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Asylum Seekers: Legal Advice

Volume 788: debated on Monday 5 February 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to ensure that every failed asylum seeker, and anyone facing removal from the United Kingdom for whatever reason, has access to adequate legal advice.

My Lords, legal aid is available for individuals faced with deportation where they are claiming asylum or challenging their detention. The Government have commenced the post-implementation review of legal aid, which will include the scope of legal aid for immigration and asylum cases.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that many asylum seekers are unable to access legal advice, for different reasons. Some are penniless and others just do not know the procedures. The result is that many of the decisions made by the Home Office are unsound and reversed on appeal. In 2005, 13,000 appeals were allowed. In 2010, 35,000 were allowed and, in 2015, 17,000 were allowed. Therefore, in 10 years 250,000 appeals were allowed—a quarter of a million wrong decisions by the Home Office. Will the Minister please tell me what he is doing to remedy that situation so that we have a procedure that is fair and equable?

My Lords, all persons detained in immigration removal centres now have access to a duty solicitor and therefore have access to legal advice.

My Lords, it should be axiomatic that legal assistance is available to people facing removal and the Minister has made it clear that that should be the case. However, surely the underlying problem is the shameful record of the Home Office in this area. We read regularly that people who have been living in this country for decades, often working and having led a successful life here, are now being ordered to depart. Will the Government review the performance of the Home Office and its policies in this very sensitive area?

My Lords, the period for which a person has remained illegally in this country should not be and is not a determinant of their right to remain here. It is necessary to apply the relevant law both to the issue of asylum seekers and those who arrive here unlawfully, not even seeking asylum.

My Lords, a Bar Council report published last November found that at any one time more than 3,000 people, mostly failed asylum seekers, are held in administrative detention without being convicted of a crime, at a cost of £34,000 each. More than half are ultimately released into the community when their appeals succeed. Last Friday, in the case of VC, an asylum seeker from Nigeria with mental problems, the Court of Appeal slammed the Home Office for misinterpreting its own policy and awarded damages. Will the Minister review the means and merits test applied by the Legal Aid Agency, which academic research shows operates to exclude detainees from legal aid by,

“seizing upon the tiniest thing”,

to declare their applications ineligible?

My Lords, the Legal Aid Agency is of course independent of Government for very proper and good reasons. The application of LASPO—the legal aid Act—is the subject of internal review at present following an announcement by the then Lord Chancellor in October last year.

My Lords, research by the Children’s Society shows that unaccompanied and separated children are particularly vulnerable. Only 12 grants for exceptional case funding were made in 2015-16, fewer than 1% of the expected number of cases under the previous system. Hundreds of children are being left without a legal safety net. Can the Minister confirm that the situation of these children will be specifically considered within the review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act?

My Lords, current figures show that 103 children were put into detention in immigration-related matters in 2016, of which 42 were under 12. Some of those may have been unaccompanied but, under the policy of the 2014 Act, unaccompanied children should not actually go into immigration removal centres; they should be held pending removal decisions. With regard to exceptional case funding, the figures for the first two quarters of 2017 indicate that the success rate for immigration-related applications was 73%. Some 652 applications were made during that period.

My Lords, we should remember the United Nations convention, which originally set out the criterion for granting asylum: to people in great need of protection. Does my noble and learned friend agree that it is terribly important for us to restate that, and to make sure that asylum is not used as a vehicle for immigration rather than giving the protection that the most extreme cases require?

My Lords, it is clearly in the interests of genuine asylum seekers that the system for seeking asylum as permitted under the UN convention should not be abused and should not be seen to be abused.

My Lords, according to an Amnesty report published in 2017, over 2,000 young people seeking refuge in the UK were deported to Afghanistan between 2007 and 2015, the majority of them since the legal aid cuts were introduced. Does the Minister agree with Amnesty that the UK is in breach of its international obligations and law, and if so what steps do the Government intend to take to put this right?

My Lords, we do not agree that we are in breach of our international law obligations, nor is it obvious that there is a connection between the figures given by the noble Lord and the availability of legal aid.