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Lord Warner: My Lords, could the noble Lord tell the House whether he raised any of these issues of the backlog and some of the individual cases he mentioned with his colleagues in the previous government?
Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn: My Lords, that is an entirely valid point. The answer is no, I have only become acutely aware of this matter in the past two years. I have only recently complained about it seriously. The noble Lord has a point, but the present
"We will start by clearing the undecided cases which date from before 1st July 1993, and hope to be able to decide most of these by early 1999". We are past early 1999. Has that happened? I can assure noble Lords that in many cases known to me it certainly has not.
This Bill lacks reality because the assurances which were given when the White Paper was introduced have not been met. We are all familiar with the current chaos in the Passport Office. That has had plenty of publicity because it inconveniences British citizens and they have rightly reviled the Home Office for its monumental inefficiency in relation to their holidays. We are familiar also with the comparable chaos as concerns visa applications in the Home Office's Immigration and Nationality Directorate. As The Times remarked yesterday in its leading column:
"That is an understatement". It certainly is.
Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn: My Lords, I certainly can. However, I do not want to speak at greater length than I had intended. It seems to me that the central problem is the colossal backlog which currently exists. The Bill does not explicitly state how it will deal with the backlog of existing cases. I imagine that most existing cases will be dealt with under the existing law, though the noble Lord opposite will correct me if I am wrong. It may be that the Bill will operate retrospectively, but I do not assume that to be the case.
So, what will be done about the existing cases? The Bill has no remarks to make about that. We are told-- I shall refer to this later though I shall conclude my speech briefly--that it is hoped there will be a two-week decision time by the year 2001. When that point is reached, the situation will work admirably. However, to anticipate what I was planning to say, Explanatory Note No. 393 states that 300 extra officers will be recruited to implement the Bill and deal with the backlog. My noble friend Lord Cope of Berkeley also referred to this point. Perhaps I may say, in retrospect, to the noble Lord opposite, that that simply is not enough. Why not 3,000? Three thousand officers might cost something of the order of £60 million. That is still a small sum in relation to the annual sums being paid out to accommodate and offer subsistence to the 50,000 or more people who constitute the present backlog. I hope that gives a sufficient answer to the noble Lord. These matters are not addressed in the Bill. That is why I believe that it lacks reality.
This is not just a matter of changing the legal position as the Bill sets out to do; it is a matter of efficiency, providing the resources to do the job and noting that the budget of social security benefits will, in some respects, be reduced thereby. Indeed, when we look at the passport office and the situation regarding visas, it is perhaps not unfair to say that it is a matter also of competence. A year ago it was hardly reasonable to criticise the Government for a situation which they had inherited. But the time comes when Ministers have to shoulder responsibility for the continuing position. The Minister will no doubt tell us that the present Bill is designed to reduce the pressures on the immigration department and thereby alleviate these problems; but, what will the present Bill do to alleviate the existing backlog of long-standing applicants?
This is now a public scandal and one which is more serious than delays with passports for holidays or visas for short visits. These are people whose lives have been on hold for five, six or maybe 10 years. I should like to ask the Minister how many such people there still are and what is he going to do about it. Unfortunately, the present Bill does not address the problem. It has its merits but I fear that it misses the central point.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, in particular in reinforcing the point he has just made about the omissions in the Bill and the need to face the separate challenge of clearing the backlog of outstanding cases. I agree with him that the legislation does not go to the heart of that problem and, therefore, we may be wasting much parliamentary time in dealing with yet another piece of legislation that misses the point.
When I was a Member in the other place I served on the Standing Committee that considered the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996. In preparing for today's debate, I revisited the Second Reading speeches. Mr Jack Straw was the principal Opposition spokesman and he set out the context in which that legislation was being promoted. Many of the arguments that he advanced then in the other place hold good today, so your Lordships will readily appreciate the irony that Mr Straw now holds the legislative ring.
"Above all, we must act in a way in which prejudice is not fanned, and people must not be led to believe that immigration is out of control ... there must be a balance between fairness and firmness, between justice and control".--[Official Report, Commons, 11/12/95; col. 711.] We are in danger of overexaggerating the scale of the problem. The last time I tabled Questions about the numbers of immigrants arriving here, the Answer revealed that in the year in question some 5,000 more
The noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, mentioned resources and it is worth commenting not just on the disproportionate amount of parliamentary time that we spend on the issue, but on how resources are allocated. I was told, again in answer to a parliamentary Question, that the previous legislation cost more than £200,000 to promote and took some 8,000 hours of civil servants' time. I am told that 400 extra staff will be required to administer the new voucher system. My noble friend Lady Mar and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, talked about the cost of holding people in detention. Those are considerable sums of money and if they were allocated to dealing with the backlog of people who are being held and seeking the right to remain in this country, and who will be returned if their cases are not upheld, it would be a more expeditious and useful way of dealing with the problem and a better use of resources.
In 1995 it was my strong contention that Michael Howard's legislation failed to meet the test of fairness and firmness, justice and control. I regret that, like my noble friend Lady Mar, I do not believe that the Bill will do any better.
I have three points to make, including, first, a few words about the process that produces these ill-considered Bills and some remarks about the effect on children and the persecuted. In 1995, the Bill was rushed through Parliament fewer than three years after Ministers had assured both Houses that the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 was the definitive answer to asylum abuse cases. We can all be forgiven, therefore, for a sense of deja vu.
