Committee (4th Day)
Relevant documents: 7th and 9th Reports from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, 11th Report from the Constitution Committee, 18th and 19th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee
Clause 28: Removal of asylum seeker to safe country
100: Clause 28, page 33, line 20, leave out paragraph (a)
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment is linked to the amendment to leave out paragraphs 1 and 2 of Schedule 3.
My Lords, I hope that I will not bore you for long. I shall take careful note of the Chief Whip’s remarks but I am very pleased to introduce Amendments 100, 101 and 102. I thank those Lords spiritual and temporal who have added their names to these amendments and who are supportive of the contents.
These amendments seek to remove amendments to Section 77 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 from Schedule 3. The intention is to erase the proposal contained in the Bill to introduce powers to export offshore any person in the UK who is seeking asylum without first considering their claim. Few would disagree that protection and control of our borders, primary responsibilities of any Government, are noble and necessary objectives. A Home Secretary must be able to discharge her duties in this respect, which include expediting deportation swiftly and without delay where illegality has been determined under the rules. This was certainly my approach when I served as Immigration Minister in the 1990s.
Most would agree that the process by which we pursue these objectives matters no less than the solutions on the table. Indeed, solutions need to be effective, but they must also be pragmatic and practical, and enforceable under domestic and international law. They need to be imaginative but also financially viable. They must be firm but also fair. I am afraid that Clause 28 and Schedule 3 fail on these counts. In very literal terms, Clause 28 amends the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, which states that a person seeking asylum cannot be removed from the UK while their asylum claim is being processed—in other words, before a final decision is given on their refugee status, including access to an appeal. However, paragraph 1 of Schedule 3 to the Bill withdraws those rights by allowing the transfer of any asylum seeker to any country which will be listed in Section 77 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 as amended by Schedule 3.
Before Brexit, under the Dublin regulations, the UK Government could remove an asylum seeker from the UK while their claim was still pending but only to return them to the EU country of first entry and only after having issued a certificate under Schedule 3 to the Asylum and Immigration Act that permitted them a legal right to do so. With the end of the UK’s involvement in the Dublin regulations this option became inaccessible. However, Clause 28 would provide the Home Secretary with the legal power to forcibly remove any asylum seeker from the UK while their claim is still pending to another country which the Government have deemed safe. Clause 28 would allow them to do this without seeking and issuing a certificate under Schedule 3 to the 2004 Act. This goes against our legal and constitutional principles and surely should be repudiated.
All credible immigration systems must first acknowledge the distinction between immigration and asylum. A person who comes here for economic reasons is definitely not the same as a person who comes here to seek safety. The Bill’s failure to disentangle these definitions is significant because in the Government’s bid to control overall immigration, it will be vulnerable people—those fleeing conflict and persecution—who would be disproportionately and adversely affected.
Many years ago, I oversaw an inquiry that included the viability of offshoring. At the time, the proposal was to create processing centres off the mainland but within British territorial jurisdiction. We quickly judged that to be deeply flawed as an idea, but the problems we identified around domestic offshoring are almost trivial compared with the problems we would face by offshoring asylum seekers to foreign territory. For one thing, it would be a clear breach of our principles in the 1951 convention on refugees. We may be abrogating our responsibilities for dealing with applications, as well as those to the asylum seekers themselves, who, by international law, should be able to retain control over where and when they submit those requests. Indeed, a person’s physical removal from the UK would effectively terminate their claim for asylum in the UK, transferring it instead to a third country.
Turning the asylum process on its head in this way draws us on to shaky ground, posing numerous questions that the Government have not yet answered. We still do not know which country might be willing to act as a hub. Albania and Norway have outrightly rejected the offer. Rwanda may or may not be in the running, and there are rumours of Ascension Island—a place with no infrastructure, no means of direct access and no real links to the outside world. We also do not know how the migrants would be treated once they were there. In the Australian centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, reports of mistreatment and indefinite detention abounded, with cases of people being left in limbo for as long as eight years. Senior UN officials described the Nauru camp as cruel and inhuman, and many other notable activists similarly decried its record.
The Government claim, and will no doubt continue to claim in relation to Clause 28, that there is an absolute bar on removing an individual from the UK where there is a real risk that they will experience torture or inhuman or degrading treatment, yet some of the countries under consideration can hardly be described as exemplars of rules and rights. The truth is that, once outside the UK’s jurisdiction, people sent offshore will have none of the safeguards of UK law. I cannot see how this would work or how it could be acceptable.
On top of that, we do not know for sure whether those asylum seekers who have had their applications accepted would then be allowed to come into the UK. Existing UK case law holds that an asylum seeker cannot be granted asylum unless they are in the UK at the time of decision, but this Bill provides no power for the UK to readmit them or grant them any form of leave, and neither does it explain what will happen to those who have had their applications rejected. Where, if anywhere, will they be sent? What support, if any, will they receive? People’s lives are then at stake.
The extent of the powers conferred by such legislation necessitate clearly defined and transparent policies. It is not at all clear how this policy would work. We know that the Australian experiment on which this policy was modelled was a failure—one centre has been completely abandoned, and one no longer accepts new refugees, though the latter is still costing the Australians billions of dollars to maintain.
We also know that offshoring is ineffective as a deterrent to boat crossings. More people arrived by boat in Australia in the first year of offshore detention than in any previous year. The authorities resorted to using maritime interceptions instead, with the Australian navy endangering lives as a result. This is such an appalling prospect here, and I was relieved that border coastguards have ruled themselves out of any such endeavour. The so-called deterrent did not work there and would not work here.
We know that the costs of offshoring would be exorbitant—current conservative estimates put them at £2 million per person per year. We are talking about a bill running into the tens of billions of pounds. It is an astronomical sum of taxpayers’ money to pump into a project so fraught with problems. I pity the Minister who would have to justify this expense to the public at a time of serious economic uncertainty.
Finally, there is no question that we need urgent action and we need to be decisive. But decisive should never mean draconian. Current problems cannot be remedied by harsher policies. Offshoring is an extreme solution that is practically flawed, morally dubious and destined to fail. If the United Kingdom truly wants to be firm and fair, we must not allow this clause on to our statute book. I beg to move.
My Lords, in rising to support Amendments 100 and 101, to which I have added my name, I declare my interests in relation to both the RAMP project and Reset, as set out in the register.
When people arrive on our shores seeking protection, we have a responsibility to treat them as we would wish to be treated if we had to flee for our lives. It is right that we have a process to determine who meets the criteria for refugee status, but while we determine this, we are responsible for people’s safety, welfare and care. If we move them to other countries for the processing of their asylum claims, I fear a blind eye will be turned to their treatment. How will we be sure that they are being treated humanely and fairly, and would our Government even give this much concern once they had left our shores? If we look to the experience of Australia and the refugees accommodated in Nauru, as the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, has just mentioned, we hear deeply shocking accounts of abuse, inhumane treatment and mental and physical ill-health.
As mentioned in relation to an earlier amendment, I visited Napier barracks last week to see improvements that have been made since the exposure of the disgraceful conditions at the beginning of last year. If what we have seen at Napier is permitted to happen in the UK, what can we expect overseas, where accountability and monitoring will be so much harder? The monitoring of asylum accommodation contractors in the UK is poor, which gives us some idea about the level of monitoring we could expect of offshore processing.
What standard will be set for offshore accommodation? Will it be detention? How can UK safeguards be enforced in another country? Will there be a maximum period of stay? Minister Tom Pursglove stated in the Public Bill Committee that
“we intend their claims to be admitted and processed under the third country’s asylum system.”—[Official Report, Commons, Nationality and Borders Bill Committee, 26/10/21; col. 397.]
This is deeply concerning. These asylum seekers are the UK’s responsibility; they came to us to ask for protection, and we cannot simply wash our hands of them. What will be the acceptable standards of a country’s asylum system for us to discharge refugee determination to them? Can the Minister confirm that, if an individual is granted asylum offshore, they will be granted any form of leave in the UK and readmitted?
We had assurance in the other place from Minister Tom Pursglove that unaccompanied children will not be included in offshoring, but will children in families be offshored? If not, can the Minister assure us that families will not be split up in this process? We need to see any such commitments written into the Bill. I also want reassurance from the Minister that offshore agreements will not be linked to international aid agreements. This would be wrong, so can she give us that reassurance?
Offshoring would be a huge cost to the taxpayer. Can the Minister tell us what work has been done on the costs? Have such costs been endorsed by HM Treasury?
The financial cost is not the only one: there would be a significant cost to our international standing. Are we so keen to tarnish our reputation as a country where human rights are upheld for this inhumane policy, rather than one that is rooted in what will actually work to reduce the need for people to have to use criminal gangs? We will discuss these policy proposals in future debates.
People seeking asylum have arrived on our shores, seeking UK protection. We are responsible for them. It is not a responsibility we can pass over to others. The potential for standards and safeguards to drop is a very serious risk, with the challenges of monitoring and accountability at distance. They would far too easily become forgotten people. Offshoring must simply be ruled out of order.
My Lords, I too support Amendment 100, in the name of my noble friend Lord Kirkhope, to which I have been pleased to add my name. I refer to my entry in the register of Members’ interests.
The question of offshore detention is undoubtedly one of the most controversial aspects of this Bill, which is designed to stem the flow of small boats from France. The stated objective of this policy is one of deterrence, but opponents of the policy have rightly been asking: at what cost?
Before we look at the issue of offshoring, I will take a moment to look at and think about the sorts of journeys taken by those fleeing violence and war. Asylum seekers are frequently exposed to intolerable levels of risk as they travel. Irregular migrants face dangerous journeys: they are unprotected, they accumulate debt, and they have no legal recourse. The limited opportunities for legal migration force individuals to use people smugglers where there is a risk of being trafficked. Asylum seekers who fall prey to human traffickers can be exploited in both transit and destination countries. During the asylum seeker’s journey, the fine line with human trafficking—the acquisition of people by force, fraud or deception with the aim of exploiting them—can be easily crossed.
Just imagine you go through all that and end up on these shores. It has taken your savings and months of your life to arrive here from, say, Afghanistan, Syria or Iran. On arrival on our shores, we greet you and, before we have even assessed whether or not you are a refugee, put you on a plane and take you back to the continent from which you came. That action alone could kill someone, but my question is also: what does that make us?
Before I set out my reason for asking the Home Secretary to think again about the use of offshore detention and processing, whether in Rwanda, Ghana or Ascension Island, as we have heard, I will return to the point I made last Tuesday. The best hope of a fair, just and affordable solution to the issue of the Calais boats still lies with a diplomatic solution with the French and EU nations. Will my noble friend the Minister comment on the Telegraph story on Wednesday about the French President’s apparent openness to a deal over channel crossings? As I have suggested a number of times, a returns agreement with the French is likely to be the only viable way to stop the crossings. I imagine this taking the form of an agreement that those who have crossed here irregularly are sent back to be assessed in France; in return, we commit to taking a certain number from Calais. This is a win-win solution that would genuinely destroy the economic model of the people smugglers, would cost less and would be far more humane.
Could my noble friend the Minister also provide an estimate of the cost of offshore processing? A cursory glance shows that a room at the Ritz costs between £650 and £700 a night. Extrapolate that and one finds that it costs around £250,000 to stay at the Ritz for a year. The estimates of what the Australians pay for one asylum seeker held in detention vary from that amount to eight times that. How can that be justified?
It is not only the cost that concerns me. Can the Minister provide reassurance that no children will be sent offshore and that women who are vulnerable to sexual violence will receive proper protections? The concerning stories that emerge from processing camps in other countries should give us pause for thought before we embark down this road. When there are other potential diplomatic avenues that the Government are yet to properly consider, offshoring looks like an oversized hammer being used to crack a nut, with the potential for corrupting our character as a nation and our international reputation, and increasing racial tensions domestically and the administrative burden and cost to the state. I urge the Minister to think again and for this House to give the other place an opportunity to think again.
Outside on the streets today are people supporting those of us who are fighting this Bill. They understand the damage it does not only to the refugees and people seeking asylum here but to the Government’s reputation. I do wonder. We have to say these things, because our consciences would not let us not say them, but are the Government listening? I rather think not. Essentially, these clauses are about being able to deport refugees while their asylum claim is being processed. That is not fair on the individuals involved and, I would argue, is inhumane. They are simply being herded like cattle and packed off to be trafficked, essentially.
Clause 28 and Schedule 3 make provision for safe countries, but no provision for safe accommodation. We know that the accommodation we provide here in the UK is pretty substandard and, sometimes, outright revolting, so I have no trust that safe countries will do any better than we have. I have a question that I would like answered today: what steps will the Government take to assess the conditions and that these people are being treated well in those safe countries?
My Lords, I will follow on from what the noble Baroness and my noble friend Lord Kirkhope said. I will say a little bit on the Australian experience, which is the only relevant extant experience that we have at the moment.
What happened in Australia was that, in 2001, the Liberal Party of Australia and the National Party of Australia, the equivalent of our Conservative Party, introduced offshoring as a policy. I have no knowledge of how it worked at that point—I just do not have any information—but it carried on until 2008, when the Australian Labor Party was elected in a general election and desisted from offshoring. After that, there was a huge increase in the number of boats coming into north Australia, up to about 50,000 a year, and, as a consequence of that, the Labor Government did a U-turn and reintroduced offshoring. Unfortunately, this was too late in terms of political consequences: it lost the general election, and, in 2013, a new Liberal and National Government came in, reintroducing offshoring and beefing it up, with the army and navy playing a role in all of that. That is the history of it.
It was then highly successful: the offshoring completely stopped the human traffickers’ business—they had no more scope to bring people over because people simply did not believe that they would get into Australia—and the whole thing was a success, so much so that the opposition Labor spokesman agreed that, essentially, the boats had been stopped by the offshoring techniques. Thereafter, the Australian Labor Party changed its policy, and the policy now has cross-party support in Australia—both the Liberal Party and the Australian Labor Party support it—and boats no longer go across from Indonesia to Australia. The policy succeeded.
As my noble friend said, it is perfectly true that there are some issues in Nauru and Papua New Guinea—essentially residual issues arising from previous years—which have been difficult to resolve. I am sure that we would all want those to be resolved quickly and properly for humanitarian reasons.
However, clearly the Government are looking at this. Of course, there is no guarantee at all that such a policy, which was successful in Australia, would be successful here—one cannot pretend that that is necessarily likely to happen. The fact is that, although the situation is the same, in that people are crossing by sea to England and the UK as they were to Australia, the geography and the politics are different, and it is quite possible that it would not work in British circumstances. That is the truth of the matter.
None the less, it would be a dereliction of duty if the British Government did not try to look at this and examine whether it can work. The first thing that they have to do is, as the Australians did, pass the relevant legislation that enables them to put this into practice and see whether it does, in fact, work. That is where we are now—we have not done anything about it, and it is not in place. It will not be in place until some time after we have passed this legislation—
Could my noble friend outline his thinking on, for instance, the proximity of Nauru to Australia and whether that is not more the equivalent of saying that France or another European nation would be the location of the offshoring, rather than, say, Rwanda, which is on completely the other side of the world? Could my noble friend perhaps acknowledge the differences and unpack that for us a little?
Yes, I do acknowledge the differences, which is why I said that there is no guarantee at all that, even if this is tried, it will work in British circumstances. All I am saying is that it worked in Australian circumstances, the Government are clearly interested in this and, as I say, it would be a dereliction of duty if they did not put this among their options and pass the legislation that enabled us to try this out. That is where we are now.
I point out that, after the success of this policy in Australia, the Australian Government were enabled to expand the legal routes for asylum seekers to go to that country because it ceased to be controversial: immigration was less controversial as a consequence of the anti-boat policy being successful. The fact is that, as I have said before in these debates, if the public do not buy into the policy, you will have problems in persuading them to have more immigration. If they buy into it because they can see that you are controlling your borders, they have a more relaxed attitude to immigration and accept higher levels of it because they can see that they are in control of both the amount and the type of immigration coming in.
Therefore, there is a prize at the end of this for those who genuinely want to have more immigration, frankly, than we have at the moment, and if you can seem to be in control. What worries people is if you are not in control—if they can see clearly that people are behaving illegally getting here, jumping the queue and all the rest of it. In view of what the Whips on both sides have said, I do not want to go on any longer, but we ought to consider this in a rational and sensible way, as a clear option that any responsible Government of whatever kind should pursue; and I point out that, in Australia, for example, it does have all-party support.
I tend to give more credence to people on the ground, but there it is.
I share concerns that have already been raised about potential health and human rights implications and the general dehumanising nature of a power that allows the British Government, in the words of the UNHCR,
“to externalise its obligations towards refugees and asylum seekers to other countries with only minimal human rights safeguards”.
No doubt, we are talking about poorer countries on the other side of the world to which asylum seekers will be moved like cattle, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, said.
I want to raise a few questions; some have been covered so I will not repeat them but build on them. First, with regard to children, who a number of noble Lords have mentioned, in the Commons the Minister assured Caroline Nokes, a former Immigration Minister, that unaccompanied children would not be transferred for offshore processing. When she asked about accompanied children, and about what would happen to a child who turned 18 during the process of applying for asylum, answer came there none. I hope that there will be an answer to those questions today.
Can the Minister also say what would happen to a child whose age is disputed? When we reach that group of amendments—probably around midnight, so it will be great scrutiny—we will hear of the widespread fears among medical and social work professionals and children’s organisations that Part 4 of the Bill will lead to many more children being wrongly assessed as adults. If so, I fear that many unaccompanied children could be transferred because it is not believed that they are, in fact, children. I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts on that. Can she assure us that no young person will be transferred while the age-assessment process is going on?
Secondly, building on what the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, said, the UNHCR observes that the Bill
“is silent on what, if any, legal obligations the United Kingdom would consider itself to have”
towards asylum seekers once their asylum claims have been dealt with. It expresses concern that there is nothing in the Bill that confines the application of the changes to extraterritorial processing, which is the stated purpose in the Explanatory Notes.
Detention Action warns that, even if a third country’s authorities recognised the asylum seeker as a refugee, the Bill provides no power for the UK to re-admit them or grant them any form of leave. Can the Minister say whether this interpretation is correct? If it is not, can she assure us on the record that those who are deemed to qualify for refugee status will be readmitted to the UK—that is, the country from which they sought refugee protection—and explain under what legal power in the Bill they would be so readmitted? If Detention Action’s interpretation is correct, this is not simply about offshore processing, which is a euphemism, but, even more shockingly, it is about the Government wiping their hands of all responsibility for those who qualify for refugee protection via a claim for asylum—not short-term offshore processing but long-term deportation. If so, the case for Clause 28 and Schedule 3 not standing part of the Bill is that much stronger.
My Lords, the Government’s position in justifying this and other measures in the Bill rests on the UK’s so-called excellent track record on refugees, and the Minister has repeatedly pointed to the UK’s track record on resettlement schemes. The UNHCR thinks differently:
“Resettlement programmes, while welcome, are, by themselves, an inadequate means for fairly distributing global responsibilities towards refugees and sharing the burden currently shouldered by major host countries.”
It goes on to give the facts about the numbers who are making their own way from areas where people are being persecuted. It concludes:
“For all of these reasons, the Bill undermines, rather than promotes, the Government’s stated goal of improving the United Kingdom’s ‘ability to provide protection to those who would be at risk of persecution on return to their country of nationality.’”
As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, has just said, one of the reasons for offshoring is to temporarily house asylum seekers while their claims are being considered. Would the Minister like to comment on an article in the Times on Saturday that claimed that Priti Patel, the Home Secretary,
“wants to … reject Channel migrants’ claims for asylum within a fortnight of them reaching Britain”?
The story claims that
“government lawyers raised concerns over the plans”
but the Secretary of State
“believes a fortnight is a ‘reasonable’ window for immigration officials”
to make such a decision. According to the article, a Home Office spokesperson told the newspaper:
“We do not comment on leaks”,
so I ask the Minister a different question. Does she believe that two weeks is a reasonable timeframe to consider asylum seekers’ claims? If so, there would not appear to be any need for offshoring.
The Bill goes from bad to worse. As Amnesty and Migrant Voice put it,
“the prevailing attitude emanating from the Home Office … appears determined by any means and at almost any cost to seek nothing more than avoiding its responsibilities while demanding other countries should take theirs. This is a hopeless prescription from which no good can possibly come”.
The Home Office is seeking the power not only to remove an asylum seeker to any country while it considers their claim, but to do so and then tell that country, “If you think they are a refugee, you take them. It’s not our problem any more”. I do not know how the Government think they can persuade another country to take the UK’s unwanted asylum seekers on either a temporary or a permanent basis. According to Amnesty and Migrant Voice, offshoring by Australia effectively excluded legal, judicial, medical, humanitarian and media scrutiny; has cost a fortune—over £500 million a year, according to the British Red Cross—and, contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Horam, seems to have seen or heard, has failed to stop those seeking asylum, including those arriving in Australia by boat.
I understand that academic evidence on the whole offshoring scheme was given by a university in Australia to the Public Bill Committee in the other place that appears to contradict the evidence that the Australian High Commission gave to the same Committee, so there is clearly a serious difference of opinion as to whether the scheme is successful. Apparently, the independent academic assessment of the scheme thinks it is a failure. The UNHCR says:
“As UNHCR has seen in several contexts, offshoring of asylum processing often results in the forced transfer of refugees to other countries with inadequate State asylum systems, treatment standards and resources”,
which amendments in this group seek to address.
“It can lead to situations in which asylum seekers are indefinitely held in isolated places where they are ‘out of sight and out of mind’, exposing them to serious harm … UNHCR has voiced its profound concerns about such practices, which have ‘caused extensive, unavoidable suffering for far too long’, left people ‘languishing in unacceptable circumstances’ and denied ‘common decency.’”
I am hoping that this apparently unworkable and morally repugnant provision is yet another paper tiger, designed to appeal to the Daily Mail in deterring genuine asylum seekers, but that it is no more than propaganda. Clause 28 and Schedule 3 should not be part of the Bill. All the other amendments in this group are well- meaning, but they are window dressing.
It seems to me that the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, and indeed all those in this group have to be right. The idea of offshoring is immoral and it would not be in line with the traditions of this country. It is also impractical; for one thing, it would be horrendously expensive, as the Australian experience shows. Offshoring in Australia has proved as damaging to its exchequer as to the reputation of Australia. Of course, that is not what the high commissioner said. I used to be a diplomat and one tends not to say that sort of thing about one’s own country when on diplomatic duty.
However, the real and biggest reason I am against this provision is that it is illegal. It is a clear breach of the refugee convention. We had this argument before, so I can do it in shorthand: there is no provision in the refugee convention that fits with proposed new subsection (2B)(b) of Schedule 3, which is at line 20, where a safe country is defined as
“a place from which a person will not be removed elsewhere other than in accordance with the Refugee Convention”.
The refugee convention, however, says nothing about removal to third countries, safe or not. It says that a refugee is a refugee in a place when he says he cannot go home, because he will not be protected at home and would like to ask for the protection of the host state in the country where he is. That is what the refugee convention says. It says nothing about how he got there, nothing about a “first safe country” and nothing at all about exporting him somewhere else, so the language of new subsection (2B) in Schedule 3 is a misreading of that convention.
Of course, we know that the Government are deliberately misreading the refugee convention. I still think it would assist our debates greatly if the Government would change their mind and let us see the legal advice which has caused them to take the eccentric view that they take of the convention, and hence to propose Clause 11 and all that follows.
