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Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, as one who has not taken part in the debate, I intervene for only a moment to express my admiration and gratitude to my noble friend Lady Blatch for the way in which she has handled what was clearly a very sensitive, delicate and important matter. There was strong feeling in the House.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his comments. Thanks also need to be shared by those who have engaged in this process of iteration and I am grateful in particular to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool.
Amendment No. 4A seeks to retain an exemption based on human rights violations in the country of origin. That is both unjustified and potentially very damaging to the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, has proposed that, in addition to an exemption for victims of torture, asylum applicants should be excluded from the accelerated appeal procedure if their country of origin has a consistent pattern of human rights abuses or an extensive record of torture. I note that she states that her proposal would tighten up the wording of subparagraph (2)(b) so as to meet the concern that it would enable a very high proportion of applicants to avoid the accelerated appeal procedure. But it is clear that Amendment No. 4A would severely undermine the impact of the proposals in Clause 1.
First, the conditions in the country of origin will of course have to be taken into account in any case in assessing an asylum claim based on torture. We have only recently discussed China where we all know and have an understanding that terrible acts of torture take place. I made it absolutely clear that if asylum applicants meeting those conditions applied, they would be seriously considered for asylum purposes. But at the same time, people are returned to China who are not in danger and whose cases were not credible on application.
If, despite our having taken them into account, the applicant is unable to establish a reasonable likelihood that he has been tortured, I see absolutely no logic or justification in nevertheless providing him with an exemption from the accelerated appeal procedure. In other words, the proposal would provide an additional exemption for applicants who, by definition, were unable to establish a claim of torture, notwithstanding their country's poor record. I cannot discern a convincing argument for the proposition that an asylum seeker who has not himself been tortured, and whose claim on individual consideration is found to be manifestly unfounded or to qualify for certification under one of the other headings in Clause 1, should be exempted from having his appeal accelerated.
Secondly, the argument that asylum seekers who have experienced torture in the past may be especially vulnerable, and in particular may be suffering from traumatic effects which make it desirable to allow more time for them to prepare their appeal, cannot be advanced in support of the proposal that the Bill should exempt asylum seekers from having their appeal accelerated if they have not been tortured.
We already take full account of our extensive information about conditions in countries. The fact that we are granting asylum or exceptional leave to remain at a much higher rate than average to nationals of countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Somalia and former Yugoslavia shows that that is so. Last year the refusal rate for those countries ranged from 50 per cent. down to as low as 5 per cent. compared with a refusal rate for all nationalities of nearly 80 per cent.
But the evidence shows that some countries with very poor human rights records nevertheless generate large numbers of unfounded asylum claims. Many of those countries are also subject to powerful economic migratory pressures. It simply does not follow from the existence of abuses in a country that the individuals who seek asylum here are always or often genuine refugees or would genuinely be at individual risk if returned. Last year, for example, between 92 per cent. and 99 per cent. of claims from Algeria, Nigeria, Turkey and Zaire were refused. The high refusal rates for those countries cannot be attributed to a climate of disbelief in the Home Office, as some of the Bill's opponents would have us believe. If the Home Office were refusing large numbers of genuine refugees, it would be losing large numbers of cases at appeal. But the fact is that last year only 1 per cent. of appeals by Algerian nationals against refusal of asylum were allowed. For Nigeria the figure was 2 per cent., for Turkey 8 per cent. and for Zaire 8 per cent.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, if I had the brief before me that I had for my Question this afternoon, I would be able to give the noble Earl a quote from a reputable organisation based in Zaire which follows up returns from this country whose asylum appeals have failed. It has not found those cases wanting. If it had, it would not be reticent in letting us know about them. However, I owe the noble Earl a reply to his specific point and I shall certainly give him that.
The noble Baroness's amendment would mean that, for certain nationalities, asylum appeals could not be accelerated even if it were apparent after proper individual consideration that they were manifestly unfounded. The amendment would significantly and unjustifiably restrict the availability of the accelerated appeal procedure. It would greatly reduce the impact of Clause 1, both as a deterrent against abusive appeals and as a means of enabling such appeals to be processed more quickly. I do not believe that that would be in the wider interests of those genuine refugees who seek asylum in this country.
Amendment No. 4A has a further important drawback. It introduces enormous scope for uncertainty. Who is to decide whether a country fits the proposed criteria of a consistent practice of human rights abuse or an extensive practice of torture? There are, as I have already said, many countries with poor human rights.
I remind the House that it would be quite mistaken to think of the accelerated appeal procedure as removing the applicant's right to a fair hearing of his case. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Earl Russell: My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness for intervening again. I should like to know why certification under this clause would be more difficult than the certification the noble Baroness's department already proposes under Clause 1.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am talking about certification under Clause 1. That is the whole purpose of the amendment. We are talking about Clause 1. We are extending the categories to whom it applies, but the certification procedure in Clause 1 is exactly the same.
In practice, even if one assumes minimum administrative delay, certification will mean that the appeal should be disposed of in around four weeks from the initial decision. That is a more than adequate period in which to expect an asylum applicant to exercise his appeal. In all cases, of course, the initial consideration by the Home Office will already have involved the applicant having an opportunity to explain his fear of persecution at an interview and to make additional representations afterwards. Certified claims will still attract a right of appeal to an independent adjudicator before the applicant can be returned to his country of origin.
The Government accept that we should provide a statutory safeguard where there is a reasonable likelihood that an asylum applicant has been a victim of torture. We believe it is possible to combine that with maintaining the effectiveness of our proposals in Clause 1 for dealing more quickly and effectively with unfounded asylum claims. But the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, would provide an exemption for asylum applicants regardless of whether they are or even claim to be victims of torture. Notwithstanding the assurances about the scope of this proposal, it would significantly and unjustifiably restrict the availability of the accelerated appeal procedure in a way which would reduce its impact both as a deterrent against abusive appeals and as a means of enabling such appeals to be processed more quickly. Amendment No. 4A would damage the Bill and invalidate the purpose of Clause 1.
Torture, whether physical or psychological, is by its nature likely to be sufficiently serious to constitute persecution. Our aim is to ensure that genuine victims of torture are identified and protected. Information about country of origin, including consistent patterns of serious violations of human rights, is always taken into account.
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