When a group of us tried to persuade the other place to set up a Special Standing Committee with the power to take evidence and hear witnesses, the amendment was defeated by 314 votes to 287. Inevitably, that led to the charge being made against the then government that they simply wished to look tough before the impending general election. The Times said that the Bill could "sour race relations"--a point echoed in our debate today. It continued that it could put Britain,
"Mr. Howard is certainly playing, to use that most dog-eared of metaphors, the race card". Mr Straw called in aid an argument from the Financial Times--which is particularly pertinent in the context of today's debate--that,
"it was too much to expect business to act in such a policeman's capacity".--[Official Report, Commons, 11/12/95; col. 720.] He also said that the Bill had plain "racial implications".
"We have been consulted. On some parts of the Bill extensively, on others in a cursory fashion, on others not at all. On fundamental issues such as the shortcomings of Home Office decision-making and the systematic social exclusion of asylum seekers, our views have been solicited, expressed and rejected". It should give the House cause for concern that although superficially we appear to have improved the procedures since 1995, one of the most respected organisations dealing with the issues can say that its views have been rejected.
Along with other Members of your Lordships' House, I have been inundated with briefing material about today's debate and about this third Bill in six years. Those representations professed profound concern about the Bill's consequences. How much better would it have been if the petitioners, the charities and the advocacy groups could have been involved in the drafting of the Bills. The moral of the three Bills has been that if we legislate in haste we repent at leisure. However, considerations about the inadequacy of our legislative process pale into insignificance when measured against the effects that the laws will have on the vulnerable and the destitute.
I shall illustrate my point by reference to the plight of children. Notwithstanding the Government's new clause, entitled "Support for Children" and tabled on 16th June, the Children's Society and the Children's Consortium, of which the Children's Society is part, say that the concession does not,
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark spelt out the realities for refugees on the ground, like the woman from Uganda whom he cited, and the recipients of vouchers. In addition, the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, reminded us that the price we will pay in damage to race relations is too great to justify either this social exclusion or the so-called deterrent effect.
The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, suggested that we should ensure that families with children are dispersed into the country and that we should use empty property to help them. It is true that in cities such as Liverpool, although she did not mention it by name, there are some 8,000 empty properties in the public and private sectors. It was recently suggested that some of them should be used for Kosovan refugees. The fact is that these are hard to let properties, out of which people were moved five years ago as being unsuitable for ordinary British nationals to live in. Are we serious that these are properties into which we should dump people who have been fleeing persecution in the most terrible circumstances?
There are questions to be faced here regarding the practical effects on children. The Children Act 1989 was one of the best pieces of legislation implemented by the last government and they are to be congratulated on that. Significantly though, in the light of my earlier remarks, it entered the statute book after it emerged from a long period of consultative gestation and it received all-party support. That is not a bad model, perhaps, for what we should be doing today. It provides a universal yardstick by which children are to be treated. Now we are being invited to remove the children of asylum-seeking families from the legislation, and they are arguably one of the most vulnerable groups of children protected by that Act.
"a court shall have regard in particular to the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child ... [and] his physical, emotional and educational needs". Clause 113 is also at variance with the assertion in the 1989 Act that a child is best supported within the context of the family.
The provisions concerning practical support are also disadvantageous to families with children compared with those of our own nationals. At present, asylum-seeking families with children are entitled to receive 100 per cent of current income support. The destitute child of an asylum-seeking family will have all the same physical needs as any of our own children in a comparable situation.
Although recent changes mean that a family with two children will now receive £40 rather than the £21 previously announced as cash payments, the overall package remains at £90.80 a week in total. This is just 70 per cent of current income support levels. In legislating for this package we leave ourselves open to the charge of discrimination and mean-mindedness. Any of us who occasionally go to shop for our own family's weekly basic needs, such as food or clothing, know how far these sums will go.
When I last looked asylum seekers accounted for one quarter of 1 per cent of all social security claimants. Again, let us put this matter into some kind of context and perspective. It is hardly an unreasonable demand on our national resources, and yet we spend disproportionate time and effort on singling out this one group. Doubtless there are bogus claimants among these people, just as there are bogus expense claims and bogus tax claims made by some of our own nationals.
Let me end by mentioning the persecuted. Last week I was fortunate enough to go to Jerusalem and, with a group of people mainly from the Anglican Church, went to Yad Vashem, where we saw the Forest of the Righteous Gentiles. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, has mentioned Oscar Schindler. We saw the tree that was planted there for him and that which was planted for Raoul Wallenberg. It is worth remembering that if Raoul Wallenberg or Oscar Schindler were involved under the terms of this legislation, manufacturing papers to enable people to flee from persecution, whether religious or political, then they would be collaborators; they would be arrested and they could be fined. That should give us pause before placing this legislation onto the statute book.
Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I am very pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Alton, particularly in relation to the last passage of his speech. For my own part, and I make this declaration of interest, I had the great privilege of being chairman of the Refugee Council for a number of years. I pay tribute to them and indeed to all the other bodies who speak out for and offer support to those who come to this country, who seek, against a very difficult background, to make a worthwhile life here, sometimes to seek refuge.
Yes, there are those who abuse the system too. Sometimes, for very narrow political reasons, there are deliberate attempts to distort the situation so far as they are concerned. There are people who come here whose legal status may be uncertain, but to describe them simply as bogus is to distort the whole situation. Many of them do not satisfy the strict requirements of immigration law, but there is great uncertainty about their future. Very often they come here because they see no hope for their children's future, and they need help and understanding. To characterise them in the way that people sometimes do--and the word "bogus" lingers on the lips of too many--is the wrong approach. If they are in breach of the law, they should still be treated with dignity and respect. Sometimes that simply does not happen. It does not happen at the point of entry.