My Lords, I intervene briefly and for the first time in this debate, provoked into doing so by what the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, has just said. It is fundamentally wrong to legislate in a way that obliges you to break international law. It is very simple, but that is it. We do not have islands around our shores where we can gather together vast groups of potential refugees and asylum seekers.
The other day I was reading a review of a book, which has just come out, about the Isle of Man in the Second World War. There was of course great panic about people of German origin—although most of the poor people were of Jewish origin as well—domiciled in this country. They were rounded up and taken there. There are some fairly inspiring stories but also some very depressing stories. We have to tread exceptionally carefully here. We have gone on a lot about global Britain, but if I am to be proud of global Britain, I want to be proud of a country that is upholding the highest international standards.
Although I take on board what my noble friend Lord Horam said a few moments ago—he made a gently forceful speech that deserves consideration—I just cannot for the life of me think that to herd people into encampments in Rwanda and other far distant places is anything other than a repudiation of our standards as a great country. It would be fundamentally wrong for us to go along this line. Treat thy neighbour as thyself. There is a lot of wisdom in the 10 commandments. A bishop should really be saying this rather than me, but I really believe that it is essential that whatever we do is consistent with our record as the great nation that abolished slavery throughout its dominions and before that abolished the slave trade. There were battles in Parliament for both, but my parliamentary hero is William Wilberforce and I do not want to see his reputation traduced.
My Lords, I have been sitting on my hands because whenever you tell a personal story, it looks as though you are not pleading what the noble Lord talked about—law. We arrived in 1974 and were treated with such great respect, love and care. For about 20 years we travelled on a British travel document. That kind of hospitality was of great help to us all.
The way I read this clause is almost as a revisitation of Guantanamo Bay—a very bad piece of work—or voluntary rendition, whereby people were taken from one country to another to sort out whether they were terrorists or not. This country should not use offshoring. The word “offshore” already does not have a good reputation in terms of money and offshore investment. This is a country that has been the mother of parliaments and the mother of legislation and where the rule of law is what governs all of us. How can we get a third country to take what we call refugees?
I can assure noble Lords that there will be many countries in Africa that will volunteer to do it. The question we have to ask is: how do those seemingly wonderful countries treat their nationals? Do they treat them in the same way that this country does? I would be very doubtful. For the sake of the rule of law, for the sake of this great Parliament and for the sake of the British people who have been very good in welcoming the likes of me, this clause should—please—not become part of the legislation.
I reiterate what was said a little while ago: this is about asylum, not general immigration policy. There is a considerable difference between the two; that does not always get recognised.
This proposal to offshore asylum claims is inconsistent with the global humanitarian and co-operative principles on which refugee protection is founded. Frankly, if everybody did what we are proposing, there would not be much of the refugee convention left, as I am sure everybody recognises and, in their heart of hearts, knows to be true.
Having made those introductory comments, I will endeavour to be brief. I want to ask one or two questions. The Minister in the Commons said:
“Schedule 3 aims to reduce the draw of the UK by working to make it easier to remove someone to a safe country where their claim will be processed. It amends existing legal frameworks to support our future objective to transfer some asylum claims to a safe third country for processing.”—[Official Report, Commons, Nationality and Borders Bill Committee, 26/10/21; col. 388.]
As I have just indicated, the Minister referred to “some asylum claims” being transferred. Will the Government spell out in their reply what categories or types of asylum claims would be processed in another country, and what categories or types of asylum claims would be processed in this country? In addition, based on claims made over the past three years, what number or percentage of total asylum claims and claimants would be processed in and removed to another country, and what number or percentage of total asylum claims would still be processed in this country? I assume that the Government have figures on that.
Information on the countries we have reached agreement with for offshore processing has been, to say the least, a bit thin on the ground, with Ministers saying to date that they are not prepared to enter into a “running commentary” on the conversations that are taking place. I hope that the Government will be a little more forthcoming today on which specific countries we have reached agreement with, or confidently expect to reach agreement with, and which countries have declined to reach an agreement with us. Also, how many different bilateral negotiations are we currently involved in?
It is unacceptable to be told by the Government that we should agree to a policy and its associated clauses and schedules, which, however repugnant, are meaningless and cannot be implemented unless appropriate agreements are reached with other countries—and then, when asking the Government to give information on whether and what agreements have been concluded, to be told by them that it is none of our business. That is what the Government have been doing to date. We expect better from their response today. However, if the Government are going to continue to play dumb on this issue, perhaps it would be better for them to withdraw Clause 28 and Schedule 3 until such time as they have concluded agreements with other countries, without which the policy cannot be implemented.
The only thing the Government have said is that the model the Home Office intends to proceed with is
“one where individuals would be processed as part of the asylum system of the country that we had an agreement with, rather than people being offshore and processed as part of our asylum system.”
So it is not just offshoring; it is also treating and dealing with people under another country’s asylum system rather than our own. The duty to ensure that the rights of asylum seekers are respected would still fall on the UK; it would be helpful if the Government could confirm that in their response.
Essentially, as has already been said, the UK would be outsourcing its refugee convention obligations, potentially to less wealthy nations. The UNHCR has been highly critical of efforts to offshore asylum processing, noting how
“offshoring of asylum processing often results in the forced transfer of refugees to other countries with inadequate State asylum systems, treatment standards and resources. It can lead to indefinite ‘ware-housing’ of asylum-seekers in isolated places where they are ‘out of sight and out of mind’, exposing them to serious harm. It may also de-humanise asylum-seekers.”
The comment has already been made that it appears that the Government are seeking to emulate as a model the Australian system—a system which has been widely condemned for its human rights abuses. Offshoring presents a significant risk of harm, particularly to vulnerable people, since the reality is that the UK Government would have much less control over the treatment of detainees than they do in this country, where there have nevertheless been unacceptable incidents and unacceptable standards. Since the Government have said that the object of offshoring is deterrence, there must presumably be no exceptions to the policy. Perhaps the Government could confirm whether or not that is the case.
Policy measures that rely on deterrence assume that people have a choice in the decisions they make. People who are forced to flee their country because of violence and persecution in reality have no such choice. Consequently, deterrent measures will not stop them making the journey to find safety.
There is no empirical evidence to support the effectiveness of offshoring as a deterrent strategy in respect of those fleeing persecution. The likelihood is thus that offshoring will be completely ineffective in its aims as well as inhumane—that is leaving aside the moral issues that have already been referred to. I shall not go into the figures, but I too believe that the financial cost of the Australian system is very high. It would be helpful if the Government could say in the light of the Australian experience on costs what their estimated cost per case is for this country in respect of an asylum claim processed in another country and the asylum seeker being transferred to it, since I assume that the Government will have some fairly accurate and up-to-date figures on that point.
Will the Government also say what their evidence is to substantiate the claim in the Explanatory Notes that the policy will
“deter irregular migration and clandestine entry to the UK”?
I am not sure what the evidence is to substantiate that assertion.
In the Commons, the Minister said:
“Schedule 3 is designed to be part of a whole system deterrent effect to prevent illegal migration. Access to the UK’s asylum system should be based on need, and not driven by the actions of criminal enterprise.”—[Official Report, Commons, Nationality and Borders Bill Committee, 26/10/21; col. 388.]
Can the Government say how this policy of processing asylum claims in another country and removing claimants to that other country is based on need? No assessment of need would be made before a person could be moved to that third country, so need does not enter into it as far as the Government are concerned. If I am wrong in that, no doubt the Government will say why it is based on need.
In addition, the Commons Minister mentioning “criminality” later in that response does not make this a clause which is targeted at criminals. It is targeted at people who are desperately seeking refuge and have legitimate reasons to be granted it. It is not targeted at those involved in the kind of criminal enterprise to which we all object most strongly and wish to see stamped out.
On another issue—it has already been raised, but I shall repeat it—in the Commons the Government said that children would not be transferred overseas for their claims to be processed. I too ask: what happens if a family arrives seeking asylum? Will they be split up, with the parents sent to a third country for their claim to be processed and the child or children remaining in this country for their claim to be processed here? As others have asked, what happens to those whose asylum claims are accepted and who have had the claim processed overseas? What happens to those who have been removed to another country for their claim to be processed if their asylum claim is rejected?
My name is down in respect of two stand part notices, in relation to Clause 28 and Schedule 3. This is an unworkable, highly expensive and politically driven policy which is not even backed up by the agreements with other countries that are needed to bring it into effect. The policy appears based on the Australian model, which was costly and did not seem to provide as much deterrent effect as intended as far as those arriving by boat were concerned.
My Lords, I add my name to that of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, in giving notice of my intention to exclude Clause 28 and Schedule 3 from the Bill. To move an asylum seeker to a detention or reception centre offshore while their claim is being assessed is wrong in principle, oppressive in practice, contrary to the 1951 convention and lacking sufficient safeguards under the Bill. Many speakers referred to Australia’s policy of offshore processing, as an example both of how awful it can be and, by one speaker, of a successful operation to deter unlawful immigration. It is worth putting a little flesh on the Australian experience.
In 2013, Amnesty International published a report, This Is Breaking People, highlighting a range of serious human rights concerns at the Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, immigration detention centre. In an update, Amnesty International reported that, in two days in February 2014,
“violence at the detention centre led to the death of … a 23-year-old Iranian man, and injuries to more than 62 asylum seekers (some reports suggest up to 147 were injured).”
It said in the report:
“There are credible claims that the asylum seekers … were attacked by private security guards, local police and possibly other contractors working at the centre. The response by security guards and local police to protests by asylum seekers was brutal and excessive.”
Amnesty’s report raised a number of concerns about living conditions, including overcrowding, cramped sleeping arrangements, exposure to the elements, as well as a lack of sufficient drinking water, sanitation, food and clothing. The update said:
“Since the violence on … February 2014, Papua New Guinean nationals no longer enter the compounds for catering or cleaning … Asylum seekers are delivered meals in take-away packs for self-distribution and also bear sole responsibility for cleaning the ablution blocks.”
At the time of Amnesty’s site visit in March 2014,
“ablution blocks in all compounds were dilapidated, dirty, mouldy, and”
some latrines were
“broken and without running water.”
Amnesty International expressed concern about the issue, saying:
“Australian and Papua New Guinean authorities are deliberately denying asylum seekers’ right to access lawyers and human rights organizations.”
In an article published by the Australian Institute of International Affairs in February 2017, it was said:
“LGBT asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable … and face significant disadvantages and dangers. In detention they experience discrimination, harassment and violence from other detainees and from members of staff. The detention environment has serious long-term effects on their mental and physical well-being.”
From time to time, Ghana and Rwanda have been floated in the media as places to which asylum seekers in the UK might be transferred, although Ghana has officially denied any such possibility. The appropriateness or inappropriateness of such locations for LGBTIQ asylum seekers is manifest. In Ghana, same-sex sexual acts carry a potential sentence of up to 25 years. There is a current proposal to raise the minimum sentence to 10 years and to require conversion therapy. LGBTIQ people face homophobia, physical violence and psychological abuse.
In Rwanda, same-sex sexual relations are not unlawful, but there are no anti-discrimination laws relating to sexual orientation or gender identity, including in relation to housing, employment and access to government services, such as healthcare. A 2021 report on Rwanda by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada cites sources disclosing discrimination and stigma facing LGBTIQ people in religious and civil society, the media and business, harassment by the police and the use of indecency and vagrancy offences against transgender and gender-diverse people. The experience in the offshore detention centres I referred to in Australia and the position in Ghana and Rwanda show the inappropriateness of holding asylum seekers in offshore detention or reception centres.
In particular, the following are not answered in the Bill, the Explanatory Notes or any other guidance from the Government. First, how will asylum seekers have access to legal advisers with knowledge of the law and practice relating to UK asylum claims, assuming that they are being processed under UK law, which is complex and difficult? Secondly, legal aid and advice is available to refugees in the UK, but there is nothing to suggest that it will be available to refugees in offshore holding centres. Thirdly, and as has previously been pointed out, if conditions in the proposed offshore centre are so bad as to cause physical or mental harm to refugees, whether through physical conditions in the centre or—in the case of single women or LGBTIQ members, for example—because of discrimination, harassment, bullying and violence from staff or other asylum seekers, will they be able to have recourse or bring proceedings in the UK, or will they be restricted to such remedies as might be available in the foreign country?
Until these fundamental questions are answered and set out expressly in the legislation, there should be no question whatever of exporting refugees to offshore holding centres. To do so would be inconsistent with the spirit and the letter of the refugee convention and the UK’s own history of welcome to genuine asylum seekers over the centuries.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken to this group of amendments, and I thank my noble friend Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate for tabling his Amendments 100, 101 and 102.
On the back of my noble friend’s point, it might be helpful to clarify the definitions of “asylum seeker”, “refugee” and “economic migrant.” An asylum seeker is a person, either in transit or awaiting a decision, seeking the protection of a state under the terms of the refugee convention. A refugee is a person who meets the definition of “refugee” in Article 1 of the refugee convention—they do not have to be recognised by a state to be a refugee—and so it follows that a “person with refugee status” is a person who meets the requirements under the UK Immigration Rules to be granted refugee status.
The term “economic migrant” is inexact. It may, of course, refer to a person who is using or looking to use economic routes, such as FBIS, to enter a state. However, there will be people who meet the definition of Article 1 of the refugee convention but are looking to enter the UK and choosing it over other countries purely for economic reasons. One of the objectives of the New Plan for Immigration is to ensure that the most vulnerable can be protected, which in turn means that those attempting to enter the UK for economic reasons should use the appropriate routes.
Changes within Clause 28 via Schedule 3 are one in a suite of critical measures designed to break the business model of people smugglers and are the first step in disincentivising unwanted behaviours—for example, by dissuading those who are considering risking their lives by making dangerous and unnecessary journeys to the UK in order to claim asylum. By working to establish overseas asylum processing, we are sending a clear message to those who are risking their lives and funding criminal gangs both here and abroad or abusing the asylum system elsewhere that this behaviour is not worth it. We must make it easier to ensure that such people are simply not allowed to remain in the UK.
It also might assist noble Lords—and indeed my noble friend Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate—to know that for nearly 20 years, it has been possible under UK law to remove individuals from the UK while their asylum claim is pending if a certificate is issued under Schedule 3 to the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004, so this is not a new concept. What this measure does is amend our existing legal framework to make it easier to remove such individuals. I do not know which noble Lord asked this, but Schedule 3 also defines the term “safe third country”.
We will do this by making it possible to remove someone without going through a certification process, providing that the country they are being removed to meets the safety criteria that we have set out in the Bill. Even where we determine that it is generally safe to transfer people from the UK to one of our international partners, every individual in scope for processing overseas will be able to rely on the UK’s obligations under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, so as not to be transferred to a country where they would genuinely be at risk of inhuman and degrading treatment, just to answer the point of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton.
We have been open and frank about our intentions to pursue agreements which would enable asylum processing overseas. We are working closely with like-minded partners to fix our broken asylum system and consider how we could work together in the future. My noble friend Lady Stroud talked the other day about our relationship with France, and today about some very positive reports in the press about our progress with France. We have a shared recognition of both the urgency and the magnitude of the situation that we are both facing. We will also discuss all options in the spirit of our close co-operation and partnership. My noble friend is absolutely right: President Macron made comments in the French press last week that indicated that France is aligned with the UK on the need to work together to deter crossings, both to save lives and to stop the criminal gangs.
I do not wish to pre-empt the exact form or content of future arrangements more generally, and I will not be drawn into speculation on whom we are talking to, as this would tie the hands of our negotiators. However, I can assure my noble friend that the bottom line is that this Government will act in accordance with our international obligations. To be clear, this means that we will not seek to transfer anyone overseas for asylum processing where to do so would breach the UK’s obligations under the refugee convention or the ECHR, for example.
I turn now to Amendment 101A, from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. These are matters for the negotiating table. What this clause does is amend our existing legislation to make it easier to transfer someone overseas for their claim to be processed, in the event that we secure an agreement with a like-minded partner. Again, to reassure noble Lords, we will remove an individual only where this can be done in accordance with our international obligations.
We cannot accept Amendment 196, from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, which would not have its intended consequence to limit the Government’s ability to remove people with pending asylum claims. I have already set out how it has been possible, for almost 20 years, to remove individuals from the UK while their asylum claim is pending if a certificate is issued under Schedule 3 to the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004. Therefore, laying before Parliament a policy statement is unnecessary, as we already have the means to remove someone with a pending asylum claim. There is nothing to be gained from Parliament debating legislation pertaining to the removal of people with pending asylum claims, as this legislation is already in force.
I will turn to some other questions. My noble friends Lady Neville-Rolfe and Lord Horam talked about the systems in Australia and Denmark. As I have said on previous occasions, each state will interpret the refugee convention in its own way, as Australia and Denmark clearly have.
My noble friend Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate also asked about the cost to the UK taxpayer, as did other noble Lords. I am afraid I cannot give an approximation as it is a matter for the negotiating table, which I will not prejudice.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham asked about the inhumanity of offshoring. We will continue to uphold our international obligations and ensure that all removals of individuals are compliant with our obligations under Article 3 of the ECHR, which protects against torture and “inhuman or degrading treatment”.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, asked about children, women and other vulnerable people. Noble Lords are absolutely right that the Minister made our position clear in Committee and on Report in the Commons. I will not go further than what he said there.
The problem is that the Minister only said, “unaccompanied children”, and did not refer to children in families. I am sorry, but we do not have the confirmation that this addresses the whole range of scenarios—such as families being split up—which we have raised but have not been answered.
I thank both the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness for those points. Generally, in the asylum system in the UK, when someone is about to turn 18, their status changes.
The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right; I did not answer questions about all children in all situations. On the previous day in Committee, I went at length through the routes by which children and families can come to the UK—there are several routes, and I think I cited four.
My noble friend Lady Stroud asked about victims of modern slavery and human trafficking. We will only ever act in line with our commitments under our international legal obligations, including those which pertain to potential victims of modern slavery.
I understand that the Minister may be unable to respond immediately to the extremely valid question the right reverend Prelate has asked. Presumably, however, the Government as a whole know the answer to his question. Why does the Minister not agree to write to us and tell us what those answers are?
I have said I will write, but to be more explicit than my honourable friend was in the Commons might risk exploitation on routes taken by children. Therefore, this is as far as I will go today. I will lay out the various safe and legal routes through which children can come to this country and reiterate what my honourable friend said in the House of Commons.
I am very sorry but the noble Baroness is not answering the right reverend Prelate’s question. It is not about safe and legal routes but about who will and will not be offshored, which is an awful term. She seems to be saying that children who are accompanied, who are in families, could well be offshored. Is that correct? The Minister in the Commons refused to answer the question and avoided it; I am afraid that is what the Minister is doing here.
I am most grateful and apologise. Can my noble friend say whether she expects that, by the time we reach Report, she will be able to answer that question? Can she also say whether there are any countries with which we are close to agreement and, if so, what countries those are?
I cannot say what countries we are in discussion with, other than confirming to my noble friend Lady Stroud that we are having some very positive discussions with France. On the other question, I cannot acquiesce to going further at this point, because I do not want in any way to make comments that might put children in danger. As I have just said to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, I will write in as much detail as I can following Committee.
I thank my noble friend for giving way. I think I heard that her concern is that saying that children with families would be exempted from being offshored could lead to a fuelling of the trafficking of children to ensure that those families who wanted to travel to the UK would be accepted here. Is that what my noble friend is saying? Some clarity on that would be really helpful, as well as some distinctions in that policy, which obviously she wants to mitigate, and the policy around families who are obviously families—who have proof of it—coming here. Would the Government split them up, let them remain here or be offshored?
I agree with the noble Baroness that we need to strike that balance between abuse of the system and providing refuge to those genuinely in need, but she will also know that we have several family reunion routes, which I went through the other day in Committee. With all that, and the commitment to write to the right reverend Prelate—
I am sorry to intervene just when the noble Baroness thought she had finished. She said that there is already a power to remove asylum seekers while their claim is being considered. Is she referring to when the Secretary of State issues a certificate to say that a claim has no merit and someone can therefore be deported before their appeal is heard? In that case, that is a limited number of people and a very different system from the one proposed here. Can she tell the Committee how many people have been issued with such a certificate and been deported during their application process in that way, compared with the numbers the Government anticipate will be affected by this new proposal?
My Lords, I am sorry, but a whole range of noble Lords asked a question, in different ways, about what happens to the asylum seekers if they are granted refugee status in the country to which they have been offshored. Are they allowed back into this country or are they just left there? If they are left there, they have, in effect, been deported.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her responses and all noble Lords for their very important contributions on a really significant part of the Bill. I stand by what I said in my remarks, and I think that others will do so too, despite assurances that we may have received. I would be very grateful if the Government would perhaps be prepared to discuss this matter further between now and Report. On that basis, without further ado, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 100 withdrawn.
Clause 28 agreed.
Schedule 3: Removal of asylum seeker to safe country
Amendments 101 to 102 not moved.
Schedule 3 agreed.
Clause 29: Refugee Convention: general
Debate on whether Clause 29 should stand part of the Bill.
My Lords, any anxiety that I may have felt earlier this afternoon about the Whip’s injunction to be brief largely evaporated in the distinguished debate that I just heard, because, the more I heard the eloquent succinctness, particularly of noble Lords opposite—the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu, and others—the less anxious I felt about initially crossing sections of my notes out and eventually remaining silent. So I feel equally confident about the solidarity and inspiration to come.
With the Committee’s indulgence, I propose to open up this section on interpretation, which goes on for about three groups, but not to pop up on each group; rather, I shall make my points about this whole concept of reinterpreting the convention here. I do so knowing full well that noble Lords from around the Committee will ventilate granular and very important concerns about reinterpreting “social group”, for example, from the disjunctive to the conjunctive approach to trip up some claimants—or about doctoring the burden and standard of proof and turning persecution, in the context of non-state persecution, into something that does not grant refugee protection where the reasonable steps in which the other state is engaged are totally failing, and so on. Initially, then, I will leave others to extrapolate those concerns and, instead, my own part in the collective approach in this Committee will be on the fundamental problem with reinterpreting the refugee convention in this legislation, which begins with Clause 29 and goes on. I hope the Committee is happy for me to make my contribution on that basis.
I have a fundamental objection to the entire approach with this reinterpreting of a shared post-World War II refugee convention, not because I do not trust this country to take control of its borders and laws and so on, but because in order for the convention to work, it has to be an international enterprise, and also because I trust our courts. Although Ministers have said at various points on previous days of this Committee that it is for Parliament, not the UNHCR, to interpret the convention, what they really mean is that it is for the Home Office and not the courts—neither the courts over there, nor the courts here.
What is really going on is that the Government are not taking the approach that they took with the internal market Bill of just being open and honest about an intention to violate international law; they are doing it by this sleight of hand. You could almost call it “violation laundering”, because they will palm it off on Parliament and, once they have done that—once this rewriting of the jurisprudence of the convention has been passed through Parliament—we will be the laundromat: it will be on us that decades and continents-worth of international human rights jurisprudence around this convention will not bite any more to protect those seeking asylum in the UK. I certainly do not want that on my conscience, and I suspect the Committee does not either.
