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Earl Russell: My Lords, I am extremely glad to hear that information, which was the kind of information I hoped I might elicit from the noble Lord. I welcome it, but the point illustrates that error is possible. One should not be too confident, and the pool factor is subject to all the arguments about deterrents which I have already made.
I used to quote in this Chamber, apropos of Secretaries of State for Education, an American folk song with a chorus which went, verse after verse: "I married another far worse than the other, and I longed for the old one again." I knew it applied to Secretaries of State for Education. I am dismayed to find it applies to Home Secretaries.
Viscount Astor: My Lords, I am not sure whether I should be agreeing or not with the noble Earl, Lord Russell, on his last remarks about Home Secretaries, but I shall certainly not attempt to emulate him in his verse.
This is an important Bill. Immigration and asylum are difficult issues. This country has always benefited from those who have come to our shores, but modern communications mean that almost anyone anywhere in the world can formulate a wish to come to Britain. We cannot accept all economic migrants, but we must accept genuine asylum seekers. I believe that all your Lordships agree that basic premise.
Since coming to power the Government have repeatedly announced measures to reduce the number of asylum applications made in this country and to create a fairer, firmer and faster system. That is a laudable aim. But, after more than two years in Government the immigration and asylum system remains in crisis. The
The entire basis of the Bill appears to be built on the assumption that asylum seekers will have their cases decided within six months. Currently, they have to wait nearly two years. I should be the first to accept that the Government have inherited some of the problems from the previous government. However, I must point out that since the Government came to power, delays and backlogs in the immigration and asylum system have multiplied. It now takes an avenge of 22 months for a decision to be made on asylum applications.
I believe that the Government's proposal to reduce the decision time to six months is hopelessly optimistic. Can the Minister answer the point made by my noble friend Lord Renfrew on how that will be achieved? How many officials will be required? My noble friend mentioned an additional 300 officers, but I understand that they will be involved with the new support system and not the backlog. Perhaps the Minister can explain the position.
We support the principle of the Government's plan to replace cash benefits. However, there is the underlying assumption that asylum seekers will not have to wait long for their cases to be decided. That is unrealistic. How long will it take the Government to reach that target?
I turn to some aspects of the Bill which have already been mentioned and some which have not been raised. I begin with the carriers' liability on lorry drivers, mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. The existing legislation levies an automatic fine of £2,000 on the lorry driver for each clandestine entrant. There is no opportunity for lorry drivers to plead mitigating circumstances, even if they acted in a public spirited way in alerting the authorities about refugees. That seems to us to contradict even the most basic principles of criminal justice.
I turn to the appeals system. Despite the Government's claims of a comprehensive one-stop-shop for appeals, the Bill fails to establish that. Those who are minded to string out their cases through successive appeals will be able to do so under the Government's system. As my noble friend Lord Cope said, we are concerned about the position of children as outlined in the Bill and are opposed to Labour's plans to take away the protection of the Children Act 1989 from the children of asylum seekers. That protection should be in place for all children, which is the intention of the Act.
Our other concern is that many of the powers which the Government propose in the Bill could be used to lay the foundation for a European system of immigration control with the subsequent loss of security at borders and a potential infringement of civil liberties through internal police checks.
I shall return to some of those issues in detail, but should like to examine the rise in the number of asylum seekers. In 1998, there were 46,000 applicants for political asylum, compared with 35,000 in 1997. In addition to the 46,000, there were 12,000 dependants. As the noble Lord, Lord Warner, said, the majority were from just four countries. The total number of applicants in 1998 was the highest on record and there is no sign of this influx falling. There were 14,400 applications in the final quarter of 1998, compared with 8,455 in the final quarter of 1997.
This country welcomes genuine refugees, but one has to say that the vast majority of the applicants are not genuine. As your Lordships know, what is considered to be genuine is set out in the 1951 UN Convention relating to the status of refugees, as well as in several other UN Conventions dealing with human rights. I wonder whether the Government have examined the 1951 Convention and considered whether the definitions are relevant to the present day.
