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Asylum Seekers

Volume 622: debated on Wednesday 14 February 2001

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3.10 p.m.

rose to call attention to the increase in the number of asylum seekers; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: This is a timely moment for your Lordships to consider the worrying increase in the number of asylum seekers. The Home Secretary made a speech last week to the Institute of Public Policy in which he said, among much else, that he thought that the 1951 convention on refugees, which is the tablet of stone from which all discussions and negotiations have subsequently proceeded, was no longer working as its framers had intended. Last night, a headline in the Evening Standard stated:

"Scandal of Reject Asylum Seekers who Stay Here".

It continued:

"Just a dozen people deported every month against their will".

That story was picked up this morning by the Sun, which stated, in a typical headline, "Lunatic Asylum".Such headlines are not calculated to help racial understanding in this country.

Last night I took the trouble to look up Article 33 in the convention, which deals with prohibition of expulsion or return. Perhaps I may remind your Lordships of what it says:

"No Contracting State shall expel or return …a refugee in any mariner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion".

That is a broad definition. Why did I look it up? Why did I initiate this debate? It was partly because for two-and-a-half years I was an immigration minister, serving under my noble friend Lord Hurd. That was a searing experience. I remember only one moment of humour, which was when the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, introduced—and I followed him—putting those seeking decision on their cases on to a ship in Harwich Harbour. That caused a certain amount of stir.

The ship was called "The Earl William". I remember that Diane Abbott regularly referred to it as "The Prison Ship" or "Prison Hulk". It was a modern, rather comfortable car ferry. I decided that I should visit it. I went with my immigration officials to Harwich. It was a lovely, sunny morning. They were a little worried about our visit. I think they thought that I might be hit on the head. As I walked up the gangplank I was delighted to hear a rousing cheer. It was only when I reached the deck, feeling rather pleased with myself, perhaps, that I realised that everyone on board was sitting in the sun watching the test match. An important English wicket had just fallen to the Pakistani bowlers. For the rest it was a hard grind.

Perhaps I may return to the convention. Your Lordships will know that the 1951 convention was originally written only for those who had been refugees before 1951. The 1967 protocol applied it to all refugees and that remains its present status. The UK was one of the first countries to sign it. We actively promoted it. I believe that 137 countries are now signatories. We must remember that it applies to refugees and displaced people all over the world. Only 20 per cent of the world's refugees are either in or will try to come to Europe.

Some of your Lordships may have listened to a television programme last night about Rwanda, in which it was mentioned that 1 million people will either be killed or will be attempting to cross the borders as a result of the civil war. Against that background one has to say that our problems pale into insignificance. That said, it is sensible to try to modernise the convention. That will not be easy. It was written for the 1930s, when people fled in front of German armies, for example, across borders. The idea was that they would apply for asylum in the next country they reached. The convention does not take account of mass travel, long-distance flight or lorries moving across Europe.

It will be hard to realise any change. It would be wrong to hold that out in any sense as a panacea to ourselves or other European countries which have genuine problems as something which will bring immediate relief. I say "Europe" advisedly. This is a European problem. We are only sixth in the league of European countries in terms of asylum applications per head of domestic population. Belgium, for example, has three times our number per head of domestic population. It is a European problem not least because of the question of transit through so many countries. Kurds fleeing from either southern Turkey or northern Iraq will be likely to progress somehow to Albania. From Albania they will go to Italy, then perhaps to the Netherlands and France and then over here by lorry or Eurostar.

The principle of the "first safe country", established by the 1951 convention, that you sought and were given asylum if you established your position as a refugee in the first safe country you reached, is simply not being honoured at present. Nor does the Dublin Convention appear to have made it any better. If anything, it seems to have made the position more complicated. It is clear that asylum seekers should not be allowed to shop around in Europe for a particular country. That position must be clarified at a European Council meeting so that all European Union countries, all of which are regarded as safe havens, will meet their obligations.

That leads me to our domestic problems, which are worrying. I would be the last to think otherwise. In my last year as a Minister at the Home Office there were 7,000 refugee applicants. That number had risen from 4,000. We are told that in the past 12 months there were 76,000 applicants. The graph seems firmly upwards. In my judgment, there are two principles clearly at stake. The first is that unfounded asylum applications, to use the technical term, should be treated and dealt with as quickly as possible within the context of a reasonable and fair hearing. If the unfounded asylum seeker does not succeed, he should be returned to his country of origin as soon as possible. The second, and perhaps even overriding, principle must be to find the genuine refugees, the victims of persecution, those in terrible trouble in their own home, and offer them protection.

Obviously, the larger the number applying, the harder it will be to find the genuine person. I remember that it was difficult enough with 7,000. It must be almost impossible with 76,000. I well remember looking at the files of applicants. I remember looking at photographs of legs that had been smashed and knees that were scarred and twisted, and being told that that was evidence of torture of the applicant in his own country. As a Minister I had to make the terrible decision as to whether such scars were genuine or self-inflicted. At times, that was an enormously difficult, heart-rending job.

So, what do we do about it? Over the past year or two the Government have taken many initiatives. I am sure that in winding up the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, will tell us about them, so I shall not try to do so. However, one that stands out is the starting up of a detention centre at Oakington, the old RAF camp outside Cambridge. I believe that the intention is to deal with 1,000 applications per month. A worrying point is that the costs are £800 per head per week, as stated in a recent Answer in the other place. The Dutch found this to be an extremely expensive way to deal with the problem. I fear that if we go down that route entirely, we too shall find it extraordinarily expensive.

I should like to refer to one or two problems which have been mentioned to me by the Immigration Advisory Service and ask the Minister to reply. First, as the IAS point out, once an applicant is dispersed from Oakington, the IAS find it difficult to keep in contact because the National Asylum Support Service does not supply follow-up addresses. In consequence, the applicant does not turn up at the IAS local office for instructions as to what he should do. From there, he does not turn up when his appeal is being heard. If an appellant does not turn up, his application is automatically dismissed. Can the Minister tell us how many appeals have recently been dismissed because the applicants did not turn up, and what measures he proposes to take to deal with that matter?

My other concern of detail rests with the question of full asylum interviews being conducted at airports. In the old days, when someone arrived at an airport and applied for asylum, he was usually given admittance on a temporary basis for 10 days and told to turn up then with a document which explained his whole position, often known as a statement of evidence. I understand that now, because of the greater number of immigration officials at airports, which is a good thing, many full asylum interviews are being conducted the moment someone gets off the aeroplane, perhaps after a 12-hour flight.

That is not humane. It is not tolerable for someone on arrival at an airport to be put through a three-hour interview on which his or her future life may depend and in which he or she is asked to describe the murder of children at home, rape or other kind of horrible crime. There should be a delay and I hope that where there is none the Minister will agree to its introduction.

As regards statements of evidence, I understand that guidance notes in the language of the applicant are often not available. Unless a statement is completed within 10 days the application is automatically dismissed. That situation also needs examination, and flexibility is required.

The most controversial of my points is concerned with economic migrants. Demographic surveys show us the changing nature of our population. We are told that soon 25 per cent of the population will be over 65, and I declare a personal interest in that. Whichever Government win the next election, there is a case for studying the immigration rules in order to ascertain whether it would be sensible to allow some people to apply for visas to enter this country as immigrant workers. They would apply on the principle that once here they would get a job. They would be allowed to stay for perhaps three years, at the end of which they would be checked out. If they had good references and a continuing job, they would be allowed to stay. Perhaps at the end of the day they might be given indefinite leave to remain. If they did not have a job or satisfactory references, they would be returned to their country of origin. I do not propose that the Government should announce a quota, but they would judge the correct figure on a variable basis.