This is wrong because it is a violation of the principle that this treaty has been entered into in good faith, which is obviously a principle of common sense and the Vienna convention, and so on. It is outrageous because it is telling the courts, including our own, that all this jurisprudence that has been built up over years of dealing with cases, with some of the greatest jurists in our history, including Lord Bingham, can go out of the window because the Home Office has a better idea—one which is, of course, designed to trip people up. Let us be clear: it is not designed to extend convention protection to more people; it goes back to the stump speeches we heard from various noble Lords last week about numbers and so on and is not at all about refugee protection and honouring the convention.
I get to the point where I actually think that maybe it would be more honest for the Government to do what some noble Lords have occasionally tempted them to do, which is to put their hands up and say, “We don’t believe in this refugee convention anymore. It is inconvenient and old-fashioned; we don’t like the numbers, and we’re not having any of it.” There is something Orwellian, distasteful and misleading of the electorate to go through these contortions and perversions of language and law.
Maybe other noble Lords in Committee will have a different view of that, but it is coming to the point where these contortions of language and jurisprudence are so obscene and genuinely Orwellian—I know that word is overused, but for me it was never about having six cameras in the street instead of three; for me, it is about Politics and the English Language, Orwell’s greatest work, and the abuse of language that leads to the abuse of people. That is what is wrong with this whole section—it is not in good faith; it is not a reflection of the jurisprudence; it is an attempt by sleight of hand to undermine it.
This is not just terrible in the context of refugee protection, which, given what is at stake, is bad enough; it is really bad for Britain and the rule of law, which is arguably one of our greatest exports—not David Beckham’s left or right foot, not even Shakespeare or Elgar, but the rule of law. It is the reason why, unfortunately, so many oligarchs want to come here, in addition to hiding their money. They want to sue each other in our courts and hire some of our noble and learned Lords to go and judge their arbitrations in secret, because there is something magical and special about our law.
When we share our jurisprudence in good faith with supreme courts and constitutional courts around the world, we are not just affecting refugee protection here but influencing that jurisprudence all over the world; and that is an export too. You cannot measure it in pounds and pence, but you can measure it in a truly global Britain and a better world. There needs to be this international conversation between judges here and over there, in good faith and influenced by each other’s jurisprudence. By reinterpreting the convention, we throw it all out. It is year nought in the Home Office, and all that jurisprudence goes out the window because we have rewritten the convention via this totally offensive clause. Of course, Ministers have an oath, and they are supposed to respect international law—enough said about that.
I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, is having a break now, not just because it is good to have a break but because it gives me the opportunity to put a question to the Minister the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, that I tried to put last night in the context of a different Bill, about whether the Government have already instructed parliamentary counsel on the Bill to scrap the Human Rights Act. In the last group, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, invoked convention rights, the ECHR and our participation in that in defence, so it is an important question in practical terms, because it can always be said that we will not be sending anybody for Article 3 treatment and so on and so forth. It is also really important because Section 3 of the Human Rights Act requires that all other legislation be read compatibly with convention rights as far as it is possible to do so. In this pandemic period, I have heard noble Lords opposite, and Ministers in particular, invoking that in defence of the CHIS Bill, the overseas operations Bill, the police Bill: “Don’t worry, because remember, there is always the Human Rights Act as a catch-all protection—particularly the interpretation provision but also the duty on public authorities to comply.” If parliamentary counsel have already been instructed to draft the Bill that will scrap the Human Rights Act, we need to read all of this in a slightly different light, do we not? Frankly, even in the light that we currently have, it is bad enough.
My Lords, my name is to the opposition to Clause 29 and the other clauses mentioned in this group as well. Of course, opposing Clause 29 is a consequence of opposing the other clauses, all of which, we say, should go. I have written down “clauses on interpretation”; the term “laundering” had not yet occurred to me, but I follow the point about the interpretation or laundering of the refugee convention. The overall point, as I say, is that they should all go.
On Second Reading, I described it as perverse to use domestic legislation to impose an interpretation of an international convention. Since then, at earlier points in this Committee, we have heard much more powerful, analytical, legally informed responses, and, though I am speaking before the contributors to whom I am referring, I think I would be much better following them—that is not intended to be at all disrespectful to the Minister, nor indeed to the very experienced lawyer from whom we have just heard. The humanitarian arguments have been very well put, but the short point I took away from an earlier day is inarguable. We are party to the convention: it is our law; it is well-established law. If we were to leave the convention—which, of course, I am not advocating—that would be another matter. But we have not left it, and I hope we are not going to.
The proposed interpretations are not simply a collection of different bits of law; they rewrite the whole of it in a way that undermines the spirit and intention of the convention and—there is a lot of agreement on this in the Committee, I believe—in a manner inconsistent with international standards. We will become out of step with the internationally accepted interpretations and out of step with the international community, or, at any rate, those parts of the international community that we want to be in step with.
I turn from the macro to the micro, although it would not seem micro to the people involved. On Clause 35, which deals with Article 1(F) of the convention, perhaps the Minister could say whether I am correct in my assumption, as I think I must be, that the other parties to the convention have not agreed a variation; otherwise, the clause would not be there, as it could be dealt with internationally. This is the provision about what is meant by a “serious non-political crime”, which has impacts for the application of the convention, which does not to apply to, among others, a person who
“has committed a serious non-political crime outside the country of refuge prior to his admission to that country”.
I understand from the statement issued by the UNHCR that the purpose of Article 1(F) is to deny the benefits of refugee status to people who would otherwise qualify but are “undeserving of such benefits” for that reason. This is
“to ensure that such persons do not misuse the institution of asylum in order to avoid being held legally accountable”.
The position is
“to protect the integrity of the institution of asylum”
and this should be applied “scrupulously”.
I was quite intrigued by this. I had to stop myself pursuing reading about it because it would have taken me far too long, but am I right in thinking that this is an outcome of the case AH (Algeria)? I am sure that the Minister has a briefing on this. I understand that the facts there concern the difference between courts of different countries and that signatory states are
“not free to adopt their own definitions”
of what constitutes serious crime. That is what the Court of Appeal had to say. Of course, that does not answer my point about unilateral interpretation.
Unless the Government have a change of heart, I cannot see that we will not be returning to this on Report, so all the excellent briefing that we have received can wait until then. We have been given such great tutorials and I think that we will receive more. All that briefing has been welcome but may not have been necessary.
My Lords, I shall continue to limit my interventions in Committee to expressing views that I hold simply as a lawyer, the course I took on Tuesday of last week, when we were discussing Clause 11. That gave us an early introduction to the very provisions with regard to reinterpreting the convention that we are now concerned with. I reserve the right, when we come to Report, to come in on what I regard as the more obviously mean-spirited and ill-judged other provisions, which are, as is patent, designed to deter as many as possible of those who would otherwise wish to seek refugee status in this country.
Clause 29, as has already been pointed out, is an omnibus provision that takes you into further and more specific, and therefore more specifically objectionable, provisions, which take the convention apart and reinterpret it piece by piece. As both noble Baronesses have said, that is itself intrinsically an objectionable way to proceed with regard to one’s legal obligations.
There are three further stand part notices in this group. I will not touch on all of them because time is the enemy today, as it will be on Thursday. On Clause 33, the protection from persecution, as the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law has valuably pointed out, this clause fundamentally changes the approach to protection from persecution from a focus on meaningful and effective protection against persecution, which our long-established jurisprudence establishes is the correct focus, to a focus on the existence of a reasonable system to prevent, investigate and prosecute instances of where, despite the system, there has been persecution. This refocusing mischievously—and, I suggest, in legal terms, fatally—sidesteps the all-important question of whether the system is likely to protect the individual concerned.
In the interests of time, rather than make comparatively lesser points on the other two named clauses, Clauses 34 and 35, I will pass on. I say only on Clause 35, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that this is directed to Article 1(F) of the convention. Clause 35(2) goes to Article 1(F)(b), concerning serious non-political crimes, and we will come in the next group to Clause 37, which deals with Article 33 of the convention on non-refoulement. Whatever the position on non-refoulement that may be arrived at under the refugee convention, even if, for example, the asylum seeker was found to be a war criminal and so is denied refugee status under Article 1(F)(a) of the convention—see Clause 35(1) of the Bill—it still is not possible to return that person to their country of origin if they would be persecuted. That is simply precluded by Article 3 of the ECHR.
I have had a helpful exchange of emails with the Bill manager. I asked the Minister at our Cross-Bench meeting a question which she referred to the Bill manager; namely, whether any of these provisions in the Bill were intended or calculated to alter any of the well-established and authoritative case law in this country. Except for one point which the Bill manager made regarding Clause 37, which corrects an ambiguity that arose under Section 72 of the 2002 Act, I am unpersuaded that where there is a recognised departure from our case law, it is properly made under this Bill. I finish at this point.
My Lords, I have been here for only eight years, which is not long in your Lordships’ House, but I have never seen so many attempts to delete clauses from a Bill—and of course that is completely the right thing to do here. With this Government, I always look for dead cats being thrown on the table to distract us from something much worse that is happening under the table, but there are so many dead cats in this Bill that I am assuming they are all genuine bits of the Bill that the Government want to pass, which is quite disturbing.
Here the Government are trying to unilaterally rewrite international law, and they are doing so to appease the far right, both in their party and in the country. That is a pointless thing to do; you will never appease the far right. It is an example of the Government throwing away decades of international progress on domestic and international policies only to appease a segment of society who are outspoken and noisy—like the Greens, I suppose, but, unlike the Greens, they actually have malign intent.
We are sending a signal to the world that we are not competent to run our country any more, and certainly not worthy of being part of any international grouping that believes in progress and the rights of the human being.
My Lords, I add my voice to those of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, my noble and learned friend Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Chakrabarti, in saying to the Minister, for whom I have considerable respect—I know of his own track record in the area of international law and the upholding of human rights—that beyond the legal arguments that have already been put to him is the reputational damage to this country, not least because of international issues, some of which he will be aware of.
Anything that we do to dilute our commitment to the 1951 convention on the treatment of refugees—any unravelling or unscrambling of our commitments—is to be deplored. I will give two examples to the Minister. I co-chair the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea and am vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Uyghurs. In the case of North Korea, we, the United Kingdom, will regularly raise with the People’s Republic of China the refoulement policy of sending North Koreans from the PRC, to which they have escaped, back to North Korea, knowing that terrible things, including executions, will happen to them when they are sent back—a clear dereliction of the commitment to which the PRC signed up in the 1951 convention on the treatment of refugees.
In the case of Uighurs, Turkey is presently considering sending back Uighurs because of an agreement that it has reached with the People’s Republic of China. Everyone in your Lordships’ House—notably the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, who is in his place; he raised this issue with me as recently as last week, in another debate—is well aware that there are 1 million Uighurs in detention centres and camps in Xinjiang, and we know of terrible atrocities that have occurred. Our own Foreign Secretary has said that a genocide is under way. In that context, for any country, and in the case of Turkey a NATO country, to be sending people back, again in violation of its duties in the 1951 convention, seems to be deplorable. However, the United Kingdom can hardly start lecturing others not to do these things if we ourselves are going to unscramble and diminish the importance of the 1951 convention.
I suppose that, as a post-war baby, I have maybe too much admiration for what was not entirely a golden age, but think about all the things that were put in place at that time: everything from the Marshall aid programme to the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights, with its 30 articles that set out our rights on an international basis, and the 1948 convention on the crime of genocide. Given all those things that have been put in place, we should think extraordinarily carefully before we do anything to diminish or dilute them. That is why I hope the Minister will give proper consideration to the interventions that he has heard so far—I am sure he will—and, between now and Report, see what more we can do to ensure that we do nothing to diminish the importance of the 1951 convention.
Yes; not for the first time I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. It was British lawyers who crafted these things. Look, for instance, at the Nuremberg trials and the role of people such as Hartley Shawcross, who was the Labour Member of Parliament for St Helens, and the law officers from the United Kingdom in the establishment and creation of these things. They were a gift to many other nations. That is why we should be holding and enhancing them, not doing anything to diminish them.
My Lords, I struggle with some of the dilemmas presented by Clauses 29 to 37, for very much the reasons given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Clarke of Nottingham, in his frank and powerful speech of 1 February on Clause 11. There are, after all, circumstances in which Parliament may legitimately set out its interpretation of treaty provisions and overrule decisions of our courts. There is also a desire, which others on these Benches may share, to give the Government the benefit of the doubt if they can show us why their proposals are not in breach of international law.
The problem I have in that regard is that we have seen impressive formulations of the case against these clauses: for example, from the UNHCR, in the opinion of Raza Husain QC, and in the briefing from the Bingham Centre to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, has referred. What we—or at any rate I—have not seen is how the Government seek to justify these clauses against the requirements of the refugee convention, as interpreted by the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.
For example, under Article 31.3 of the Vienna convention the interpretation of a treaty can legitimately be influenced by state practice. Do the Government rely on the statute or case law of other states as support for the interpretations that they ask us to enact? If so, which states and in relation to which clauses of the Bill? Do they say, in relation to each relevant provision of the refugee convention, that those practices establish
“the agreement of the parties regarding its interpretation”
within the meaning of Article 31.3(b) of the Vienna convention?
As a second example, the United Kingdom made various reservations and declarations at the time it ratified the refugee convention. Do the Government contend that these clauses, or some of them, constitute de facto reservations in so far as they purport to constrain, as a matter of law, the interpretation or application of the refugee convention? In that case, what are their arguments for their timeliness and permissibility and, if they are permissible, their compatibility with the object and purpose of the convention?
I appreciate, of course, that there are conventions regarding the publication of law officers’ legal advice, but surely a way can be found of conveying to your Lordships, and to the public, a detailed and authoritative explanation of the Government’s legal position in more detail than can be explained, however lucidly, by a very lucid Minister in this Chamber. Whether such advice will be enough to allay the concerns of those of your Lordships who take seriously our obligations under international law I cannot say, but at least these clauses will not be lost by default, which I suspect may be the alternative if we are left in the dark.
My Lords, if I may intervene briefly, I am not an expert in this field but once the lawyers start quoting clauses, sub-clauses and those sorts of things, one has to be careful. This is obviously an important point, and I was really taken by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Alton. He has spent a lot of time on this and one has to respect the work he has done. He talked about us unscrambling. When my noble friend comes to wind up, can he say whether we are unscrambling or simplifying?
Some of the way this seems to read is that we are making a thing clear for everybody. Therefore, far from undermining what we stand for, we are making it clearer for everybody, and as such for the people of this country, to understand what the Government are trying to do, and thereby increase the degree of informed consent—a concept about which I am very keen. I understand the complications of the legal interpretations put forward by many noble and noble and learned Lords, but I would like my noble friend to tell me: are we simplifying or unscrambling? If we are simplifying, that seems a desirable thing to do.
My Lords, taking up what the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, just said, my lay and naive understanding of international conventions, such as the refugee convention, is that processes of clarifying or simplifying should involve international co-operation and coming to a global agreement over what those interpretations, clarifications and simplifications are.
Amnesty and Migrant Voice put it differently. They say:
“Clauses 29 to 38 constitute an attempt by the Home Office via legislation to unilaterally re-write the UK’s international refugee law obligations and, in doing so, reverse the decisions of the UK’s highest courts”.
As I have said before in this Committee, international conventions, as far as I am concerned, serve no purpose unless the signatories abide by a common understanding of what the convention means. Any deviation from the settled and accepted interpretation of an international convention must be agreed universally, not unilaterally, as these clauses attempt to do. Any attempt by the Bill effectively to rewrite what it means could result in the UK breaching its international obligations and we believe that none of these clauses should stand part of the Bill.
As has been said, this part of the Bill provides for “interpretation” of the refugee convention. It includes some entirely new provisions and replicates or amends some existing provisions.
On existing provisions, this part of the Bill repeals the Refugee or Person in Need of International Protection (Qualification) Regulations 2006. These regulations transposed a key EU directive on standards for asylum systems, the qualification directive, into UK law. The Bill repeals the regulations and puts versions of the provisions into primary legislation instead.
The UNHCR noted with concern the Government’s approach to interpreting the refugee convention. I will read an extract from its legal observations on the Bill in full. It said:
“We note with concern the Government’s approach to interpreting the Refugee Convention. Any treaty must be ‘interpreted in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its object and purpose.’ In the case of the Refugee Convention, as the UK Supreme Court has noted on more than one occasion, ‘There is no doubt that the Convention should be given a generous and purposive interpretation, bearing in mind its humanitarian objects and the broad aims reflected in its preamble.’ In addition, the Vienna Convention specified a range of sources that ‘shall be taken into account’ in interpreting a treaty; these all reflect the agreement of the parties, and include other agreements and instruments from the time the treaty was concluded, as well subsequent agreements, State practice and international law. In other words, States cannot, under international law, unilaterally announce their own interpretation of the terms of the agreements they have made with other States. This, too, has been repeatedly recognised by the House of Lords and the Supreme Court of the UK.”
I do not want to repeat what has already been said, but I just ask: do the Government agree with that extract from the UNHCR’s legal observations on the Bill? If they do agree with it, do they believe that they are still abiding by it?
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate.
The starting point is that we are no longer members of the European Union and, by extension, the Common European Asylum System. In response to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, these provisions are not a direct response to the case of AH (Algeria). They are about having an opportunity to define clearly and unscramble refugee convention terms following our exit from the EU. It is right that, at this time of legal change, we take the opportunity to reassess the operation of our asylum system and reconsider our approach not only to fundamental policies but to processes, so that we can create a clearer and more accessible system.
The fact is that the development of the asylum system through international conventions, European law, domestic legislation, Immigration Rules and case law has created a complex legal web that can be difficult to understand and apply; that goes for claimants, decision-makers and the courts. I do not propose to use props—I understand that that is not permitted—but, for my own assistance on a later group, I brought a book called, rather laughingly, The Immigration Law Handbook. We consider it a desirable law reform to define clearly key elements of the refugee convention in UK domestic law. In response to my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, that is exactly what we are doing. We want to make the position clearer for everyone, including decision-makers and the courts.
A lot has been said that touches on the same point but, with great respect, the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, perhaps put it most forcefully. She used a number of metaphors. Let me respond to them. This is not about tripping anybody up. It is not a sleight of hand; it is difficult to do one of those on the Floor of your Lordships’ House. This is about bringing clear definitions before Parliament and having them all in one place. The central point is this: there is nothing wrong—indeed, I suggest that there is everything right—with the UK, through this Parliament, interpreting its obligations under the refugee convention. That is entirely lawful. I use “lawful” in both its narrow and wide senses. It is lawful in the sense that it is in accordance with the law; it is also lawful in the broader sense of being in accordance with the political or constitutional principle that we call the rule of law. Further, it is in accordance with the Vienna convention. Everything we are doing complies fully with all our international obligations, including the refugee convention and the European Convention on Human Rights. I will come back to the question that the noble Baroness asked me in that regard a little later.
With respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, it is not perverse to use domestic legislation to give effect to and interpret international treaties. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, that I am not in the business of appeasing the far right; nor am I in the business of deleting obligations under international law. Many of the definitions, which repay careful reading, are very similar to those already used in the UK—for example, those contained in the 2004 qualification directive, which was transposed into UK law via the 2006 regulations.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for his kind words. I assure him that I of course give proper consideration to international reputational impacts, but surely there can be no adverse impact by complying with international law and interpreting treaties in accordance with the Vienna convention.
I am sorry, I missed my moment; I should have spoken as soon as the Minister spoke to me. I did not accuse him of trying to appease the far right. I hope I did not say that—I certainly did not mean to—but I do accuse the Government of it. I know that the Minister did not write this Bill, but that is something I see the Government as guilty of.
I did not take it personally. I agree that I did not write the Bill. It would be a far worse Bill, and the noble Baroness would like it even less, if I had written it. But I replied in that way because I take the view that if I am standing here defending government policy, then I will stand here and defend government policy. I certainly would not defend a government policy which was simply appeasing the far right. So, that is why I replied in those terms. I know that the noble Baroness was not making a personal attack; I did not take it that way.
To finish my point to the noble Lord, Lord Alton—
My Lords, I do not want to get into the question of whether the Bill is going too far or not far enough, and whether our policy is good, bad or indifferent, on this group of amendments. If I may say so, those are Second Reading-type questions. I was simply responding to the point put by the noble Baroness.
To return to the point on Turkey, whether its acts are in accordance with the refugee convention is really a separate issue. I do not mean to diminish or demean this, but what we are talking about here are not acts, so to speak. We are talking about the fundamental question of whether it is proper—because the charge put against me is that it is not—for this Parliament to set out its interpretation, the UK’s interpretation, of the international obligations we have under the refugee convention.
Before the Minister leaves that point, I was not specifically asking him to respond to Turkey’s actions. I was saying that it diminishes our ability to speak to countries such as Turkey or China—which I also referenced—if we are ourselves een to diminish our responsibilities under the 1951 convention. That comes to the question that the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, put about how this is seen beyond our shores by international institutions that have examined what we are trying to do. I hope the Minister will address that point as we proceed.
I was going to come to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. Let me just say a sentence about it now: the UNHCR is not the interpretive body of the refugee convention. Each state under the convention is there to interpret its obligations, in accordance with the Vienna convention. That is the system which the state parties have set up. When we have a phrase—we will get to one a little later—such as “serious non-political crime”, the state parties have to interpret it. We will get to an example in the next group—this is a little cliffhanger—of where different countries have approached the question differently. There is nothing wrong with that, provided that they are all acting in accordance with the Vienna convention in good faith in seeking to interpret their obligations.
Respectfully, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, essentially accepted that basic proposition under the Vienna convention, and he was obviously right to do so. He sought characteristically carefully—if I might say so—to seek disclosure of the legal advice on which the Government are relying, while recognising the conventions which apply to that. I listened carefully to what he said. I will read Hansard to see whether there is anything more I can say in writing to him; I do not want to rush from the Dispatch Box. There may or may not be anything more I can say, but I will read that point carefully. I think he recognised that there are conventions in this area which do apply.
However, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, that it is not a question of having to agree with all the other signatories. This is not about amending the refugee convention; it is about interpreting it. That is a very different thing. If you want to amend a contract, you need the other party’s agreement, but interpreting a convention is for each state party.
I will say a few words about the substantive clauses, although I think it is fair to say that those were not really the Committee’s focus. Clause 29 sets out how key terms which are defined in the following clauses will be applied; they are the key components of the refugee convention. Clause 29 also revokes the Refugee or Person in Need of International Protection (Qualification) Regulations 2006. Those are the regulations through which we transposed our obligations under the EU qualification directive 2004. Because we are out of the EU, we need to do that in a different way.
However, we will continue to grant humanitarian protection to eligible individuals who cannot be removed from the UK to their country of origin if their removal would breach the UK’s obligations under Articles 2 or 3 of the ECHR. It is important to clarify—I am sure Members of the Committee know this—that these are not individuals protected under the refugee convention. However, we will make further changes to align the entitlements of permission to stay granted on the basis of humanitarian protection to that provided to group 2 refugees.
In response to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, we believe that Clause 33 provides a system of effective protection from persecution. Clause 34 deals with relocation, but I do not think any noble Lords spoke to it directly, so I will just refer to it and move on.
On Clause 35, of course we have a proud history of providing protection to those who need it, but that should not apply to those who commit serious crimes, putting the communities that host them at risk and endangering national security. We believe we are right to define and legislate in this area. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that that is a good example of serious non-political crime. That is a phrase in the refugee convention, but it is not further defined in it. Each state has to look at it and define it, in accordance—always—with the Vienna convention.
