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Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, the right reverend Prelate, I am sorry. I always get that one wrong. I find it difficult to trip it off the tongue easily. He asked a number of pertinent questions about the views of the Social Security Advisory Committee. Why did the committee advise so strongly against the withdrawal of benefit and the rigid application of these rules? Why does the Minister think that the UNHCR has adopted such a strong line against what the Government are proposing? Is the UNHCR to be regarded as a discreditable institution? It is probable that it has rather more knowledge of what goes on than the Minister himself. I wish to put to the Minister one of the many questions that I could put about what the UNHCR has said. With regard to children it has said:
I am ashamed of this Government, and much more so than on any issue that confronts us in respect of which I have major disagreements. They emerge from this discreditably. I support the Motions standing in the names of my noble friends and the noble Earl, Lord Russell.
Baroness Elles: My Lords, I too found the discussion on the regulations to some extent discreditable. Compassion is not felt only by those on one side of the House. Time and again the Government have shown compassion to those in this country who need and seek compassion and support. In considering the length of time that asylum seekers must wait for their claims to be dealt with, one has only to remember that the Government will be putting in £37 million to pay for 700 staff to deal with the mounting number of claims of asylum seekers, genuine or otherwise, when only last week they wished to give £33 million to hypothermia cases as a result of the cold weather. If one were in government, whom would one choose as the deserving case needing that source of money? When one is in government--perhaps noble Lords opposite will never know that experience--one must make decisions and have priorities. The first duty of a government is to their own citizens and that should be remembered during the course of the debate.
I wish to turn to a point that was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Haskel. Asylum seekers at the ports are automatically granted benefit. There is no question of them being treated as scroungers. They are identified as they arrive at the ports. If they come here as asylum seekers they are identified as such and they are supported by the benefit system. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister will confirm that. I understand that the present figure is approximately 13,000.
Perhaps we may then consider the 70 per cent. who are discovered not to be genuine asylum seekers. Apparently, they come in as businessmen, tourists and students. They are not the poor Bulgarians with no interpreter who will end up sleeping on the streets. They are people who come here with a reasonable amount of money in their pockets. On entry they are asked whether they have money to support themselves or whether they will be claiming benefit and they state their case. I usually travel through airports and I have not come across immigration officers who maltreat people as they are going through those questions. I believe the remarks that have been made are derogatory to the immigration officers who serve this country loyally and efficiently and as best they can in the very difficult circumstances under which they must sometimes work.
I turn to the way in which Britain receives foreigners into this country. It might be thought that this is a xenophobic attack, as was perhaps suggested by one or two noble Lords. As was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Dean of Harptree, the DSS is already trying to seek out those British subjects, or people living in Britain, who are defrauding the public purse of something like £1.4 billion as a result of false claims under the social security system. This regulation merely brings in a category of people who are being suspected of
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. I am hesitant to intervene. The point is that when, in the British system, a British citizen loses benefit it is because the initial case has been heard and there is a presumption that he or she is committing fraud. The problem under these regulations is that benefit is being withdrawn before the case is heard. That is the difference between the two systems, and that is what we are seeking to address.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I apologise for rising a second time. I wish only that the noble Baroness were right. Were she right that benefit is retained both at the port of entry and in the country until the determination had been made and the appeal heard there would be no dispute between us. I hope that in the light of that the noble Baroness will join us.
Baroness Elles: My Lords, the noble Baroness knows perfectly well that I will not. The fact of the matter is that those who have stayed in the country came in originally on false pretences as students, tourists and businessmen. Where others came in through fear of persecution that is another matter. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford--
Earl Russell: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. Can she tell us any way in which these regulations discriminate between those who have come in under false pretences and those who have come in in genuine fear of persecution?
Baroness Elles: My Lords, those who have come in in genuine fear of persecution are automatically given benefit at the port of entry. In future, as a result of these regulations, those who do not will not receive the benefit.
One has only to look at the social security regulations to see the amount of non-contributory benefits that are being poured out on these people, with no justification. Perhaps I may refer to the United Nations' adoption of the declaration on human rights of aliens in 1985. The point is that any alien has the right to benefits in the country in which he or she is legally resident and in which he or she has contributed to the welfare system. The asylum seekers with whom we are dealing are not technically legally resident under the general definition of that term, nor have they contributed to welfare benefits. Of course, if they have contributed to welfare benefits they are entitled to benefit in the normal way. However, these particular asylum seekers have not done so.
I wish to turn to the point that I was about to make when the noble Baroness intervened. It is the recognition of people who come into this country, who are treated as citizens of their country of origin, and who after a number of years make a claim to be naturalised. That speaks highly of the United Kingdom and its welcome to foreigners because among the European Union countries we have a high record of naturalised citizens. According to the 1993 figures, which are the latest available, more than 45,000 people have been made British citizens as a result of our naturalisation process. Most of them, perhaps I may say, come from Asia and Africa; they are not just from white dominions or whatever. They are citizens who have come from Asia and Africa. The only country in the European Union which has a higher figure is France which has 60,000. A vast number of those come from Morocco with their own cultural links.