That would have definite advantages. The negative one is that the economic migrants—those who had declared themselves as such on their visa application—could not have the protection of the 1951 convention. Even more positively, such people could add force to our economy as and where labour shortage becomes apparent, both skilled and semi-skilled. Furthermore, that approach would put out of business the crooks and the Mafia who are making a profitable living by taking savings from and ferrying across the world those whom they fool into believing that they can obtain for them a permanent place here in Britain. As we know from newspaper headlines, some die en route on the Eurostar or in lorries. However, my proposal would remove much of such business from many crooks.

I accept that the suggestion is controversial but it could be the most productive way of allowing economic migrants to apply honestly and openly for jobs in Britain and thus make it easier to distinguish the genuine refugees.

A few days ago, I listened to a Kosovar refugee talking on a BBC programme called "Taking a Stand". She described herself and those like her as both victims and survivors. They are victims, obviously, but as survivors they fought using their ingenuity to travel to a country where they could have a future. Such people are likely to have something to contribute to that country. It was often said that the growth of the USA began on Ellis Island. Refugees need to help themselves and they may well help us, too. That, together with our humanitarian instincts, should be at the forefront of our thinking as regards this difficult problem. I beg to move for Papers.

3.24 p.m.

My Lords, the whole House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, for initiating a debate on this topical subject in order to shed light on it. It is an honour to follow him. I am grateful for the opportunity to set the scene on what kind of people asylum seekers and refugees are. I declare an interest as a former member of the Immigration Complaints Audit Committee, so I have come across some of the background.

Home Office research in The Settlement of Refugees in Britain says that over a third have university degrees; two-thirds were in employment in their home country; and those who had not been in employment were either students or people, mainly women, caring for a home and family. Of the jobs which those in employment had held, 30 per cent were professional; 10 per cent were managers or employers; 20 per cent were skilled; and only 5 per cent unskilled. Over 90 per cent could speak at least one other language besides their own.

By any standards these are capable people, as the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said, who can contribute to the society to which they are driven to flee. Many have capabilities that are extremely useful to the UK. Among those asking for advice at the Refugee Council's training and employment section recently were 216 fully trained teachers, 120 doctors and 39 accountants. It averages £3,500 to carry out the conversion training for a refugee doctor to practise in the UK, as Redbridge and Waltham Forest Health Authority has shown, as opposed to the £200,000 that the Audit Commission estimates as the cost of a full seven-year training course to train a doctor from scratch.

Some noble Lords may have read in the Guardian Yesterday about Professor Abdul Lalzad, a refugee from Afghanistan, who is an authority on the use of solar power to desalinate water, one of many helped by the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics.

The Council for Assisting Refugee Academics has an honourable tradition originating in the persecution of Jews in Germany. I pay tribute to the contribution refugees have made to this country over not just the last two centuries but, in fact, since the origins of settlement in these islands.

It is hardly surprising that refugees tend to be an asset to the receiving country. Many are refugees because they have risked their safety in defending political freedom in an undemocratic country. Such people are likely to have democratic principles of the kind that our society values. The majority are educated young men, so they are potentially net payers into the national revenue. I should like to ask my noble friend the Minister what efforts the Government are making to help such people integrate into employment in this country.

However, whatever the benefits to this country of absorbing refugees, in the end to receive the victims of torture and persecution is not an economic question but a moral one. The economic consequences happen not to be dire and disastrous, as some ill-informed newspapers would have it; and the numbers even of those claiming asylum are a very small fraction of the world total, a small proportion, pro rata, of the European total, and a small increase on previous years. But the reason why democratic countries cannot abandon the victims of tyranny is precisely because of their—our—democratic values: a commitment to universal human rights, underpinned by most of the major religious faiths and by the simple decency of many ordinary people.

3.30 p.m.

My Lords, when I saw this Motion on the Order Paper I was rather nervous about the tone that might be adopted in the debate, but I was fully reassured by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, and agreed with a good deal of what he said. I should like to pick up one particular point; namely, his condemnation of the trafficking in people and his appeal to the Home Office to expend more resources to deal with that aspect of the problem. In a study by some academics at the University of North London published by the Home Office it is estimated that as many as 1,400 women may be trafficked into prostitution in this country every year. When the people guilty of these frightful crimes come before the courts the sentences imposed on them are very light because the case of R v Ferrugia, decided a few years ago, provides a limit of two years' imprisonment in the absence of proof of coercion, which is almost impossible to obtain because the women concerned are generally too frightened to give evidence. I hope that the Home Office will look at the recommendations of that university study and some useful remarks by the Home Affairs Committee of another place about trafficking in people in general, although the committee did not look specifically at prostitution.

I also agree with the noble Lord in suggesting that we look at the causes of refugee flows into the United Kingdom and the conflicts in many parts of the world, such as Kosovo, East Timor, Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Eritrea. The noble Lord added a couple of countries to my list: Rwanda and eastern Turkey, from which a large number of Kurdish refugees come to this country for asylum. The number of asylum seekers is not a dependent variable that can be influenced by government policies but an independent variable with which we must deal as we find it. That is quite clear from the report of the High Commissioner for Refugees published on the 50th anniversary of the UNHCR in which she draws attention to these major problems.

If one looks at our own figures, the originating states are all scenes of internal conflict or severe repression. In Iraq, which consistently heads the list month after month, there is a vicious dictator who executes people without trial and ethnically cleanses the marsh Arabs and the Kurdish population of the Kirkuk area. In the 12 months to June 2000 by far the largest number of applicants came from Kosovo, as one would expect. Certainly, it cannot be said that we are making it so attractive for people to come here that Britain is a magnet for asylum seekers from all over the world. They come into Europe generally and Great Britain in particular, and we must deal with the problem as we find it.

In my remaining two minutes I should like to concentrate on one extremely worrying aspect of the problem: the intention of the Home Office to cram an additional 500 asylum seekers into our already overcrowded prison system. At Question Time today my noble friend Lord Dholakia called attention to the observations of the Director-General and Chief Inspector of Prisons about the serious crisis in our prisons. Can one imagine anything more foolish and irresponsible than to cram another 500 asylum seekers into our prisons which are already finding it so difficult to cope? The Minister, Barbara Roche, has explained that this was a necessary short-term measure which would apply only until October 2001 when additional capacity will become available, we hope, in purpose-built detention centres at Yarl's Wood near Bedford, Harmondsworth and Dungavel in Scotland to accommodate almost 1,500 detainees.

At the end of last year there were 1,195 immigration Act detainees in prisons and detention centres, and that number had risen steadily from fewer than 1,000 in March last year. The reason for the increase given by the Minister, and the planned further rise, is to enable the UK to speed up removals from 8,000 in 1999–2000 to 12,000 in this financial year and 30,000 in the year 2000–01.

If one imagines that every detainee subject to removal will spend as long as two weeks in custody—one hopes that that is a considerable over-estimate—one calculates that 690 places will be required, whereas by October there will be twice that number. Can the Minister say whether, after the new premises are fully operational, the IND will cease to use prisons to detain asylum seekers except in emergencies, when it would be for no more than, say, 72 hours? If not, how do the Government reconcile that with their acceptance of the chief inspector's repeated criticisms of the practice?

Undoubtedly, there are problems to be addressed if we are to achieve the aims of the White Paper and have an asylum policy that is firmer, fairer and faster. I believe that the way forward is not to put up even more barriers which stop qualified refugees, as well as those who flee destitution, starvation and conflict. If the Government go down the road of amending the 1951 convention, as the Home Secretary appeared to suggest and the Select Committee in another place explicitly recommended—here I depart from the noble Lord, Lord Renton—we must beg to disagree.

The UNHCR's Three Circles consultations now being undertaken presuppose that states reaffirm their lawful commitment as signatories to the convention, while attempting to reach agreement on new phenomena that have developed since 1951, such as the militarisation of refugee camps. But to pretend that refugees do not exist by keeping them out of Europe, or making conditions as harsh as possible for those who do get here, is not honourable or humane.