The Minister keeps saying that each state will define the refugee convention, and he alluded to the EU qualification directive; there is also the procedures directive. I declare an interest, as I worked on both directives as an MEP. Of course, that was an attempt not for each state in the EU to do its own thing but to have a collective set of laws which interpreted the refugee convention in detail and, as far as I know, complied with it. That prevented each country doing its own thing in a potentially destructive way.
I have an associated point, to save the Minister bobbing up and down too much. I entirely take the point about non-political crime. I just wanted to make it clear that I was referring only to that bit of the Bill when I mentioned the case. I was not suggesting that it was the prompt for the whole of this part. But can the Minister explain more about the impact of our leaving the EU? Does that give us a legal opportunity, or is this happening because it is a convenient political point in the calendar, as it were?
On the first point, of course the EU sought to interpret the refugee convention for all its members. But that actually makes my point, because it is only for the members of the EU. All the other states will interpret it in their own way. If you want to hand over your interpreting power to the EU, that is fine if you are a member—but I suggest that that does not cut across my basic point.
As to the effect of leaving the EU, if we have hitherto signed up to various interpretations through EU regulations, we now have an opportunity to look at the matter afresh, as I said when I began. To go further into that point would go way beyond the scope of this group.
Finally, I come back to the question put to me by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, about “scrapping” —I think that was the word she used last night as well—the Human Rights Act. I said last night, and I will give the same answer now, that the Human Rights Act brings into English domestic law the European Convention on Human Rights. We have reaffirmed— I did it yesterday; I will do it again now—that this Government will stay in as a signatory to the convention.
I am grateful to the Minister for that, but will he answer my question a bit more specifically? Has he instructed parliamentary counsel to begin the drafting process for the Bill that will replace, repeal or reinterpret the Human Rights Act and/or the convention on human rights?
As a matter of policy, I am afraid I am not going to get into the discussions I have with government law officers and parliamentary counsel. The Government’s legislative programme has been set out. The Lord Chancellor, the Deputy Prime Minister and I have given evidence on this. We have made it clear that we will be staying in the European Convention on Human Rights. In so far as the burden of the noble Baroness’s challenge was that we have to be careful, because the Government are watering down rights, we are staying in the European Convention on Human Rights. Therefore—
I was going to wait until the Minister had finished his sentence but, before he sits down, I revert to the question of the Government’s legal case. The Minister is reticent to disclose government legal advice, which I entirely understand but, before the Committee and others can reach a fully formed opinion on this, they need a worked version of the Government’s legal position. It may be that that takes the form of a position paper or submission, rather than the replication of advice already given. But, until we see in detail what Raza Husain and the UNHCR got wrong, and why these interpretations are fully consistent with the Vienna and refugee conventions, the evidence is all one way. I am sure that I speak for many other noble Lords when I say that I would be very much assisted by seeing something of that nature.
I hope the noble Lord does not take it amiss if I say, with respect, that he makes the same point as he made earlier. and I understood it. I need to be very careful that I do not get inadvertently drawn into disclosing legal advice, but I hear the point from the noble Lord that he and others would like to see a greater fleshing out of the Government’s legal position. I have said that I will see what I can do to assist in that.
Very diffidently, am I entirely wrong in thinking that, under Article 35 of the convention, some heed is required to be paid to the UNHCR’s expression of its approach to the convention? My recollection is that Lord Bingham said as much in one of the cases I mentioned last week, Asfaw. Is that not right?
Respectfully, what I said earlier is that it is not the arbiter of the interpretation of the convention. I do not think that is inconsistent with the point the noble and learned Lord just made.
I was proposing to sit down, after suggesting to the Committee that we should keep these various clauses in the Bill.
Before the noble Lord sits down, I was wondering whether he would explain some of the changes that are being made or cover them in a subsequent letter. As I understand it, Clause 33 replaces Regulation 4 in the Refugee or Person in Need of International Protection (Qualification) Regulations 2006, which is repealed by Clause 29. The wording is largely the same but, as I understand it—and I may be wrong—the existing regulations reference
“protection from persecution or serious harm”,
whereas Clause 33 references only “protection from persecution”. Why has that change to the language been made and what will its practical effects be?
There are changes of language in other areas, such as from a “may” to a “must” in Clause 34. What problem is that intended to solve? Is it not the Government’s intention to explain the reasons for the changes they have made where they have made them?
The “may” and “must” point, to which the noble Lord referred, will come up in a later group because, from memory, there is a specific amendment on it. I was proposing to deal with that when I respond to that amendment. I think we are going to come to the persecution and serious harm point later but, if I am wrong, I will write to the noble Lord and explain it. However, we are coming to “may” and “must” on a later group.
I am grateful to all noble Lords who contributed to this group. I believe there was a great deal of consensus in the Committee, but I am sure the Minister was grateful for the support of his doughty and always agreeable noble friend the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts.
I say to the Minister that asserting does not make it so. Asserting, reasserting, “We’re in the convention” and “We will honour the convention” are not enough in the face of the very detailed analysis of these provisions by the UNHCR, the Bingham Centre, Raza Husain QC and, if I may say so, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, again in his always agreeable way, was trying to help the Minister out. The Minister might take his hand and shake it. It is not a hand, it is a lifeboat, but I will be told off again for using metaphors. Last week I was told of by the Minister for using the word “tawdry” too many times; I thought I was on “Just a Minute”. Today, it is metaphors.
I will try one more metaphor with the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, who asked a very pertinent question of the Minister. Is this not a simplification, rather than a dilution or repudiation? I believe the noble Lord comes from a business background and has often referred to the Wharton school of business. We all draw on our experience and I think a basic contract is not a bad analogy to draw here. It is the equivalent of the chief executive of a company that has been in a contractual relationship with another company for many years getting a bit fed up with various provisions of this contract that has nevertheless been working. We are talking 50 or 70 years of this contract between the parties, when the chief executive thinks, “Maybe we need to reinterpret the various articles of this contract”. He decides not just to repudiate it, because that would be embarrassing, illegal and unlawful, but he says to his board, “What we are going to do in the boardroom is reinterpret all the provisions in a way that is different from the way that we ourselves have honoured them in the past”. “We ourselves” include learned judges such as Lord Bingham and others from all over the world. We are now going to year nought and are rewriting it. We are not just simplifying; we are making material differences, in some places to the convention and in others to decades of jurisprudence, by changing “or” to “and” and changing standards of proof. This is not insignificant.
The noble Baroness’s description of how business works, with an agreement that has lasted for a number of years, is far from the reality of any business in which I have ever worked. It is not a good analogy to use with my noble friend on the Front Bench. There may be all sorts of reasons, as we have heard, about international law, European law, UK law, UK primary legislation and UK secondary legislation, all of which cut across. They are completely different from a single arrangement in business, in which there is a contract, of one sort or another, between two firms. This is not a good analogy at all. I much prefer the complications, which my noble friend referred to, seeking to sort this out.
Forgive me; I stand corrected by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts—as always, certainly in matters of business. I was merely trying to suggest that we cannot repudiate a contract by pretending that we are reinterpreting it, when we are making material differences to the relationship between the contracting parties.
Finally on the UNHCR, it is set out in Article 35(1) of the refugee convention:
“The Contracting States undertake to co-operate with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or any other agency of the United Nations which may succeed it, in the exercise of its functions, and shall in particular facilitate its duty of supervising the application of the provisions of this Convention.”
Clause 29 agreed.
Clause 30 agreed.
Clause 31: Article 1(A)(2): well-founded fear
103: Clause 31, page 34, line 45, leave out subsections (2) and (3)
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would give effect to the recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the standard of proof for an asylum seeker to establish a well-founded fear of persecution under the Refugee Convention should remain a composite standard of “reasonable likelihood”.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 103, 104 and 111 in particular, but before I do so, I want to say that, having listened to the Minister in the previous debate, it seems that he has almost answered the points that I was going to make. I do not want to be repetitive, because the Chief Whip asked us to be brief. A lot of the key points of principle that were covered in the previous group of amendments are also covered in this group starting with Amendment 103, so I shall be brief.
I was a little surprised—and this has gone right through our debates on this Bill—at the Minister saying that we can interpret the Geneva convention as we wish, that we are quite free to do it and that the UNHCR does not have any authority to indicate what is right and what is wrong in terms of the convention. I had always been brought up to accept that the UNHRC was in fact the guardian of the Geneva convention, and that it is the authority rather than each country doing its own thing. If each country does its own thing by interpretation, we shall not have an international convention at all and achieving international agreement will be much more difficult. Having said that, I was dismayed at the Minister’s view and equally dismayed when he said that the Bill would be even worse if it was his own Bill—I think that is what he said. I hope then that he does not have too much influence on things.
On Amendments 103 and 104, as I understand it from our deliberations in the Joint Committee on Human Rights and what it says in its report—I am still a member of that committee and contributed to the reports—the decision-maker need only be satisfied that there is a reasonable likelihood of persecution as defined by the refugee convention. That seems to be the present practice. However, the Bill seeks to change that—it talks about things like the “balance of probabilities”—by limiting the effect of the reasonable likelihood of persecution provision and making it harder to achieve an effective decision about asylum in favour of the applicant.
It seems to me that the Government do not like the Geneva convention and are seeking by a series of measures throughout the Bill to weaken it. That is clever if you want to get rid of the Geneva convention. The Government will say that they stick by the convention, but by being able to interpret it in all sorts of ways one can effectively weaken it to the point where it would be a different convention from the one which we have traditionally come to accept. I think that is what the Government are trying to do. I do not think the Minister will necessarily agree, but I suspect that is what it is.
Amendments 103 and 104 relate to the change from “reasonable likelihood” of persecution to a “balance of probabilities”, which is defined in various ways which I shall not go through now. Amendment 111 is about criminality and serious crime. It has always been possible, even within the Geneva convention, for Governments to deny asylum to people who have committed a very serious crime. That has been the practice. It has not happened very often, but the Government are now seeking to redefine that provision so that a serious crime becomes something lesser than what we traditionally regarded as a serious crime—in other words, again weakening the Geneva convention. That is regrettable. I do not think that the Government had any need to weaken the convention in this way, by a process of interpretation, so I regret that, which is why I am keen on these and other amendments.
My Lords, I followed with great interest the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, in speaking eloquently to the clauses stand part in the last group. Like the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, I shall speak only to a particular amendment, that put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, to which I have lent my signature, as have others. Once again, I am grateful to the Law Society of Scotland for its background briefing, and I shall refer briefly to the report of the Constitution Committee in which its concerns were quoted.
I am grateful to the Law Society of Scotland for highlighting its concerns, which I share. This is a probing amendment to understand the background following on from my noble friend’s summing-up in response to the previous group. I find myself half way between my noble friend Lord Hodgson, who is not a lawyer, and the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, who is a lawyer of some repute. I am a member of the Faculty of Advocates but have not practised for a considerable period. However, I enjoyed the one case on which I was a junior before the European Court of Human Rights—the proceedings were very similar to those enjoyed in our erstwhile proceedings when the House of Lords enjoyed the right of final appeal.
The reason why I believe that Clause 31 does not fit well with the Bill goes back to the standard of proof test set out in the leading case for asylum cases, Ravichandran v Secretary of State for the Home Department, as a “well-founded fear of persecution”. In the Court of Appeal in 2000, it was confirmed that the standard of proof in civil proceedings—the balance of probabilities referred to in Clause 31(2)—was not suitable for immigration matters. Instead, what was important was making an assessment of all material considerations such that it
“must not exclude any matters from its consideration when it is assessing the future unless it feels that it can safely discard them because it has no real doubt that they did not in fact occur”.
Lord Justice Sedley described the balance of probabilities as
“part of a pragmatic legal fiction. It has no logical bearing on the assessment of the likelihood of future events or (by parity of reasoning) the quality of past ones.”
For the past 20 years, the approach taken in the Karanakaran case was consistently followed by the courts. In Scotland, the Outer House of the Court of Session reaffirmed that case as the correct standard of proof approach to be applied in the case in 2020 of MF (El Salvador) v Secretary of State for the Home Department. In that case, it was held that the First-tier Tribunal judge had erred in law by applying the wrong standard of proof in respect of an application for permission to appeal brought by an asylum seeker.
In Kaderli v Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office of Gebeze, Turkey, in 2021, the High Court reaffirmed, while referencing the Karanakaran case, that the question as to determining a well-founded fear of persecution is that of an evaluative nature about the likelihood of future events. In that case, it was held that the judge erred in holding that it was for the appellant to prove on the balance of probabilities that the corruption alleged had occurred. The true test involved the application of a lower standard: whether there was a real risk that the appellant’s conviction was based on a trial tainted by corruption. This was consistent with the approach to the fact-finding in the immigration context.
In the view of the Law Society of Scotland,
“the change in clause 31 appears to go against the intention of the New Plan for Immigration, and flies in the face of 25 years judicial scrutiny.”
So my question to my noble friend the Minister, in summing up this evening, is: on what basis are the Government prepared to set aside the cases that I have set out this evening?
I conclude by referring to the conclusions of the Constitution Committee in its report on the Bill of January 2022. It refers to the concerns of the Law Society of Scotland that I have set out today, as well as of the Law Society of England, which criticised the provision set out in Clause 31 in the following terms:
“the Bill changes the evidentiary threshold for asylum claims, in a way that will likely see genuine refugees barred from being granted asylum, as well as delays and an increase in litigation as the parameters of the new requirement are established.”
Paragraph 53 of the Constitution Committee’s report states:
“The House may consider that the new test in clause 31(2) is unclear and unduly complex. If the House takes the view that it is also a potential risk to justice it may be minded to replace it with a single test of, for example, reasonable likelihood.”
In setting out the arguments this evening, this gives my noble friend the Minister the chance to set out precisely why the Government are seeking to change tack, as set out in Clause 31, setting aside the case law that has curried favour in the law courts on both sides of the border—in England and Scotland—for a considerable number of years.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 105 in my name and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, who cannot be here tonight, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester and the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, to whom I am grateful. I also thank Women for Refugee Women and ILPA for all their work on this amendment.
The amendment would remove the narrow restrictive and requirement in Clause 32 that, in order to qualify under the “particular social group” grounds of persecution for recognition as a refugee under the convention, two conditions must be met. The amendment would replace this with an either/or condition. As I will explain, this would be in line with international standards and UK case law.
This is a small amendment, but it is significant, as the UNHCR has made clear. The UNHCR explains that Clause 32 is one of a
“series of changes that would make it more difficult for refugees who are admitted to the UK to be recognised as such.”
The case for the amendment is, in effect, set out in its detailed legal observations, which have been invaluable to our scrutiny of the Bill. The UNHCR warns that narrowing the definition of “particular social group” in the way that the clause does
“could exclude some refugees from the protection to which they are entitled … In the UK and other jurisdictions, the particular social group ground has proved critical in the protection of those with claims based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, status as former victims of trafficking, disability or mental-ill health, family and age.”
This view is endorsed by the Bingham Centre, which warns:
“The result will inevitably be to refuse protection to people who, as a matter of international law, are refugees.”
It picks out this clause as one of a number that are particularly troubling to it from a rule of law perspective.
The UNHCR explains the origins of the two conditions and why it has recommended that they should be treated as alternative, rather than cumulative, tests. The argument was endorsed by the late Lord Bingham, acting in his judicial capacity, when he ruled that the cumulative approach taken in Clause 32 was wrong because
“it propounds a test more stringent than is warranted by international authority.”
Thus this approach, the UNHCR points out, has been affirmed in the UK courts over an EU interpretation. I cannot resist observing that it is rather odd that a Government committed to taking back control from the EU is so keen to apply an EU interpretation that has been rejected by the British courts. Indeed, on the previous group, the Minister said that our starting point should be that we had left the EU, so could he perhaps explain why that does not apply to this clause?
In their briefing, Women for Refugee Women—WRW —and ILPA include an example, taken from Garden Court Chambers barristers, of what this might mean:
“a trafficked woman would need to show not only that her status as a trafficked woman is an innate characteristic”—
one shared with other members of a group—
“but also that trafficked women as a group are perceived as having a distinct identity in her country of origin. The latter is of course much more difficult to establish than the former because this is judged by the perceptions of the society in her country, and it can be very challenging to find objective evidence on women as a distinct group.”
WFW and ILPA also point out that there was “no pre-legislative consultation” on this clause because it was not included in the New Plan for Immigration. Can the Minister explain why this is the case? Moreover, the equality impact assessment on the Bill, which has been described as “superficial and inadequate” by barristers at Garden Court Chambers, fails adequately to assess the impact of the change on groups in vulnerable circumstances.
As I have already noted, the UNHCR has warned of the likely implications for a wide range of such groups. I particularly draw attention to how this clause is likely to have an adverse impact on women fleeing gender-based persecution—a group that the Government claim to care about. As I made clear on an earlier amendment, it is one of a number of such clauses that have to be viewed in the context of the failings that already exist. According to WRW and ILPA,
“Over the years, there has been substantial research on the failures of the Home Office in delivering a fair asylum process, and on the reasons why many women who flee gender-based persecution may be wrongly denied protection.”
Most recently, as I noted last week and gave the Minister some weekend reading on, the British Red Cross has published research that details experiences that
“highlight the distrust and disbelief women can face when discussing traumatic experiences of violence”,
especially, but not only, when interviewed by men. One survivor’s words are recounted:
“you feel so low and you feel so degraded and you’ve been violated and you were [telling] your story, you were expecting to be heard and to have someone who shows you some form of sympathy.”
In the Commons Public Bill Committee, the Government justified their position by asserting that the new clause was necessary to bring certainty to an area bedevilled by conflicting authority. But ILPA and WFW give that argument short shrift, pointing out:
“There is no conflicting authority: the UNHCR and the senior UK courts have a clear and constant interpretation. It is the Government that seeks to depart from this shared interpretation of the Refugee Convention, and it does so without warrant or proper justification.”
So can the Minister provide a more convincing justification today of a clause that, in the words of Women for Refugee Women and ILPA
“reverses case law of senior UK courts, contravenes UNHCR standards, and reinstates an erroneous EU law standard”?
If not, will he agree to this amendment?
My Lords, all of these clauses seek to restrict access to the protection of the refugee convention. I will speak to Amendments 103 and 104 to Clause 31 and Amendment 111 to Clause 37, which are all in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and which I have co-signed. However, I share the view of my noble friend Lady Hamwee and the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, that all of these clauses should in fact be removed.
The problem with Clause 31 is that it changes the standard of proof for the test of whether a person is a refugee. It creates two limbs of the test and changes the bar from “reasonable likelihood” to
“on the balance of probabilities”.
Although the refugee convention does not prescribe the standard of proof, UNHCR’s handbook says:
“The requirement of evidence should … not be too strictly applied in view of the difficulty of proof inherent in the special situation in which an applicant for refugee status finds himself.”
So, for 20 years, the UK courts, including the Supreme Court, have applied a “reasonable likelihood” standard of proof in a composite and holistic manner.
Clause 31 overturns this established interpretation of the law by dividing the overall test into a series of sub-questions and applying different standards of proof to different limbs of questioning, to require the person to prove on a balance of probabilities that they fear persecution and the decision-maker to revert to a test of reasonable likelihood in assessing whether the person would face persecution and lack state protection. It is quite a mishmash, and a complex and confusing one—not least for already burdened caseworkers. As we have heard so frequently in this Committee, if the Government really want to fix a broken asylum system, why are they making everything more complex and building in delay?
As the Bingham Centre points out, Clause 31
“allows for rejection of a person as a refugee because they failed one of the steps”
imposing that higher hurdle,
“whereas if the test was taken in its totality, the person may have been accepted as a refugee.”
The process may well lead to exclusion from sheer error because of all these complex, different bits of the test. Either the JCHR Amendments 103 and 104 should be accepted, or Clause 31 should be deleted.
On Amendment 111 to Clause 37, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has said, we object to the lowering of the threshold for regarding a crime as particularly serious such that a person can be expelled. It is designed to—and will—exclude many more people from the protection of the refugee convention. Not only is the threshold sentence reduced from two years to 12 months but it changes the rebuttable presumption of “particularly serious” into an unchallengeable assertion.
This is disproportionate; a blanket exclusion is incompatible with the refugee convention, which envisages a crime that is a major threat and expulsion as a last resort. Bear in mind that the Bill seeks to impose a four-year sentence for the mere act of arriving in the UK without permission, which most refugees have to do. That gives you a measure of the lack of proportion in what is supposed to be a serious crime under the remit of the Bill; I am not validating or endorsing any crime, but under the refugee convention it has to be “particularly serious”, and the Government are departing from that.
My Lords, I confine my brief comments on this group to Clauses 31 and 32, both of which have been touched on, respectively, by the noble Baronesses, Lady Ludford and Lady Lister.
Clause 31 is peculiarly objectionable. As has been described, it divides up what should be a single, holistic question into a series of sub-questions and compounds that error by the differentiation in some important respects of standards of proof. It imposes an objectionable higher standard of proof on one critical provision. As the Joint Committee on Human Rights says in its report HL Paper 143—pages 39 to 41—it raises the standard of proof from a “reasonable likelihood” to a “balance of probabilities”.
The overall holistic approach to Article 31 was established as long ago as 1995 in a case called Ravichandran, 1996 Immigration Appeal Report, page 77. I confess that I wrote the lead judgment, but it has been consistently applied by the higher courts ever since. To quote one passage, the approach to Article 1A of the convention should be
“a single composite question … looked at in the round and all the relevant circumstances brought into account”
to see if there is a real risk.
Those promoting this clause should read a devastating critique of Clause 31 last month by Hugo Storey, the immediate past president of the International Association of Refugee and Migration Judges who has just retired from being an Upper Tribunal judge. He has no doubt that it will lead to “prodigious litigation”; in six compelling pages that those responsible for the Bill must read, he explains precisely why.
Clause 32, on the question of the particular social group, has been dealt with. It seeks to overturn Lord Bingham’s judgment in the case of Fornah, in the Appellate Committee of this House back in 2006, which was all about a 15 year-old girl trying to avoid female genital mutilation in Sierra Leone. I was a junior member of that court, and this clause tries, contrary to that clear judgment, to introduce a conjunctive approach to the two relevant criteria. It would be a grave mistake and cause grave injustice.
My Lords, I have added my name to Amendment 105 and the intention to oppose Clause 31 standing part of the Bill. I too am grateful to Women for Refugee Women and others for their briefings and support.
In the New Plan for Immigration and the briefings for the Bill, the Government have argued repeatedly that the existing asylum and refugee system is weighted against vulnerable women. The Home Secretary has repeatedly made the point that the large majority of channel crossings are by men aged under 40, for example. Given this, there might be some expectation that the Bill would contain some good news or ambitions on the part of the Government for better reaching and helping the women and girls who make up 50% of the world’s refugees and displaced people. Unfortunately, I do not see any such commitments. As a sting in the tail, in Clauses 31 and 32 we find proposals that seem to significantly disadvantage women further.
I will not repeat but endorse the arguments that it is already disproportionately difficult for women, particularly survivors of gender-based violence, to have their claims for refugee protection status correctly determined. Clause 31 can only exacerbate this situation, which is a disaster for many vulnerable women. That is also true of Clause 32, unfortunately, and I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, for laying out the issue here so clearly. I am very pleased to add my name in support of her Amendment 105.
I have no wish to take up time repeating the arguments, but it is critical to reiterate the point that the “particular social group” reason is an essential lifeline for survivors of sexual and gender-based persecution not otherwise covered by
“race, religion, nationality or political opinion”
in the reasons set out in the 1951 convention, as we have heard from other noble Lords. I will listen closely to the Minister’s response on this, but it is very difficult to see the justification for this move, which goes in the face of existing legal practice. It is so important for these survivors.
