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Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, as was made clear by my honourable friend Mr Humfrey Malins in another place, we are generally in support of the order. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that the original 10 countries in the list are all applicants for accession to the European Union. The other list which we are considering today comprises a much more disparate lot. As both my honourable friend Mr Malins and Mr Simon Hughes from the Liberal Democrat Benches made clear in another place, there have been a number of instances of abuse in the countries, many of them carefully documented by Amnesty International, which give rise to real concern.
The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, has given a vivid description of the problems facing many of them, in particular Albania. I would add only that there is considerable evidence of police brutality in Romania and Bulgaria and of police indifference to the plight of homosexuals in Jamaica.
However, I welcome the Minister's detailed explanation of the process the Government have followed in assessing which countries are to be put on the list. We accept that. Nevertheless, there have been substantial objections from, among others, Amnesty International, the Law Society and the Immigration Advisory Service. I would like clarification from the Minister on one point. Does the scrutiny of the countries concerned extend to non-state persecution; for instance, a fear by an applicant that he or she might be attacked by a gang on return?
All this adds up to the fact that much will depend on the individual scrutiny of every case and the Minister has reassured us that that will apply. In the light of the serious abuses which have been cited in a number of the countries on the list, this is the only effective safeguard, at least until the establishment of the advisory panel on
Finally, perhaps I may point out that we are satisfied with the quality of the assessment teams which look at these cases. We therefore accept that the measure is necessary and with those reservations we support the order.
Lord Filkin: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, for their comments and questions on the order and I shall do my best to respond to them. I may not do so in the same order as they were raised and if I miss any points, I hope that noble Lords will accept a letter from me on the details. A great deal was raised and it merits a response, even if it does not come instantly from the Dispatch Box.
The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, asked about the fast-track pilot. It is intended to commence on 10th April and the aim is for about 90 asylum claimants a month to be fast-tracked from claim through to decision, and both tiers of appeal to removal, if unfounded, in about four weeks. The fast-track appeal procedure rules were laid on 20th March, allowing for a 21-day period before implementation through to 10th April. The aim is to test how quickly and yet properly we can make decisions and process appeals.
Officials from the IND and the Legal Services Commission are presently consulting legal representatives about providing legal advice for claimants before being put through the pilots. The pilot builds on the success of Oakington but goes slightly faster in building in a fast appeal procedure.
Perhaps I might digress for a second and contrast that, which is still trying to ensure that even what on the face of it appears manifestly unfounded cases still have a proper process, with what happens in a number of other member states. In some cases, when applicants come to a border, before they are taken across the border officials assess almost instantaneously whether they believe a person comes from country X or country Y. On learning the result, the person is then told to go away, not having been given the benefit of the care and consideration that we seek to offer even on a fast-track pilot process.
Perhaps I may weary the House with a few statistics which put into context the reasons why we have judged that these countries are ones with which in generalas the statute makes clearit is reasonable to deal in this way, without prejudice to examining the merits of individual cases to see whether they should pass to a non-suspensive process.
I have not added up on a calculator the total number of applications from these seven countries in 2001 and 2002, but we are talking of roughly 6,500 to 7,000 applications in each of the past two calendar years. I need only give the figure of £10,000 per year subsistence costs, let alone the legal costs of processing those applications, to indicate why this matters. In 2002, around 7,000 decisions were reached. I shall set out the
Of the 7,000 decisions relating to applicants from the relevant countries, only 270 were granted asylum on an initial decision. Adding the numbers that went to appealagain, I shall set out the exact numbers in my letterwe are talking about a relatively small number of applicants. Four hundred or so were granted asylum on appeal. Thus, in total, around 600 or 700 applicants were granted asylum either on initial hearing or on appeal from the 7,000 that were originally admitted. That does not mean to say that no one from those countries should be granted asylum. All it signals is that a very substantial proportion of applicants, some 90 per cent, even when they have worked through the full suspensive process of appealsI do not need to remind the House that a person can have at least two appeals, or three if judicial review is taken into considerationis still found not to merit asylum.