I recall listening to debates going back to 1971, to my very first Act in another place, the Immigration Act. The language on the part of some was totally insupportable. They were years when the then government reacted to situations, I believe, with a degree of spite and of malice, in order to pacify a number of people in this country who quite deliberately wanted to seize political advantage out of the scenario. It is as unacceptable to do that today as it was then; it is more inexcusable.
It is extremely important always to keep this in perspective. I do not wish to speak as someone lecturing to the House from on high. That is not my objective at all. There are great problems associated with immigration and asylum. One cannot flood the country and I am not suggesting that at all. The criteria to be adopted, however, are those which are applied with a measure of sympathy and understanding for the plight in which so many of these people find themselves.
My grandparents were refugees. They owed a great deal to this country. I am not sure whether all my noble friends will agree with that when they look at me, but I am the residue. The fact is that when they came here they had to put up with much opprobrium, and that situation has not radically changed. I do not think for one moment that politicians from any of the responsible political parties today would adopt the line that was taken in the 1905 legislation, about which my noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees and I had a good deal to say in those debates of the early 1970s. It is the duty of politicians not to fan the flames in any sense but to ensure that people approach these issues with a degree of responsibility and care. Many of the people who come to this country have a great deal to offer. Yet, underlying this, and even on the part of those who
I do not believe that the Government, of whom I was very proud to be a member, have approached this issue in a discriminatory or deliberately provocative way. This is a hugely difficult problem and they undoubtedly inherited a mess when they came into power in 1997. However, I am not convinced--we will go into this matter more in Committee and subsequently--that they are entirely applying the right approach now in respect of a number of material issues. But, having said that, I reject the idea that I have heard from some quarters that the Government have set out on a prejudicial course. I do not believe that of my noble friends, least of all of my noble friend Lord Williams who speaks for the Government today.
However, as I said, there are problems; for example, are we applying the right criteria as regards those asylum seekers who use false documents in order to escape persecution? Sometimes these people do not notify immigration officers of such facts on arrival. Is it right that they should be prosecuted under the new offences established in Clauses 22 and 24? I ask my noble friend the Minister: would that not breach Article 31 of the 1951 refugee convention? Then there is the question of pre-entry controls and visa regimes. Should they be imposed on countries where serious human rights violations are occurring at present? Would that not trap refugees in the countries where they are in fact being persecuted? I ask that question because I think it is exercising the mind of the Refugee Council at present. Is there not a need to ensure better examination of refusals of entry clearance as far as concerns monitoring the impact of carriers' sanctions on those fleeing persecution?
I turn to the question of detention, with which I shall deal briefly. Does my noble friend the Minister believe that clearer safeguards should be introduced into the system so that asylum seekers are detained only when it is absolutely necessary? I am not convinced that that is the case at present. Further, should not asylum seekers--I hope that my noble friend will go along with this--also be entitled to challenge the deprivation of liberty promptly before a competent, independent and impartial authority?
I welcome the moves that have been made by the Government to introduce automatic bail hearings for those who are detained under the powers of the Immigration Act. That should be done--and, indeed, is to be done--very promptly. But is it enough? As the Bill stands, the courts will not be able to examine the original decision to detain against clear criteria, and there is no presumption of liberty in asylum cases, as there is under ordinary criminal law. Moreover, there is no maximum period of detention and no necessity for continued judicial supervision after the second bail hearing. Is it not important to recognise that there are deficiencies here, which will require careful scrutiny when we come to consider further aspects of the Bill at a later stage?
I would also prefer to see an extended judicial control of the decision to detain. I do not think that that is adequate at present and it is important that that should be imported into the provisions of the Bill. Perhaps it is among those further amendments that are being considered by the Government, about which we shall hear at a later stage. I do not wish to detain the House by speculating in that respect. However, it is important that people who are faced with detention hearings should not have them heard in prisons or in immigration detention centres. It gives the wrong impression; indeed, that is not the impression of impartiality. It is perhaps the impression of the wielding of a heavy hand by the state. In the main, I believe that they are people who should not be exposed to that treatment.
I now turn to immigration advisers. I have to say that I have been a solicitor for a long time now; indeed, some would say too long. However, I still enjoy being a solicitor and still believe that it is a worthwhile profession. I used to do a lot of immigration work, but I think that a miserable importation was the work of some of those people who proffered advice and who were not really entitled to do so. Money was the sole objective and they fleeced unfortunate people--that is, people who looked to them for succour but who were in fact cheated. Unfortunately, there are some of them in my profession who have not covered our profession with great glory. But it is a small minority. In the main, I think that people from the solicitors' profession who are engaged in this area of the law, which is not a profitable one, deserve commendation. There are, of course, exceptions and I hope that the Government will deal with both those aspects of the unfortunate way in which some people who are in trouble are dealt with.
I move on to the destitution which faces some asylum seekers. I remain to be convinced that the voucher system is the right way to proceed. We have not gone into the matter in great depth, but we will have the opportunity to do so later. The burden of establishing that rests on my noble friend the Minister and his noble friends who will be dealing with the Bill. But what will happen? Is it right that there will be periods in which no support will be provided if, for example, an asylum seeker seeks judicial review through the courts or appeals against a refusal to provide support? Am I right in that assumption, or is it something that the Government will ensure does not take place?
For my own part, I believe that the benefit system is the fairest and the most equitable way of proceeding. However, I should tell my noble friend the Minister that I am perfectly happy to be convinced in that respect, if I can be sure that justice can be done to people who are in fact destitute and facing real problems.
