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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 24A to Lords Amendment No. 24. At the same time, I should like to speak also to Amendments Nos. 24B, 24C, 28 and 28A and 28B.
We have discussed on a number of occasions the issue of benefits paid to asylum seekers and, in particular, the considerable and increasing numbers who are paid benefit and who turn out not to be genuine asylum seekers and not entitled to any money from the taxpayer. The Government remain convinced that it is right to clamp down on this abuse. We are also convinced that we should continue to oppose any weakening of the policy.
The policy was first announced in October last year. It was subject to a full public consultation through the Social Security Advisory Committee. It formed part of the social security uprating Statement given on 29th November to this House by me and to another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. Draft regulations embodying the policy were debated and agreed in this House and in the other place in January. The regulations were discussed in the other place on 23rd January and accepted by a clear majority of 279 to 264 votes.
Here in your Lordships' House there was a full and wide-ranging discussion on 30th January, and the House voted by majorities of 43 and 49 not to accept resolutions calling on the Government to consider alternative means to support asylum seekers.
The policy came into effect on 5th February and ran until the Court of Appeal decided on 21st June in a majority decision that these changes could only be introduced by primary and not by secondary legislation. In order to obey the judgment of the court, I announced to your Lordships' House on 24th June that I would introduce a new clause and schedule to the Asylum and Immigration Bill in order to place the policy in primary legislation. The party opposite divided the House on a procedural vote which the Government won by 135 to 100 votes. At the same time my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, Mr. Peter Lilley, made a Statement to the other place which was subject to the scrutiny and question that such Statements receive.
On recommitment and on Third Reading your Lordships discussed and voted on a number of amendments but agreed the main thrust of our policy. However, an amendment was carried by three votes which gave those who did not claim asylum on arrival three days to make an in-country application. It also provided for benefit entitlement right up until the end not only of the Home Office decision-making process but also to the end of any subsequent appeal, no matter how long and drawn out it was.
Last Monday the other place voted on your Lordships' amendment and rejected it by a majority of 21. There is no argument in favour of giving them a further opportunity to reconsider. Your Lordships will, I am sure, wish to reflect in the light of all the consideration and reconsideration already given to the issue whether this House wishes to continue to dispute this issue with the elected Chamber.
Perhaps I may remind your Lordships why we felt it necessary to restrict benefits in February, and why we felt it necessary, as a result of the Court of Appeal's decision, to incorporate the new clause and the new schedule into the Bill. Over the past two years claims across the main western European countries, have nearly halved--I repeat, nearly halved--but, here in this country, they have doubled. Ten years ago, as I have told your Lordships on a number of occasions, claims in the UK were running at a level of 4,000, 5,000 or 6,000; in the past two years they have been running at a level of 42,000 and 56,000 respectively. That is quite out of line with trends in the rest of Europe.
Over the same period, the proportion of those actually succeeding in their application fell from 21 per cent. to 5 per cent. Moreover, in 1995, as noble Lords will recall because I have said it many times before, out of every 100 applications for asylum considered, only seven were accepted as genuine refugees, either at the initial decision stage or on appeal. Indeed, 93 were found not to be refugees under the Geneva Convention. Some 16 of those 100 applicants (almost all of them from Bosnia, Somalia or Afghanistan) were granted exceptional leave to remain. That means that the vast majority of those who apply for asylum are not fleeing persecution but seeking to improve their economic circumstances.
Although there has been broad agreement, with some exceptions, that we have a problem here, the only solution that I have been offered by noble Lords who oppose the measures brought forward by the Government is that we should put more resources into the process of dealing with asylum applications in order to speed up the clearance times. However, we have already done that; indeed, we have taken a range of steps to speed up the asylum process. We are investing £37 million over three years in more caseworkers and adjudicators, and asylum staff are up eightfold since 1988. Those steps have produced results; for example, the number of decisions rose by 21,000 in 1994 to 27,000 in 1995, and we are on course to take over 37,000 decisions in the current financial year.
