you have anything to add, Ms Ramos, for the Congo?
Catherine Ramos: Yes. The "Country of Origin Information 2009" was the last report before the update of last year. You can see that in 2012 there is clearly evidence in the possession of UKBA and the Belgian and French fact-finding mission that indicated there was risk to people being removed to DRC and also that they knew that the office of Voice of the Voiceless, which was supposedly closely monitoring returns at N’djili airport, had closed, but there was no update to the country of origin information from 2009 in 2011-not until 2012. So, in fact the 2009 information has been churned out all this time when in fact there was no office.
Q101 Michael Ellis: It had not been updated?
Catherine Ramos: It was not updated. And you cannot say there is no evidence from European countries if a fact-finding mission from Belgium and France has gone to the country. And you cannot say that local NGOs have no evidence if in fact you are saying in 2012 that an NGO expressed its concerns.
Q102 Michael Ellis: So, what you are saying is that it has become misleading because it is out of date, in that case?
Catherine Ramos: It is out of date. But it is said that the local NGOs in the Congo have no evidence of ill-treatment. That was said in a letter to William Hague from Theresa May, that they have no information of ill-treatment. But two months later, when they go and they interview NGOs, they now have a 90 to 100-page document of information.
Michael Ellis: But to be fair, that was two months later, you are saying.
Catherine Ramos: There were two months where it changed from, "There is no information with local NGOs," to, suddenly, "There is a lot of information". And that was given in the fact-finding mission report.
Q103 Nicola Blackwood: Ms Sceats, I want to ask you about the issues that you raised in your submission about the Detained Fast Track and your concern about the screening process being insufficient to determine the suitability for the fast track. Could you explain your concerns to the Committee? Could you also comment on whether you think that video recording screening interviews might help to address your concerns in some ways?
Sonya Sceats: Sure. Thank you for asking. It is a really important question. And thank you for all the work that the Committee has been doing on this issue over many years.
The fundamental problem with the Detained Fast Track system for survivors of torture is that people are selected for that procedure at a very early point in the process, after screening, when most survivors of torture have not been able to disclose their torture experiences for all sorts of reasons to do with the trauma that they are suffering, from the distrust that they have of authorities and so on. So, the problem is that we have a policy that says that people with independent evidence of torture are not suitable for the Detained Fast Track system but that policy is operating at a point before people have the chance to acquire the independent evidence that is required to demonstrate that they are not suitable. So, you have a Catch 22, and I would draw the Committee’s attention to the recent recommendation on 31 May from the UN Committee Against Torture that that evidential threshold be lowered, because it is essentially impossible for people to meet it at that point.
Nicola Blackwood: The UK evidential threshold?
Sonya Sceats: Exactly. So, they were looking at that very closely.
Our position as an organisation is that the Detained Fast Track system is an inherently unfair system and it should be abolished. But if it is going to continue, it is absolutely imperative that there is no routing into that system that takes place before people have had an opportunity to seek legal advice.
Q104 Nicola Blackwood: So, first they would need to seek legal advice, but also they would have to have a medical so that they could have a Rule 35?
Sonya Sceats: Or just access to an independent doctor who is competent to assess their health needs and their vulnerabilities and potentially to identify indicators that somebody may be a victim of torture.
Q105 Nicola Blackwood: I know that you have also been very critical about the functionality of Rule 35 as it stands despite the fact that we have had this audit. I also know that the last time we had Mr Whiteman here we were quite concerned by the fact that he seemed to think that Rule 35 reports could be submitted by detainees themselves or by the legal team, which is obviously not the case. They can only be submitted by medical practitioners. But obviously we have seen a very small percentage of Rule 35 reports resulting in release; I think it was between 5% and 11% last year. Can you say exactly what you think could be done to improve Rule 35 as it stands?
Sonya Sceats: Rule 35, as you know, was put in place by Parliament as a safeguard to equip the Agency to better comply with its own policy that survivors of torture should not be detained except in very exceptional circumstances. The whole point is that it is supposed to allow medical practitioners to flag to the decision makers that somebody might be a victim of torture. When you are looking at some of the statements that come from Government on what might be wrong with Rule 35 you need to keep in mind that the doctors in these removal centres are not torture specialists. So, it is not right for criticisms to be directed at them that they are not recommending release, for example, because firstly they are not told to do that and secondly many of them lack the skills or the confidence to do that. We feel very strongly that, as you have said before, an immediate independent review needs to be conducted of the application of Rule 35. That is the most important thing.
