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Lord Mishcon: If the noble Lord will forgive my interrupting, does he follow that formula when he practices in our courts; namely, that the Court of Appeal's decision does not matter, that it does not matter whether it is a majority or a minority decision? If so, all those of us who are his colleagues would be very surprised.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: I am saying, and I reiterate, that in my opinion in these circumstances the Court of Appeal's opinion, be it a dissenting opinion or a majority opinion, is of no further assistance to your Lordships. That is my view. The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, is entitled to his view; but I am trying to make a speech and express my own views--and I am not doing very well at the moment!
I would even suggest that Lord Justice Simon Brown's opinion essentially went wrong because he failed to appreciate that in the convention there was no obligation for benefit. By making that error he formulated the "horns of dilemma" argument that appealed so greatly to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, at the time. It is simply an opinion of a very eminent legal gentleman who holds high judicial office. It is no more nor less than that. It is no substitute for the opinion of this House, which we are here to express. It is not a criticism of the judiciary; it is an assertion of the importance of this House.
It comes down to the fact that somehow we have to remove incentives for bogus asylum seekers. If we do, there will be fewer claims clogging up the system. It is idle to compare our system with the systems of other countries in this regard. It has been said that the Netherlands rushes claims through in a matter of weeks. But the Netherlands does not receive half the applications that we do. And why? Because its social security benefits are not a patch on ours. If that were done, we arrive at a situation--
I shall just make one more point. If we limit asylum seekers to genuine refugees, the genuine refugees will benefit. It is wrong to say that the proposals that the Government wish to introduce put those who do not apply for asylum at the port of entry at an unfair disadvantage.
The Lord Bishop of Lincoln: I support the amendment. It turns on a distinction; namely, the attempt to define what is bogus and what is true in an asylum seeker. I wish to relate the experience of a particular church in London involved in supporting some 20 asylum seekers who passed through its doors or stayed at the church for periods varying from a couple of nights to a couple of months. They come from a variety of sources: through some agency such as the Refugee Council, the medical foundation and the African Churches Council for Immigration and Social Services. All have applied for political asylum.
To begin with, there was no provision from the local council, and a group of community activists worked with church members to address the needs of those people. Shelter, legal representation, food, money, laundry and baths have been provided. At times, a dozen people have been sleeping on the floor of the church. In cramped and inadequate premises, among frightened and unhappy people, stress levels have been high. Volunteers have had to contend with both verbal and physical violence. The local authority's response has been slow. Some asylum seekers have been moved to hostels, others to unwanted flats and squats--all temporary solutions. In one case (and I could recall several) a woman from the Congo was eventually housed in a hard-to-let flat provided after she was safely delivered of a child weighing a mere 4lbs. She was provided with £1.50 per week in benefits for herself and the child.
These are very difficult cases to decide. The members of that particular church are not politicised; nor are they an extremist group of people. The vast majority have Afro-Caribbean or African backgrounds. They would not generally be in favour of open and unlimited immigration. Yet, despite considerable caution about the refugees and immigrants, they feel a sense of outrage at the effects of this legislation. Surely no one puts up with
As the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said, the reasons why asylum seekers do not apply at the port of entry are varied and complex. Among them are ignorance about what they are supposed to do and problems with language. In other cases it is due to the general confusion and disorientation experienced by people who have endured traumatic experiences. To expect such folk to behave according to strict procedures and logic is surely unrealistic. That is why some mitigation on the time for applications is so important.
I am sure that I have no need to remind noble Lords that there is extensive teaching in the scriptures about the care of sojourners and refugees and our responsibilities. I was reminded yesterday, hearing the Book of Ruth read in church, that our Lord himself was descended after the flesh from a political refugee. I believe, as do many people in our churches, that the present legislation, unamended, casts a dark shadow across our claim to be a compassionate and Christian country. We would prefer a longer period, but want to support this amendment. I hope the Committee will do so.
The Earl of Sandwich: I, too, wish to speak against the Government's attempt to overturn the Court of Appeal's decision. I believe it was based on very careful consideration, not only of the status of asylum seekers but of the Government's own legislation. The amendment and the regulations are flouting the will of Parliament as already expressed and of the nation--and even the Government's own intentions under the 1993 Act, which were to protect the genuine asylum seeker through the right of appeal. As stated in a recent leader in The Times, the denial of benefits is the wrong remedy for the problem that the Government seek to redress.
The Government have decided to use destitution as another weapon in the armoury of their deterrent policy. They have already condemned those who, for understandable reasons that are clear to anyone who reads the daily newspapers, are unable to apply for asylum in country. I support the right reverend Prelate's remark about making a decision. People have made a decision to leave one country; they have not made a decision as to what to do in the next. The Government are therefore turning their back on the genuine asylum seekers we all want to help. Admittedly, they are a minority within the group, but there is a sizeable proportion of in-country applicants. To support their policy the Government are even distorting their own Home Office figures, talking of nine out of 10 bogus refugees. The Minister has been courteous with figures today, but there has been loose talk by Ministers in another place, which I believe to be quite irresponsible. They have used bogus figures, deliberately excluding those who have exceptional leave to remain. The effect is to besmear the image of the genuine asylum seeker and it is damaging to our race relations.
I spent some time last Friday at a refugee centre in Vauxhall. I saw a number of volunteers unpacking food and clothing for the genuinely destitute. I mention this for two reasons: first, because there may be doubt among some in this Chamber that genuine destitution any longer exists in central London, in spite of what the right reverend Prelate said earlier. The second reason is because the centre has been established only in the last few weeks, solely for the benefit of hundreds of in-country asylum seekers from Africa, eastern Europe and many other regions, adults and children who have been or are being deprived of benefits and who have nowhere to turn, no relatives, no accommodation and no money. We have heard how churches are having to use whatever resources they can muster themselves.
The Government would presumably like these people to go straight to the ferry or the railway station, even though they--or at least a proportion of them--would be genuine asylum seekers. I quote from the judgment of the Court of Appeal. Lord Justice Simon Brown said:
Finally, it is a pity that the DSS has not only done no homework of its own on destitution of asylum seekers; it has also criticised as scaremongers those people who have done their homework. I cite instances for scaremongering on 21st June on "Newsnight" and again on 24th June in another place. The Secretary of State accused the Refugee Council and others of exaggerating claims about the effects of the new regulations. I have known the Refugee Council for over 20 years. I know it is a highly respected body, supported by the voluntary agencies and by government. It has no interest in making exaggerated claims. In fact, unlike the DSS, it has carried out its own research based on practical experience of refugees and with asylum seekers, showing that the regulations have caused severe hardship and suffering. The Refugee Council is not asking for an apology from the Secretary of State; it is simply asking, like many of us here, for a recognition of the facts and of the injustice of the Government's main amendment.
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