However, the simple fact of the matter is that, until the February regulations were introduced, any improvements in the asylum process were quickly swamped by the ever-growing tide of asylum applications that I have mentioned.
The February regulations removed benefits from three groups of asylum seekers: first, those who enter illegally or overstay their leave to remain, and apply for asylum; secondly, those who enter the country claiming to be business people, tourists or students giving assurances that they have the means to support themselves and that they will not rely on the British taxpayer but who later change their minds and claim asylum; and, thirdly, those who have already been found by the Home Office not to be refugees and who are appealing.
Our intention was to remove the incentive for economic migrants to come to our country and abuse our asylum system. As I explained three weeks ago to your Lordships, the policy has worked. Noble Lords may recall that, at the time, I was asked what had happened since February. I then explained the comparison between last year and this year, month by month. When comparing January 1995 with January 1996, we saw a 7 per cent. decline in the numbers. In February we saw a 6 per cent. decline and in March we saw a 5 per cent. reduction. However, in April we saw a 27 per cent. decline and, as your Lordships will recall, the figures that I had on the last occasion when we dealt with this matter were those for May which showed a decline of 49.16 per cent.--that is, 3,450 applications in May 1995, compared with 1,754 in May 1996. I can tell your Lordships today that the June figures follow exactly the same pattern; namely, 3,630 for June 1995 compared with 1,730 for June 1996, making a fall of 52 per cent.
Why have those figures fallen so dramatically? The only possible reason is the one that I have claimed all along. Very many asylum applications are in reality benefit applications: nothing more, nothing less. It is access to our benefit system which drives them and not a genuine fear of persecution. The genuine asylum seeker comes here not to get benefits but for safety and protection from persecution. It is not the genuine refugee who responds to economic incentives; it is the economic migrant masquerading as an asylum seeker who responds to such incentives.
The three-day amendment which your Lordships passed and which the Commons have overturned would reward those who entered this country claiming to be coming here on business, for a visit, on holiday, or to study. One, two or three days after giving an assurance that, while here, they would have no recourse to public funds, they would be able to change their story and gain immediate access to our benefits system and to the very public funds that they said they did not require.
The argument in favour of three days is that people are so frightened when they arrive at immigration that they do not tell the truth. They therefore require three days to calm down and make contact with friends and advisers who will help them claim for asylum.
That is the point made by Mr. John McCarthy in a letter which I and a number of your Lordships received at the weekend. But it is a misunderstanding of what the amendment is about. The amendment is about benefit claims, not claims for asylum. The idea that asylum seekers have to address the complex application procedure and reveal the full details of their circumstances on arrival is, quite simply, false. All they need to do is to say that they want to claim asylum. It is wrong to suggest, as John McCarthy does in his letter, that they will not have the opportunity to put their case later. I can assure your Lordships that they will be able to discuss their case after seeking the support and advice of friends or support agencies.
I have also checked the statistics. Your Lordships will recall that in 1995 out of every 100 applicants, only five were accepted by the Home Office as fulfilling the requirements for asylum. Moreover, the figure does not rise, as your Lordships might expect if the three day argument was sustainable, but actually falls to 3.5 in 100. Therefore, the number of bogus asylum seekers in the three day sub-set is actually greater than the total population of genuine asylum seekers.
As I have assured your Lordships on many occasions in the past, there is nothing--absolutely nothing--to stop, inhibit or frighten anyone who is asking for asylum the moment that they arrive on these shores.
So why do they delay? One reason is the influence of agents--particularly the racketeers of the asylum industry who advise that it is best to claim in-country. This is because those who claim in-country are much more difficult to remove at the end of the asylum process than are those who claim on arrival. Those who seek to abuse the asylum process as a means of prolonging their stay in the UK clearly have an incentive to delay their claim until they are already in this country.
Your Lordships' House has considered this issue on six different occasions including today. The other place has considered the issue on four different occasions. There is neither the need nor the justification for your Lordships to take the highly unusual step of sending another amendment back to the other place. I commend the acceptance of the Commons' clearly arrived at decision not to accept your Lordships' three day amendment.