Many of my best memories of this place come from last year’s excellent debates on the Domestic Abuse Bill, which really showed politics in its best light. I know that this cause is taken seriously by the Government, but it seems that there is a blind spot on migrant women. We will discuss this again on later amendments, including my right reverend friend the Bishop of London’s forthcoming Amendment 140, but I end with a plea to the Minister to look again at these clauses and, if these amendments are not right, to present others that will ensure that vulnerable women are not further disadvantaged by this change.
I offer the support of the Green group for all the amendments in this group and express horror at the whole nature of this part of the Bill. It is a great pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate and to agree with everything that she said about the gender aspects of the Bill as it now stands, as also mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister.
I want to address Amendment 111 and make a simple observation: the average length of a prison sentence in England and Wales in 2021 was 18.6 months, compared with 11.4 months in 2000. Is this really something extraordinary? Is the UNHCR right in saying that this change in terminology is not right? I think that it clearly is.
I want to draw out what the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady McIntosh, said, both of them reflecting on different elements of how this law is throwing out 25 years of British legal tradition. I am not going to reopen the discussion on the last group about particular political labels, but I will note that this is happening in a country where only a couple of years ago we saw our most senior judges under attack on the front pages of certain newspapers. That is the context in which this is occurring.
I want to reflect—a number of people have talked about this but I shall boil it down—on what the Government’s proposals are likely to do: produce a large number of people who are denied status but who cannot be sent home because it is clearly impossibly unsafe and dangerous to send them there. That leads to a situation of more chaos and more forced black-market employment, which surely no one could want.
My Lords, I want to give practical expression to what those who have spoken, including the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, have said, and to the exposition of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown: if a law is going to be passed, it needs to be clear, simple and not confused, as in Clause 31.
I shall tell a story. A friend of mine was going to be best man at our wedding, but Amin’s soldiers were hunting for him, so he left Uganda on the very day that we got married, dressed like a woman, and landed up in Kenya. That was the only way he could get away. He had nothing. Friends in Kenya managed to get him a ticket and he came to Oxford with nothing. There he studied law and did very well as a result, but if the test had been on the grounds of probability, he probably would not have done so. It comes down to the question of “reasonable likelihood”. All he could do was describe how he left Uganda. If you are from Uganda, you know you do not go around dressed like that, but the people who listened to his case at Oxford could associate with it.
I ask this for the reasons that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, has given: why in one clause do we have “reasonable likelihood” and in another “the balance of probabilities”? That confuses the legislation.
I have been able to represent some asylum seekers when they have come here. I think the Joint Committee on Human Rights is right that this is what should be incorporated in our law and we should not try to change it—unless of course we are following the analysis of the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, that instead of making it clear as we incorporate this into our legislation, we are saying, “Throw it out. We know better and we are going to do it in our own way.” I do not think that that makes for good law. It is not simple, straightforward or clear. In the old days, it was said that any good law must be understood by the woman or man on the Clapham omnibus—if they cannot understand it, your law is not very clear. The judgment of Lord Bingham is clear.
Why abandon our case law as we begin to incorporate this into our law? This time the Minister will have to give us reasons why that is the case, instead of—forgive me—what sounds like a bullish reaction to every reasonable thing that has been said. I plead with the Minister to use simple language and retain “reasonable likelihood”, because that is much easier to deal with when people come here without papers or documents and their lives are in danger.
My Lords, I could simply repeat what I said at the conclusion of the last group: the UK should not engage in the unilateral reinterpretation of the refugee convention—not that we are rewriting it, but we are reinterpreting it—but I shall go into a little more detail.
The JCHR, supported by Amnesty and Migrant Voice, believes that the standard of proof as to whether an asylum seeker has a well-founded fear should remain as “reasonable likelihood”. Amnesty makes the additional point that, as well as raising the standard, Clause 31 makes the decision more complex and the Home Office is getting it wrong too many times already.
We support Amendments 103 and 104 but we also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, that Clause 31 should not stand part of the Bill. Amendment 105, to which I have added my name, attempts to bring the definition of “particular social group” into line with international standards and UK case law. Again, based on the principle that the Bill should not be unilaterally reinterpreting the refugee convention, as I said in the previous group, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, that Clause 32 should not stand part of the Bill.
Amendment 111 seeks to prevent the definition of “particularly serious crime” from being reduced to 12 months’ imprisonment. As my noble friend Lady Ludford said, bearing in mind that the Bill attempts to set the maximum penalty for entering the UK without authority at four years’ imprisonment, the two changes could potentially exclude all asylum seekers who do not enter through resettlement schemes. As before, we support the assertion of the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, that Clause 37 should not stand part of the Bill.
My Lords, I will be brief. We support the intentions of the amendments. I thank my noble friends Lord Dubs, Lady Lister of Burtersett and Lady Chakrabarti, who have been leading on these amendments.
I found it interesting to hear from my noble friend Lady Lister that there was no pre-legislative consultation on the issues covered by Amendment 105. Normally if we want changes in the law, we are told that such things have to go through a lengthy and elaborate process, but these seem to have appeared with a certain degree of rapidity.
I really only want to ask the Government a couple of questions. First, in each of the three cases—that is, Clauses 31, 32 and 37—what is the problem that the Government claim to be fixing? What is it, particularly in relation to Clause 31, about the current standard of proof that they believe is failing?
Secondly, could the Government tell us where the pressure has come from to make these changes in the law? Clearly this is not simplification; it is changing the law, so let us not beat around the bush on that. Where has the pressure come from? Has it been intense? From what sources has it come? Who, or what organisation, has been after achieving these particular changes in the law? I do not recall—though I may be wrong—having heard people marching through the streets demanding these changes, which makes one wonder if some requests for change were made at a political fundraising dinner where no one else knew what was going on.
My Lords, I am not sure whether it is the time of the evening that prompted that reference to dinner; otherwise, it is not immediately apparent to me what the relevance of it was. I will come back to that rather less substantive point—if I may say so, respectfully—at the end.
Let me deal first with Clause 31. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. He is right that there are points of principle that underlie these amendments; they underlay the last group as well. I too will try not to repeat the points that I have made. There are points of principle that are at issue between us, and we have set out our respective positions. We believe that the test set out in Clause 31 is compliant with our international obligations. More specifically, we believe that it will provide, and lead to, better decision-making, because it sets out a clear test, with steps for decision-makers, including the courts, to follow. That will lead to greater consistency.
Turning to Amendments 103 and 104, although I listened very carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and I agree with the importance of us carefully assessing whether asylum seekers have a well-founded fear of persecution, as required under Article 1(A)(2) of the convention, we do not agree with these amendments because, taken together, they will essentially maintain the current standard of proof system. In so far as my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering said that it was, to a certain extent, a probing amendment, let me try to explain.
First, this is not about setting aside decisions of the court. The courts are there to interpret the legislation as it stands—that is what they do. Parliament is entitled to change the legislative background, in so far as it is consistent with our treaty obligations. Clause 31 sets out a clear, step-by-step process. I hear the point made by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu, that it should be—so far as legislation can be—in simple language and a clear test. The problem at the moment is that there is no clearly outlined test as such. There is case law, there is policy and there is guidance in this area, but the current approach leads to a number of different elements being considered as part of one overall decision. What we seek to do here is to introduce distinct stages that a decision-maker must go through, with clearly articulated standards of proof for each. We believe that this will lead to better and more consistent decision-making.
At its core, in Clause 31(2) we are asking claimants to establish that they are who they say they are and that they fear what they say they fear to a balance of probabilities standard. That is the ordinary civil standard of proof for establishing facts, and those are facts in Clause 31(2); namely, more likely than not. It is reasonable, I suggest, that claimants who are asking the UK for protection are able to answer those questions. We have looked carefully, of course, at the often difficult situations that claimants might come from and the impact that might have on the kinds of evidence that they can provide. However, we consider that our overall approach to making decisions, which includes a detailed and sensitive approach to interviewing, allows all genuine claimants an opportunity to explain their story and satisfy the test.
There is international precedent that supports our decision to raise the threshold for assessing the facts that a claimant presents to us to the balance of probabilities standard. Both Canada and Switzerland—highly respected democratic countries, dare I say it—have systems which examine at least some elements of a claimant’s claim to this higher standard. Respectfully and rhetorically, let me ask this of the noble Baronesses, Lady Ludford and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, said that this was confusing and complex. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, said that she had horror at it. The higher standard is used in Switzerland. Does the horror extend to Canada and Switzerland as well? There is nothing wrong in principle with adopting the higher test for some parts—I will come to it in more detail—of the decision-making tree.
Does the Minister recall that I did not just say that it is about the higher standard? It is about having different limbs and different requirements under those different limbs, and switching from “reasonable likelihood” to “balance of probabilities” as part of the composite test, which is not holistic but is in different parts. That is what is confusing, not just a change in the standard of proof.
My Lords, with the greatest respect, it is not confusing at all, because Clause 31(2) establishes the facts, and that is all a balance of probabilities. Then, in Clause 31(4), the decision-maker turns to questions of the future. It is at that stage that the reasonable likelihood test is the appropriate test, because the decision-maker is looking to assess what might happen in the future. That is why we have a lower test at that stage. It is quite usual in law to have different stages of a test and different levels of probability at each.
Could the Minister answer the question of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser? What is the problem that we are trying to solve here? Who is pressing for this change? The Law Societies have advised against it. It seems to me that the only purpose it serves is to make the task of determining whether the fear exists and is well-founded more complicated and more likely to result in the answer, “No, let’s send him back.” That seems to be what is driving this. I remind him that, in late July and early August, Hazaras from Afghanistan—asylum seekers here—were still receiving letters of rejection, telling them that they were not at risk if they were sent back to Kabul.
My Lords, I am grateful for the question. What is driving it, as I said a few moments ago, is the attempt to have a consistent and clear approach to decision-making. When you have a single test with different elements, and it is all under “a reasonable likelihood”, it is then that you are more likely to have inconsistent decision-making—I will not use the word “mishmash”. What you are doing here is really two things, and Clause 31 sets them out clearly. You are first saying, “Are you who you say you are?” and “Did you, in fact, fear such persecution?” Those are factual questions, decided on the balance of probabilities. Then the question is: “Is there a reasonable likelihood that, if you were returned, you would be persecuted?” That is a question of reasonable likelihood.
My noble friend is, in fact, rewriting the law. I am not an immigration lawyer, but if I were, I think I would be a little confused at the moment. In the case that was decided in 2021, Kaderli v Chief Public Prosecutors Office of Gebze in Turkey, it was clearly said that
“The true test involved the application of a lower standard”
than the balance of probabilities. So now no immigration lawyer could plead the application of the lower standard because my noble friend is raising the bar in this Bill.
I thought I made it absolutely clear when I said earlier that the court in that case made its decision against the legislative background at the time. Parliament is entitled to change the legislative background. We will want to make sure that we remain consistent with the refugee convention, and, as I said earlier, we believe that we are. There is nothing wrong with doing that. It is simply not the case that we are somehow bound as a Parliament by what the Court of Appeal said in the case referred to by my noble friend. Therefore, with great respect, I disagree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, where he said that a single holistic question was better and that the higher standard was objectionable. With respect, I disagree on both points.
Does the Minister agree that, if, under this clause in future, somebody were to fail—they could prove only 45% of the relevant limb of the clause—they nevertheless could not be refouled? Certainly, under Article 3 of the ECHR the test is “reasonable likelihood” and not “balance of probabilities”.
With respect, refoulement is a separate issue and, with greater respect, I will deal with it separately. What we are establishing here is what you need to do to establish your “well-founded fear”. If you cannot establish, on the balance of probabilities, that you are who you say you are, then yes, under this test, you will not satisfy Clause 31(2)(a).
I will now turn to Clause 32, because otherwise I will start to repeat myself. Article 1(A)(2) of the refugee convention states that a refugee is an individual who has a
“well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”,
and Clause 32 lays out precisely what is meant by each of those characteristics, which are sometimes called “convention reasons”. Again, the purpose here is to make sure that all decision-makers, including both the Home Office and the courts, understand and operate to the same definitions. That is, I suggest, a desirable law reform.
On Amendment 105, there is a mismatch between how the concept of a “particular social group” is defined in current legislation, government policy and some tribunal judgments, and also in how the definition has been interpreted by some courts. There is no authoritative or universally agreed definition of “particular social group” among state parties to the convention and, in particular, there is no universal agreement as to whether the test set out in Article 1(A)(2) of the refugee convention should be applied cumulatively. The UNHCR has issued guidance supporting the view that the cumulative approach is a misapplication of the refugee convention, but, as I said in the last group, that guidance is neither legally binding nor determinative as a matter of international law.
Article 1(A)(2) of the convention does not elaborate on what is meant by
“membership of a particular social group”;
there is no supranational body with authority to give a determinative ruling and, therefore, each state party, including the UK, has to interpret it. We believe that the definition in Clause 32 captures what is meant in the convention by a “particular social group”. We have looked at the broad wording in the convention, the travaux préparatoires—excuse my French—the approach of a number of other jurisdictions, and Article 31 of the Vienna convention, and we believe that setting it out in this way will make it clearer.
The amendment would mean that you would have to satisfy only one of the conditions to be considered a member of a “particular social group”, and that would erode the concept that people deserve and need protection based on fundamental characteristics that go to the core of who they are, such as their faith or sexuality. It would broaden the definition to cover potentially transient factors that could perhaps be changed, such as an individual’s occupation. That is the first point. The second is that our proposed definition accords with the widely used and accepted interpretation of the “particular social group” concept, as the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, noted. It is an EU interpretation; it comes from the approach in the EU qualification directive, which underpins the Common European Asylum System. We are very happy to look at EU interpretations; we do not have a closed mind—when they get it right, they get it right, and being independent means that we can look more broadly. However, with great respect, it is difficult to attack this as something utterly wrong if, in fact, this is the interpretation in that legislation.
I am not a lawyer, so I rise with some trepidation, but it seems to me that it suits the Government’s purpose to interpret it in this way, because it means that fewer vulnerable groups—particularly women—fleeing violence will receive refugee protection as a result. It is no clearer than the interpretation that it is overruling, and it seems odd. It is quite rare for the Government to pray in aid an EU interpretation over that of their own courts. Maybe one of the lawyers opposite will be able to give a better response than I can, but I am afraid I am not convinced, because it seems as though that is why this is being done—it is nothing to do with clarity. If this legislation had clearly put in law Lord Bingham’s interpretation, that would be clear. So why the EU interpretation, which is, as numbers of authorities have said, likely to mean fewer vulnerable people—particularly women—receiving the refugee protection to which they are entitled under the convention?
My Lords, I set out why we think this interpretation is correct. I am certainly not saying that we are using this interpretation because it is the EU one; I was referring to the EU to make the point that, with respect, it is very difficult to challenge this as somehow an unfair, unworkable or inapt interpretation when it is actually reflected in the EU jurisprudence. I absolutely take, with respect, the noble Baroness’s comments about the importance of the equality impact assessment for the policies being taken forward through the Bill. The public sector equality duty is not a one-off duty; it is ongoing, and I want to provide reassurance now that we will be monitoring equality impacts as we put the Bill into operation and as we evaluate its measures and, indeed, those in the wider new plan for immigration.
I assure the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester that we are well aware of the particular issues facing women and survivors of gender-based persecution and, indeed, the asylum system is sensitive to them. The interview guidance contains clear instructions to interviewers in this area. We seek to offer a safe and supportive environment for individuals to establish their claims. Despite references to the decision of this House in its judicial capacity, in Fornah, those comments were obiter. I underline that there is no authoritative definition in case law of what is a “particular social group”, and that is why it is absolutely right for this Parliament to define it in this clause.
Clause 37 amends the definition of a “particularly serious crime” from one which is punished by imprisonment of two years or more to one which is punished by imprisonment of 12 months or more. To be clear, imprisonment means an immediate custodial sentence—I am not sure that any noble Lord made that point, but it is important. Indeed, it is why I brought the handbook: if you receive a suspended sentence, you are not caught by its provisions—going back to the underlying legislation. Furthermore, not only does it have to be an immediate custodial sentence of 12 months or more but the second limb has to apply—namely, whether the individual is a danger to the community—and that is rebuttable.
We cannot accept Amendment 111 because it would potentially allow dangerous foreign national offenders to remain here, putting the public at risk. If somebody has been sentenced to a year or more in prison, we should not enable them to second guess the verdict of the jury or the decision of the court by allowing them to bring into play again whether they were such an offender. We seek to allow only the second bit of it to be rebuttable; namely, whether they pose the relevant danger.
I think I have answered all the questions that have been asked. On the last point put by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, at the heart of this lies not some dinner party conversation but a lack of clarity in the current case law and standards, which make it harder for decision-makers to make accurate and efficient decisions; that is it.
I have not been here as long as the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, but, with respect, I do not think it fair to ask me that question as I stand here. The Government receive representations on this issue all the time. One might say that we receive representations from millions and millions of people who voted for this Government at the last election when immigration reform was full square in our manifesto. I say with great respect to noble Lord, Lord Rosser, that we are having a very interesting debate on some important legal points. If he wants to make political points, I am happy to respond in a political context.
In that case, will the Minister accept that, in a way, and given what we have heard from other noble Lords, particularly my noble and learned friend Lord Brown, it is part of the Government’s strategy to toughen up on migration and immigration? That is really what this is about.
Absolutely, we want to toughen up on illegal migration. We want to make sure that people who have a right to come in are able to do so, and to make sure that people who do not have that right cannot come in. We want consistent and better decision-making. It is really as simple as that.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. In a previous group, the noble Baroness the Minister—I was very grateful to her—sought to make distinctions between immigration and asylum protection; I think that was quite important. To be now almost resiling from that and suggesting, in answer to a previous intervention, that we are going to reinterpret the refugee convention—to respond to the millions of people who voted for Mr Johnson’s Government on the basis of controlling immigration—is a little troubling. I do not think I am alone in the Committee in being so troubled.
My Lords, I am surprised that anyone in a democracy is troubled by a Government listening to the people and putting forward legislation which, first, delivers on a manifesto commitment, and, secondly—as I have said and I repeat —is entirely consistent with our international law obligations. There is nothing wrong and everything right with each signatory to the refugee convention interpreting its obligations under it; we have now been around that point on several occasions.
I am sorry to keep bobbing up, and I appreciate what the Minister said about monitoring the equality impact of this legislation, but does he accept that Clause 32 means that a woman fleeing gender-based violence with good grounds for being accepted as a refugee is less likely to be so accepted? I do not believe that that is what the British people voted for.
My Lords, I am not trying to be difficult here. What it means is that a woman, like anybody else, who has a proper claim under the refugee convention will find refuge in the UK. That is what we are seeking to do. By having a clearer set of definitions, we are trying to make sure that it will not depend on the happenstance of who the decision-maker is and the way the test is applied.
I do not wish to prolong the Minister’s agony but can he clarify something for me? I think he said that, in the face of court judgments, the Government were entitled to change the legislative background. Does changing the legislative background mean that the Government are raising the standard of proof, thereby making it more difficult for claims for asylum to be accepted—this is in Clause 31—and in so doing, overturning the judgments of the UK’s highest courts? That is the first question.
The second question relates to Clause 37. The Minister says that “particularly serious crime” is not defined in the refugee convention and that it is up to each country to define what it means. My understanding is that the definition is being changed from two years’ imprisonment to 12 months. So, particularly serious crime was defined by this country as entailing two years’ imprisonment and now the Government are changing it to 12 months. That is not about seeking to define or a lack of clarity but a deliberate change. Why is that?
On the first point, the position at the moment is that you have a reasonable likelihood test; what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, called the holistic test. What is going on here—and what should be going on—is that we have sought to identify a number of discrete questions and we have applied the appropriate standard of proof to each of them. On the second point, the noble Lord is absolutely right in that a serious crime was defined as one that meant 24 months’ imprisonment and we are now defining it as 12 months. We believe that that is appropriate and remains consistent with our refugee convention obligations.
I am not sure whether I should formally have said that I invite the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
I thought we were going to have more Q&A. I am grateful to the Minister for his fairly clear explanation of why the Government are doing what they are doing. I am not totally satisfied that we have heard the full reason. Over the years, we have not had any arguments put to us that the 1951 convention was not working; the arguments have been elsewhere. Suddenly, we are given these different considerations for why we should pass this. However, we will be back on Report, having listened to what the Minister has said. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 103 withdrawn.
Amendment 104 not moved.
Clause 31 agreed.
Clause 32: Article 1(A)(2): reasons for persecution
Amendment 105 not moved.
Clause 32 agreed.
Clauses 33 to 35 agreed.
Clause 36: Article 31(1): immunity from penalties
106: Clause 36, page 37, line 18, leave out from “Kingdom” to “country” in line 20 and insert “for a substantial period and were given or could reasonably have expected to have been given protection under the Refugee Convention in that other”
Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment would give effect to the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ recommendation that clause 36 be amended to ensure that it does not contradict the protection Article 31 provides to asylum seekers who have passed through other countries on their way to the UK.
My Lords, in moving Amendment 106 in the name of, and at the invitation of, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, I will speak also to Amendments 109 and 110.
If Clause 36 is not amended or deleted, it will contradict Article 31 of the refugee convention. It seeks to punish or penalise a refugee for arriving in the UK to make an asylum claim by a route that took them through other countries. The requirement in the refugee convention to come directly was intended only to prevent a person who had acquired refugee status and protection in one country deciding to switch to another. Excluding a person from asylum in the UK simply because they stopped in France, Germany or Belgium, perhaps for a night’s rest, is completely unreasonable. The UK courts have confirmed that any merely short-term stopover en route to an intended sanctuary cannot forfeit the protection of Article 31 of the convention.
Any other interpretation, as the Government seek to impose in Clause 36, means, as in so much of this Bill, a shirking of the sharing of international responsibilities, such that looking after refugees falls overwhelmingly on countries neighbouring the countries of conflict from which the person is seeking to escape. Therefore, Amendment 106 would at least amend the clause, which, however, we might find later, needs to be deleted. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 107 in my name, which relates to Clause 36 and provides that a refugee will have come directly to the United Kingdom for the purposes of Clause 11, notwithstanding that
“they have passed through the intermediate country on the refugee’s way to the United Kingdom by way of short-term stopover”.
Those words in the amendment reflect the reasoning and decision of the Administrative Court in Adimi, where my noble and learned friend Lord Brown presided. They also reflect the approval of Adimi by the Appellate Committee of this House in a case called Asfaw.
In this respect, Clause 36 is an important part of the Government’s policy. The reason for that is that it provides a definition of “directly” for the purposes of Clause 11 that makes a distinction between group 1 and group 2 refugees. Under the provisions of Clause 11, if the refugee does not come directly from the place of persecution, they inevitably cannot be in group 1.
Secondly, it is important because, as I pointed out in a previous debate on this Bill, the provisions for describing coming to the United Kingdom directly, as defined in Clause 36, also reflect the provision in the admissibility provision in Clause 15. Your Lordships will recall that, in Clause 15, if there is a connection with another state, the refugee’s claim is inadmissible; in fact, it is not recognised as a claim at all and there is no right of appeal. Clause 15 provides that, if you fall within one of the five conditions inserted in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 by the clause, you have a connection. One of those conditions, condition 4, is that
“the claimant was previously present in, and eligible to make a relevant claim to, the safe third State … it would have been reasonable to expect them to make such a claim, and … they failed to do so.”