3.37 p.m.

My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, for introducing the debate and for the tone which he set. He recalled his two years at the Home Office where as a Minister he dealt with many of these matters. As a constituency MP at the time, I regularly took cases to him. He always showed great fairness, objectivity and impartiality in the way that he dealt with these matters, and that has been characterised by his speech today.

If ever there was an issue that cried out for a bipartisan approach it is this. It is always tempting to turn asylum seekers and refugees into another partisan question and suggest that one party or another is a soft touch, less competent or more callous than the others. The tone which the noble Lord set today helps us to avoid that trap. The impression that this issue is just another political punch-bag is too frequently reinforced by emotive and histrionic assertions and headlines which are sometimes used against asylum seekers. We should never forget that although asylum seekers present us with a problem we host less than 1 per cent of the world's refugees and should, therefore, have some kind of perspective on this issue.

Before the previous general election I served on the Standing Committee in another place which considered what became the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996. Two years later I participated in the debates in your Lordships' House on the present Government's legislation. The White Paper Fairer, Faster and Firmer correctly identified delays in processing claims as being the crux of the problem in the asylum system. At paragraph 3.3 it said:
"Delays and backlogs on this scale lie at the heart of the problem. They put unnecessary pressure on the staff who have to operate the system. They are not fair to genuine applicants who face long periods of uncertainty about the outcome of their applications".
Since the publication of the White Paper there has been a continued increase in the number of asylum seekers: 71,000 in 1999 to 76,000 last year, which compares with just 4,000 in 1988. Meanwhile, the backlog has risen from some 50,000 in 1997 to 66,000 according to an Answer provided by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, on 25th January of this year. Against those trends, I welcome the Government's decision to put more caseworkers on to processing applications. That has led to about 9,000 decisions per month compared with 7,000 new applications per month. Eventually, that will have some effect. But even those figures may be misleading, depending on the number of cases still to be released to the immigration appellate authority. That points perhaps to the need for further personnel, thus enabling cases to be turned around more rapidly. If, as the Immigration Service Union alleged yesterday, only about 12 people per month are removed against their wishes, it does not suggest that we have yet designed an appropriate processing system.

During earlier debates I suggested that vouchers and dispersal were distractions which would devour resources and energy. Vouchers require hundreds of people to administer them. Two years ago, in the debates on the previous legislation, the Minister estimated that about 300 people would be needed. Those hundreds of people could be properly examining and processing applications. Vouchers were never going to deter people from coming here, and they have not. Experience over the past 10 months shows that vouchers are a bureaucratic nightmare; one which humiliates and stigmatises asylum seekers and flatly contradicts other policies, such as those targeting child poverty and social exclusion. Of the 50 organisations surveyed for the report Token Gestures, 49 stated that the voucher scheme is creating serious difficulties.

In our debate in October 1999 (at col. 1144 of the Official Report on 20th October) I asked the Government about potential stigmatisation and discrimination of voucher users and also about the inability of people using vouchers to receive change when they redeemed their vouchers. I pointed to the inevitable consequences of not being able to shop in places where people on low incomes make ends meet. Of the 50 organisations in Token Gestures, 41 now confirm that asylum seekers are not able to buy enough food, and what they are able to buy is unhealthy and unbalanced. Of the 50 organisations, 42 say that they have seen cases of asylum seekers who have lost some of the value of their vouchers through not receiving change.

Therefore, vouchers have not been a deterrent, as many of us said at the time. Indeed, asylum applications rose by 7 per cent in the year after their introduction.

Scrapping vouchers could release hundreds of people to deal with the current backlog. The knowledge that a false application will be efficiently and expeditiously processed, and ill founded applicants quickly returned, would send a far more effective signal than what has proved to be an ill conceived scheme.

But, if vouchers do not work, nor does the policy of dispersal. Sending two bus loads of refugees to Glasgow each day—1,720 per month—is not a solution. Perhaps the Minister can tell the House how many asylum seekers are refusing offers of accommodation, and what is known about their subsequent propensity to migrate back to the South East of England once they have been settled somewhere else.

As the noble Lord, Lord Renton, implied in his remarks, it would represent a far more honest approach if we allowed economic migrants to come here for short-term labour instead of donning the false clothes of asylum seekers. If they could find regulated gainful employment for short periods, then they could make a useful and honest contribution to our economy. A regulatory approach might also stop their exploitation.

To sum up, an alternative approach might involve five steps: accepting the humanitarian obligation to provide refuge for those who are genuinely at risk; allowing a fixed number of short-term workers to work here legally; abandoning vouchers and dispersal; ensuring a fair system of legal representation and expeditious handling of applications; and, finally, we must construct a more bipartisan approach, as well as fostering the welcome recognition by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, of the international dimension in addressing the reasons why people try to escape and flee from their countries of origin in the first place.

3.43 p.m.

My Lords, it was quite clear from the style and content of the opening speech of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, that he spoke from the heart and with a great deal of knowledge. All of us, I hope, are grateful to him for that introduction and for giving us the opportunity to express both our concern and responsibility for some of the world's uprooted people. The problem is global. I shall refer to that in a moment. But first I want to bring to your Lordships' attention the situation as it is experienced in one region of the country. I hope to demonstrate in that the importance of our local communities in the whole process of absorbing asylum seekers and then refugees into our midst, perhaps in preference to the institutionalisation of them.

In the North East we have experienced the arrival of about 2,500 asylum seekers in the past year. A consortium, led by the local authorities, but with the essential partnership of many voluntary bodies, has vigorously tried to provide housing, friendship and learning opportunities for those who arrive with few possessions and their human dignity under threat. The consortium has so far worked with minimal resources, against the background of difficulties in the dispersal system and sometimes with the threat of racial attacks with limited support for its victims.

Nevertheless, the North East sees many positive opportunities to welcome asylum seekers as people who can make a contribution to the local economy, both in filling and in creating employment opportunities. They create new social and cultural initiatives to support the developing multi-cultural society of the North East and they raise awareness of the world's political and social changes.

North East charitable trusts are very active in supporting the voluntary sector. Health services are putting effort into facilitating medical professionals among the asylum seekers being able to contribute to the health needs of the region. Among them six doctors are practising and continuing their placements in local hospitals. Others are seeking to enhance their qualifications so that they may practice here. Some of the refugees have started their own businesses and are beginning to employ local people. National and local politicians are active in co-ordinating much effort by the churches, other religious groups and community associations, in order to make welcome and useful the skills which many asylum seekers bring. A new project, Genesis 2000, is researching the needs of professionally qualified refugees, not least in language learning opportunities. This research is seen as crucial to providing a long-term future for refugees and asylum seekers.

Through the Legal Services Commission, a number of solicitors in the North East have successfully met the standards set for them and are now able to offer legal advice on a comprehensive basis. I cannot stress too highly the importance of the contribution of many voluntary agencies. Tenants' associations and local churches have created drop-in centres, activity groups, language classes, reception centres and people have provided much personal hospitality in their homes for asylum seekers. These are examples from one region but I dare say that such initiatives are happening in many parts of the country. They should counteract inappropriate and alarmist attitudes which we sometimes hear.

Nevertheless, these local efforts and successes should not hide the size of the national and global problem. Local initiatives are motivated by a desire to offer shelter to uprooted people; to extend sanctuary to people in danger; to ensure protection of uprooted women and girls against all forms of violence; to advocate full legal protection for uprooted children and children in areas of armed conflict; and to challenge government policies which seek to limit protection of uprooted people.

It is important that we understand, and are sympathetic to, the political, economic, social and environmental reasons for uprooting; that we listen to the stories of asylum seekers about the reasons they left their homeland and their hopes for return; and that we examine the role of governments in creating situations which uproot people.

While the debate will serve to draw attention to increasing numbers of asylum seekers, I trust that it will not encourage those who would advocate draconian measures for control. In this country, we are seeing but a small part of a huge global problem which is causing human suffering on a vast scale.