I turn finally to the question of the powers of immigration officers to search and arrest. I am concerned about extending those powers. I am concerned that there is no independent complaints body available to investigate a misuse of those powers. Why not? I am also concerned that immigration officers should secure proper training and that there should be accountability for their actions. It seems to me that there is a need for guidelines
We have an important task in undertaking proper scrutiny of the Bill. It is a matter which goes to the very heart of civil liberties in this country. When one is dealing with people who are frightened, they do mislead sometimes. When one is dealing with people who are destitute, of course they panic. Of course, one will also have people who are crooked. We must balance all these considerations to arrive at the right and just result in terms of dealing with the matter.
I speak with considerable care and compassion, because I have been involved in this area for a very long time, as a solicitor and somebody who has been involved in the Refugee Council. But also I can never forget where I come from.
I cannot agree with those who call this a good Bill. There are few good things in it, including the regulation of immigration advisers, provision for appeal against refusal of visas for family visits and the target time for decisions, but on the whole I find it a depressing and even nasty Bill, which will make it more difficult even than under the terms of the 1996 Act for those fleeing persecution to come here.
The Bill as a whole emphasises exclusion and control, not, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, pointed out, fairness and justice. There is a puzzling inconsistency in the Government's approach generally between the good things they are doing and the bad. On the one hand, they show evidence of being reformist, pluralist, inclusive and enhancing liberty. On the other hand, they are authoritarian, illiberal, stigmatising, excluding--and, yes, even I am afraid, prejudiced. In the Home Office as a whole, with exceptions, we find too much of the latter tendency, coupled, which makes it worse, with poor management and inefficiency. As others have pointed out, there is also inconsistency between the Bill and Labour's stance when it was in opposition.
The third aspect of inconsistency is the Jekyll and Hyde approach to, for instance, Kosovar refugees, treated in two different ways depending on how they arrived here recently. The Government should have concentrated on making the system more efficient--not only the processing of applications, but also the effective pursuit, removal and deportation of those who are found to have no valid claim.
I must disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Warner, who is no longer in his place. It is a mistake to say that cash payments are a "pull factor". The statistics simply do not bear that out. The biggest reasons why our system in the UK is overwhelmed, with far fewer numbers than in, say, Germany, are the slow decision-making process and Dickensian working
I have time to pick out only some of the worrying features of the Bill. In particular, I will not touch on the bail and detention aspects and the powers of immigration officers, which others have dealt with. There is serious concern that the Bill will worsen race relations. The message it sends out is that immigrants and asylum seekers are dishonest, grasping scroungers, seeking to bum off the honest British taxpayer. What happened to the proud British tradition of welcoming refugees and integrating immigrants? Of course, there have to be controls, but they should be fair and respectful of people's dignity, recognising the contribution those people can and will make to our society and economy--often a disproportionate one, because of their energy, get-up-and-go and intelligence, which have often led them to leave and often led them to be persecuted in the first place. Let us think of the 1,000 refugee doctors in this country who are unable to work for various reasons, when we have a desperate shortage of doctors in the National Health Service.
I have concern about the provisions which have the effect of privatising and exporting immigration controls. I am also concerned about not only the carriers' liability part of the Bill, but also the duties placed on registrars and clergy, other than clergy of the Church of England and the Church of Wales, and on employers. I find it curious that a government who are so insistent on the maintenance of border controls within the European Union should extend the range of internal controls. I should have thought that it was at the border that immigration control should take place.
For employers it is a great disappointment that the Government have not carried through their opinion in opposition that Section 8 of the 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act, now Clause 18 of the Bill, should be repealed. Indeed, they pledged repeal before the 1997 election. The Better Regulation Task Force has
It is inappropriate to make registrars and clergy of religions and churches other than the Church of England and the Church of Wales carry the burden of immigration control, for which they have no training. It is also bound to result in racial discrimination and stereotyping. I hope that the Government will be open to amendments in this area.
I turn to the support system, where the charge of inconsistency applies forcefully. How can the Government reconcile their laudable commitment to reducing social exclusion and promoting racial justice with the creation of a new social underclass under the voucher system?
I come now to the question of the dispersal of asylum seekers. As a London politician, indeed, a London borough councillor, I am obviously aware that London boroughs cannot shoulder all the burden of support. The best way to make this a national responsibility is through the social security system, as the Labour- majority Association of London Government said in 1996, though it seems, shamefully, to have changed its mind.
There is concern that groups who are dispersed to towns and cities where they are few in number may be isolated and become targets for racist attacks. Will not the Government at least consider the expression of reasonable preference as to preferred location? There is great concern that if asylum seekers feel lonely and lack community support and access to services such as the Medical Foundation which has an office only in London, they will not stay in their allocated location and will drift back to London with no money and no benefits. They may turn to begging, crime and prostitution to stay alive. That would be an appalling situation.
As regards the voucher system, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, it is important to remember that this is not a right. People will have to prove that they are destitute. But while the cash value of the voucher system will be only 70 per cent of income support, and the system has all the disadvantages of inflexibility--it can be exchanged only for a limited range of goods--it will be more cumbersome and costly to administer than social security benefits. I do not know how it meets the test of best value that all government departments are meant to be working towards. I understand that Switzerland dropped vouchers because they were impractical as well as demeaning. There is no evidence that the withdrawal of cash payments acts as a disincentive to migrate. The voucher system is much more costly to administer than benefits even without adding the cost of the 300 staff in the Asylum Support Directorate.