I wish to insist on the fact that there is no question of discrimination on grounds of race or of not being a British citizen. It is a question of using the finances of this country for totally unjustified purposes. I am happy to say to those who dislike the Maastricht Treaty that provision under Title III to deal with asylum and immigration issues has given us an opportunity to discuss the issues right across the European Union. Many countries have suffered exactly the same problems as the United Kingdom. There may be proof that we have been too generous with our benefits as a result of not being strict on the identification and definition of asylum seekers because during the past three years other European countries have suddenly realised that there is a great influx and have introduced much stricter provisions.
At one recent Council meeting, I am happy to say that a definition of the term "refugee" was agreed unanimously by all member states, including the United Kingdom. The definition states that the refugee is someone who has a well-founded fear of persecution in his own country. The people who come through such controls as students, businessmen and tourists do not qualify under those grounds. The United Kingdom is perfectly justified in taking the proposed measures. I very much hope that the Government will play a full role under Title III and co-operate with other member states in the European Union to deal with what is undoubtedly a European problem and not just one that applies to the United Kingdom.
Lord Hylton: My Lords, I differ somewhat from the noble Baroness, Lady Elles. I regret to say that the regulations before us are evil fruits stemming from a tree of prolonged bad policy. They, and their forerunners, have been universally condemned by those with experience; namely, the Churches, Jewish organisations, local government, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and charities and advice agencies working with asylum seekers and refugees. To cap it all--as if that was not enough--the Social Security Advisory Committee rejected the proposals. The Government seem to think that they know better than those in day-to-day contact with the practical
It is worth looking at the background to the proposals. Since about 1987, governments have successively reversed our traditions of welcome and hospitality to the persecuted. The Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act, which has already been mentioned, attempted to reduce the number of asylum seekers reaching this country. Costly detention has been used, not just for people awaiting deportation, but for many asylum seekers pending their assessment. The Asylum and Immigration Act 1993 did very little to help things, and now we are faced with new regulations savagely cutting benefits and with a new Bill which is now in the other place.
Of course, a few economic migrants have reached our shores, despite the best efforts of many other governments to stop them coming here. That has caused Her Majesty's Government to mount a loud campaign crying "foul" and trying to pretend, both in Parliament and in the tabloid press, that,
That statement, vociferated by the right honourable gentleman the Home Secretary, and the Secretary of State for Social Security (supported in this House by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter) is not even correct as it stands. In 1995, about 23 per cent. of applicants were either accepted as refugees, or given exceptional leave to remain on humanitarian grounds and because, to return home, would be dangerous for them. A further 4 per cent. received refugee status on appeal. In previous years the proportion of refugees and ELR was considerably higher.
I ask: why have the proportions changed? The answer, I believe, is to be found in instructions, whether formal or informal, given to those who deal with applicants. That is the culture of disbelief that was so properly mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. The burden has been put on the applicant to prove that what he says is true. In fact, the burden is often quite an impossible one, because the relevant witnesses cannot be produced in this country. Virtually every sentence in applicants' statements is contested. That sometimes produces ludicrous results; for example, a man fleeing the brutal and corrupt dictatorship of Colonel Mobutu was told that he could not have crossed the Congo River by canoe because of the number of crocodiles! How else does the Home Office think that the river has been crossed for many generations? Are we to imagine a barrage of crocodiles, nose to nose and tail to tail, waiting to tip up the poor man in his canoe?
In that case, the applicant's solicitor had to point out that his client was unconscious on arrival and escaped with help, during the hours of darkness. Attitudes such as these are even more serious when genuine victims of torture are told that their scars and bruises could perhaps have resulted from other causes.
I suggest to your Lordships that means and methods quite contrary to the spirit and intention of the 1951 convention (which Britain helped to draft) have been used to minimise acceptances. What then should Her Majesty's Government be doing. First, they should cut the numbers of asylum seekers detained in this country, often in unsuitable and unsatisfactory places and conditions. Voluntary organisations, housing associations and reporting conditions should be used to ensure that applicants do not disappear. Asylum seekers should be allowed to accept work, if and when they can get it, before the presently prescribed six-month period has expired. Both those measures would save money.
On the other hand, money should be spent on maintaining the existing welfare and supplementary benefits. That will avoid arbitrary and unjust action and protect many genuine asylum seekers, especially those who, for genuine reasons, do not always apply at the port of entry. These are national responsibilities which should not be shuffled off on to certain local authorities--indeed, a rather small number of the total of local authorities--as was wrongly being done in the case of unaccompanied children. The Government should be aware that, among asylum seekers, there are children, frail and elderly people as well as some victims of war and torture. Housing benefit should certainly not be removed.
We were promised in 1993--and I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, mentioned this fact--that money would be spent on extra Home Office and Immigration Department staff to cut down on the processing time and the huge backlog of about 64,000 cases. Some progress may perhaps have been made; but, in my view, it is quite inadequate. The processing time needs to be cut dramatically and, as has been mentioned before, that will result in considerable savings on welfare benefits.
I accept that the savings and the extra costs may not balance exactly, but what I have recommended would produce a better system, much more in keeping with our traditions and our international responsibilities.
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