I was asked whether a presumption will be created that claims from those seven countries must be unfounded. The answer to that is no. There is no presumption that claims will be clearly unfounded. I can assure the House that each case must and will be considered on its merits. Caseworkers have been specially trained to deal with the process and they will approach each application with an open mind. All cases are considered on their individual merits. If a particular case is not clearly unfounded, then it will not be certified and the applicant will be refused with a suspensivethat is, an in-countryappeal, or they will be granted asylum or leave to remain, if appropriate.
I hope also that I have been able to make clear the rather cautious process by which we are implementing the non-suspensive appeal. Here I mention again the specially trained caseworkers and the use of the skills gained at the Oakington centre. While not all cases are being dealt with at the centreonly those which merit going through it are dealt with thereI recall that in our debates on the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill, the centre was considered by all sides of the House to have a high reputation for the care and thoroughness with which it dealt with its cases. People were given proper legal advice and procedures carefully followed. Furthermore, caseworkers have been properly trained and thus the quality of their decisions was much higher than elsewhere.
I have been asked whether there is a common factor, such as whether the countries are all accession states; there is none. We have not pretended that a common factor exists and we see no reason why there should be one. If any common factor could be cited, it is that, first, in the opinion of the Home Secretary these states meet the two tests that I have indicated under the Act and, secondly, the evidence from the historic analysis that I have just set out for noble Lords indicates that it is worth while to consider in principle these countries for
A whole range of questions was put to me concerning whether in all of these countries, in all circumstances, people were safe. Although I could go through many briefing notes, I think the fundamental point to make is that we have not stated that the countries are safe in all respects, at all times, for all people. It would be wrong and foolish to do so. We are aware of certain areas of possible weakness, some of which were also signalled by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, in his remarks. It is the job of caseworkers to bear in mind those areas of potential weakness when they consider their decision as to whether to certify a non-suspensive appeal process. I would expect them to err on the side of caution where there is doubt.
The fact that there is a non-suspensive appeal does not mean that there is no appeal. It is perfectly possible for people, who have a lawyer as part of this process, to signal to the British lawyer that they wish to mount an appeal even though it has to be a non-suspensive appeal. People have done so and there are a number of cases where such appeals are going through.
As I have previously signalled, I do not believe that we have failed to take account of the UNHCR's view that it is impossible to say that a country is completely safe. As I said to him last week, I believe that Ruud Lubbers is giving excellent leadership in trying to ensure that not only European Union member states but other countries are better organised to deal with their responsibilities under the Geneva Convention 1951 while recognising that there is substantial abuse in the system. That is the challenge that we as a government face. That is why we wish to work closely with him in the future.
The fact that a country is on the list does not replace individual considerations. For example, in Albania, if a case is considered not to be clearly unfounded it will not be certified. I shall not go into more detail on that as it would weary the House. I shall respond by letter to some of the more specific points that have been raised.
As to Oakington and its occupancy, we feel that recently we have been rather harshly treated by the press on this issue. Let me give our explanation. The low level of occupancy at Oakington in January was a result of the success of the non-suspensive appeal implementation strategy for the 10 EU accession states. To focus on the quality decisions and to maximise the resources focused upon the new NSA processes, we restricted the use of Oakington temporarily from 7th November onwards. In other words, we wanted Oakington to be available to use its specialised skills, processes, accommodation and facilities to bed-in the NSA processes from 7th November through to mid-January 2003 for the 10 country claimants. The level of claims dropped so dramatically so quickly that it led to a situation where we were being blamed for our own success. It is harsh
The noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, asked whether the protection extends to non-state persecution. The answer to that is, categorically, yes. If a case is made that a person is at risk of significant non-state persecution, he or she can get protection. It is not only state persecution that applies.
I shall not weary the House by going into more detail. I hope that noble Lords are aware of the care with which we are implementing the non-suspensive appeal process. We shall bear in mind the point made about whether there is a risk in some countries and be prudential in our approach. I shall not embarrass the House again by expressing my regrets about the advisory committee. We shall make vigorous progress in the timetable I have indicated. I hope that the House will recognise that we are approaching these matters with prudence while, at the same time, recognising that we face a serious challenge. This is a part of the process of meeting that challenge.
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