The noble Lord, Lord Warner, is not present at the moment. However, I say to him that his colleagues who still work in Kent County Council social services believe that vouchers are a nightmare. They create community tensions due to the stigma attached to them and the fact that they hold up supermarket queues. There are great fears of a black market emerging with refugees being forced to sell their vouchers below value because of their desperate need for more cash for, say, travel, stamps and 'phone cards. I hope that the Government will reconsider this matter and place all applicants on the cheaper system of income support. I hope at least that the new system will not come into force at all until the Government have reduced the average decision making time to six months, and that in individual cases families will receive benefits automatically after six months if their cases are not decided. I hope that the Minister will be able to make those changes.
I have two further points. First--this has been touched on by others--I refer to the treatment of women, particularly women who may have been raped. That women may be raped by police and soldiers as a weapon of war has been tragically borne out yet again in Kosovo, as it was in Bosnia. Rape is a weapon of war as an expression of contempt and as an exercise of power. We need gender-specific guidelines for processing asylum claims, as I believe exist in Canada and Australia. I hope that the Minister can give some assurances on that point. Even if this matter is not within the terms of the convention, will the Minister consider extending exceptional leave to remain arrangements in case of rape claims? As the noble Countess, Lady Mar, mentioned, there is a need for female interviewers to interview female refugees, and special training for assessing rape claims.
I shall not mention children as others have done so and I am running out of time. So, finally, I refer to the European aspect. With the Amsterdam Treaty now in force which moves the whole area of immigration and asylum into the Community competence instead of intergovernmental competence--apart from, of course, the UK opt out--I hope that the European Union will prioritise the obligations of international human rights and refugee law and the European traditions of humanitarian policy and democracy. We shall need to look for improved judicial and democratic oversight through the European Court of Justice and the European Parliament. I know that there will be a special justice and home affairs summit in October in Finland. I hope that member governments will look to those aspects and not just see management as restricting immigration and refugees. Of course we need a common policy but we must also be positive in our approach to refugees.
As the noble Countess, Lady Mar, said, it is perfectly possible to have a system that deters bogus asylum seekers and allows genuine ones true refuge, protection and welcome--other European Union countries manage to have such a system--in other words, a real firm, fast and fair system, which despite the Government's claims, this Bill unfortunately does not provide.
Lord Sheppard of Liverpool: My Lords, thinking of this Bill reminded me of when I led a delegation from all the Churches to the Home Office when I was chairman of the Church of England Board for Social Responsibility. That visit occurred when Michael Howard was Home Secretary. He repeatedly told us that Britain was regarded as a "soft touch", so much so that when we left I was clear that what he wished was that the word would go around the world that Britain was a brutal touch and that people would be influenced not to attempt to come here.
The objective of a fairer, faster and firmer policy is a fine one. We need all three objectives. I listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Warner. I recognise--as we all must do--some of the complexity and difficulties involved in this issue. We need a robust and clear set of rules. In spite of the tough measures of the 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act, we are told that Britain has more persons seeking asylum than ever. Perhaps that is because more people now are being displaced or threatened. However, it was important to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, put the "numbers game" into context.
I hope it is common ground among all of us that Britain as a settled and wealthy country should expect with a good heart, along with partner nations, to take its share of those distressed people around the world who need asylum. I congratulate the Government on what I believe are their real intentions to make the process faster. That will have an enormous influence. The uncertainties of long delays have been damaging. Looking at this Bill one might say that it is a business efficiency answer to some major problems. However, as my noble friend the Minister made clear, there are great human needs to be met. It will not be an efficient Bill unless we pay attention to those human needs.
I want to make brief reference to four parts of the Bill. One or two noble Lords have mentioned Clause 18 on employers. Like other noble Lords, I remember opposition to this part of the 1996 Act, Section 8. I had hoped and expected to see it repealed. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, has reminded us of the race relations implications of this measure. My understanding is that Ministers have regarded Section 8 as an effective weapon for prosecuting racketeers who exploit illegal immigrants. The CRE tells us that to date there has been only one prosecution under this section. I recognise the difficulties of preventing exploitation in this often confusing area, but I ask my noble friend whether he agrees that a high price is being paid in race relations for keeping this section. The CRE says that, as we all anticipated, Section 8 has stopped some employers from considering job applications from those whose appearance or name or command of language suggest that they may involve the employer in committing an offence. It is easy to understand that an employer feels it is not worth the hassle of checking documents.
Secondly, and briefly, I shall turn to the question of appeals. When the 1996 Bill was being debated, I remember that many of us made a major issue about appeals. We even persuaded the Archbishop and the Cardinal to approach the Government about it together. It is a very important principle. Like other noble Lords, I welcome the provision of a right of appeal against breaches of human rights. That will make possible appeals by asylum seekers on the ground that a return to their own country would put them at risk of suffering torture or degrading treatment. I am also glad about the proposal for a single, comprehensive appeal. I think I heard my noble friend say that that would make it possible for all reasons why a person should not be removed from the United Kingdom to be reviewed. Perhaps he will confirm that that is the case.
My third comment concerns pre-entry controls. I am concerned about the threats to carriers and especially about the insistence on correct documentation. If someone is genuinely fleeing from persecution, he or she is not likely to be able to obtain a visa. The Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference said in April that this proposal to strengthen the carrier liability Act will,
The noble Lords, Lord Alton of Liverpool and Lord Dholakia, asked whether Jews fleeing from Germany in the 1930s would have escaped if the carrier they approached had insisted on their possessing the correct documents. The same applies today with refugees from Iraq or other countries we could name.
