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Lord Dubs: I give my support to these very modest amendments. I am not happy that either airline staff, in the case of this amendment, or local authority housing staff, in the case of an earlier amendment, should be used as a front line of immigration control.
Anything that provides a safeguard for an intending passenger is a good thing. I bear in mind that asylum seekers may have forged documents as the only proper way in which they can escape. It can happen that these provisions prevent a person who is escaping from fear of torture, imprisonment or death from flying to safety.
For that reason, rather more than the well-being of the airlines--although I believe that it is a burden on the airlines which they should not have to that extent--I give my support to these amendments, which I believe are very modest.
Baroness Blatch: I note that both the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, and the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, do not consider that there is any case for liability whatsoever. The noble Lord said that he does not believe that the airline should be regarded as part of the process of making sure that people do not travel illegally and arrive illegally in this country. The noble Lord should know that it has been known for whole aeroplanes to be filled
In reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, we do not ask the airlines to act as immigration officers. We ask them to check documentation. That is the particular responsibility of the airlines. We should like to think that the airlines are responsible for checking the documentation of any passenger coming in, irrespective of whether or not somebody may at the end of the day be seeking to enter this country. It is an important function. I give way to the noble Lord.
Lord Dubs: I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. She puts words into my mouth. I said that I was unhappy about airline staff (or housing staff) being used as a front line of immigration control. I stick by that proposition.
I am fully aware that there are difficulties and understand why the carriers' liability Act was introduced. I gave the example of an asylum seeker with forged documents seeking safety. I am concerned that the way in which the carriers' liability now operates can have a damaging effect on the ability of an asylum seeker to find safety, because the documents may not be accepted by the airline.
I was more enthusiastic about the amendment put forward the last time we were in Committee which would have exempted airlines from the fine if the individual could have demonstrated his right to stay here on one basis or another. I believe that that was the more important amendment. It is not the amendment that is before us tonight. I rest my case on that other amendment. There is an argument, but I did not go as far as the Minister said.
Baroness Blatch: I simply take the words that I heard from the noble Lord. We all read Hansard and I have no doubt that, on reflection, we shall return to this debate. These are not straightforward issues. A decision to detain a passenger is not taken lightly. Temporary admission is granted readily if the individual appears likely to comply with its terms. It is not our policy, for both humanitarian and financial reasons, to keep passengers in detention for any longer than required. Cases are kept under constant review at senior levels to ensure that detention does not continue unnecessarily and removal is effected as soon as is practical. Some delays are inevitable; for example, where representations have been made, asylum has been sought or where there are documentation problems. But passengers are not detained where there is no impediment to their removal.
The total annual cost to carriers of detention is not significant in real terms; it is only about £1.8 million. Nor are carriers liable for detention costs in all instances; in a great many cases the cost already falls to the taxpayer. Where someone has an entry certificate, visa or work permit the costs of detention are met out of public funds. Additionally, the legislation already protects carriers from unreasonable costs; the appeals system does undoubtedly have the effect of prolonging
Carriers do feel strongly about this--I understand that--and a number have begun to take matters into their own hands. Many already limit the amount they pay, in clear defiance of the law. That begs the question: is it right to water down legislation which is already ignored, or should steps be taken to reinforce it? There is a very large debt--some £3.1 million--owed to the Government, which will need to be addressed whatever the outcome of the proposed amendments.
Certainly the proposed amendment seeks to accept cost for only 72 hours of detention. I am sympathetic to the difficulties experienced by carriers where substantial delays have been caused either by administrative action or where the person concerned attempts to exhaust every avenue of appeal. In those circumstances I sympathise with the view that it does not seem fair to expect carriers to continue to carry liability on an "open-ended" basis. The Government are already keen to look closely at this to see how we might effectively reduce this burden by simple administrative means.
The proposed Amendment No. 136 would have the effect of restricting liability for detention costs solely to the narrow band of cases where a passenger is found to be improperly or inadequately documented. That defeats the purpose of paragraph 19 of Schedule 2 to the 1971 Act.
In a number of areas regarding the relationship between the carriers and the Immigration Service the Government see little scope for change. The Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act 1987 is one of those. The principle there is too important for us to contemplate any change. But in the wider case of detention costs under the Immigration Act 1971 I have some sympathy with some of the concerns this amendment represents, and that have been spoken to by Members on all Benches.
The present system of collecting costs is not particularly satisfactory. The Government agree that it is not right for carriers to have to cope with an open-ended commitment to meet costs, particularly where the delay is caused by administrative issues, or where a substantial amount of time has passed between entry and detection.
I believe that my noble friend's proposals go too far and I cannot support them. But there is merit in her concerns, and we will look further at the point to see if we could put some limitation on the period of liability for detention costs. If we think that it would be appropriate to amend the 1971 Act in this way we will bring forward an amendment during Report stage. I know that my noble friend is also concerned about the related point about detention costs which arise in the case of detected illegal entrants who are admitted by an immigration officer and then removed some time later.
I accept the principle of the cut-off point, and the issue of a person who both travels and arrives by deception--another point made by my noble friend--is one that I shall discuss further as a defence that can be produced by airlines against the costs. I hope that my noble friend will withdraw the amendments while those discussions continue.
Baroness O' Cathain: I wish to express my gratitude to the seven noble Lords on all sides of the Committee who supported the principle of my amendments. There were a couple of errors in people's interpretation of the amendments but that was not surprising because this is a quite difficult situation and has been confused with the situation dealt with by the amendment moved by me and then withdrawn last Wednesday.
The carriers accept that they are liable if they make a mistake. My noble friend Lord Brabazon raised the issue of the gatecheck status. It would be wonderful if every airport in the world had gatecheck status, but I do not think that is feasible. We cannot dictate to other countries how they should build or run their airports. It is a case of negotiating and seeing how far we can get the status improved. The gatecheck status would not have met my concern about the people coming through with proper documentation then being faced with an immigration official in the UK who has what I call the sixth sense and is suspicious. The gatecheck status would not help in that case. The carriers--the ferry companies and the airlines--are trying to do their best to transport people. That is their job.
I was greatly heartened by what my noble friend the Minister had to say. Of course, as she said, airlines accept their responsibilities and accept the fines. I agreed with that in Committee on 30th April. However, I take mild issue with her assertion that check-in staff are not immigration personnel. The check-in staff I have met and talked to at great length believe that they are unpaid immigration staff. That is what they call themselves. That is their perception on the ground. It is not for me to say that they are or are not, but that is their perception. My noble friend is right that the sums of money, when we consider the whole value of tourism and the amounts of money spent by ferry passengers and air passengers, are not that significant. However, as I said right at the beginning, those sums are unjust and unfair.
I am grateful for my noble friend's assertion that she is very sympathetic regarding delays in detention. I am greatly heartened by the fact that she will look at how the burden could be lessened. My noble friend also stated that the present system of collecting costs is not satisfactory. I can understand that she is not prepared to accept 72 hours just like that. I suspect that this is a matter for negotiation. I am also very grateful to my