Criminal organisations are exploiting the immigration system. Many of those who are asking to stay here have destroyed all their papers in an attempt to make it more difficult for the Immigration Service to check their stories. In that way, Albanians, for example, can claim to come from Kosovo where people are genuinely fleeing from persecution. We must always remember that the greater the number of applications by economic migrants the more difficult it is for genuine asylum seekers to seek entry into this country.
As outlined in the White Paper, the Government have made changes to the immigration system without legislation. In granting a virtual amnesty for the 10,000 who arrived in this country prior to the coming into force of the 1993 Act and making settlement easier for the 20,000 who arrived between 1993 and 1996, the Government are sending out entirely the wrong message to would-be asylum seekers, which may account for the rise in the number of people trying to come here. I accept that a large number of people who want to come to this country do not know the details of our legislation, but they quickly get an overall message.
I return to the subject of vouchers. We support in principle the Government's plan to replace cash benefits for asylum seekers with a mix of vouchers and cash. However, we are concerned about the Government's timetable for creating the system. How will it work? It can work only if the new asylum support arrangements are speedy. The Government have said that what makes the system acceptable is that asylum seekers will be in it for only a short time before their cases are dealt with. How will the Government introduce the system? When will it be introduced? Indeed, can it be introduced before the reorganisation and computerisation of the immigration and asylum systems?
I return to lorry drivers. We are concerned that the proposals contradict even the most basic principles of criminal justice. It will be extremely difficult for lorry drivers to establish that they were acting in a public spirited way. We believe that the regime proposed by the Government is unfair to them and it is likely to be counter-productive. Throughout our debates on the Bill we must try to produce good law; law which will work. If it is not good law, it will not work.
We support the objective of the streamlined appeals system. Part V makes provision for a one-stop-shop appeals procedure and for lodging appeals under the 1951 Convention and the HCR grounds. However, despite the Government's claims for a one-stop-shop, the Bill fails to establish it. We believe that people will spin out the procedure. Indeed, the Bill creates new areas of right of appeal based on alleged breaches of human rights.
What is the removal rate of those who have lost their appeals? Looking at the figures, it appears to us that few people who have had their appeals rejected are ever removed from the country. Do the Government have figures to show that many people have been removed? Are those people still here? Indeed, do the Government even know where they are? What is the estimate of over-stayers? I realise these are technical questions. I shall be happy for the Minister to write to me. I am sure he will not be able to answer all the questions tonight, but this is an important point. Will the changes in the Bill increase the number of asylum seekers in centres such as Campsfield? Will further provision be needed? If so, will such provision be contracted out and how will it work?
As I said, we are concerned about the position of children as outlined in the Bill. We are extremely concerned about the Government's plans to take away protection under the Children Act 1989. One-third of the 41,500 asylum applications lodged in this country in 1998 involved families with minor children. This is an area of concern to all your Lordships. I am sure that we shall have to return to it in great detail in Committee.
Perhaps I may briefly mention one subject which has not been raised by your Lordships. The Bill makes almost no provision for asylum seekers who are genuine victims of torture prior to their arrival in this country. We believe that the Government have not developed a system for establishing whether asylum seekers are genuine torture cases and, if they are, for ensuring that they receive the correct treatment. That is a matter we shall consider in Committee.
Many of your Lordships are concerned about housing. The Secretary of State is specifically directed not to have regard to any preference which an asylum seeker may have as to the locality in which their accommodation is to be provided. This seems to denote that accommodation is on a "no choice" basis. My noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes was concerned about that point.
We are not opposed in principle to dispersal. We think it may be appropriate in some circumstances. However, many have warned that the way the Government intend to go about it will result in asylum seekers drifting back to particular areas and perhaps causing social problems. Should not asylum seekers at least be allowed to state their preference for where they wish to go--even if they do not get there--which would perhaps be near friends or family?