Fourthly, and lastly, I come to the question raised by many noble Lords about support for asylum seekers and their families. I am glad that my noble friend said that he would listen especially to matters relating to children. Like other noble Lords, I have read the Children's Society brief on its east London project which tells us that families and children who depend heavily upon voucher systems are often subjected to racial harassment and discrimination in local shops and markets. In addition, the vouchers can be exchanged for only a
At least some of those seeking asylum will be given permission to stay in this country. The first few weeks in Britain are crucial. How will the family adjust to their massively changed circumstances? How will children come to feel that this could be home, where they will belong and make their contribution?
There has been some argument about whether the support package is worth 70 or 90 per cent of income support. But why is it not 100 per cent? Other noble Lords have made that point. Poverty is poverty. Income support is not generous; it simply provides what is necessary for a very modest standard of living. We should be not apologetic but proud of spending whatever is needed to provide a fairer, faster and firmer system.
I strongly supported the Government's military intervention in Kosovo. As a child I recall Mr Chamberlain saying that we should not want to risk British lives on behalf of "a little country far away". Those words have always stayed with me and frequently come back. I am proud that our nation was willing to spend whatever it took to deliver from oppression one little country far away. I hope that we shall not grudge spending more to help restore that little country and other Balkan countries which are suffering from the fall-out of war. There are other little countries far away; the fall-out of war and oppression leave many others suffering as a result. We should not be grudging in spending what it costs to provide our proper humanitarian share.
We made a point last time round on this subject, a point which we should not hear: most refugees in the world are cared for by much poorer nations than ours in Africa and in Asia. We are being asked to take only our share. For these people in desperate need--not in impossible numbers--I hope that the Minister will agree that human need and not cost-cutting should be the greatest factor in providing firm, fast and fair action and support.
The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, it is only three years since the Conservative Government were under siege from a strong cohort, at that time led memorably by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. It is no surprise to me that the new Government are already in similar difficulties. It is not customary to spend much time commending a Bill--and it might sound like faint praise if I were to do so--but it should be remembered that the previous Government, whose caring voice rings today rather strangely, had allowed the Home Office to build a mountain of problems over nearly two decades. No one could expect this Government to deal with them all at once. Indeed, it is refreshing that under pressure from their own MPs and members of the Special Standing Committee in another place they are still revising a Bill even at this late stage. I therefore apologise to the Minister in advance if I have not caught up with all the amendments.
If anyone should think that this Government have now got it about right they should look at the huge volume of briefings coming in from refugee agencies. The Government may well point to the "shambles" left behind by the Conservatives, but what other word would describe the scene in the IND's new computerisation project early this year, with thousands of unopened letters and as many files deemed inaccessible?
We all accused the Tories of the "deterrent" of their new legislation, but again the emphasis of this Bill seems to be on preventing refugees from coming, not on giving them asylum. I realise that these things are easy to say for someone outside the system, but they are also being said by those whose daily task is to look after refugees. I understand how hard it is to change attitudes and practices in the Home Office; equally, we in Parliament must continue to scrutinise change and criticise delay and inefficiency, whether it is in passports for our own citizens or visas for those from other countries.
There is of course a cost to this country in maintaining its great tradition of asylum. But sometimes even intelligent people forget that asylum is not a burden on the taxpayer but a clear commitment from ordinary citizens through their elected Parliament. In that sense, asylum is like international development. The two should complement each other. Both areas of government suffered severe cuts at a time when Europe's economic wealth was still expanding in relation to developing countries, however much our Chancellors would have us believe that we were hard up and close to recession. If the Government have at last decided to reverse that process in the case of international aid, why are they cutting the support that they give to asylum seekers? Asylum cannot be seen just as a cost. Like development overseas, it brings us economic and cultural benefits as well.
Many people, including the Special Standing Committee, have tried to distinguish between immigrants and asylum seekers. As we have heard, there is a major industry built on that proposition. If we think of the motive of economic betterment as a purely negative factor--as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Warner, that is not just a characteristic of the previous government--we shall undermine a process of wealth creation. As the noble Lord, Lord Janner, often reminds us, many of us come from other cultures and the vast majority contribute to our society. In the generosity table we are well down the European list at number nine or 10, after all our Scandinavian and German-speaking neighbours.
As we look through the Bill, the Treasury pruning knife seems to have been applied across the board, to protection and human rights on the one hand and to support on the other. That is a disappointment to me. The Chancellor recently spoke to the Church of Scotland General Assembly about one moral universe,
The Government have already made some significant advances and have learned from and worked with refugee agencies. That is a tremendous step forward. The agencies fully acknowledge that we have a listening government. All that they need is a government who will act on their advice. In some instances they certainly have that. There has been a greater use of extended leave to remain, such as in the case of Afghans and Congolese in 1998 as well as Somalis. Acceptance rates went up last year to 17 per cent for refugee status and 12 per cent for ELR. The Minister helpfully hinted at new measures for children in line with the Children Act. There has also been a greater judicial element in the detention process, which I know that many people welcome.
However, the Government know that they have to go further. The Minister may be able to explain why they cannot. We are told that a statutory presumption in favour of bail will now be included in the Bill, but that there will be no presumption in favour of liberty, in defiance of the ECHR and the Human Rights Act. It would help if there could be parity with the Bail Act 1976 for the second bail hearing. Half of the 53 bail applicants surveyed recently by King's College, London were still awaiting a Home Office decision. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, suggested that the true proportion was considerably higher. The overall number of detainees is going up, with a consequent strain on prisons.
There is no maximum period of detention and there can be no challenge to a decision to detain. Legal aid is not available to all bail applicants. There is no recognised right to medical treatment and private detention centre staff are given powers similar to those of prison officers, but without the safeguards of proper training. Detained asylum seekers reasonably wonder whether they are unconvicted prisoners. At Rochester, for example, they cannot receive telephone calls and at Haslar they are not allowed even to show visitors--in some cases their only visitors--lawyers' letters that they have received.