The Government should be urged to participate vigorously in the ratification and implementation of the UN convention and protocol relating to the status of refugees. They should go on and support the protection of the rights of all migrant workers and their families. We should encourage the Government to utilise the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in the help and advocacy that we afford to uprooted children. The international community should further develop mechanisms to protect refugees and those who are internally displaced, or who cannot be voluntarily repatriated.

In these ways at local, national and international levels, we need to demonstrate a civilised world when, for many people, civilisation seems to be breaking up. We can accompany people in decisions to remain, to leave or to return. We can provide services to respond to material, social and spiritual needs. We can support the initiatives of asylum seekers themselves. We can further engage in the enrichment which living in a diversity of cultures affords. Above all, we must avoid the proliferation of prejudiced, knee-jerk and alarmist reactions to a crisis for humanity and the selfish or parochial rejection of foreigners in need.

Of course, there needs to be some measure of discernment but I hope that this will not be at the expense of natural justice and respect for the dignity of fellow human beings.

3.50 p.m.

My Lords, I should perhaps begin my remarks by saying to your Lordships that I have not changed my territorial designation to "early pls", as set out on the speakers' list. It is just that when I put down my name to speak I had planned to be going abroad later this afternoon—not, I hasten to say, as an asylum seeker but more as an economic migrant of the kind mentioned by my noble friend Lord Renton.

I join those who have already spoken in thanking my noble friend for the way he introduced the debate. It is right that the starting point should be the UN Convention on Human Rights. We need to have a care, all of us, not to politicise these matters and certainly not to turn them into party political issues. Britain has a good record in this matter. In responding in the way they have, all political parties are responding to the best instincts of the British people. I hope I may be allowed from these Benches to recall that it was when my noble friend Lord Carr was Home Secretary that my party was the recipient, so to speak, on behalf of this country, of what may be the largest single influx of immigrants we have ever known.

The Minister of State at the Home Office, speaking in another place, was also right to say that since that time conditions have changed dramatically. My noble friend made that point in introducing the debate. International travel and the way in which conflicts now seem to be springing up in the four corners of the Earth have meant that we are now facing problems of a different dimension to those which the framers of the convention could have envisaged—criminality, the exploitation of women and the exploitation of children. It is a problem of a different dimension.

I commend two steps which the Government have taken in their approach to the problem. First, when they introduced the Immigration and Asylum Bill, I was pleased that it was considered by a Special Standing Committee in another place. My party was criticised for not being robust in that committee, but that was simply a reflection of the wish from the Conservative side of the House that the Bill be given a fair wind. Secondly, the introduction of civil penalties has been successful in deterring and in relieving a good deal of the pressure on our ports, although there are a number of matters which the Road Haulage Association would like to see refined.

However, the two cornerstones of the Immigration and Asylum Act have not been successful. First, the dispersal system—the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to it in his remarks: I shall not add to what he said—has been an instigator of racial harassment in a number of instances. It means that the people who are dispersed do not have access to the kind of services that they need and require and it frequently means that they live in extremely squalid conditions. Dispersal has not been a successful policy.

Secondly, the voucher system—the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to that as well—has been a spectacular failure. To be fair to the Government, they have, under pressure from organisations such as Oxfam, which produced a report, responded to many of the criticisms. But, suffice it to say, all 50 organisations that were contacted agreed that since the introduction of the voucher scheme there has been an increase in the number of asylum seekers experiencing problems. The report lists a whole range of problems that have been experienced by these people. Therefore, I think that it would not be unfair and, I hope, too partisan to say that the two cornerstones of that piece of legislation have not been an outstanding success. It is no good the Government saying in the other place that it is all the fault of the shambles left by the previous Conservative government. We have all noticed that we have had a Labour Government now for four years and so that argument wears very thin indeed.

I turn to constructive proposals—and although I worked very closely at some stages in my life with my noble friend Lord Renton, there has been no connivance in this area. One of the proposals that I was going to put forward was that genuine economic migrants should be given a status in this country. They would have a contribution to make—rather along the lines of the guest workers in Germany. That would relieve a good deal of pressure from the system and, at a time when our age profile is changing, they would have a serious contribution to make.

I very much support the proposal made in another place by my party for secure reception centres. The principal criticism levelled against them from the Government Benches is one of cost. It is hardly for this Chancellor, who is about to embark on the biggest spending binge that we in this country have ever seen, which has been rightly criticised by the European Commission, to complain about the cost of what is a serious problem and one with which we are not dealing properly.

In conclusion, I would say that, introduced with the best intentions, the two cornerstones of the Immigration and Asylum Act have not been fairer, have not been faster and have not been firmer. I very much hope that the Government will address these problems and that they will address in particular the suggestion made by my noble friend in the spirit in which it was put forward.

3.57 p.m.

My Lords, we have the impression in this country that we are a generous nation, with a long tradition of hospitality. Like all noble Lords, I am proud of that tradition and I hope that we continue it in so far as we can. I do not believe that this Government are a "soft touch" when it comes to asylum seekers; nor do I believe that this country should open its doors to newcomers without proper scrutiny of the motives for which they come. But this impression of generosity bears closer examination.

If, for example, we measure the number of refugees per 1,000 of our population, we find that in 1999 we were 49th on the list of 150 countries with refugees. Even in terms of absolute numbers, according to the UN, we are 23rd on the list. Europe as a whole has 3.1 million refugees, and last year we ranked 10 out of 25 in terms of applicants per head. So the impression given in all the media that asylum seekers are pouring into the country and causing concern because of their increasing numbers is somewhat wide of the truth. We are not as generous as we should like to appear and sections of the press certainly confirm that impression when they play up prejudices.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that because of persecution around the world applications have gone up from places like the former Yugoslavia and Iraq. Last year the Home Office recorded 76,000 applications. Taking December alone, the main groups were Iraq, Sri Lanka, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia, Turkey and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. All these countries are abusing human rights or torturing their political opponents, or worse. For comparison, asylum seekers in Germany and the Netherlands were also principally from those countries.

One reliable witness is the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. It confirms that an unprecedented number of people sought its help last year. It received 4,957 referrals—1,500 more than in any other year. The countries included Turkey, Sri Lanka, Iran, Iraq and Kosovo. I have a list of the leading groups of asylum seekers in the UK last year: Iraqis, 7,080; Yugoslavians, 5,695. Surely no one can be in doubt that these people are genuinely seeking asylum; indeed 31 per cent of new applicants were accepted last year, and that figure is rising.

Unfortunately, however, the Government's figures have been distorted by the backlog of 66,000 and the now famous "black hole" in the statistics which falls somewhere between initial decisions and final appeals. Initial refusals made on the grounds of noncompliance, or on the fact that forms have not been filled in, are sometimes withdrawn. Similarly, initial appeal decisions may subsequently be altered at a second hearing. In both cases, the statistics are not recorded.

The Immigration Service Union rightly complained this week that too few asylum seekers are being removed. Fewer than 9,000 were expelled last year. Can the Minister say how many more officials are being recruited and how the Government can make up for the acute shortage of legal advisers? This latter point was made earlier in the debate.

While the backlog is being cleared and the statistics revised, it would be premature for us to leap to conclusions about the actual numbers. What we can be sure of, however, is that the evidence confirms that there is a much higher proportion of genuine applicants than was previously assumed. I welcome the Home Secretary's latest commitment to the principles of the convention, to the need for the UN global consultation and, above all, to agree an EU common asylum policy.

I hope that we shall have an opportunity to discuss the wider issues of migration. A moral question arises here. Are we shedding our responsibilities by passing the buck over to countries further away which do not have the means to support asylum seekers? Look at the results in Lebanon today, to take only one example. We see the failure of the UN system and the cruelty shown to second and third-generation Palestinians. I have seen the same resentment in Sudan, Thailand and elsewhere. Over the past few days, we have even seen it outside Calais.