So there are two essential elements of the policy behind the Government’s provisions for asylum, where the question of the meaning of coming “directly” is extremely important. I pointed out to the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, that there was a muddle here. If condition 4 in Clause 15, as I have described it, is satisfied, you never get to a distinction between group 1 and group 2 because your claim is inadmissible. The noble Baroness was going to look at that and let me know the position from the Government’s perspective, but I have not yet heard from her.
Before I address what coming “directly” means—as I said, my amendment reflects the reasoning and conclusion in Adimi, and the adoption of the decision in Adimi by the Appellate Committee of this House in Asfaw—I want to say a couple of things about what appears to be the approach of the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, to interpretation. I do not think you need to be a lawyer to appreciate that if, under the aegis of the United Nations, you agree with other states in the world that you will conduct yourself in a particular way and that an agency of the United Nations has a responsibility for overseeing both the implementation of that agreement and that disputes between member states in relation to the meaning and the application of the agreement—here, the refugee convention—will be referred to an international court, there must be a point in time when one has to identify core values. If there are no core values, there is nothing to adjudicate.
The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, referred to Article 35, which requires member states to co-operate with the United Nations body responsible for oversight in relation to the implementation of the refugee convention. So what one has to do here is decide whether what the Government are doing in putting forward these proposals goes beyond the core principles in the refugee convention, which must be applicable generally to member states—otherwise, all the clauses I have referred to, Article 35, co-operation and adjudication by a court are totally meaningless and impracticable.
So I take issue with the broad statement of principle, as I understand it, put forward by the Minister. He said that it was perfectly acceptable for every member state signed up to the refugee convention to decide, from its perspective, what the convention meant. If that were correct and he was saying that it was for Parliament to decide what it meant for the United Kingdom, it would mean that changes could be made by each successive new Government as to what they felt would be appropriate to support their policy. Well, that is obviously nonsense, if I may respectfully say so.
What the courts have done—and this would be the approach of the all the courts of the countries signed up to the convention—is try to understand what the refugee convention was intended, by those who made it, to mean. The starting point is always the travaux préparatoires leading up to the convention—what was said and what was done—and then trying to understand whether there has been a deviation and, if so, why. That has been exactly the approach put forward and implemented in both Adimi and Asfaw.
The starting point, inevitably, for the interpretation of this particular convention is, as I think the Minister said, the Vienna convention on the interpretation of treaties. I do not think it has yet been said that we are entitled to change, and that we have changed, that treaty according to what we think it ought to say. It provides in Article 31.1:
“A treaty shall be interpreted in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its object and purpose.”
That phrase, as has been noted by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, I think, was applied by the UK’s highest court, the Supreme Court, in a case called ST (Eritrea) in 2012 as meaning that there is a duty to give the refugee convention
“a generous and purposive interpretation, bearing in mind its humanitarian objects and the broad aims reflected in its preamble”.
I have to say as a starting point that I have seen nothing so far in this part of the Bill which is a “generous and purposive interpretation”, having regard to humanitarian objects and the broad aims reflected in the preamble of the 1951 convention. Every provision that people have addressed appears to be, as it has been put, a mean-spirited approach to refugee applications.
It is against that background that I now turn to the meaning of “directly”. I have already referred to the clear decision in Adimi on this point about stopping at intermediate countries by way of short-term stopover. Just to give this a bit of flesh, what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, said then was:
“I am persuaded by the applicants’ contrary submission, drawing as it does on the travaux préparatoires, various Conclusions adopted by UNHCR’s executive committee … and the writings of well respected academics and commentators … that some element of choice is indeed open to refugees as to where they may properly claim asylum. I conclude that any merely short term stopover en route to such intended sanctuary cannot forfeit the protection of the Article, and that the main touchstones by which exclusion from protection should be judged are the length of stay in the intermediate country, the reasons for delaying there (even a substantial delay in an unsafe third country would be reasonable were the time spent trying to acquire the means of travelling on), and whether or not the refugee sought or found there protection de jure or de facto from the persecution they were fleeing.”
In Anwar, as I have said, the Supreme Court approved of that and in doing so again referred to the travaux préparatoires and the way in which those words came into the convention. They were put in at the last minute to appease the French representative because they were concerned about refugees claiming asylum in France who could have applied elsewhere. In 2001, an expert round-table conference was held in Geneva by different countries and disciplines which again upheld the interpretation of a short-term stopover not affecting coming directly from territories where there was persecution.
In a previous debate on this subject on Clause 11, the Minister relied on a provision in Section 31(3) of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 which had very similar wording to what we find in Section 36. What she did not say, and which comes out of the very detailed speeches of Lord Bingham and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, is that when those provisions in Section 31 of the 1999 Act were being debated, the Attorney-General specifically said, in light of the view of the UNHCR, that there was flexibility in the concept of arriving directly. So, far from that Act being a precedent for a strict interpretation of those words, his elaboration meant that there was, in fact, a correspondence with the meaning arrived at in the courts of this country in Adimi. For those reasons, I say that the definition of arriving directly in Clause 36 is incorrect. It does not meet the international standards of the UNHCR and is contrary to the convention.
My Lords, I shall be very brief. I am trying to work out exactly what I am being asked to agree to here. Perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford—maybe not the noble Lord, Lord Dubs—and certainly my noble friend on the Front Bench: am I being asked to end or at least change the first safe country principle by accepting these amendments? If that is the case, I have grave concern about an increase in what is known as forum shopping. Perhaps I can say to the Hansard writers that forum is spelled “forum” and not “foreign”, which is how it was reported last time. Foreign shopping is what you go to Paris to do; forum shopping is a rather more serious matter.
It is important because this country is an exceptionally attractive place for people seeking to find the best future for themselves. I explained last time that the very fact that debates are going on your Lordships’ House shows how much concern we have to make sure that the rights of people are looked after. It is also an extremely flexible job market once you are here. Getting and maintaining a job is much easier than in some of the areas such as France, where there is a much more rigid job market. There is a non-contributory health and social security system. There is a diaspora from nearly every country in the world. Your mates are here, so you want to come here to join them. We would all want to join our mates. As a last point, you have learned the English language, which is the lingua franca of the world and, in particular, the lingua franca of technology.
I hope that, when my noble friend comes to answer the debate, he will bear in mind that, if we were to accept this, it will open up the borders for people who are seeking—I do not say that they should not seek—the best future for themselves and, as such, are not abiding by the first safe country principle. We are not in a position to provide the answer to a lot of these people.
I know the noble Lord has listened to a lot of the previous debate. He will know there is no such thing as a first safe country principle under the refugee convention. I tried to explain what the obligation was—namely, not to move on if you have refugee status or protection in a country. The UNHCR has made it clear that there would never have been a refugee convention if there had been a safe first country principle, because countries abutting the problematic countries—for example, Jordan, Iran and Pakistan—have had to accept everyone. No other countries like the UK would ever have had any refugees because we do not abut conflict zones. I am sorry, but this must be rebutted every time it is trotted out.
I will address Clause 36 very briefly, which I discussed last week in the context of Clause 11. I confine myself today to asking two questions.
First, do the Government accept, as I suggest they must, that Clause 36 would overrule the judgments of Lord Bingham and, among others, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, in Asfaw, fully affirming what had been said on the relevant issues in the judgment I gave in the Divisional Court in Adimi? This has all been elaborated on today by my noble and learned friend, Lord Etherton.
Secondly, if so, are the Government overturning Asfaw and Adimi because, disinterestedly, they genuinely think those decisions are clearly wrong—or because they think an alternative and more anti-asylum seeker interpretation may arguably be available to them?
The idea of people being able to arrive here without going through a third country has been debated before in the course of this Bill—I cannot remember whether it was last week or another time. When we queried how people could get here, the Minister explained that they could come by aeroplane. That might be possible for some, but it is not possible for everyone who might need to be here in Britain rather than somewhere in Germany or France. Perhaps the Minister could give us a better explanation about how people get here, if there are not enough safe routes or aeroplanes.
To me, this is a naked attempt to stop refugees. I do not understand why the Government cannot see this as well. We are taking advantage of our geography and saying, “We’re too far away, you can’t come”. This is ridiculous. As I have pointed out before, we have a moral duty to many of these people. We have disrupted their politics, their climate and their lives—therefore, we owe them. It is not as simple as saying that they want to join their mates.
This Bill should be setting out safe routes and establishing ways to get people to the UK safely and legally. At the moment, we do not have that because the Government are pulling up the drawbridge.
My Lords, in a word, I see these issues from a policy point of view, not just a legal one. The fact is that our asylum system is in chaos, and very visibly so. Large numbers of claimants are turning up on our beaches. The Government are seeking to tighten the asylum system. That does not seem to be unreasonable, and I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson.
I will very briefly address something that the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, said about people arriving here directly by aeroplane. As we will see when we get on to the group substituting “arrives in” for “enters”, even if someone came directly by aeroplane, they would not be legally arriving in the United Kingdom. This clause is central to many of the provisions contained in the rest of the Bill. I am extremely grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, for his important, detailed and necessary exposition of his reasoning. Despite how long it took, it was absolutely essential.
Clause 36 seeks to redefine and undermine Article 31 of the refugee convention in UK law as a basis for penalties and prosecutions. As we discussed in previous groups, there is an accepted and settled interpretation of Article 31. As Amendments 106 and 107 seek to establish, passing through another country in order to get to the UK is not failing to enter the UK directly or without delay. This should, therefore, not allow the UK to impose penalties or treat asylum seekers less favourably as a result.
Amendment 108 highlights the particular difficulties some asylum seekers could face on account of their protected characteristics. Again, however, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti: there should be no reinterpretation of Article 31, no group 1 and group 2 refugees, and no four-year imprisonment because people had no choice but to travel through other countries to get to the UK, whether the UK considers those third countries safe or not.
Clause 36 is the sand upon which this Bill is built, and it needs to be washed away.
Article 31 of the convention exempts refugees “coming directly from” a country of persecution from being punished on account of their illegal presence in a state. Clause 36 of this Bill is the Government’s attempt to reinterpret what Article 31 means by “coming directly from”, and they are doing it to tighten up the rules to suit their policy that all asylum seekers should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. The clause provides:
“A refugee is not to be taken to have come to the United Kingdom directly from a country where their life or freedom was threatened if, in coming from that country, they stopped in another country outside the United Kingdom, unless they can show that they could not reasonably be expected to have sought protection under the Refugee Convention in that country.”
This is a very broad interpretation which would cover anyone who travels through, or briefly stops in, any safe country on the way to the UK. Frankly, this is in opposition to the established understanding of the convention and, indeed, UK case law. This goes against established interpretations of Article 31 made, as has been said, in the case of Adimi and others. This case sets out that stopping somewhere must be understood as referring to something more than a transitory stop en route to the country of intended sanctuary.
We support the amendments in this group and the opposition to Clause 36 standing part of the Bill. Clause 36 is a supportive measure for Clause 11, being about differential treatment of refugees, which we have discussed at some length. This clause underpins the Government’s plans to base our treatment of refugees on their means of travel, rather than on their need and the realities of the violence or horror they have fled. It is on that basis that we oppose this clause.
If we interpret the convention, which is what we are now being asked to do, in such a way that it is unrecognisable to our international partners and our own courts, at what point can we still be considered to be complying with the convention? We are not opposed to arrangements for the safe return of refugees to another state where they have legitimately spent time and started an asylum application. There are established routes for doing this, as provided for under the Dublin III regulations, of which we ceased to be a part when we left the EU. That is not what this clause provides for, as a number of other noble Lords have made clear in their contributions.
On the basis that this clause unilaterally attempts to redraw what the convention means by stopping in a safe country, I ask the Government to think again, without any great hope of getting a favourable response.
My Lords, I begin with Amendment 107, tabled by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, whose analysis I listened to very carefully. It seeks to reflect the position in the Adimi case by defining the requirement to “come direct” to include having passed through intermediate countries on the refugee’s way to the UK. I assure the noble and learned Lord that this is something we have carefully considered. Where, for example, a person has taken a connecting flight to the UK, due regard will be paid to the individual’s circumstances in determining whether they came direct. The powers in the Bill enable us to exercise that flexibility, which will be reflected in guidance provided to the caseworkers and decision-makers.
It follows that if a refugee cites a particular protected characteristic as a reason for being unable to comply with the standards set out in the Bill, including to come direct, that will be carefully considered by caseworkers in determining the entitlements attached to their leave. As I said on earlier groups, we will be sensitive to those cases. Flexible powers in the Bill allow it, and that will be set out in guidance in any event.
I will come back to Amendment 106 in a moment, but Amendment 108 links closely with Amendment 107 and seeks to ensure that determination of both “reasonably expected” and “reasonably practicable”, which are relevant standards in determining “come direct” and “without delay” respectively, are interpreted with due regard to protected characteristics. Essentially, this point is answered by the point that I have just made: the Bill has flexibility built into it to take individual circumstances into account. A person may be deemed to have come direct if they could not have been reasonably expected to claim asylum in a first safe country. Similarly, they will be deemed to have claimed asylum without delay if it occurred as soon as was “reasonably practicable”. Therefore, if a refugee cites a particular protected characteristic as a reason for being unable to comply with the standards in the Bill, that will be considered by the caseworker. The Bill is perfectly flexible enough to enable us to do so.
Turning to Amendments 106, 109 and 110, we again tread over the ground of interpreting obligations under the convention. I recognise the importance of taking a sensitive approach to how “come direct” is interpreted and I have already talked about the example of a connecting flight. However, I cannot accept that the definition should be amended as proposed, to enable a refugee to have been in another country “for a substantial period” and still be determined to have come directly. Those in need of protection must claim in the first safe country that they reach, because that is the fastest route to safety. That is an internationally recognised concept. It underpins, for example, the Common European Asylum System, and there are safeguards in the current provision in Clause 36(1). Even if a person stopped in another country outside the UK, they could still say that they came direct to the UK if they can show that they could not reasonably have been expected to seek protection under the refugee convention—for example, because they were under the control of traffickers—although every case would have to be considered on its own merits. Therefore, with respect, and without opening up the wider issue, there are some good underlying points in what we heard from my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts.
Amendment 109 requires a little unpacking. I should be clear that differentiation does not constitute a penalty for the purposes of Article 31. However, I disagree with the analysis that protection under Article 31 of the convention should extend to those who have tried to exit the UK without first seeking asylum, because we must interpret the “first safe country” principle consistently. Therefore, the defence under Section 31 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 should no longer be available to those who transit out of the UK.
Finally, turning to Clause 36, the refugee convention is clear that refugees should be protected from penalties for their illegal entry or illegal presence when they have come directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened, they presented themselves without delay to the authorities, and they showed good cause for their illegal entry or presence. This will now be familiar ground. However, the refugee convention does not define what is meant by the terms
“coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened”
“present themselves without delay to the authorities”.
This clause sets out how these phrases should be interpreted in the UK. This is the same point that I made in the previous two groups.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, asked me whether we were overturning the judgments in Adimi and Asfaw and, if so, why? I hope I have that question down fairly. With the greatest respect, the courts in Adimi and Asfaw interpreted “come directly” in Article 31(1) more generously than the original intention of Parliament. The Explanatory Note to Section 31 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 says:
“This defence, which is modelled on Article 31(1) of the Refugee Convention, does not apply if the refugee stopped in a third country outside the United Kingdom unless he can show that he could not reasonably have been expected to be given protection under the Convention in that country.”
What we are doing here is consistent with the refugee convention. There is sufficient flexibility in the proposed powers and the overall policy to enable an individual to demonstrate that during the stopover they could not reasonably have been expected to seek protection under the refugee convention or, where appropriate, to show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.
Turning finally to the point put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, who said that someone arriving by aeroplane would be arriving illegally, some joys await us in group 8, when we will come to this point. As a taster before the short dinner break, I point out that there is a statutory defence recourse under Section 31 of the 1999 Act if they are genuine refugees and used fraud or deception to get a forged or false entry clearance. We will no doubt come back to this in more detail in group 8.
I really do not mean to be flippant. The consequence would be that every country would be interpreting the refugee convention in accordance with its terms. As a country, we are interpreting our legal obligations in the way that we ought to and are allowed to. We are going back—
The Joint Committee on Human Rights recommended that this be amended. There must be good reasons for explaining why the Government do not want it amended and I have not heard them.
This is a true story; I can meet the Minister in camera and show him the evidence. A young man aged 17, whom we found in Kenya—
I am almost as new, I think, as the noble and right reverend Lord, but my understanding of procedure is that that is meant to be for questions. If the noble and right reverend Lord will write to me or meet me to discuss that particular case, I will certainly discuss it with him. If the case raises a point of principle, I will deal with it. If it raises a point of principle that I think will be helpful for the Committee to hear, I will write to him and provide a copy of the letter. I hope that is helpful for this evening.
My Lords, I really do not want to get into a procedural battle. I was trying to be both helpful to the Committee, given the time and pressure, and respectful, I hope, to the noble and right reverend Lord. I reiterate the offer, which I think is appropriate.
Could the Minister answer the question from the noble Lord, Lord Paddick? It was rather a flippant answer that he gave—that everybody would be interpreting the convention according to their rights. I think the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, meant: what would be the practical effect? What would happen to the 26 million refugees in the world, three-quarters of whom are in countries contiguous to the one in which they had their citizenship? Would all countries agree, if they introduced this “first safe country” rule, that all refugees had to stay in these contiguous countries—in these encampments in Jordan, Syria, Turkey and so on—and that nobody could move on, under the refugee convention, to another country?
I am certainly not trying to be flippant. What I am saying is that we have a refugee convention that sets out our international obligations. We are abiding by those international obligations. It may—I underline “may”—be that a convention entered into in 1951 is not absolutely suitable for the world of 2022. That might be the answer. At the moment, however, my focus as a Justice Minister is on making sure that this country abides by its international obligations, and that is what we are doing. I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.
My answer to that last point is that if that is what the UK Government feel, they should convene a conference to renegotiate the refugee convention, but they are not doing that. A large number of noble Lords in this Committee believe that the Government are riding roughshod over the refugee convention in a way that demeans this country and sets an extremely poor example, not least to those countries on the front line, which are taking the overwhelming majority of people seeking protection. We have bandied around the statistics in the last few days in Committee, but we are not in the top category of countries in terms of the numbers, which are manageable. They would be particularly manageable if the Home Office got its act together in the way it decides asylum cases initially—if it invested in the initial consideration of the claims and did not make the law ever more complex, with ever more delays and ever more prospects of litigation. It seems we are banging our heads against a brick wall somewhat, but I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 106 withdrawn.
Amendments 107 to 110 not moved.
Clause 36 agreed.
Clause 37: Article 33(2): particularly serious crime
Amendment 111 not moved.
Clause 37 agreed.
My Lords, I have just come into the Chamber but may I suggest, before the noble Lord moves to adjourn, that we have a usual channels discussion in the next 30 minutes? Regarding the point made by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu, Committee is a conversation; it is not Report. I think we need to clarify that. I want to make progress on the Bill, but we need to have a discussion on it. I think the intervention was right and, as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, also said, this conversation in Committee is not bound by the rules of Report. I think we should use these 30 minutes to get this ironed out.
Sitting suspended. Committee to begin again not before 8.15 pm.
112: After Clause 37, insert the following new Clause—
“Refugee family reunion
(1) The Secretary of State must, within 6 months of the date of the passing of this Act, lay before Parliament a statement of changes in the rules (the “immigration rules”) under section 3(2) of the Immigration Act 1971 (general provisions for regulation and control) to make provision for refugee family reunion, in accordance with this section, to come into effect after 21 days.(2) Before a statement of changes is laid under subsection (1), the Secretary of State must consult with persons he or she deems appropriate.(3) The statement laid under subsection (1) must set out rules providing for leave to enter and remain in the United Kingdom for family members of a person granted refugee status or humanitarian protection.(4) In this section, “refugee status” and “humanitarian protection” have the same meaning as in the immigration rules.(5) In this section, “family members” include—(a) a person’s parent, including adoptive parent;(b) a person’s spouse, civil partner or unmarried partner;(c) a person’s child, including adopted child, who is either—(i) under the age of 18, or(ii) under the age of 25 but was either under the age of 18 or unmarried at the time the person granted asylum left their country of residence to seek asylum;(d) a person’s sibling, including adoptive sibling, who is either—(i) under the age of 18, or(ii) under the age of 25, but was either under the age of 18 or unmarried at the time the person granted asylum left their country of residence to seek asylum; and(e) such other persons as the Secretary of State may determine, having regard to—(i) the importance of maintaining family unity,(ii) the best interests of a child,(iii) the physical, emotional, psychological or financial dependency between a person granted refugee status or humanitarian protection and another person,(iv) any risk to the physical, emotional or psychological wellbeing of a person who was granted refugee status or humanitarian protection, including from the circumstances in which the person is living in the United Kingdom, or(v) such other matters as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.(6) For the purpose of subsection (5)—(a) “adopted” and “adoptive” refer to a relationship resulting from adoption, including de facto adoption, as set out in the immigration rules;(b) “best interests” of a child must be read in accordance with Article 3 of the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would make provision for leave to enter or remain in the UK to be granted to the family members of refugees and of people granted humanitarian protection.
On behalf of my noble friend Lord Paddick, I will move Amendment 112 and speak to Amendments 113 and 117, which I have co-signed. The reason I have been given the honour of moving Amendment 112 is that it reproduces my Private Member’s Bill, which in fact has its origins with my noble friend Lady Hamwee and will have its Committee stage just after recess.
The Conservative Party likes to call itself the party of the family; I believe it needs to demonstrate this. Amendment 112 would build on existing safe routes for family reunion to enable a wider range of family members to reach the UK without undertaking unsafe journeys. This is the real way to stop most of the dangerous channel crossings and put the smugglers out of business.
In the letter and attached chart that the Minister sent to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and kindly made available to us all, the Government set out the current safe routes. Even under part 11 of the Immigration Rules, while adult refugees do not have to pay a fee for the visa they do have to pay for travel to the UK, and the integration loan cannot be used for that. Legal aid is also not available, at least not in England and Wales—I do not know about Scotland or Northern Ireland—and they can bring in only their spouse and their under-18 children.
As in my Private Member’s Bill, Amendment 112 would permit dependent children up to the age of 25, as well as adopted children. Crucially, it would permit children recognised as refugees to sponsor their parents and siblings to join them. Although sibling reunion is in theory possible under paragraph 319X of the Immigration Rules, in practice the barriers are often insurmountable. Not only does the visa cost almost £400 but the young sponsor has to show that they can financially support and accommodate their sibling without recourse to public funds, and that the justification for reunion is “serious and compelling”. All these are tough tests to fulfil. Paragraph 297, which governs whether children can join parents or non-parent relatives who have settlement status imposes a fee of £1,500, and then the same serious and compelling test.
Despite promising in a response to the consultation on the New Plan for Immigration to give creator clarity, no guidance has been forthcoming. Can the Minister tell us in her response when that guidance will be forthcoming, and how many visas have been issued under paragraphs 319X or 297 over the last five years?
I reaffirm my support for Amendment 113 from the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and Amendment 117 from the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. These both aim to boost family reunion opportunities for unaccompanied minors and for entry to seek asylum, in part substituting for the loss of the Dublin regulation. I also support other amendments in this group. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have added my name to three amendments in this group. I note that they are all new clauses. New clauses are necessary to improve this Bill, and they are essential to humanising our present systems, let alone what may emerge from the Bill once it becomes an Act.