Two years is a short time to turn round a policy of two decades. I may have spent too long with NGOs to understand the reality of day-to-day government, but there are stories arising from some agencies such as Asylum Aid about the nightmares of being a refugee which make one wonder if we are living in Kosovo or Rwanda.
I shall add only a few words on dispersal. I have read the representations of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. On its past record, the foundation is unlikely to exaggerate its fears. It wants only to avoid any new arrangements that would cause further suffering to refugees in its care. We all remember the amazing amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Sheppard. The foundation believes that survivors of torture, who are supposed to be protected by the legislation, are still at risk of detention in spite of efforts made in the Special Standing Committee. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has said, the foundation believes that it has been inadequately consulted on some of the fundamental issues, including detention, dispersal and support. I remember the mistakes made at the time of the Vietnamese refugees.
It is unreasonable to expect asylum seekers who have survived torture and many others living from hand to mouth on the new voucher system to move away from London and centres where they know that they can receive regular medical support and legal advice. The case for revoking or reviewing the policy of dispersal is already overwhelming and I urge the Minister to confirm that the Home Office is seriously rethinking it.
Finally, it is hard to see how the Government can meet their targets for reducing the backlog, although we all want to see results quickly. There is no time scale or clear plan. It appears that families deserve to be in the six-month category, but that will mean penalising individuals who may be equally or more deserving.
The noble Lord, Lord Warner, did not have time to take up the lessons of the Kent experience of the new voucher system, but it shows that the new system will lead to queuing, black markets and stigmatisation, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, have said. Why are the Government ignoring that advice? The extra cash and other add-ons are of some improvement but expert opinion suggests that the new system still provides barely 80 per cent of the value of income support, ensuring that asylum seekers, for this and all the other reasons that I have mentioned, are still to be treated as second-class non-citizens.
Lord Ahmed: My Lords, I welcome the Government's aim of a firmer, fairer and faster immigration and asylum system, including improved advice on asylum and the regulation of unqualified immigration advisers. Like many noble Lords, I have some concerns that I should like my noble friend the Minister to consider, although most of the points I had intended to make have already been made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark and the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford.
Perhaps I may turn first to Part VI of the Bill, which includes reference to the voucher system. The point has been made by almost all speakers that the system is expensive and bureaucratic. It was tried, and failed, in Switzerland. It has created an administration nightmare. Councils such as Hackney have given evidence to the effect that it costs three and a half times more, and it stigmatises people. The IND, which already has a great many problems, will be running the system; so people will not have confidence in it when it comes into operation in April 2000.
The noble Lord, Lord Sheppard of Liverpool, said that the voucher system represents 90 per cent of income support. Why should it not be 100 per cent? At present, income support is set at a very basic level. It causes people a great deal of hardship. My fear is that it will also create begging, illegal work and crime. There will be repercussions. There will also be race relations problems.
My second point relates to Part VII, dealing with the new powers of arrest, search and entry to premises. I am particularly concerned about the power that is to be given to immigration officers to enter places of worship: mosques, synagogues and temples. I hope that the Government will restrict those powers. If it is necessary to enter places of worship, local magistrates should have the power to issue warrants. They understand the local situation. It could be very sensitive. Most immigration officers are based at regional level and do not understand some of the local issues.
Thirdly, I am concerned about the removal of appeal rights for people who over-stay and are threatened with expulsion from the UK. I fully understand that there are people who abuse the system and prolong the expulsion
Lord Hylton: My Lords, perhaps I may briefly examine the wider context in which the Bill reaches this House. In this country families tend to be small, with two or fewer children. The population is ageing; and the numbers of those who are very old likely to rise for some years more. By contrast, the majority of immigrants come in at working age, bringing with them at least some skills or education, together with great powers of adaptability. Immigrants are consumers as well as producers. Their presence tends to create jobs. They often undertake the kinds of work which others are unwilling to do, whether in local shops, transport or the health services.
I strongly agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, who made an excellent speech. I join him in paying tribute to the great quantity and high quality of work that is being done by a wide range of people who are working with and helping immigrants and asylum seekers and who are motivated by personal faith.
In these circumstances, it should be possible to present a positive view of immigration. That, in turn, will have implications for government policy, not only on straightforward immigration but also on asylum and related matters such as "exceptional leave to remain". A positive presentation will require courage, not only from the Government but also from parliamentarians in general. If that kind of courage can be found, it will lead to a more humane and less callous system than the present one. We should remember the many areas of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and perhaps the North of England which would welcome additional population if only they could attract it.
I turn now to the guiding principles that should govern immigration to this country. The probability of reasonably easy acceptance and integration into British society should underlie all that we do. We should build on the families already living here. Family reunion for close relatives and dependent family members is the first principle. It is one that seems to reflect the settled policy of the Government; namely, to encourage family life. Already, that principle is being honoured, in that the great majority of those accepted for permanent
My second guiding principle is that those coming here should, whenever possible, have a good grasp of English. That will enormously increase their chances of employment and acceptance. In border-line cases--that is, people who could either be accepted or rejected--a knowledge of English could well be the deciding factor. Some could perhaps be told, in appropriate circumstances, to reapply when they had learnt English. Again this should be a factor taken into account in decisions about ELR, or early admission of dependants. It might also affect presumptions under the 1951 Convention on Refugees, replacing a too literal application of the first-safe-country rule.