The expanded use of resettlement procedures outside Europe is attractive only if sufficient resources are made available. Macedonia and Kosovo were rare examples. Care must be taken not to bring regular migration criteria into a process designed to help genuine, urgent cases of protection.

The Home Secretary mentioned an "intermediate" category of potential asylum seekers held outside the UK while their applications are processed. Perhaps the Minister could explain this idea. The latest agreement on Eurostar is one specific suggestion, but I have misgivings about a policy designed for the UK and individual states, involving offshore reception centres which could become huge permanent enclaves of stateless populations with no destination at all. At the very least, such a policy should be brought firmly within the EU common framework and widely understood by the public. There is a risk that asylum and migration will become more confused if we tighten the rules to catch would-be illegal immigrants and thereby alter the basic instruments of refugee protection.

Is it not a little premature to propose any international solutions before we have even embarked on a common asylum policy in Europe? Our attitude as Europeans should be one of the basic determining characteristics of our European identity, yet we have given it the lowest priority.

Finally, I am sorry that the Home Secretary has again brought up the concept of safe countries. We went through this during the passage of the 1996 Bill when the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had a fast-track "white list". All the specialised agencies commented on how unworkable it was because a genuine fear of persecution exists in every country.

4.3 p.m.

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, pointed out in his commendably thoughtful speech—the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, and others made the same point—it is essential to keep a sense of proportion. Of the total number of refugees in the world, the European Union hosts less than 5 per cent, and Britain less than 1 per cent. The overwhelming majority are in the third world. Tanzania, one of the poorer countries of the world, alone hosts 413,000. Last year, Tanzania received only 46 per cent of the humanitarian aid for which the UN appealed.

The Home Secretary referred to generous international aid for Kosovo refugees in Albania and Macedonia in 1999. That may be true, but no other area of the world with refugees has received that level of aid.

Having spent most of my life outside Westminster working for humanitarian agencies, I constantly find myself despairing at our failure to focus on the conditions which lead people to migrate. In recent years, escalating violence and cruel persecution across the globe have increasingly compelled people to flee their homes, often at enormous risk to themselves and their families. The majority of refugees coming to the UK to seek asylum in recent years have come from the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Colombia, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. All of these, without exception, are countries where there has been serious conflict or where grave human rights abuses are common, or both.

Yes, the figures for asylum seekers are rising, but it is obvious that there are connections between those and the increases in human rights abuses and persecution. Despite the increase in the number of asylum seekers, it remains true, as has already been emphasised in this debate, that relative to our size of population, last year, Britain was still well down the list of European countries taking such seekers.

It has been suggested that asylum seekers should remain in the first country to which they flee. If that was applied across the globe, it would place an even greater burden on some of the world's poorest countries, which already host a disproportionately high number of refugees. In our own continent, it would accentuate the burden on frontline states where surely, if European co-operation is about anything, it should be about sharing in our response to humanitarian challenges.

It has also been suggested that we should consider revising the international laws and conventions covering the rights of refugees. But surely the period of the immediate run-up to a general election, with all its inevitable heat and hype, is precisely the time not to question such fundamental rights. Already there has been altogether too much emotion, sensationalism, exaggeration and prejudice. I fear that it would get worse. If changed circumstances in the world do demand a reconsideration of the rules, as laid down by great statesmen of vision in the aftermath of the Second World War, this should be done carefully, dispassionately, rationally and in the context of a determination to uphold the rights and protections of those at risk, not as part of a competition to win the prize for macho negativism.

By the same token, we should be wary of restrictions on the nations from which the European Union states are prepared to accept applications for asylum. After all, the former so-called "white list system" has been discredited. The core principle must remain that asylum seekers are assessed as individuals and not as mere national categories.

Trafficking in human misery is an evil business. Those responsible must be dealt with severely. There can be no doubt about that whatever. But we shall all be judged harshly by history if we use the existence of such wickedness as a cover for our own retreat from humanitarian commitments. Too often, economic refugees—which undoubtedly many asylum seekers really are—are spoken of with disdain. They are called "opportunist fraudsters". But in our own society here in Britain, those who, when they are faced with economic or industrial decline, "get on their bikes"—as it has been described—and go and look elsewhere for work and a secure future for their families, are regarded as model citizens. In our globalised existence, where is the dividing line in principle between the opportunist and the model citizen? We worship the free global market, but it is a free market only for the movement of capital and goods. It is not a free market for the movement of labour. This represents a gigantic distortion of free market principles and we are now faced with the consequences.

Migration will not go away. Global warming and climate change may yet make what we face today seem like child's play by comparison. The whole vexed question is a vivid example of how the market alone will never be an adequate tool for the management of human affairs. We urgently need to get our act together with our partners in Europe and beyond on development aid, world trade, conflict resolution, human rights and environmental policy. Persecution and conflict feed the flow, but perhaps even more important, it is rampant injustice and huge differentials between the rich of the world and the poor of the world which lie at the root of it. Strategic, lasting solutions will be found only by facing up to this. All else is temporary tinkering.

As we come up to the general election, do we want the debate to turn on how we can become an effective, caring, humanitarian nation, facing up to the challenges of human society as a whole, and of which we are inextricably a part? The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, set the tone remarkably well for such a debate in what he said today. Alternatively, do we want to accelerate the slide into becoming a neurotic, selfish, mean and xenophobic offshore island people seemingly intent on betraying our young by pretending that they can have a viable future without belonging to the world?

4.10 p.m.

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend for the way in which he has introduced this debate. I believe that the question of how asylum seekers are to be handled is one of the most difficult and delicate questions that can confront any government. I am not at all surprised that in a recent debate in another place the Home Secretary said that the issue caused him more trouble than any other. Surely, that statement speaks volumes. I often think that any Home Secretary must reflect on the words of Hamlet:

"The time is out of joint; O cursèd spite, That ever I was born to set it right!"
I do not believe that any party recently or currently in government has handled the issue particularly gloriously.

It is perhaps helpful to have a slightly historical perspective. Your Lordships may be astonished to learn that I cannot remember the days in the 1930s when we experienced the influx of Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria. However, my reading and general understanding leads me to believe that there was no general concern about either the number of those refugees or about the integrity and efficiency of the arrangements made for processing and resettling them in our society.

In the more recent case of the Ugandan refugees, to which reference has already been made, I do not think that there was a general lack of confidence in the arrangements, although in some quarters some concern—mercifully overcome—was expressed about numbers. In both those instances, the arrival and resettlement of those refugees, supported in the main by the public, immeasurably redounded to the advantage of our country and totally conformed with our national reputation for hospitality in such circumstances.

In the case of asylum seekers from a much wider sector of the world—the problem that we currently face—the contrast is very stark. Today there is a very widespread perception that the system, if not out of control, closely borders upon being out of control, and that to an increasing and alarming extent it is influenced, if not dominated, by criminal racketeers. I use the word "perception" in the context that anyone with experience of Northern Ireland might expect. In Northern Ireland one is taught, if one has not already learned it, that perception is almost as important as fact when people's fears are aroused.

Without duplicating what has ably been said by many noble Lords—especially by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, most of whose speech I warmly adopt—I should like to make the point that any society must have restrictive criteria governing the influx of people into its society—those who claim asylum, those who claim to work here. To avoid the kind of alarming and damaging perceptions that I have endeavoured to describe in this particularly delicate field, whatever system any government put in place has to be seen to work. The present system is not working. It is not working in relation to the control that the Government are able to exercise; it is not working in relation to contact with people whose applications have failed; and, considering the other side of the coin, it is not working with regard to the conditions to which people within our shores are subjected in those circumstances.