Many of the powers which the Government propose in the Bill could be used to lay the foundation for a European system of immigration control with a subsequent loss of security at borders and potential infringement of civil liberties. The Immigration Services Union has raised serious concerns about Clauses 1 to 3 of the Bill. It is concerned, for example, at measures which allow staff other than immigration officers to grant or refuse entry to this country, opening up the prospects of administrative control and immigration by remote officials employing pre-established criteria.
It is also concerned at the granting of leave to enter by visa officers which could reduce the control on entry to dealing with nationalities considered "immigration problems." At present an immigration officer may ask a visa holder questions. He can refuse entry if he discovers either that the material facts have changed since the visa was issued or that the visa officer was deceived. Under the Bill, the act of issuing a visa at a British embassy abroad would also constitute the granting of leave to enter this country.
Can the Minister clarify whether officers at the point of entry will still be able to turn away people who have received visas in another country if, for example, they consider that the circumstances of that person have changed? The Government have put in place an appeals system for visas which may be helpful in the application of this process. However, it is important, too, that we are able to deter visa fraud which exists in many places.
Some of your Lordships mentioned the provisions on employers, brought in by the 1990 Act. We welcome the code of practice in principle, and we welcome the Government's support of the original clause. As my noble friend Lord Cope, stated, scattered throughout the Bill are many provisions for the Secretary of State to use the negative resolution procedure. We shall have to consider carefully the fact that the Bill grants huge powers to the Secretary of State. The noble Lord will not be surprised if that is an area which will cause concern to this House, as it always does.
We support the aims of the Bill. I remember being involved with the previous Bills of 1993 and 1996. The Labour Party voted against every Conservative Bill on this issue. Perhaps if they had been more supportive, in the constructive manner of this Bill, some of the problems the Government face today might not have happened. I refer, for example, to the fact that when in opposition the Labour Party was adamantly opposed to fingerprinting and fought against it tooth and nail. Now, in the Bill, the Government are widening fingerprinting. They are also bringing in important changes to the marriage laws which will put onerous responsibilities on registrars. We want to consider such issues with great care.
I have had my minor "dig" at the Minister and his party, perhaps because I sat through the Bills of 1993 and 1996 when we were criticised by the Opposition morning, noon and night, or so it seemed. However, we welcome the aims of the Bill. The Minister introduced it in a helpful and constructive way. We shall do our part. I hope we will be a constructive Opposition. We shall support issues which we believe will improve the Bill. I am sure that the Minister will be bombarded by amendments from all sides, including his own. We will play our part to ensure that when the Bill leaves this House it will be a better Bill.
I planned to conclude by quoting from yesterday's issue of The Times. Unfortunately, my noble friend Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn has already done so. I was about to say that great minds think alike when I realised that, given the academic distinctions of my noble friend, it would be extremely presumptuous of me to say anything of the kind. However, perhaps I may make the point again because it is worth noting. The National Audit Office, in referring to the computer project at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, stated:
I believe that the Bill represents the most comprehensive overhaul of immigration and asylum for decades. As stated by the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, among others, it is important that we get it right. We shall continue to listen. I can genuinely say that I look forward to further debates. I anticipate further debates in any event, if I do not look forward to them!
I recognise entirely--and not only because of the passions that are aroused--that we must examine the technicalities with great care and that it is a proper discharge of our function to do so. I confirm that we will continue to consult bodies outside government with a particular interest in the Bill's provisions, such as--to deal with the point raised by my noble friend Lord Berkeley--the road haulage industry in relation to the civil penalty; and practitioners in the field of immigration and asylum appeals in relation to the point made so powerfully by my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis. In particular, I also welcome any help we can get from children's organisations. Some of the briefing that has been sent out has been overtaken by amendments and events, but I welcome all discussion that can assist us.
The Bill is necessary to deliver a fairer, faster and firmer system. It is not a racist Bill: it is intended to be efficient. It is not motivated--to answer the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell--by the desire to make everything more unpleasant.
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