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Asylum: Adjudicators

Volume 689: debated on Wednesday 31 January 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What information is given to asylum adjudicators regarding conditions in those countries subject to or emerging from conflict whose nationals are seeking asylum.

My Lords, the country information before immigration judges depends on the appellant’s appeal grounds. The information generally includes Home Office country reports, US State Department reports, Amnesty International reports and Human Rights Watch reports. Some parties may commission experts on country conditions to prepare independent reports for immigration judges. The Asylum and Immigration Tribunal also sets authoritative country guidance determinations to assist its judiciary. They can all be found on the tribunal’s website.

My Lords, many of those most involved in these questions would hear the Minister’s response with the sheerest incredulity. I wonder how she explains the adjudications that I have read, which those working in the field assure me are quite typical, that suggest that those responsible have no conception of the lack of any order and of the unpredictable cruelty and/or lack of discipline of whatever officials, police or military there may be. That suggests that those responsible have not read any of the documentation that she mentioned. I have sought to read much of it in particular cases, and it flies utterly contrary to the view of the adjudications. Does the noble Baroness agree with me that during the past 10 years, the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda, for example, have not been the peaceful, predictable, English suburban kind of places that adjudications seem to imagine are the places from which those people have come?

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate’s suggestion is far-reaching. It is crucial that immigration judges receive ongoing training, which they do, that they understand refugee law, which they do, and that they understand diversity issues, which are critical. They make decisions based on the evidence before them, apply the law to the facts as they find them and rely on case law. They take seriously allegations of violence, torture or rape that are put before them.

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate appears to be criticising individual adjudicators rather than the system as such. Since much will depend upon an individual’s interpretation of conditions in a country, will my noble friend indicate how often the website is updated, whether there is sufficient detail on conditions in particular regions within a country and whether, if an adjudicator has a particular problem, it is possible for him to refer to the Foreign Office or an appropriate official for more detailed background?

My Lords, the website is updated quite regularly—I can notify the noble Lord and the House of details of precisely how often—but it depends, to a degree, on when new information is available, as noble Lords would expect. On the ability of the judiciary to get information, applicants provide the information and ask for it to be brought forward. The judiciary responds to that information because, in making the application, applicants put forward evidence to suit their case.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the standard of country information reports has greatly improved in the past couple of years, particularly since the recommendations of the advisory panel last October? However, immigration judges and practitioners may not always have time to read the lengthy reports, some of which extend to 150 pages. They therefore rely heavily on Home Office presenters to extract information relevant to particular cases from the country information reports. That does not always happen, so the right reverend Prelate is putting his finger on the failure of Home Office presenters rather than of the country information unit.

My Lords, I am not sure that the right reverend Prelate was alluding to that because he was very specific in describing his concerns. However, I take the noble Lord’s point that he would wish to raise those concerns in this House. It is very important that members of the judiciary take the time, as I believe they do, to ensure that the information they have before them is well understood. It is part of the practice to listen to the evidence as it is presented.

My Lords, in the case of Zimbabwe up to 2005 the Home Office reports were so flawed that very bad decisions were given for some very deserving cases. The FCO has great experience in gathering information overseas, as the right reverend Prelate said, but can we be assured that future reports will draw on the wealth of knowledge of FCO posts abroad, particularly given that many of our diplomatic missions in Africa and elsewhere are closing, and ensure that there are no further inaccurate reports that result in HMG failing to meet their international obligations to look after human rights?

My Lords, as the human rights Minister I am deeply concerned that we meet our international obligations. I am very proud of our record. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office compiles the reports, so we rely very heavily on its information. I am delighted that noble Lords feel that the information is getting better all the time.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is impossible for adjudicators, any more than anybody else, to be totally immune to the context in which they are working? If too much of the media and, indeed, too much of the body politic are constantly saying that asylum seekers are bad news and should be sent home unless there is some overriding reason for not doing so, it is very difficult for adjudicators to do their job with real objectivity. Should not this House and everybody else give all possible support to adjudicators by saying that when they see an asylum seeker their job is to determine what is right in that individual’s circumstances?

My Lords, I am very proud of the objectivity of our adjudicators; they do an important and occasionally difficult job because they are looking at very difficult pieces of information and making judgments. I have no doubt about the objectivity of the judiciary in this country or of its independence; so perhaps I would not agree with my noble friend on that. We have a long and proud tradition of supporting genuine asylum seekers. One of our ambitions is to make sure that those in genuine need, whom we would wish to support, can be supported as speedily as possible. We also recognise that there are cases that do not warrant our support.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the newly formed Independent Asylum Commission. Is the Minister aware that we shall be devoting early attention to this subject and that we look forward to reporting back, perhaps in advance of our findings, which will be published early next year?