Reference was made by my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry to what was said yesterday on a BBC radio programme by representatives of the union for immigration officers. That report seemed to indicate that those representatives spoke almost with despair of the failure to ensure the departure from this country of those who do not meet the criteria I believe that they also spoke about the criminal influences to which I have already referred.

In August last year The Times published a report of a Home Office official suggesting that there are living and working in this country hundreds of thousands of people with whom the Home Office has lost touch. I do not know how much reliability can be placed on that report. However, in his reply, I hope that the Minister will be able to say to what extent the Home Office is in touch with those whose applications have failed and what steps are being taken to ensure that a higher proportion leave this country when their applications, having been adjudicated upon, finally fail. Perhaps the Minister will also confirm that more than two-thirds of applicants fall into that category.

I turn briefly to the other side of the coin. It is a national disgrace that we still impose the voucher system on asylum seekers. Not only is the remedy that they receive extremely mean, but the abominable system by which they can use their vouchers to buy only essentials, from which they cannot obtain change if the sum does not add up, almost beggars description.

I truly question whether, under the European Convention on Human Rights, it is lawful to deprive people of their money in that way.

In conclusion—I had hoped to deal with the question of housing, in respect of which many adverse comments have been made—I urge the Minister to consider the proposition that the rules we impose are not being seen to work; that blatant breaches of them and their obvious ineffectiveness fuel the most damaging perceptions, not least in those parts of the country where reception takes place; and that we neglect at our peril the urgent need to ensure that public support is regained.

4.17 p.m.

My Lords, before turning to the question of numbers, I should first like to mention some ways in which the asylum system could be made more user-friendly. When consulted, all the NGOs said that the voucher system is so fundamentally flawed that it cannot be reformed. Will the Minister say when the Government intend to respond to that consultation? Meanwhile, will he confirm that change will always be given when vouchers are presented as payment? In that regard, I could not agree more with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew.

I turn, secondly, to the matter of long-distance travel to interviews, which I raised at Question Time in this House on 25th January. At that time the Minister was unable to reply positively to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford, who very reasonably suggested that interviewers should visit applicants, not vice versa. Has further consideration been given to this point? Can I expect a favourable reply to my subsequent letter to Mrs Roche at the Home Office?

Thirdly, I deal with the perennial question of detention. When will the automatic bail provisions of the 1999 Act be brought into effect? In my view, they are long overdue. I believe that if full use were made of the good offices of NGOs and churches, detention for reasons other than deportation could be greatly reduced. As has been mentioned, it is a disgrace that parts of our already overcrowded prisons should be occupied by asylum seekers who have committed no offence in this country.

My fourth point concerns appeals. Will the Minister say how many appeals are dismissed in the absence of applicants? When that happens, are applicants always represented? Is there a lack of natural justice, which may increase the number of cases presented for judicial review? I should be grateful if the Minister would provide figures relating to those points.

Fifthly, I deal with the question of deportation. The present and previous governments must share the blame for failing to deport asylum seekers who have exhausted all procedures without getting any form of leave to remain. Why do we have the elaborate procedures if those whose applications fail can remain?

Will the Home Office consult the Department for Education and Employment to see whether any of our current shortages of teachers, doctors, police officers and computer operators—here I follow on from the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, and the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker—could be directly relieved by asylum seekers? At a less skilled level, it is quite possible that government offices here in London—and even the Palace of Westminster—might not get cleaned if it were not for the presence of many failed asylum seekers. These may play an important part—I suspect that they do—in the labour market at a time of low unemployment and low inflation.

I return now to a point that I have previously raised. Many thousands of people have leave to remain, but they are not British citizens and often do not have any valid passport should they wish to travel. I therefore ask whether they can please be treated at least as well as those who are technically stateless. Will they be provided with travel documents acceptable, for a start, throughout the European Union, and, if possible, more widely?

I conclude by mentioning numbers. The recent large number of applicants has little to do with welfare benefits. It has much to do with the widespread use of English as a second language, with Commonwealth links and with the existence of settled communities in Britain of people who have, over the years, come here from overseas. In addition, this country has a reputation as a fair and just society. I trust that neither the tabloid press nor Her Majesty's Government will take away from this good reputation by adopting unnecessary, macho postures.

4.22 p.m.

My Lords, one of the problems of being number 11 on the list of speakers in a debate such as this is that many of the points I was going to make have been made by previous speakers. I decided that I would jot down three points to contribute to your Lordships' debate. The first point has been completely covered by a number of speakers—particularly by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich—and the second point has been covered, almost word for word, by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, who spoke much more eloquently than I would have been able to.

I am therefore left with my third point, which I make with a deep sense of anger—although, in the wonderful spirit in which this debate has been conducted, I shall attempt to turn that anger into sorrow.

A Motion was carried in the other place on 1st February when the Home Secretary moved that the House,
"reaffirms the obligations of the United Kingdom under the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees to provide asylum for those fleeing from a well-founded fear of persecution".—[Official Report, Commons, 1/2/02; col. 477.]
In my view, this country at the moment just about complies with its international obligations. What really concerns me is that it is the intention of the Government to stop complying with those obligations in a number of ways in future.

If we look beyond these noble and decorated portals to what is happening outside the House, we shall find, particularly in parts of the national press, that there is a very dangerous Dutch auction taking place between the two main parties in this country over the question of asylum. It is no coincidence that there is a general election on the horizon.

Everyone says that they want to honour the obligations set out in the Home Secretary's Motion; and everyone talks about doing the right thing by genuine refugees. The problem is, however, that the powers that be are turning the screw on asylum seekers who reach this country and ratcheting up the political hysteria. Hardly a day goes by without some new story in the press—whether splashed in the tabloids or reported in a more responsible way—about new tough measures to deal with the problem. I ask the House to consider the effect that this has on asylum seekers who have come here because they were enduring intolerable conditions at home and believed that this country was a fair and just place for them.

Almost all the legal means of getting into Britain from these countries have been stopped. People cannot get visas. When people started coming across in lorries and then on the trains, that was stopped. All kinds of modern technology are now being used, possibly rightly, to stop people coming across in the backs of lorries.

It is clear that there is now a developing new trade in small boats. If people want to cross the Mediterranean or the Adriatic to get into the European Union, most of them cross in small boats. It is very dangerous; there are a lot of deaths and many people suffer injuries. There is now an increasing traffic in small boats across the Channel and the North Sea and, in my view, it will not be long before we hear horrific stories about people being drowned.

These measures were found not to be working and so we have a new policy of sending these people back. Perhaps the Prime Minister will stand on the quay at Dover to turn people away; to put them back on the boat and return them straight to France.

At the same time, we had the suggestion from the Home Secretary that people should not come to this country but should go to the nearest safe country next door. But many of those countries are not safe and, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said, many of them are being destablised and are taking a far greater share of the burden than they can possibly handle given their circumstances.

I have a friend seeking asylum here who I believe has been tortured. I shall not go into details because his case is still being examined. He escaped to this country having spent almost four weeks in the back of one of these lorries—almost four weeks—and yet people say that he is here for an easy life because we are a soft option. His friend merely escaped out of Iran into Turkey. He was chased by Iranian security forces into Turkey and captured in Turkey; he was taken back to Iran and has now disappeared.

Finally, we are told, the answer is to deport lots of people. If the system had been working better, we would not have got into this situation.

I am ashamed of the fact that political debate in this country is dominated so much at the moment by this issue. It is a question of humanity, human rights, our international obligations—and it is about individual people, who, in many, many genuine cases, have come here to escape from suffering. The noble Lord quoted from "Hamlet"; I shall give a different quotation from "Hamlet":
"It is not, nor it cannot come to good".
What is happening in this country is a disgrace that involves the national media and national politicians. I urge all politicians to stop ratcheting up this issue; to take it off the burner; and to go away and fight the general election on more honourable issues.

4.28 p.m.

