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Lord Dholakia: My Lords, certainly I welcome that particular provision. A long time ago I put a question to the Minister about that matter. Unfortunately, to date there has not been a single prosecution brought against any such unscrupulous immigration adviser. I hope that the Bill will contain such a provision.
The matter of bail and detention provisions in the Bill will be addressed by my noble friend Lord Avebury. Needless to say, we currently detain some thousands of people each year for varying periods of time, in some cases for two years or more. Those of us who followed the passage of the Bill in the other place took note that the Government committed themselves to consider several issues raised by the Members of the Standing Committee. I do not see evidence of such amendments included in the Bill before us; nor do I ask the Minister to respond now to the issues I am about to raise, but it will be helpful at some stage if he could reply to some of the points.
The Government agreed to consider whether the role of the independent monitor might be extended to cover broader issues, such as the operation of the bond scheme in compliance with race relations legislation, as well as the refusal of entry clearance.
The Government agreed to introduce a statutory presumption in favour of bail for detained asylum seekers. The Government agreed to consider an amendment which seeks equality with the Bail Act for the second bail hearing. This would mean that the second bail hearing would be a full one, in which the same points as those made in the first hearing could be repeated, as well as additional ones. The Government agreed to consider an amendment that would ensure that someone arrested in relation to breaking bail conditions would be brought before the court within 24 hours rather than "as soon as practicable".
The Government have undertaken to reconsider the composition of the immigration appeal tribunal; amendments have been tabled pressing for three members rather than one. The Government agreed to consider bringing forward an amendment so that Clauses 6 and 47 come into force at the same time. This would mean that removals under Clause 6 would not begin before those involved could challenge the removal as being unlawful under the Human Rights Act. The Government said that the 14-day move-on period may need more flexibility. All these are matters which were promised in the other place, but we see no evidence of them in the Bill.
The Government are considering making funds available to support asylum seekers who are unremovable because of the conditions in their country of origin, or for those who have been granted leave to move for judicial review. A commitment in this area is important.
There are, of course, other issues of concern. The Government's plan to channel resources into making decisions on families with children within the target times is likely to lead to single adult asylum seekers having to wait much longer for their decisions. There is a large backlog of cases at the Immigration and Nationality Department, the great majority of which precede the reorganisation; for example, there are currently more than 100,000 cases in the IND's casework in progress store, many of which are five years old. The problems are neither temporary nor superficial. Even the unions representing IND staff are sceptical that the caseworking programme will deliver the efficiencies intended.
There is some good in the Bill, but it is far outweighed by the restrictive range of measures I have identified. The Bill has sacrificed fairness. We are left with a fast and firm method of dealing with asylum and immigration matters. I do not believe that the Bill will deliver these objectives.
The Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, there are many elements in this Bill which those of us in the Church who have first-hand experience of working with refugees and asylum seekers welcome, not least the commitment to faster decision-making and the ending of some of the present confusion where different local authorities respond to providing support in very different ways. But I also feel duty bound to bring to the attention of your Lordships the widespread and deep misgivings which are felt about several aspects of the Bill, and particularly about Part VI and its provisions for support. We are not at all sure that the Bill has successfully achieved the number of sensitive balances to which the Minister referred earlier.
It perhaps should be said that we in the Church are very much an interested party. In my own diocese, which covers most of south London, the Church has either refugee centres or centres for the homeless in more than half the boroughs--indeed, there is such a centre within a hundred yards of where I live in Streatham--and my colleagues and I have ample opportunity to speak directly with many asylum seekers and those who seek to assist them.
Indeed, yesterday afternoon I met a young Ugandan woman, heavily pregnant, who had fled with her three children from a situation where all the members of her family had been killed. Deeply traumatised, she has been placed in a small furnished flat in the borough of Sutton. Fortunately, she is receiving help and advice from a local refugee charity, which has helped her to obtain basic furniture, yet even it has been unable, after three months, to find a place in a local school for her eight year-old daughter. She is not an economic migrant but a fellow human being in deep despair. I know from my own personal experience that there are many, many like her.