Reuniting families split by wars and persecution brings huge benefits; I think we can all agree on that. Amendment 112 enfranchises both children and their parents. It also empowers the Secretary of State to add new kinds of relationships. Amendment 113 should, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, has just mentioned, reduce dangerous crossings of the channel.
On Amendment 114, we all know that the neighbours of Syria and Iraq have been subjected to and have accepted huge influxes of people. The same is also true of southern European states. For these reasons, there is an urgent need for equitable burden sharing. This, in turn, will require much greater international co-operation. We can do our part in this country by using family reunion. Our neighbours and allies are entitled to know what our intentions and proposals are in this respect.
The wording of all three amendments can, I expect, be improved. Will the Government accept at least their principles, take them away and bring them back in pristine condition?
Going through the amendments this morning in preparation for this evening, I got quite tearful when I read these amendments because my family is incredibly important to me—every single one of them. I love them and I do not want to lose them or break up in any way from them. The thought that we in Britain could be the cause of families separating made me very upset.
I have signed two of these amendments, but they are all good amendments. The Government really ought to look into their own hearts and think about how they would feel if their families were broken up, through no fault of their own, because of despotic powers or other reasons. It is time to be a little bit kinder in this Bill, so please will the Government accept these amendments?
My Lords, I specifically support Amendment 117, to which I have added my name, but I support all these amendments around family reunion. I declare my interests in the register around RAMP and Reset as before.
Acknowledging that when people are forcibly displaced they end up in different places, often having lost family members, UNHCR research has shown that families often set out together but become separated along the way. Reconnecting those families, or, where some family members are lost, reconnecting people with other relatives, really matters. In seeking protection, those seeking asylum want to do so alongside the family that they have. This is better for individuals—their well-being and their future prospects—and for the community as a whole. It is therefore also better for social integration.
In my conversations with refugees and people seeking asylum, the whereabouts and safety of family is generally the number one preoccupation that they raise. This concern overrides everything. When we speak about family, it is not purely spouses and children but aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces. Organisations working with refugees, such as Safe Passage, know from their work that, when people have no safe route to reach their families, they are more likely to risk their lives on dangerous journeys to reach loved ones. Many of these individuals are children and young people seeking to reunite, often with their closest surviving relatives.
No doubt the Minister will give us the numbers again of how many families have been reunited under it, but existing refugee family reunion is narrow in scope. The threshold to be met under paragraphs 297 and 319X of the Immigration Rules for an adult non-parent to reunite with a child is “serious and compelling circumstances”, which is extremely difficult to meet in practice.
I appreciate that we cannot offer protection to all extended family members, but we can do this for some out of kindness, and it would divert them from using criminal gangs. Once they arrived in the UK, they would enter the asylum system to have their claim for protection decided.
Of course, we would prefer people not to have to make the dangerous journeys as far as Europe, and I expect that the Minister will cite pull factors to Europe as a rebuttal. With an ambitious resettlement scheme—which we will come back to—a broader definition for family reunion, as well as an increasing commitment to aid and constructive engagement with our near neighbours, I believe that any such pull factor to one safe route will be mitigated. The alternative is that people come anyway but in an unplanned way, risking their lives and causing further trauma.
I urge the Minister to at last give way on one item: consider this proposal as a pragmatic response to the need to find durable solutions for desperate people dying on our borders in order to reach their family.
My Lords, I support all these amendments. I have signed three of them, and the only reason I did not sign the fourth was because my name did not get there in time; there were already four names on it.
Let me talk most particularly for the moment in favour of Amendment 117. In one sense, we are going back to the Dublin treaty, Dublin III and the discussions we have had in the past. At the risk of taking up an extra minute, I will go in for a little moment of history. We had an amendment—which passed in this House and the Commons—to the 2017 Act which said that the Government should negotiate to continue the Dublin III arrangements even after we left the EU. That passed in the 2017 Act.
We thought we were there—but along came the 2019 Act, and it was taken out again. We could not understand why. It was fairly innocuous in one sense, but it was pretty important in another. I was summoned to a room, I think here, and there were three Ministers: the noble Baroness; Brandon Lewis, who was the Immigration Minister; and one of the Ministers from the Commons. There were seven other officials there, one from the Cabinet Office, and just me arguing with them—I thought the odds were pretty fair. Anyway, I was assured that we would lose nothing by abolishing that provision in the 2019 Act. It was never explained to me why the Government wanted to abolish it. If it was going to make no difference, why abolish it? If it was going to make a difference, why take a step backwards?
By all standards, the Dublin III provisions for family reunion were working—not brilliantly, not fast enough and not for enough children, but they were working. I was assured that everything would be all right, but I am afraid that the evidence is not there. We cannot say often enough that where there are safe routes, the traffickers do not get any business. If we close the safe routes, the traffickers get business. It is logical, even for the Tory party. It is market economics, is it not? I do not understand how that can be contradicted.
I am worried about quite a number of the Government’s provisions. The Minister wrote a letter, which I have here; it is slightly depressing, but very helpful. However, I am worried that, on the whole, children in particular who got to Europe fleeing for safety are going to be ignored. I have not been there recently because of the pandemic, but the last time I visited what remains of Calais, people were sleeping under tarpaulins in terrible conditions. It was very depressing, and there were very depressing scenes on the Greek islands. I went to Lesbos, to Moria camp, just before the big fire there. Again, I am out of date now, but I understand that it has not got better. There are young people there who are desperate to join family members in this country. There are not many of them altogether, but there are enough for it to be an important point of principle. Surely, our test of humanity must be whether we support family reunion and whether refugee children can join their families here.
Safe Passage—a small but brilliant NGO with which I am happy to work and be closely associated—suggests that the majority of the children who qualified under Dublin III in the past would not qualify now. For all the optimistic noises coming from the Home Office, the fact is that the situation has got much more difficult in terms of getting children here.
The Minister sent me a letter that I think other Members of the Committee have seen. It was interesting and had all sorts of arguments and so on, but of course it fell short in that, among other things, it did not tell us what has happened in the last year and a half since the new provisions have come in and we have closed down Dublin III. It seems to me that the numbers are not as optimistic as the Minister suggested. If I am wrong, that is fine, but I would like to see that spelled out.
I happened to bump into an Afghan driver who was desperate to get his family from Kabul but cannot—I do not think that his parents qualify. He has managed to find a way to send them money, so they are better off than most. But he is desperate; he cannot get them here.
We have had the arguments over the years, and I think that the right of children to join family members in this country—there is a small number of them, but this is important—is surely a fundamental principle of human rights. We cannot readily slam the door on them and say, “No, that does not count.”
I turn to Amendment 114, on international co-operation. I firmly believe that many of the issues around refugees—not just child refugees—will require better international co-operation and agreement than we have had up to now. For example, we were talking in earlier groups about redefining the 1951 Geneva convention. Surely the sensible thing would be for all countries to agree, rather than each country doing its own thing and departing from the others, resulting in there being no basis for agreement at all. If we are going to send people back—I do not think that we can because no one is willing to take them—how can a person who is sent back, say from here to France, know how to make a claim if there is no agreement on the principles of the Geneva convention and the conditions are different?
I believe fundamentally that international co-operation on these issues is right, and that is why I am very keen on Amendment 114. But, above all, I argue that we must have a more generous humanitarian approach, particularly to child refugees seeking family reunion.
My Lords, I think that it is perhaps time for a different view from this side of the Committee. I will briefly deal with Amendments 112 and 113.
Amendment 112 refers to “Refugee family reunion”. It is a wide-ranging amendment, and I suggest that it is unnecessary and not very wise. We already have provisions for the family members of refugees to come here. As others have mentioned, these allow partners and children under 18 of those granted refugee status or humanitarian protection to join them here, provided that they formed part of the family unit before they left their own country. That seems a reasonable basis for this provision. Of course, the family members do not receive refugee status themselves, so their leave will expire at the same time as that of the sponsor. But individuals on such visas are allowed to work, study and have recourse to public funds, which also seems entirely reasonable.
Indeed—I will save the Minister a task—we have granted visas to more than 60,000 family members of refugees since 2010. Since 2015, over half of those were to children. This is already a very substantial move in that direction. But widening the criteria still further would, of itself, massively increase those numbers and add still further to the pull factors drawing people to the English Channel, a route that has very little support among the public.
There is a very strong case for not widening these refugee routes. In the real world, we simply do not have the necessary infrastructure, service capacity, housing or school places. Many refugees are being put into the poorest parts of the UK. In this context, the Home Secretary said to a House of Lords committee on 27 October last year:
“We simply do not have the infrastructure or the accommodation.”
A Member of the other House said of his area:
“The impact on housing pressure at local level could cause further tensions if there is resentment about refugees receiving housing assistance at a time of acute … housing shortage.”—[Official Report, Commons, 27/4/21; col. 40WH.]
In setting our arrangements for refuges and their families, we must surely give due consideration to their impact on our own vulnerable communities.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I just put this to him: if children are coming to join family members here, the norm would be that the family member has accommodation to provide for them, so the argument about housing does not apply to that group of people.
I shall go on to Amendment 113, which deals with unaccompanied minors. The main effect of this amendment would be to put a considerable number of children in serious danger. As drafted, it applies only to children already in the EEA, but it would obviously be a major incentive for families now outside the EEA to pack their children off to Europe in the expectation that they could go on to the UK. The amendment is also widely drawn to include nieces, nephews, grandchildren, siblings, spouses—all from families that are very large in any case.
We have seen how opening this route would encourage minors to make dangerous journeys. In 2016, when there was talk of the UK taking significant numbers of children, the numbers of unaccompanied children literally doubled overnight. That is according to evidence given to the relevant parliamentary committee by the Home Office director responsible in December 2021. We have to consider the wider consequences of this, to which may be added the difficulties already facing the authorities in correctly assessing the age of those claiming to be children. We have discussed this before in Committee and we know that, in the last available year, 1,100 persons claiming to be children were found to be adults. This amendment is dangerous and unwise, and should not be accepted.
My Lords, I have been encouraged to say a word—it was only going to be a word, but it will be a few more now—in support of my noble friend Lady Ludford. I am pleased that she has taken on this cause. I am not seeking to analyse every one of these amendments, but they are about protection in every sense of the word, which is what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham was saying. I applaud the Government for enabling the reuniting of some families, but I am thinking about those who have not been reunited, where there are problems.
I had a similar experience to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, in a meeting with Brandon Lewis and a battalion of officials, when I remember being told that the rules are quite adequate—but they are discretionary.
We have been asked by the noble Lord, Lord Green, to think about the real world. The real world is not just in the UK. One of the aspects of children being alone in the UK is the cost to local authorities, which can be very substantial when children are here by themselves. One needs to include a number of factors when balancing the question of costs.
I would like to echo whoever it was who pointed to the importance of siblings being able be together. A child or young person—frankly, anybody coping with the experience of being a refugee—needs the support of family. A sibling can be such a support to a child; I have heard siblings speak of this. These amendments have my support.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for his tireless work on family reunion, born out of his own personal experience. I also pay tribute to my noble friends: my noble friend Lady Hamwee, who ran the first leg with her Private Member’s Bill, before handing over to my noble friend Lady Ludford.
It is better for families to be together, not just for their own welfare but so that they can look after each other, as my noble friend Lady Hamwee had just said, rather than being looked after by the state. We strongly support Amendment 112. Amendment 113 would provide a mechanism for those unaccompanied refugee children who had reached an EEA country and who have a family member in the UK to be reunited with that family member. Amendment 114
“would require the Government to produce a negotiating mandate to seek reciprocal arrangements, with other states, on safe returns and safe legal routes.”
I am guessing that would be something akin to Dublin III. Amendment 117 from the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, would change the Immigration Rules to allow people currently in Europe to come to the UK to seek asylum—effectively be given a visa—if they have a family member in the UK. This is a subset of my noble friend Lady Hamwee’s Amendment 118 in the next group. We support all these amendments.
My Lords, it is a privilege to contribute again to the deliberations in Committee on this important Bill. We agree with all the amendments in this particular group, but I shall speak specifically to Amendment 114 and then Amendment 113.
On Amendment 114, I join the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, and I am sure all other Members of the Committee, in paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Dubs for the work he has done over so many years. He is an example and inspiration to us all, with respect to family reunion. The reason I want to highlight Amendment 114 is to lay out the importance of international action on this. That is why the refugee convention is so important to us. We saw the collapse of the world order, if you like, after the Second World War. As was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, earlier, the world back then, of all political persuasions and ideologies, did not all split asunder and pull the drawbridge up on their own countries; they said that this was a common problem of such massive importance that they had to work together to achieve anything.
The 1951 refugee convention is not an old document but still speaks to us and is relevant today. It may have been written in 1951, 70-odd years ago, but it speaks as resoundingly to the people of the world today as it did then. Why do I say that? Like many Members of this Committee, I think Amendment 114 is important because it talks about the United Nations and it talks about international actions. It is a probing amendment —we are not asking the Government to accept it—but it is using the Committee to put pressure on the Government to say, as a senior global power, a member of the United Nations Security Council, a senior member of NATO, a power that has resonance across the world—notwithstanding some of the reputational damage that I think this Bill is causing—that we make a difference. What we say makes a difference.
In Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan—all of those countries—their refugee problems dwarf ours, let alone if we consider those in Africa. As I think I mentioned before, I went to Angola, where they had a refugee camp of a million people—some of the poorest people in the world dealing with some of the most difficult circumstances. On the border of Syria and Jordan, as I think I mentioned before, there is a huge refugee camp with people pouring across the border to escape war. Those countries—Jordan and Turkey—did not turn their back on those people; they worked to try to deal with it.
What I am saying about that international response, that international action, such is the difficulty that we are facing across the world—for all sorts of reasons, and we can debate why that is and why that is not—is that if we do not join together, we have got real problems in actually sorting this out. It is beyond the capacity and capability of one country to do that, notwithstanding the attempts. I say this: there will be a nationality and borders Bill 3 and a nationality and borders Bill 4 in trying to deal with this if the UK Government try to deal with it on their own.
I entirely agree about the appalling conditions in these refugee camps and the huge number of refugees that are being dealt with. The question that I and others ask is: how can we best use the resources that we can give to the people who really need it? How much more effective would it be to get aid, food and medical attention into these terrible camps, rather than spending huge sums of money on children here who cost the same as a term at Eton?
Of course that is right. That is why there was such a row about the cut in the aid programme. It is why we all believe that of course we have to try to prevent war, famine and all those things. Not to do that would be ridiculous. The sources of many of our problems are war, famine and disease, and all of those things, so of course we have to prevent them.
However, it is also important in the debate we have in this country about asylum and refugees—not immigration—to stand up to the view that “We take the lot”. The idea that it is this country that has to deal with the situation, no other decent country in the world does it, we are the country that has to take them all and we are the weak link in it all is just not true, however unpopular it is to say so. Sometimes the way that you change public opinion is by arguing with it.
People will say, as no doubt the Minister will, “We won the election and therefore this is what the public think”, but on asylum and refugees there is an argument for saying, “Of course we don’t want open borders but there is a need for us to act in a way that is compassionate and consistent with the values that we have always had”. Sometimes that costs you, as I know, but that does not mean you should not do it. Public opinion can therefore be changed, and the subject is debated. Indeed, policy and opinion can change in this Chamber, which is the point of it. In the interests of time, I will stop there.
Amendment 114 is exceptionally important because of the need for international action. To apply it to our own situation here, we will not deal with the migrant crossing problem in the channel without co-operation from France and the rest of Europe.
I want to talk about the importance of Amendment 113, and I take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Green, on this. It is not an open invite to everybody to pile their children—I paraphrase, but if I get it wrong then no doubt the noble Lord will correct me—into the EEA because that means they can all then come to the UK. The amendment clearly lays out that it is about people who already have a family member present in the United Kingdom. It is about family reunion and trying to ensure that unaccompanied children in the EEA who have a family member in the UK get the opportunity to be reunited with them.
I will finish with this point, which I know the Minister will agree with. The problem we have is that sometimes Ministers have to speak to Governments, to the computer and to the Civil Service and say, “This bit of the Bill is wrong. It does not work.” Both Ministers have done it before on other Bills in other places where the Bills were wrong. On this issue of family reunion, the Government have got it wrong; they are not right. Nobody thinks that children who are unaccompanied in other parts of the EEA, for example, should not be able to reunite with their families in a way that is consistent with the values of this country, and it beggars belief that the Government would stand against that. It is not about an open door; it says quite specifically who should deal with it. I think if that were explained to the people of this country, and debated and argued with them, they would support it, because they are compassionate and decent, and in the end the compassionate and decent side will win. I think the Ministers are compassionate and decent, so let us have a Bill—in this aspect of it—that reflects that.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken to this group of amendments. I hope in what I am about to say that there will be at least some acknowledgment of the compassion and decency that we have shown as a country in the last few years—actually, the last few decades. It is such a hallmark of us as a nation. I also pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. Believe it or not, we like each other very much—we just disagree on quite a lot. But we have worked together in a civilised and friendly manner over the last few years, and long may that continue.
On the point about decency and compassion, Amendment 112 aims to expand the scope of the refugee family reunion policy. Under that policy, we have granted visas to over 39,000 people since 2015, over half of them being children, as the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, pointed out. So, to answer the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, we have looked into our hearts. We already have several routes for refugees to bring family members to join them in the UK, and it is important to carefully consider the impact of further amending our policy.
Family unity is a key priority, but noble Lords will know that we have a range of aims further to this, including ensuring that we have reasonable control over immigration and that public services such as schools and hospitals—and I think that it was the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, who talked about the infrastructure of this country—are not placed under unreasonable pressure. However, I recognise that in some cases there will be exceptional and compassionate circumstances which warrant a grant of leave. To answer the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, the guidance on exceptional circumstances will be published in due course. That is why our policy ensures that there is always discretion to grant visas outside the Immigration Rules, which may cater for the sorts of cases that do not immediately fall within our legal framework.
In terms of allowing child refugees to sponsor family members under this proposed clause, noble Lords will at least grant that I have been consistent in opposing that sort of policy, because of its negative consequences. It is highly likely that this would create further incentives for more children to be encouraged—or even, sadly, forced—to leave their family and risk extremely dangerous journeys to the UK in order to sponsor relatives. Such an approach would open children up to a huge exploitation risk, which completely contradicts the hard work and commitment of the Home Office in protecting children from modern slavery and exploitation. We refuse to play into the hands of criminal gangs, and we cannot extend this policy to allow child refugees to sponsor family members into the UK.
Beyond this, many of the conditions set out in this new clause are already included in our current family reunion policy and are taken into consideration when decisions are made inside or outside the rules. All noble Lords in Committee should have a copy of the various routes. Our prime consideration in all cases is the best interest of the child in question—and so it should be. As the number of visas we have granted under this policy reflects, we are committed to maintaining family unity for refugees. Caseworkers are encouraged to use discretion in considering whether entry may be granted in family reunion cases. By setting out conditions in primary legislation, we would lose the individuality of consideration, and the discretion of caseworkers would be void. I can assure the Committee that all relevant elements of each case are thoroughly considered on their merits under this policy, and there is no need to set it out in statute.
I turn to Amendment 113, on family reunion for unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors. I cannot support this proposed new clause. It tries to recreate the EU’s Dublin regulation in UK law with respect to unaccompanied children who have claimed asylum in an EEA state but have family members in the UK. When the UK sought to raise these matters with the EU, our proposals had very clear safeguards for children. This proposed new clause has none. It creates entitlements to come to the UK to claim asylum if the minor has specified relatives but it fails to consider the individual needs of the child. It does not consider whether the UK relative can actually take care of the child or whether the child would be better placed with a relative, potentially an even closer relative, in another safe EEA state.
The other point about this proposal is that it does not work unilaterally. I am sure the noble Lord will concur with that. It requires co-operation from EEA states. It is not possible to legislate through this Bill to take children out of other countries’ care and support mechanisms or their asylum systems. That requires agreement between states, which might not be possible and is certainly unlikely in the timescale of six months set out in the clause.
I see that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is about to stand up. Might I finish this point about the EU before he does? As he knows, we sought to negotiate with the EU on UASC family reunion and continue to talk to it on this important issue. However, at this point I cannot comment further.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I hate to go over the past, but the whole point of having the Dublin III treaty in the 2017 Act—which was taken out in the 2019 Act, as I said—is that it has to be based on reciprocity. That was a sensible way forward; it is why we wanted to go down that path. That was the path blocked by the Government in the 2019 Act.
The noble Baroness has twice in my hearing given the figure of 39,000 humanitarian visas for family reunion. Between Second Reading and Committee, I asked a Written Question on how many of those had been taken up, because I foresaw that force majeure, poverty or some other reason would prevent many of them actually being used. I got one of those answers saying, “We really cannot find or give you any figures.” Can the noble Baroness be a little more helpful on the real results of those visas?
Going back to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, first, I did not disagree with his point about reciprocity but I made it clear at the time that we were of course leaving the European Union. I have consistently said, and repeat now, that we will try to negotiate with the EU on UASC family reunion, whether that is across the EU or bilaterally with states. I cannot go any further on the negotiations, but we continue to try to do that. I hope that answers his question.
On family reunion visas, we can grant them, but the noble Lord asked about tracking whether people use them or not. I assume people apply for the visas because they need them and want to reunite with family in the UK, and whether they use them or not—I have just received an answer: all 39,000 have been taken up, so I hope that satisfies the noble Lord. I was just wondering how we could track whether someone had used a visa or not, which might be quite difficult.
I move to Amendment 114, on returns. Once again, we have a number of safe and legal routes to the UK that did not require a negotiating mandate. Our resettlement schemes have provided safe and legal routes for tens of thousands of people to start new lives in the UK. In particular, the mandate resettlement scheme recognises refugees who have a close family member in the UK who is willing to accommodate them. This is a global scheme and there is no annual quota. These routes work alongside the UK Government’s commitment to increasing co-operation internationally, and we continue to seek to negotiate on returns with EU member states, as I have just said to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs.
Beyond this, the Government have been consistently clear that asylum seekers should claim asylum in the first safe country they arrive in—that is the fastest route to safety. We do not want policies that support, or even encourage, dangerous and unnecessary secondary movement. As I have said, we are seeking agreements to re-admit those who have travelled through or have a connection to safe countries and to whom our inadmissible policy therefore applies, and are working with our neighbours on preventing abuse and ensuring the security of our borders.
Amendment 117 relates to refugee family reunion for the purposes of claiming asylum. First, as it has been stated by your Lordships many times during the passage of this Bill, those who need international protection should claim asylum in the first safe country—that is the fastest route to safety.
EU countries together operate the Common European Asylum System, a framework of rules and procedures based on the full and inclusive application of the refugee convention, the aim of which is to ensure fair and humane treatment of applicants for international protection. There is no reason why an individual already in Europe who needs protection needs to or should make an onward journey to the UK, because that protection is already available to them.
A second important issue is the routes that the UK already has to reunite families. Where reasons for coming to the UK include family or economic considerations, applications should be made via the relevant route, either the new points-based immigration system or our various family reunion routes. There has been very little discussion through the passage of this Bill of the fact that there are people all over the world with the skills that mean they could apply for jobs here. It does not all have to be about asylum—although I am not decrying the fact that this debate is largely about asylum.