My Lords, like all noble Lords who have spoken, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has delivered a high-minded speech, with much of which I sympathise. But scarcely any of those speeches—except for that of my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew of Twysden—considered the effect upon our own people of being so generous in accepting so many people from abroad. That is a matter which we have a duty also to consider.

Never in our long history have we had such a large invasion of genuine and bogus asylum seekers as we have had in the past few years. In the past year there has been an increase of 76,000, which is almost the size of a new constituency. My noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry was right to raise this matter.

Perhaps I may dare to do what my noble and learned friend, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, started to do, which was to put the matter into its historical and indeed geographical perspective, especially as regards England. I do so because, 20 years before my noble friend, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, did so, from October 1959 for 3½ years I was responsible at the Home Office for controlling the immigration of foreigners, as it was called then. We had no control over the immigration of British subjects from the Commonwealth because they were entitled to come here. They came in enormous numbers. About 150,000 each year were coming here. They came as refugees, but for economic reasons.

My Lords, will the noble Lord accept that the migration was based partly on the settlement for the independence of Commonwealth countries? Commonwealth citizens were given rights as British subjects, which they exercised.

My Lords, that is history. Perhaps I may move to the present. We had to introduce the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 which limited the right of Commonwealth citizens to settle here. The Labour Party voted against it on more than 40 occasions and threatened to repeal it when they came to power. However, the Labour Government did not repeal it but strengthened it, and quite rightly so.

According to the 1961 census, which was then the relevant figure, the population of the United Kingdom was 51,284,000. Thirty years later, according to the 1991 census, the figure was 54,192,000, which is an increase of nearly 3 million in 30 years, which was not too bad. But now the figure is nearly 60 million, which is an increase of about 6 million in 10 years. That is a very big burden for the people of our country to bear.

Of course, England is much more heavily populated than other parts of the United Kingdom. Therefore it is in England more than elsewhere that immigrants have caused unemployment, housing congestion, hospital, health and education problems. They contribute towards urban congestion in our large towns and cities.

Although the number of asylum seekers has greatly increased in the past few years, it is fair to point out that the problem had already become serious when the present Government came to power in 1997. It is now worse. We must give the Home Secretary, Mr Straw, the fullest support in such attempts as he has been able to make so far to deal with the problem. I need not repeat the arguments which have already been used about the need to strengthen controls in various ways. As I say, I believe that they should be strengthened, which is what the great mass of our native people expect the Government to do.

4.34 p.m.

My Lords, when I arrived in England as an asylum seeker about 35 years ago it was with an overwhelming sense of relief and gratitude to be in a free and tolerant country where human rights were respected and those fleeing from persecution were welcomed. When I was granted British citizenship five years' later I felt immeasurable pride to be a citizen of such a country. But today, when I read the newspapers demonising immigrants and recklessly stirring up hatred of them, with many politicians competing with each other in proposing ever more draconian measures to prevent immigrants entering this land, I hardly recognise this country as one of which, above all others, I had aspired to become a citizen. Having now listened to the speeches in your Lordships' House today, I am greatly encouraged that I made the right decision.

It is almost inconceivable that, on the one hand, the Government are set on depriving poor countries of the nurses, teachers, information technology specialists and other professionals, which these poor countries so desperately need, and on the other hand, the Government are erecting almost insuperable barriers for many political refugees and economic migrants. Surely, that does not accord with the principles of justice and fairness for which this country once had a fine reputation.

The starting point for an examination of the issues must surely be the reasons for some of these barriers. Are they myths or realities? Some noble Lords who have spoken today have exposed some of them as myths. I chair Oxfam. It has produced a briefing paper examining the major arguments used by the media for their attacks on immigrants. If I had the time I could take noble Lords through it. It covers issues such as Britain being a soft touch, taking more than its share of refugees. It also deals with council taxes being increased to fund asylum seekers. It either rebuts many of these myths, putting them in the dustbin, or places them in their correct context. Having read and studied them all, one really wonders what is the media's motive in raising the issues in the way that they do and ignoring the impact that their actions have on refugees both in and outside this country.

In practice, the Government have erected barriers to the admission of all immigrants. There are two distinct categories of immigrants; one is asylum seekers who are entitled to entry and the other is economic migrants who, as a rule, are not so entitled. To the extent that the barriers created discourage or deprive genuine asylum seekers from entry, the Government must surely be in breach of their obligations under the United Nations Convention on Refugees to which they have subscribed.

There are positive steps that the Government could take to assist genuine asylum seekers. Perhaps they already exist and the Minister may refer to them in his reply. Surely, it would be possible to fast-track the applications of asylum seekers who have a strong case and to avoid sending them to detention centres.

Turning to the second category, economic migrants, there is a powerful case for a coherent policy which would enable an appropriate number of them into the United Kingdom each year. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, has made the case far more eloquently than I could. I would add one caveat. It cannot be right to cherry-pick and limit entry into the UK in order to allow in only professionals which the country needs. Surely, it must be the case that if we are to deprive poor countries of the skilled resources which they desperately need, we must be willing to accept as future citizens an appropriate number of less skilled, and even unskilled, immigrants.

I make one final point regarding refugees seeking political asylum being restricted more or less to the countries closest to where they are being persecuted. The argument raised by the United Kingdom Government seems somewhat self-serving. Because Britain is an island bordered by the European Union, the number of asylum seekers who would enter Britain as the "first safe country" would be very small.

4.40 p.m.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for bringing this subject to your Lordships' attention, and for his well-balanced remarks in opening the debate. There is little doubt that serious problems exist in our immigration and asylum policy and it is alarming to hear from the Immigration Service Union that the asylum system is nearly out of control and that there is no satisfactory system for returning bogus asylum seekers.

However, I wish to be clear from the start that I really do believe in giving asylum to those who are found to be genuine asylum cases. The problem is that there are too many bogus asylum seekers and far too many illegal immigrants. It is to these people that my remarks apply, not to the genuine cases. I support the view expressed by my noble friend Lord Renton.

There has been a staggering increase in asylum applications in the United Kingdom. Applications rose from 26,000 in 1990 to just over 76,000 last year. This country now ranks second after Germany for the total number of entrants. This begs the question as to why so many asylum seekers and illegal immigrants attempt to come to the United Kingdom and how we can stem the flow to ensure that genuine asylum seekers are dealt with in an efficient and speedy manner.

Some of the reasons why asylum seekers come to this country have been given by the Home Affairs Commons Select Committee. There is scope for them to live here without any official documentation; there is a generous interpretation of asylum law. An excessively slow decision-making process allows them to live here for years while their cases are reviewed. Benefits are readily available, and there is a good chance of a job. There is a hopelessly inefficient system for removing them if and when they are told to go, and they have access to public services such as health, education and housing. In fact, it has been said that the UK is known as a "soft touch".

Another reason that makes it easier for asylum seekers to come to the United Kingdom is that, once they have crossed into one European country, there are no border controls until they attempt to cross the Channel to come here. There is no doubt that the majority of applicants have been in a democratic country—frequently referred to as a "safe country"—before reaching the United Kingdom. But more alarming is the fact that two-thirds of all asylum applicants are already inside the country.

Under the outdated 1951 UN convention, we are still obliged to consider requests for asylum. The convention clearly needs revising. However, it would be a huge and time-consuming task. The Government do not believe that this would be the most efficient way to progress. However, under the convention it seems open to a country to return an asylum seeker to a safe country through which he or she has travelled. The convention protects them from prosecution for illegal entry only if they have come directly from their country of origin. Illegal entry from a safe country is not protected. Clearly and logically, the requirement is for asylum applications to be made in the first EU country reached. Any subsequent country to which the applicant travels should have the right to insist that the application for asylum be made in the previous country.

