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Lord Williams of Mostyn: That is what I have tried to meet in answer to the very helpful conversations I have had with the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. I dealt with that matter last time. I do not say it was a concession; that would sound graceless. I was extremely pleased to have their informed intervention, and I think I met their legitimate concerns.
The Lord Bishop of Southwark: While the Minister is on that point, I should like to say that I have been reflecting upon the earlier exchange between him and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, about whether or not the promises made should be put on the
Lord Williams of Mostyn: I shall come to that when I have finished the point I am dealing with now, because I should deal with the amendments in a coherent pattern. I am dealing now with Amendment No. 186, which concerns the specific question to which my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis spoke.
I repeat that if the evidence referred to in the amendment is evidence which has been accepted, the claim will have been upheld. If it is evidence by way of assertion, which it could be, it will apply to virtually every asylum seeker.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: The Minister was kind enough to refer to the earlier concession that he made in the light of the conversations that he had with my noble friend Lord Dholakia and me, for which we are extremely grateful. In the course of those conversations he said that where a general practitioner agreed that there was a prima facie case that there could be torture he would accept that the cost of attending a more senior and expert medical practitioner would be borne as part of the support system. We were very grateful for that.
I think that what my noble friend Lord Russell has in mind is the possibility that where a GP agreed that there was a prima facie case there might be an argument for considering additional support along the lines of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, specifically in that rather specialised group of cases where the GP has conceded the likelihood of torture but where there has not been a final outcome to the case, which, as the noble Lord rightly said, would bring it within the terms of the convention.
What the noble Baroness has said is really about introducing a single or dual filter: whether one takes the certificate of the general practitioner or the concluded view of the medical foundation as the final arbiter. I take her point that that builds in safeguards, which are needed, because otherwise assertion will be the same as evidence. It is morally wrong to treat people who have genuinely been tortured in the same way in every instance as those who simply assert it, maybe wrongly.
What I have to say is important to many voluntary organisations with a particular interest in this field. Incidentally, I forgot a long time ago to declare that I was once a patron of an organisation called Redress, which deals with people in this capacity. I hope that the Committee will forgive me retrospectively.
We shall instruct officers dealing with asylum cases that they must be particularly careful and sensitive when they deal with people who say they have been tortured, and that rape or other sexual violence should be treated as torture. I know that some members of the Committee have been very keen to underline that. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, has done so on a number of occasions, saying that in some communities rape is an even more horrendous act than in others, because it is used as a particular device; almost, I think, the noble Lord said on another occasion, as an activity of war. Therefore, those will be the instructions given. Obviously, if there has been torture it is a very important element in deciding whether an asylum seeker qualifies for refugee status.
I return to the general points that were put by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and those who supported him. I agree that if one has been tortured there will be many consequences, which will not simply be physical. They may be long-term. There again I say--and I believe we should take the credit for it--that if there is a family one or more of whose members have been tortured it is a good deed to tell them "Your application will be dealt with in two months, and if you have an appeal you will know where you are in six months". I put this as humbly as I can when I say that this is part of the restorative process, which I know will be long term, that I think the noble Lord had in mind.
We want, therefore, to have determinations carried out as swiftly as possible. If the person's account is believed, he or she is accepted. If it is not believed, he or she will not qualify for refugee status. But where the asylum seeker is part of a family containing a dependant under the age of 18, I repeat, we continue to offer support until they have left the United Kingdom.
I go further, because the noble Earl and the noble Baroness quite properly wanted to draw these points out. Where an asylum seeker evidences a particular need for treatment arising from torture or sexual violence, he or she will have the freedom to apply under the asylum support scheme for this to be covered as an essential living need. I think that was the specific question the noble Earl put to me. He or she will have access to the health service, and to social services at a local authority level, to get the help, support and treatment needed.
The noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, asked about extra finance for local authorities. My understanding is that funding local authority services for asylum seekers will be part of the normal spending assessments associated with the local government finance settlement.
A number of Members of the Committee raised the question of children's organisations. We had a most useful meeting just a few days ago in the Home Office with some representatives from Save the Children, UNICEF, Barnardo's, the Children's Society and the Refugee Council. They raised particular questions about details of how the scheme might work in practice. I undertook that if they wrote to me I would give them every consideration as regards any assurance I could give them, whether in writing or in this Committee,
We next come to Amendment No. 187ZZA, concerning the processing times for asylum applications. I have made my position plain. We will not bring in the new support arrangements if we have not reached the position that I have mentioned in answer to the noble Baroness. I am told that we shall be able to achieve that target. Work is in hand to ensure that the average time for appeal is kept down to no more than four months. If we need to defer commencement--it is possible--we can do so by means of the commencement order powers in the Bill.
It is not right to say that we are making asylum seekers worse off than people in receipt of social security benefits. I repeat what I said when I made the announcement about the additional cash for children; that is, that they will be broadly in the same position. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, was seeking to press me on asylum seekers receiving disability benefits and what will happen to those who may be in transition. I paraphrase what he said, but I believe that I do so fairly.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: The backlog--by which I mean people who are in receipt of disability benefits at the moment--is very small. Their rights will be preserved until the next review of the situation. I repeat, the generality is that entitlement to disability benefits was removed in 1996 but a small number of people are still in receipt of them.
I know the anxiety expressed, but I repeat that exceptional types of support can be provided under Clause 86(2) for those who are disabled. We are looking to one-stop shops funded by the Home Office which will provide advice from experienced workers in the field.
I dealt with the point of the noble Earl, Lord Russell. I hope that I have dealt with all the queries. I do not mistake the importance which Members of the Committee attach to these matters, but in return I ask that, when we make improvements--and we have--the nature of them should be widely disseminated. Many people have concerns which were raised at the outset when the Bill was published. Some of them were misplaced. I understand that. Some of them were well based and we have met a good deal of them. So I do not ask all Members of the Committee immediately to join this side of the Chamber and sit behind my noble friend and myself. However, we have made concessions and it is better that people should know about them rather than be fearful.