Q106 Nicola Blackwood: How would you respond to the comments that we as a Committee received from Mr Whiteman explaining that one of the reasons for the low percentage of releases resulting from Rule 35 reports was that there were three reasons for these Rule 35 reports? One was that a medical practitioner might report that detention would be injurious to the detainee’s health. The second was that the individual might have suicidal intentions. The last was that the detainee might be a victim of torture. He said that it was only really in the first instance that detention would be overruled, necessarily. How do you respond to that?
Sonya Sceats: That looks to me like a frustration of Parliament’s will. There is an entire section of Rule 35, Rule 35.3, the last part that you read out, which is about trying to indicate to decision makers that a potential survivor of torture is in detention. It operates on a precautionary principle. You should not have to require a recommendation to release in order for the decision maker to look at that evidence and to assess whether the Home Office’s own policy is being complied with.
Q107 Nicola Blackwood: So, in your assessment this is an incorrect assessment of policy because it should be simply sufficient for a Rule 35 report to say that a medical practitioner is of the view that this detainee is a victim of torture and if the UKBA agrees with that, then the detainee should be released? It is not necessary for it to be in addition to that, that detention would be injurious to the victims?
Sonya Sceats: No. And it should not even be necessary for the doctor to be saying this person is a survivor of torture because they are not skilled-and in many cases lack the confidence-to make that kind of call, because they are not specialists. And they would say that themselves. We have been engaging with the doctors in the medical centres in the IRCs for many years, and this is not their area. What they should be doing is flagging a concern, and that is all that Rule 35.3 requires them to do. They need to flag a concern that somebody may be a victim of torture, and it is at that point that the decision to detain needs to be reviewed.
Q108 Dr Huppert: To follow on from that, a number of us were surprised at the various descriptions from Mr Whiteman about how Rule 35 worked. He did have to clarify his position on quite a few occasions. But things have now moved on, and he is not in charge. Presumably you have had quite a lot of interaction with the new visa and immigration directorate. We will be hearing from the director of that shortly. Have they been good at engaging with the two of you about the whole asylum process? Does the asylum process even sit entirely within that directorate?
Sonya Sceats: It is a very good question. We and a number of other organisations wrote to the Minister following the announcement of the changes and the reabsorption of the functions back into the Home Office, requesting a meeting to talk about what the implications for the asylum system would be, and as usual, we were not granted that meeting. So, we are still ourselves a little unclear about where things will be sitting and what changes there will be.
In terms of our engagement generally, you have heard evidence from us and seen written evidence from us about the very disappointing experience we have had trying to engage on the country policy bulletin on Tamil removals. That has been aberrational. We have other areas in which we co-operate in a healthy way with the Agency, where we are listened to. We are very much hoping that that will continue, notwithstanding the structural changes. One of our key priorities is to make sure that the work that we have been doing very constructively with the Agency on a new asylum instruction for the handling of medico-legal reports prepared by us and the Helen Bamber Foundation in torture claimant cases, will continue and that that pilot will be rolled out notwithstanding all of the structural tumult in the agency/Home Office right now.
Catherine Ramos: I think there has been very little dialogue with the Home Office since my report was published. I know MPs are told that the Home Office is in dialogue with us at Justice First, but in fact nobody has asked to talk to me about my report. Nobody has asked to view any of the interviews or to look at any of the filming that I did when I was in DRC. So, the idea that there is dialogue is not a reflection of the reality.
Q109 Dr Huppert: I am surprised and alarmed that you have both been struggling so much to have a hearing. We have Sarah Rapson, the Director General, immediately after this. I am sure we can ask her if she will agree to meet you to talk through that.
I am particularly alarmed both about the details, Ms Ramos, of your experience but also that you do not know where these things sit. It seems to me astonishing if you do not know who it is who is dealing with all of this.
Sonya Sceats: There is a very important question that I think you should be putting to her, either today or afterwards, about where responsibility for country policy will sit in this new structure. If you think about the parallels in our evidence today, it is where you are looking at policy about removals where things get really unstuck, and you need to keep a very close eye on where responsibility for that area of policy will sit within the new structures and be very alarmed if you are getting signals that this is moving into the enforcement arm, because that-it seems to Freedom from Torture at least-is the nub of the problem: that they do not want to see inconvenient evidence where it disrupts removals objectives with respect to particular countries, and there are structural implications of that which we hope you will look at closely.
Q110 Dr Huppert: So, you think it should be entirely within the visa and immigration directorate, but you have been unable to find out whether that is the case?
Sonya Sceats: Exactly.
Dr Huppert: I hope we will be able to clear that up.
Sonya Sceats: Thank you.
Q111 Chair: May I end by asking you the same questions as I asked the previous witness? Brief answers would be appreciated.