We in the Church then are an interested party because we are already involved. We can be absolutely sure that if there are flaws in the proposed legislation, the consequence will be more people like broken packages showing up on our vicarage doorsteps and church halls.
What are some of our misgivings? It is widely recognised that the withdrawal of entitlement to benefits since 1996 for large numbers of asylum seekers has caused enormous hardship. Had it not been possible for local authorities to resort to the National Assistance Act 1948 there is no doubt that thousands of asylum seekers would have been absolutely destitute. It was thanks only to a series of judgments, some of which were given by noble Lords, that even that Act was allowed to be used.
Under the proposals in the Bill before us, the National Assistance Act will no longer be able to be used to provide support for asylum seekers. It must be admitted that the Act was never designed to be the last resort, let alone the main means of support, for asylum seekers. But many of those who have been working with asylum seekers had expected something better in its place. Having seen the Bill in its present form, they feel disappointed.
The concerns are well known. The Bill does not provide a statutory guarantee that asylum seekers who are "destitute or likely to become destitute" will be given assistance commensurate with that given to UK citizens who rely on the benefits system for support. The Bill would allow the present and subsequent Home Secretaries to determine the amount of support at whatever level they saw fit. We have been told that initially this will be set at some 70 per cent of the normal benefit rates. Yet even the normal benefit rates have recently been demonstrated to fall short of people's actual needs and expenses. This has been convincingly set out in two reports, Low Cost but Acceptable and Low Cost but Just, which have been promoted by the Zacchaeus Trust and which were lauded by the late Cardinal Hume at their launch last month.
Seventy per cent of what is already an inadequate figure--much of which is to be provided in vouchers not cash--would seem to be a recipe for hardship. One cannot exchange vouchers for cassava or sweet potatoes in a northern supermarket; one can buy them for modest amounts of cash in Peckham market.
The Bill withdraws from children seeking asylum--and indirectly from their parents or guardians--the rights currently afforded to them by the much praised Children Act 1989. Thanks to the protection of the Children Act, they are now eligible to receive cash payments. If the Bill is passed in its present form, they will not. As I understand it, children in families, as well as adults, are to be transferred to the voucher system, with all the shame and stigma that that can involve and which would be so acutely felt by children in particular.
The Children Act spells out a whole range of rights designed to put the welfare of the child first. If the Bill proceeds in its present form, most of those rights will go. Of course, Home Secretaries will be required to ensure that those needs are addressed, but there will be little statutory guidance to ensure that they are clearly identified and treated as rights. The assurance that the Minister gave us earlier in the debate that he will give further attention to the needs of children is welcome and I hope that the outcome satisfies those most concerned with the welfare of children, as we all should be.
However, in general the Bill deliberately offers assistance at a level known to be less than adequate, in a manner known to be humiliating and according to a criterion known to be indiscriminate. Deterrence is a major objective. The restrictions will apply to anyone seeking asylum, regardless of the manifest merits of their case. Because some people abuse the system, all must pay the price. Were we to adopt such an approach in allowing our citizens access to the health service, our schools or the benefits system, we would rightly feel ashamed. By what right, then, do we use a different standard for people seeking asylum? It is maintained that the admittedly less than perfect arrangements are bearable because the cases of asylum seekers will be dealt with swiftly and successful families and individuals will then benefit from the full system of support and protection.
Knowing the problems that the Home Office has had with processing asylum applications, particularly the major problems with the computing systems at Croydon in my diocese, I have grave doubts that it will be successful in its aspirations. If there are no amendments to the Bill, asylum seekers could find themselves under the system of a voucher economy for years, not months. We would wish to support any amendment that lessens this risk. We welcome the Minister's assurance that the new support arrangements will not be implemented for families with children until the desirable target has been achieved, but we would wish this sensible decision to extend to all asylum seekers.
Then there is the question of accommodation. The Bill reflects a desire to relieve the mounting pressure on London's local authorities. That is understandable, but we must question whether the problem is best solved by the Bill's proposal to require asylum seekers to go to any part of the country to which they may be sent without regard to any choice on their part or the risk that support from specialised charities, such as that to which I referred earlier assisting the young mother from Uganda, will not be available. With no specialised help on hand and no cash with which to travel to find it, vulnerable people will be even more confused than at present.