My third principle is to ask: is there an existing ethnic religious or linguistic community which is likely to accept and support the newly arrived immigrant or asylum seeker? Community support of this kind can make relatively easy what might otherwise be a difficult or painful process of adaptation to new and different circumstances. This principle therefore is contrary to the notion that asylum seekers and others can be dispersed in an even way across the country. Such policies were tried without success in the cases of the Vietnamese boat people and the Ugandan Asians, as was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Sandwich. Both groups, it was found, usually moved towards their fellow countrymen as soon as they possibly could.
"The Government certainly has not heeded the advice it has been given ... This will lead to bad legislation".
I trust, nevertheless, that more sober counsels will prevail in your Lordships' House and that amendments will build into the Bill something of the three principles that I outlined earlier; namely, family reunion, knowledge of English and community support. I ventured to make some suggestions in a debate in your Lordships' House on 25th February 1998. I asked for cash benefits and not for vouchers or aid in kind. I asked
Your Lordships have the opportunity to make this Bill more humane, principally by helping government to end the culture of disbelief and to improve the quality of decision making. Speed in itself is not enough. We really do need quality decisions. If we could achieve those things, it would cut the present number of appeals and make the whole system fairer. The opportunity exists, and I urge the House to grasp it.
Lord Berkeley: My Lords, among the sadness and human misery of so many asylum seekers, which has been so eloquently described, it is my role to bring the House down to earth with a bump. I feel I should express concern that the Bill appears to be turning most cross-Channel lorry drivers and train drivers into potential criminals, and possibly bankrupting them. My concern is with carriage liability in Part II of this Bill, which was commented upon by the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley.
My noble friend the Minister put this problem into context when he said that there were about 9,000 clandestine entrants last year. Most of them come in ships, vehicles and aircraft. My interest is in the lorries and trains. It is true that the numbers are increasing and the operators are worried. It is also true that most of the immigrants get into the vehicles without the operators knowing. That is the problem.
I declare an interest, as chairman of the Rail Freight Group, but I shall also speak about road freight because this is a problem in both areas. My concern is that the Bill extends the carriage liability Act to buses, coaches and lorries. I am not sure about trains: they are not mentioned in Clause 25, defining a clandestine entrant. The Bill says that the Secretary of State can fine train operators. If immigrants do not come in by train, that may be something for my noble friend to think about. I am not sure whether freight trains are covered as well as passenger trains. Perhaps my noble friend can deal also with that point.
Why is it a problem? Most lorry drivers, in theory at least, load in a safe parking area on the Continent--Bulgaria, Romania, Italy, Germany, wherever. The lorry is sealed, and it remains throughout. But the driver does not always have control over where he picks up goods or where he stops for a rest. He may just be picking up a trailer; he may be delivering the trailer to a Channel port and the load will then come across the Channel as what is known as an "unaccompanied trailer", to be picked up by another tractor unit in this country.
The problem is that immigrants get in through the roof; they sometimes break the seals and get aboard, sometimes with the collusion of people on the ground. It very often happens without the knowledge of the driver: in fact, it is usually without his knowledge. It can
On top of that, he is now going to be fined. The incentive for the lorry driver to report immigrants is not high--I would say it is probably nil--because if he does report them there will probably be a fine, and that could lead to bankruptcy. The driver may even be attacked. One can understand, though of course one must not approve, drivers stopping in a lay-by and allowing the doors to be opened. That is not very good for the immigrants; they may get away but they could be somewhere in the middle of the countryside. It is not very good for the Government. It is a temptation which we have to recognise and deal with.
In the case of trains the position is even worse, because they stop in many places. There is one particular place in Italy where it is well known that trains stop for several hours. One train from northern Italy stops for several hours in a siding where, I am told, several hundred refugees camp around it. When they decide it is time to move on they find a suitable rail wagon, climb on the top and break in. There is no means of knowing that they are in there unless somebody stands on a bridge, and there is not much incentive for people to stand on a bridge. It is very difficult for drivers to check for illegal immigrants, unless they cut a hole through the roof, because they do not usually carry ladders with them; so it is remarkably difficult.
When it comes to the question of who is liable for this, I am sure that all your Lordships have read the relevant section of the Bill. I will give an example, a swap-body or container belonging to a United States hire company is hired by an Italian forwarder to send some marble from Spain to the United Kingdom. It sits on a German trailer and is driven by a tractor driver through Spain to a port. The container is then put on a ship on a special trailer to come to the United Kingdom. It is then loaded on to a different trailer in the United Kingdom and collected by a United Kingdom haulier for delivery to the purchaser of the marble. Who is responsible? The Bill does not say. What is the chance of collecting a fine from any organisation outside the United Kingdom? Why should the UK haulier--the person who has collected the freight from the port--pay for the alleged failure of security on the Continent?
It is even worse with trains because the box container may be loaded onto a German wagon in Italy; hauled by Italian railways to the frontier; be connected to a French locomotive, under contract from French railways; travel to Calais where either EWS or SNCF will haul it through the Channel tunnel, and hauled here by EWS. It is not a main contract because SNCF is contracted to somebody for the French part of the journey and EWS is contracted for the UK leg. The French Government are responsible for Channel tunnel security, but apparently not for dealing with clandestine entrants to the UK, so there are great big security inspections for bombs and so on, but nothing in the UK.
I know that this is not Committee stage, but it is interesting to note that the Bill states that the person responsible, the train operator, is the operator of trains who embarks that person on that train for the journey to the UK. In the scenario that I have just painted, it would be interesting to know who "the person responsible" would be. The immigrants might have come from Romania. Do the provisions really mean that the Government will fine French railways £2,000? I think that they might be told to go and whistle--
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