Do you think that asylum seekers should be allowed to work as soon as they make their application for asylum? Or should there be a delay of about six months or so and after six months, if they have not completed their case, they should be allowed to work?
Sonya Sceats: Ideally, yes, asylum seekers should be given the right to work. Certainly if they have been waiting for more than six months, they should be given that right.
Chair: So, not immediately but after six months.
Sonya Sceats: If that is what is on offer, we would be delighted.
Chair: I am not offering; what do you think?
Sonya Sceats: No, but in terms of the recommendations that you would be putting.
Chair: We have not decided yet. What do you think? Do you think it should be immediate or after six months or so?
Sonya Sceats: Ideally immediately.
Chair: Right. But do you think that might send out a message to say, "Claim asylum in Britain and start working immediately"?
Sonya Sceats: This is one of the things that you will need to balance.
Q112 Chair: What do you think? We will do the balancing.
Sonya Sceats: From our point of view there are all sorts of rehabilitative reasons for giving people the right to work if they have been through a traumatic set of experiences, in terms of integration-
Sonya Sceats: Absolutely.
Q113 Chair: Ms Ramos?
Catherine Ramos: We do not meet our clients at the beginning of the process, so I cannot speak for Justice First about whether they should perhaps be given permission to work after six months. What we see are people who have been waiting for decisions for 10 years. I spoke to somebody from Congo who has been waiting 16 years.
Chair: But what do you think? Do you think they should be allowed to work? Obviously 16 years is a very long time.
Catherine Ramos: Exactly. I think that people, yes, should be allowed to work.
Chair: Immediately or after a period of time?
Catherine Ramos: I can’t speak for Justice First. I would have to speak for myself, but perhaps after a short period of time.
Q114 Chair: After a period. What about the COMPASS contract? Have you all received any concerns about the way in which that has operated? Do you know what I am talking about when I mention the COMPASS contract? Has that had any impact on your clients? Sonya Sceats.
Sonya Sceats: Yes. It has.
Chair: For the better or worse?
Sonya Sceats: The situation for our clients was not good before the transfer to COMPASS and so I would be loath to make comparisons on the spot. It is the kind of thing that I could come back to the Committee with further written evidence on, if that would be helpful. We are going to be publishing very soon a new report on poverty among survivors of torture here in the UK as an impediment to rehabilitation. It is one of the issues; we may have some evidence from that to provide you with.
Q115 Chair: Ms Ramos?
Catherine Ramos: We do not deal with problems of destitution, but obviously within the Tees Valley area there are charities. We are working together. We have a local fund to help people who are destitute. One charity is housing at the moment 43 people in houses that they are running. Again, I could get back to you with information about that, because it is not an area of expertise.
Q116 Chair: That is very helpful. What about the Azure card? Any concerns about the way that operates? You are both nodding.
Sonya Sceats: Yes.
Catherine Ramos: Yes.
Q117 Chair: In 30 seconds, Ms Sceats, what is wrong with it?
Sonya Sceats: The restrictions; the operation of the card; the stigma that comes along with the card, the administrative problems with it, the malfunctioning of it when you arrive at the tills, the shame that is attached to that experience, and so on. It is something that our clients feel extremely strongly about.
Chair: And it is only £5 a day.
Sonya Sceats: Exactly.
Q118 Chair: Catherine Ramos?
Catherine Ramos: And it is the length of time that people are on the Azure card. It is years and years.
Chair: To receive it? Or to use it?
Catherine Ramos: That they are having to use the Azure card or, before, the vouchers. They have been without cash for many years.
Q119 Chair: What would you replace it with?
Catherine Ramos: I think people should have cash. I think people should be able to get a bus.
Q120 Dr Huppert: One quick question following up from the Chair’s questions: do you know of good information about how much the whole Azure card system costs to process? It strikes me that it must be far more administratively costly than just giving out cash. But do you know of any direct information on that or where we could find some?
Sonya Sceats: Not that we would have to hand in our organisation.
Catherine Ramos: No.
Q121 Chair: Ms Sceats, Ms Ramos, thank you very much for coming in. We, as you know, intend to visit as part of the inquiry-as has been suggested by Dr Huppert-a number of establishments. If you have any examples of places for us to visit, please let us know. We are very keen to get out and about and not just to sit in Westminster but to meet some of your clients. There are no plans to go either to the Congo or Sri Lanka, so we cannot see it at that end. But certainly we would very much like to meet those people who are most affected by what you have been saying. Thank you both very much for coming here to give evidence.
Sonya Sceats: Thank you.
Catherine Ramos: Thank you very much
Chair: I said there was going to be a vote, but obviously the Government found your evidence so compelling that no vote was called. You went right through the 45 minutes. Thank you very much.