I have confined my remarks to Part VI of the Bill, but I must express concern about the attitude underlying most of the provisions--that of crude deterrence. I share the disappointment of many Christians working with asylum seekers that, by adopting such an approach, we seem to give more credence to those who perhaps exaggerate the real problem of abuse than to the sufferings of those who have fled persecution and to the contribution that such people can make to the country granting them asylum.
Before my appointment to Southwark I had the privilege to serve for seven years as Bishop of Leicester--a city whose economic and cultural life was enhanced dramatically by the arrival in the early 1970s of tens of thousands of Asian asylum seekers from Idi Amin's Uganda. Asylum seekers need not always add to the problems of society; they can be part of the
Lord Warner: My Lords, despite some of the comments made by previous speakers, I support the Bill. I do so from a perspective of having seen from within the Home Office how badly the immigration and asylum system needs a complete overhaul. I was also director of social services in Kent for six years and I have seen how the weaknesses of the present system have placed an unfair burden on that county and many London boroughs. The Bill is ambitious in scope, but the Government are right to undertake a comprehensive modernisation of the immigration and asylum system. The piecemeal attempts at reform under the previous government with the 1993 and 1996 Acts have not worked. Indeed, the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 was the cause of many of our present problems.
The Government's White Paper made the case for reform. It demonstrated how the present system is too complex and has failed to keep pace with the increasing volume of people seeking entry to this country as a result of turmoil in various parts of the world, economic migration and easier global travel. Paragraph 3.1 of the White Paper summarised well the problems that we face and it bears brief repetition. It says:
It is also worth bearing in mind that the Dublin convention--signed, if I may say so, by the previous government in 1990--has not worked well and has led to a game of pass the parcel with asylum seekers who are undocumented or who will not provide information
A whole new industry has grown up around immigration and asylum over the past two decades. Some of that industry is an exploitative trade in human beings and human misery. There are some worthy successors to the slave traders of the 18th century now charging people for clandestine entry, bogus marriages and ways of cheating the system or controlling entry. Immigration and asylum work is now an important part of the functions and earnings of the legal profession. Not surprisingly, some parts of that new industry do not like the changes that the Government are proposing. We have to bear in mind that some of those interests are vested as well.
The Bill is a managerial piece of legislation, but I believe that it is all the better for that. It recognises that immigration and asylum require better rules, better processes and better systems. It attempts to tackle the never-ending process of appeals that has grown up, with an excessive use of judicial review. The Bill is buttressed by the managerial changes that the Government are putting in place, which will be the key to its success. The new case working system in the Home Office has got off to a bad start, but it is delivering much-needed higher productivity in decision-making. The increasing expenditure and staffing will improve matters further--although I suspect that the Treasury will have to accept the need for further investment. I welcome the commitment by the Home Secretary to firm time targets for decision on appeals for asylum seekers, for without adherence to those the system will sink back into chaos. The new asylum support directorate promises the prospect of far better arrangements for supporting asylum seekers provided it is adequately funded, staffed and managed.
Better arrangements for supporting asylum seekers are long overdue. The Government deserve congratulations on grasping the nettle and tackling the mess they inherited. Part VI of the Bill needs to be considered against the situation the Government are trying to deal with. We can all feel enormous sympathy for genuine asylum seekers uprooted from their homes by fear of torture and death in their own countries. But large numbers of those claiming asylum today across western Europe are not those for whom the 1951 convention was designed. A large proportion are economic migrants seeking a better standard of living than is available to them in their own countries. As my noble friend the Minister pointed out, there has been a 10-fold increase in the annual number of asylum applicants in the past decade. That is a rise from about 4,000 a year to 45,000 a year.
It is worth reflecting on some of the nationalities that submitted claims for asylum in 1998. Among the countries from each of which over 1,000 applications were received were Sri Lanka, the former Soviet Union, Pakistan, India, China, Poland and Romania. Nearly a third of all applications came from those seven countries, but the percentage of applicants recognised as refugees
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