We support the principle of family unity and have several routes for families to be reunited safely. Data shows that our family reunion policy is already highly effective and there is simply no need to replicate Dublin, as this amendment suggests. Indeed, in 2019, the latest year for which figures are available, there were 714 transfers into the UK under the Dublin regulation. In the same year, we issued 7,456 visas under refugee family reunion, so more than 10 times that amount.
The mandate resettlement scheme resettles recognised refugees who have a close family member in the UK who is willing to accommodate them. As I have said, it is a global scheme and there is no annual quota. Beneficiaries must have been recognised as refugees by the UNHCR and judged by them to be in need of resettlement, and have a close family member in the UK who is willing to accommodate them.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, asked me how many grants under part 8 and paragraphs 319X and 297 there had been. I am afraid that those figures are not provided in published statistics, but if I can get any more information on that, of course I will.
Afghan refugees were mentioned. Of course, we got 15,000 people out in Operation Pitting. Under the ACRS, we will resettle 20,000 people. I would argue that Afghans are probably one of the most vulnerable communities in the world at this point.
Amendment 117 would, without careful thought, be likely to lead to a significant increase in the numbers who could qualify to come here, not just from conflict regions but from any country from which someone can already be granted protection. It would mean extended family members being able to come here who could themselves easily claim protection in the country they are in, which risks reducing our capacity to assist the most vulnerable, as I said before.
I shall just deal with a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, on housing. Those with family reunion leave have access to public funds, including public housing. There is no maintenance and accommodation requirement for family reunion under Part 11 of the rules, so there may be an impact on social housing, for example. In addition, as is the case the world over, family relationships break down, so that might impact on housing.
The amendment could simply create further incentives for more adults and children to be encouraged, or even forced, to leave their family and risk hazardous journeys to the UK in order later to sponsor qualifying extended family. That plays into the hands of criminal gangs which exploit vulnerable people and goes against the main intention of the Bill. We must do everything in our power to stop this dangerous trend. I hope that, with that, the noble Baroness will be happy to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister, who has given us detailed responses. Some of her points do not really take account of what inspired this set of amendments, which is that people do better if they have the support of their family. It may not be quantifiable, but my noble friend Lady Hamwee mentioned the case of a sibling. I can imagine having that my brother or sister with me in a strange place would be an enormous support. The way the Minister replied—which is obviously in her brief—was all about the numbers: never mind the quality, feel the width. We are talking about quality of life, integration and the chances that the person who gets status would have to thrive in the UK. The Home Office is a bit blinkered on this matter.
The Minister told me that the promised guidance on paragraphs 319X and 297 would be coming “in due course”. That is a phrase that always chills the spine; I hope it is not too far away. It would be interesting to know what constitutes “serious and compelling” circumstances, as people are finding that it is very difficult to get through that test. I also note that she said that there is no data in published statistics on how many applications are granted under either of those two routes, and I look forward to her successful efforts to find that. It is a bit surprising that there are no published statistics on that, but I hope she has success in locating some.
The Minister said that there is no need for statute. I obviously disagree, because I am promoting a Private Member’s Bill that would put it into statute. A lot of the problem here is that there is too much discretion and moving of the goalposts, so people do not know what they can rely on. It is all just too difficult, and there are numerous hurdles.
I listened to the Minister. I am fairly disappointed with what she said, but, as of now, I cannot do other than beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 112 withdrawn.
Amendments 113 and 114 not moved.
115: After Clause 37, insert the following new Clause—
“Unaccompanied refugee children: relocation and support
(1) The Secretary of State must, within six months of the day on which this Act is passed, make arrangements to relocate to the United Kingdom and support a specified number of unaccompanied refugee children from countries in Europe.(2) The number of children to be resettled under subsection (1) must be determined by the Government in consultation with local authorities.(3) The relocation of children under subsection (1) is in addition to the resettlement of children under any other resettlement scheme.”Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause introduces a safe route for unaccompanied children from countries in Europe to come to the UK.
My Lords, this amendment is also about children, but it is about children who are in Europe and do not have family anywhere. It is similar to an amendment that was passed by this House and became Section 67 of the Immigration Act 2016. There is a long story to that; I will not waste noble Lords’ time on it now except to say that there was quite a lot of resistance then on the part of the Government but, eventually, the amendment was passed and Theresa May, the then Home Secretary, accepted it.
However, as I understand it, Mrs May did so under the pressure of public opinion because, at the time, people were horrified when they saw dinghies and people drowning in the Mediterranean. They saw a little Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, drowned on a Mediterranean beach. I think that woke up public opinion. The public then came onside and decided that we as a country can do this for unaccompanied child refugees. That is a summary of the history there. Theresa May then summoned me again to see her and said that the Government were prepared to accept the amendment.
The Government then decided that they would cap the number; it was capped at 480, I think. The Government’s argument was that they could not find more local authorities to provide foster families and foster parents to take in more children—a point that was disproved by Safe Passage, which contacted a number of local authorities and found around 1,500 places. Whether they are there today, I do not know, but they were certainly there at the time. There is a problem, of course: there is increasing financial pressure on local authorities, so local authorities are willing to do it but probably cannot afford to do it. There are difficulties; I can see that. Nevertheless, Amendment 115 says:
“The number of children to be resettled … must be determined by the Government in consultation with local authorities.”
That is close to the wording of the earlier amendment some years ago.
The argument here is that, in principle, the Government should accept that we will take a few—only a few—unaccompanied child refugees in Europe, and they should settle on how many and the speed in conjunction with local authorities and with regard to local authorities’ ability to provide foster places. It is a simple proposition. I believe that public opinion is still supportive of it. We have sought support across the political spectrum on this because that is, I am sure, the best way to be successful. Faith groups have been very supportive; altogether, we have a good coalition of people supporting the principle in this amendment and the earlier amendment on Dublin III that I spoke about.
This amendment makes a simple proposition. It would not be difficult for the Government to say that, where there are unaccompanied children who have nowhere else to go and are stuck, we could take at least some of them—not all of them, but some of them—in this country and repeat the small successes of a few years ago. I beg to move.
My Lords, Amendment 116 is in my name. I thank my noble friends Lord Shinkwin, Lady Stroud and Lady Helic for their support. We propose a workable, sensible and impactful solution for the Government to meet their stated objective, as set out in Explanatory Notes,
“to enhance resettlement routes to continue to provide pathways for refugees to be granted protection in the UK.”
Introducing a carefully designed, long-term global resettlement scheme with a numerical target will have the effect of meaningfully expanding safe routes for the world’s most vulnerable refugees.
Last week, as I am sure noble Lords have already acknowledged, we commemorated Holocaust Memorial Day. That included reflecting on Britain’s role in admitting Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, and the success, as is well known here, of the Kindertransport, together with other initiatives implemented at the time. It is interesting to observe that today there is wide acceptance that the refugees back then were genuine: no one would deny that Jewish people faced an existential threat. They desperately needed safety, and the UK helped to bring them to safety. Of course, at the time, the questions of whether, and how many, refugees should be allowed into the UK were not without controversy. Decisions were not straightforward, but hindsight does wonders for perspective. Today, we look back on their plight in sympathy; we avow to have learned from history, but I regret to say that attitudes have not altogether moved on.
The Government have repeatedly stated that people in need of protection should come to the UK via organised, safe routes. These safe routes, however, are not always accessible for most people. The UK, of course, has a very sound record when it comes to responding to urgent crises. It did it very well for Syrians, with a world-leading scheme that transformed the lives of 20,000 people fleeing conflict. We did it too for Bosnians, when I was proud to be the Minister responsible for that scheme. We are doing it for Afghans. While the commitment to provide 5,000 resettlement places for Afghan refugees in 2021 through the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme was most welcome, the scheme was restricted to one geographical area.
My amendment proposes to include these numbers in a global scheme that is flexible and responsive, and offers the Home Office the time and space to plan capacity to deliver it properly. Our EU partners have resettled some 81,000 refugees since 2015, despite the disruptions caused by Covid-19.
I would like to say that creating more safe routes will, for a start, help make proper distinctions between economic migrants and asylum seekers, and between those who are legal and those who are not. This was debated earlier today by a number of noble Lords. Unfashionable though it is to commit to numbers, it is the only way to make resettlement viable. A resettlement target, as in my amendment, of 10,000 people per year is eminently achievable.
It is not just about helping more vulnerable people. A target will also ensure that the Government are accountable and will enable local authorities to plan ahead. It will allow the Home Office to present projected costs to HM Treasury as part of the spending review cycle. A target is a practical solution that will give the UK clarity, certainty and control.
Some might ask why 10,000 is an appropriate target. Why not double that or half of that? My response is that it is a good starting figure and a reasonable place to begin. In fact, a resettlement target of 10,000 a year would amount to around five families being accommodated for every local authority in the UK or around 15 refugees for each parliamentary constituency. This is a moderate and sensible proposition that is eminently achievable with the right approach.
My Lords, I will speak to my Amendment 119B and in support of Amendment 119A, in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Kennedy of the Shaws and Lady Chakrabarti. I should mention that the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, is overseas in Estonia at this moment and unable to be here. In speaking to these amendments, I draw attention to my entries in the register of interests. I am patron of the Coalition for Genocide Response and vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Groups on the Yazidis and on the Uyghurs. In introducing my amendment, I associate myself with the remarks of the noble Lords, Lord Dubs and Lord Kirkhope. I strongly support what has just been said.
I begin by referencing the play “Leopoldstadt” by Sir Tom Stoppard. It is a heart-breaking story of one Jewish family in the years before the Second World War and in the aftermath of the war. Among other issues, it highlights the challenges faced by people subjected to persecution and what we now know was genocide and the Holocaust—people who could not find a safe haven anywhere else. Strict quotas meant that only a few of them would find a safe haven. Long waiting lists meant that some people would never move to a safe country. That same challenge continues to this very day.
Amendment 119B, concerning those who are subject to genocide, returns to an issue that was also the subject of an amendment tabled by myself, the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, my noble friend Lady Cox, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, which I moved in 2016. We drew the attention of the House to the plight of the Yazidi, Christian and other minorities who were said to be facing genocide. We argued that our asylum procedures should create a specific category to help those judged to be at immediate risk of genocide. That was five years ago on 3 February 2016, as recorded in Hansard col. 1888; we moved Amendment 234A, which sought to offer help to those whose lives were so clearly at risk of genocide. Although at the conclusion of the debate, the then Home Office Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Bates, agreed to give the proposal further consideration, it was ultimately vetoed.
That amendment, like this one, followed the presumption that a person would be granted asylum when a senior judge determined that a group to which that person belongs is, in the place from which that person originates, subject to genocide. The presumption would operate in the United Kingdom but, in addition, applicants would be able to apply at British consular posts overseas—a point that I raised during earlier proceedings in Committee.
I remind the House that genocide is defined in Article 2 of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as follows:
“In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: … Killing members of the group; … Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; … Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; …Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; … Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Although, in 2016, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe had adopted a resolution stating that ISIS
“has perpetrated acts of genocide and other serious crimes punishable under international law”
—a view incidentally supported in a letter by 75 Members of your Lordships’ House, including the former chief of staff of our Armed Forces and the former head of MI5—the Home Office refused to accept that a genocide was under way. There was clear evidence that the Yazidi genocide extended to religious minorities, with assassinations of church leaders, mass murders, torture, kidnapping of women, forcible conversion, the destruction of churches, monasteries, cemeteries and religious artefacts, and thefts of land and wealth from clergy and laity alike. ISIS made public statements taking credit for the mass murder of the Christians and Yazidis and expressing its intent to eliminate these minority communities and other groups such as homosexuals from its territory.
The government response was the usual one designed to avoid the duties set out in the 1948 convention:
“It is a long-standing government policy that any judgements on whether genocide has occurred are a matter for the international judicial system rather than Governments or other non-judicial bodies.”
This continues to be a frustrating and circular argument. In 2016, a Foreign Office Minister told the House:
“We are not submitting any evidence of possible genocide against Yezidis and Christians to international courts, nor have we been asked to.”
As for referring the matter to the International Criminal Court, we were told:
“I understand that, as the matter stands, Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor, has determined not to take these matters forward.”—[Official Report, 16/12/15; col. 2146.]
No one was willing to name this genocide for what it is or take forward the necessary responses.
As recently as this morning, in a debate in Westminster Hall in another place, Brendan O’Hara and members of the All-Party Group on the Yazidis raised these very issues and the continuing the atrocities that occur against the Yazidis. It has taken up until November of last year for a court—in this case, a German one, in Frankfurt—to convict one of those responsible for the crime of genocide. The UK still refuses to do the same. That member of ISIS was jailed for life, in November, for buying a five year-old Yazidi girl as a slave and then chaining her up in the hot sun, where she burnt to death.
Since our debate in 2016, I have pursued this circular argument in amendments to the Trade Act, the telecommunications Act, the Health and Care Bill and this Home Office Bill. I admit to having been deeply affected by visiting northern Iraq and taking first-hand accounts from Yazidi, Assyrian and Chaldean Christian survivors in 2019.
A United Nations report stated that ISIS held 3,500 slaves hostage, mainly women and children, and had committed acts that
“amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and possibly genocide.”
Murder has been accompanied by other horrors. An estimated 5,000 young Yazidi women and girls were abducted by ISIS, suffering horrific and prolonged sexual abuse. They were imprisoned for months on end, beaten, burnt and exposed to daily rape and torture. Horrifyingly, some of those victims were as young as nine. Sadly, some girls took their own lives in desperate attempts to escape the horrors of captivity.
Despite all this, we have failed to create a safe or legal route to enable safe passage for those who were so grievously at risk. At the time, the Weidenfeld fund, Mercury One and Operation Safe Havens said they were able to process asylum applications and do the necessary security clearances to a higher standard than the UNHCR and in a matter of weeks. Lord Weidenfeld’s decision to create a special fund to assist endangered minorities at risk of genocide should have inspired us all to do more, but it did not.
My noble and learned friend Lord Hope of Craighead advised us on the formulation of Amendment 119B, and we have followed his advice. It would ask a judge of the High Court of England and Wales to examine the evidence and make a determination. It would provide a process and duty to act. It would then ensure that victims of genocide were given priority in asylum applications. This is not about numbers, nor about those who threaten the security and ideals for which this country stands. Many suffer, but this is about those who have been singled out and our duty under the genocide convention to protect them.
It is worth recalling that in 2016 the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said to the then Minister,
“I say to my noble friend the Minister: throw away the brief from the Home Office and go back to the department and tell it what has been said this evening. I am certain that, despite the media coverage and the information that is available, people in this country have no idea of the extent of the horrors that are being perpetrated”.—[Official Report, 3/2/16; col. 1894.]
That rather echoes what the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said a few moments ago about the true attitudes of people in this country. That amendment was supported by people such as the noble Lords, Lord Marlesford, Lord Dubs and Lord Wigley, the late Lord Judd, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and others. But despite the promise in 2016 of further thought, and a subsequent vote in the House of Commons declaring events against those minorities in northern Iraq to be a genocide, here we are five years later still failing to define when a genocide is under way and conveniently avoiding our responsibility to act under the terms of the convention. That convention was so brilliantly crafted by Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer who coined the word genocide and saw more than 40 of his own family killed during the Holocaust.
We now need a different approach to give a chance to the communities facing annihilation. Closing the door to them should not be an option. The Bill offers us an opportunity to create a safe and legal route for victims of genocide. By way of example, in January this year I asked the Government
“what plans they have to create a bespoke humanitarian visa scheme for Uyghurs”,
another ethno-religious community facing annihilation, this time in Xinjiang in China—but they also live in other places. The response to this Question can be described only as negligent. I was told:
“While we sympathise with the many people facing difficult situations around the world, we have no plans to introduce a bespoke humanitarian visa scheme for Uyghurs.”
However, there is a small glimmer of hope in that Uighurs from Afghanistan may be considered for resettlement under the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme as religious minorities at particular risk. The amendment could logically build on that.
On the downside, that resettlement route is unlikely to be even considered before 2023. If a person is facing an existential threat—a phrase used earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope—whether in Afghanistan or at risk of being repatriated to China, where they would face existential threats with the rest of the Uighur community, is it reasonable to expect them to wait more than a year for their case to be considered?
The same applies to the Hazara community in Afghanistan, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr. The community is being slaughtered both by the Taliban and ISK. Since August, I have received hundreds of messages from Hazaras who have been in hiding for weeks and months and are scared for their lives. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, has received copies of many of those emails, which I have sent her. Again, how realistic is it to tell them that they may have to wait a year—or maybe years—for their case to be considered?
We need to learn from the past and the failed responses to other genocidal atrocities. We need to analyse and learn from the failed responses to the Daesh genocide against Iraq’s minorities: as the Yazidis and other minorities were slaughtered by Daesh, we did not open the door to them. Reports suggest that among those resettled to the United Kingdom, there have been no Yazidis whatever and no Christians from northern Iraq—none. I would be most grateful if the Minister could tell us what the numbers are, or, if she does not have them, perhaps she could arrange for us to receive them between now and Report.
It is quite extraordinary that no one from a religious minority facing Isis genocidal atrocities has been considered as being at particular risk or as particularly vulnerable, among those considered for resettlement in the United Kingdom. To this day, these communities face serious risks—from Daesh, still present in the region, but also from Turkish attacks that continue to bombard Yazidi homes in Sinjar in Iraq and northern Syria. They continue to be terrorised and are living in fear. Many young people cannot cope with this level of threat and pressure, and we hear of high rates of suicide among the minority communities at risk. That is why I believe that Amendment 119B is needed.
I will leave it to the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, to deal with Amendment 119A on emergency visas, but I say simply that I associate myself entirely with the motives that underlie it. I have accompanied the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, to a number of meetings with Afghan judges, journalists and other human rights defenders, and the case being made for that amendment—comparing it with what goes on already in countries such as Canada—is well worth examination. I certainly commend it to the Committee.
My Lords, I am sure this was not at the top of his list, but the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has reminded us of the role of the arts in this area. Artists, playwrights and others could express better than the rest of us what they feel, and audiences could perhaps get a wider and deeper understanding of the issues involved. The area of arts and culture is hugely important in this.
Earlier this evening the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, said that we will continue to grant humanitarian protection, and Amendment 118 seeks to extend that to a humanitarian visa. I will explain it as quickly as I can, because what is most important is that we hear what the Minister has to say. If it is a “Sorry, no”, we need to understand why. I express my gratitude to Garden Court Chambers for drafting this amendment, which spells out the requirements and the process.
The amendment seeks to provide an exceptional route by which a person abroad—not in this country—can obtain a visa to come to the UK to seek asylum. At the moment, it is generally not possible to claim asylum in the UK unless one is already here. This visa could be applied for from anywhere in the world. The person would have to show that, if made in the UK, the claim
“would have a realistic prospect of success”,
and also that
“there are serious and compelling reasons why”
it should be considered in the UK. In assessing that, the entry clearance officer would take into account the extent of the risk of persecution or serious harm—persecution having the meaning that it has in the UN refugee convention, and serious harm meaning treatment that, if it occurred in the UK, would be contrary to Article 2, the right to life, or Article 3, the prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, of the European Convention on Human Rights.
If a humanitarian visa is granted, the person will be granted a visa—I stress that—of at least six months’ duration. The Home Secretary could set conditions such as restricting access to work. On coming to the UK, the person will be deemed to have made an asylum claim and will go through the normal asylum process like any other asylum seeker, so the normal processes would not be sidestepped. There would be a full right of appeal, which is Amendment 119.
I have written down the words “Controlled and organised process”. Those working in the sector have long advocated humanitarian visas, which would be one of a suite of safe and legal routes. The humanitarian visa route would not be something that many could take advantage of, but it is significant and structured.
I will leave that there; as I say, the Minister’s response is more important tonight. However, on Amendment 119A, I will say that I was not surprised to see it. The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, never misses an opportunity to buttonhole someone who might assist the women judges, other lawyers and others in Afghanistan. What she is seeking is only temporary, in the same way as a humanitarian visa would be. It is one thing to get people out of the country when they are at risk—she has had the most extraordinary success—but it is another to find somewhere for them to go.
I will not repeat myself—well, I am going to repeat myself just briefly. If the Government saw refugees as human beings, they would already have written these amendments into the Bill. We are pushing at a closed door at the moment. We should be taking more refugees and creating more safe routes.
I have a word of warning, which is that there will be many climate—ecological—emergencies over the next decade or so and, given that we have contributed a large part of the world’s accumulated CO2 emissions, we have to understand that we have a moral duty to take our share of climate refugees. It is already happening. There are parts of Africa that are now almost uninhabitable because of climate change, and other places will shortly follow. We have to understand that refugees are not a temporary problem but a permanent problem, and there will be a lot more. If we prepare well and put the programmes and the funding in place, we can cope and do it well. However, while the Government treat refugees as criminals and unwanted people, I am afraid that I see this simply as another reason why the Government have to go.
I think the noble Baroness’s warning is very well taken.
I support Amendments 118, 119A and 119B, but I want particularly to speak in favour of Amendment 116 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope. The noble Lord and I have done business together for a long time—the past is another country, and it was in fact in another country—and it is a pleasure to be supporting his amendment. I should also say that I am very grateful to the Minister for the letter that she wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, with a number of useful factual points in it. I am very grateful for my copy today.
It seems to me that the amendment raises two questions: why should one set a number, and why 10,000? Why should one set a number? I am a trustee of the Refugee Council and I have spent some time trying to work out why so many of the Afghan refugees who came here last summer are still in temporary bridging accommodation. I have not quite got to the bottom of it, but it seems to me that the problem is not ill will or lack of intention. I do not criticise the Government. It is a problem with local authorities that arises from the squeeze on their budgets and lack of certainty over financing. The attraction of setting a minimum number is the certainty of having a number in the public expenditure survey—a number negotiated with the Treasury. The Treasury would need to ensure that local authorities were equipped with the money to pay for at least that level.
There seems to be no shortage of willingness in local authorities; it is a shortage of funding in local authorities. When you look at the huge number of local authorities—nearly 300—which came in under the Syrian refugee scheme, it seems to me that what is needed is the certainty that enables one to plan ahead for financing and finding accommodation. So I think setting a number is a good idea and I support the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, for that reason.
Is 10,000 the right number? There are 28 million refugees in the world; it does not seem a very high number. Canada is taking 35,000 Afghans in this calendar year. The population of Canada is just over half the population of the United Kingdom. Comparing us with Europeans, we are number 21 out of 42—bang in the middle of the pack. With our tradition of a presence around the world, that seems to be quite low.
On the other hand, it is probably more than the hotchpotch of present schemes will bring in. It probably would be an increase, but I cannot say for sure because, as the Minister says in the enclosure to her letter today, rather surprisingly, 11 months in, it is still too soon to produce any statistics on how many people are coming in under the resettlement scheme that started in March last year. We do not know how many we are taking now, so we do not know whether this would be an increase. I suspect it would be, but I suspect that overall refugee numbers coming to this country would drop over time. I think this is the answer to the channel problem; 26,000 people came across the channel last year. If there were safe routes—and here is a safe, reliable route—fewer people would try to come unofficially. Fewer people would get killed trying to come into the country.
So I think that, although the number of official refugees would probably go up if we set a 10,000 minimum, the total number of refugees coming here would probably go down. I cannot prove it but that is my instinct. It seems to me that so strong is the incentive to find safe routes that this is a very good way of going about it, so I support the amendment.