It is clear that some other countries operate their border policy in a different way to that of the United Kingdom. But we are fortunate still to have border controls. We had the good sense not to sign up to the Schengen agreement; otherwise, the flood gates would really be open. We are fortunate that Britain is an island, with identified ports of entry, be they by rail, sea or air.

It is interesting to note how other countries deal with this problem. Perhaps we should take a leaf out of their book. Illegal immigrants entering Germany from the Czech Republic and Poland are returned to those countries immediately without the issue of asylum being raised, as it is deemed that they have come from a safe country and so have no need to seek asylum in Germany.

It is clear that our measures to deter and detect illegal entry into the UK are not effective. It beggars belief that the Home Office is not aware of the number of failed asylum seekers who leave of their own accord and, consequently, it does not know how many failed asylum seekers remain as illegal immigrants. There is no system for monitoring departure and, because the Government do not know whether visitors, students and failed asylum seekers have left the country, they cannot tell how many people have remained beyond the time permitted. This in itself must make the UK very attractive to illegal immigrants and bogus asylum seekers. It is important to note that the Home Affairs Select Committee has recorded the Home Office as being dilatory in enforcing the removal of people whose asylum claims have been refused and those who have gained illegal entry into the UK. This in itself has attracted more people to this country.

In conclusion, how can some of these factors be counteracted in the immediate future? We should search all lorries while in transit on ferries. A card should be issued for entitlement to benefits. That would have the effect of helping to deter and detect illegal immigrants; it would certainly help to address benefit fraud. Employers should face substantial fines if they are found to be employing and exploiting illegal immigrants. We should provide the necessary resources and up-to-date technology to ensure that the Immigration Service can do its job efficiently and properly. Finally, we should ensure that asylum applications are made in the first EU country reached.

4.46 p.m.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, for providing us with the opportunity to debate this matter. I should like to join the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, in concentrating on the public perception of asylum seekers.

In November last year, a group of young asylum seekers addressed the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Children. Among them were two Kosovan young men, one of whom was head boy at his new school, a young Eritrean man, a young woman from Afghanistan and a young Nigerian woman. The last of these was incensed. She could not tell schoolmates she was an asylum seeker. She felt that, if they knew, they would shun her. Several of the young people expressed their gratitude at being given refuge in Britain. However, the mood of the meeting was one of outrage at the portrayal of asylum seekers.

It is wholely unacceptable that children who have experienced persecution in one country should face further aggression where they should expect protection. Your Lordships are doubtless aware of the hardships experienced by refugees. These have been highlighted in this debate. Their tales of liquidation, destruction and family loss are familiar to Members of this House, if not so much to members of the general public.

Perhaps I may give my own illustration. Last spring, I became acquainted with a young Somali man who had spent three weeks sleeping on the streets of King's Cross before finding a bed at Centrepoint's shelter in Soho. His village had been razed and his parents had been killed. He did not know what had become of his brothers. A foreign traveller offered to help him leave the country. He entered Britain, somehow missing the normal authorities and was taken into the home of a Somali woman. Eventually, she was no longer prepared to house him. As he had missed the normal immigration procedure when he first entered Britain, he was not eligible for benefit. So he found shelter in an arcade in King's Cross. He appeared to me to be a gentle and well brought-up young man of intelligence, exhausted after his ordeal.

I am sure that your Lordships will agree with me that in our anxiety to control the flow of economic migrants we should not wish to, albeit inadvertently, perpetuate the hardship of refugees in this country. A small number of asylum seekers have been placed in detention camps. Most are not allowed to work in their first six months here and are given vouchers to buy their food and other essentials. The Government may or may not be justified in such measures. However, the consequence of these measures is that asylum seekers are made to seem like criminals, outcasts and layabouts. The effect is to degrade asylum seekers in their own eyes and in the eyes of the public—as Mustapha, a contributor to the Prince's Trust research into the needs of disadvantaged young people put it to me this morning.

I am encouraged by the news from the Refugee Council that local authority consortia in the dispersal areas are making good progress in their health, education, housing and media plans for asylum seekers. Can the Minister assure the House that those media plans will be well resourced and robust? Can the Minister say what else is being done to ensure that the public are aware of the circumstances of refugees? The warm reception of Kosovars in 1999 demonstrates that if politicians and the media communicate those circumstances the public can be overwhelmingly sympathetic. What steps are being taken to make all students aware of why people become refugees? I recognise that this is an issue for which the Government are castigated perhaps more by their own Back-Benchers than by the Opposition.

The fact that the Home Office is beginning to reduce the backlog of asylum applications is most welcome. The fact that removals and voluntary departures of asylum seekers increased by 8 per cent last year is some encouragement although it must be qualified by the comments that other noble Lords have made this afternoon. If the Government were to achieve their goal of a four month turn around for asylum seekers, that would dramatically improve the way asylum seekers are perceived by the public. However, currently, many of the British public appear fearful at what they see as rising numbers of asylum seekers. There is a possibility of their assuaging that fear by attacking asylum seekers or supporting attacks in the media. The current situation is grave.

4.51 p.m.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, for initiating the debate. The noble Lord was at one time a Member of Parliament for mid-Sussex where I live. Of course he did not expect me to vote for him, but I have listened to him with great care. His contribution today is an example of how we can debate such issues without giving rise to saloon bar politics.

Immigration and asylum issues are fairly emotive. I am glad that my noble friend Lord Greaves highlighted what could happen if such issues are raised in an emotive way during a general election campaign. In the past we have seen such issues exploited. I suspect that with the proximity of the general election in a couple of months, the same pattern may again emerge. My appeal to politicians is to take great care in the way such issues are debated. I hope that they will follow the example of the noble Lords, Lord Renton of Mount Harry and Lord Garel-Jones, and others in the way they debated the issue. I was disappointed at the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Renton. I listened to him with great care. In one clean swipe he has destroyed my hope of ever being classified as a native person of this country. However, I shall, of course, forgive him for that.

Rational debate is part of our political process but that carries with it a responsibility to ensure that it has no damaging effect on those who need our protection. There is evidence that emotive debates have resulted in violence and harassment, as has been repeatedly pointed out today. It would be a shame if, in the country to which asylum seekers have turned for protection from persecution, they were to find themselves victims of harassment based on xenophobia.

Britain has a rich history based on a nation of migrants. They have made a unique contribution to the prosperity of our nation. In arts, science, technology and politics they have made important contributions. Let us consider the last major intake of refugees in the 70s. The noble Lord, Lord Garel-Jones, mentioned that. In that case a Conservative government accepted over 28,000 Ugandan Asians. No one would dispute the fact that they have made a great contribution to our economy. We are indeed grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carr of Hadley, who was Home Secretary at that time, for the way he handled that issue. To this day many east African Asians worship him for the action he took. It was a courageous political decision and a lesson for successive Home Secretaries to follow.

We are now seeing major political parties competing with each other in their readiness to curtail the arrival of newcomers. Of course, every country has a right to determine its immigration policy and must take into account the national interest. With the increasing development of a global economy, the pressure to migrate is immense. There is no doubt that the distinction between economic migrants and those in fear of persecution is often blurred.

Equally, western nations require the skills now available in many parts of the world. The drop in the birth rate signals a dilemma for countries such as Germany and Britain. In a declining working population, who will pay for welfare and pensions? It is here that we need to balance the rhetoric with reality. We shall have to look at immigration and the arrival of newcomers as an ongoing process. No longer can we slam the door in the face of those who can make a substantial contribution to the prosperity of our nation.

However tight the controls, we know that they do not always work. The Runnymede Trust report on the future of multi-ethnic Britain states in relation to the control mechanism:
"There are three problems with this approach. First the sense of panic the issue instils and the subjectivity with which it is discussed lead to bad law, giving rise to challenges both in the UK courts and among international human rights bodies.
Second, it prevents or obstructs an objective and forward looking examination of the need for, and benefits of, immigration.
Third, it undermines Britain's development as a cohesive but diverse society, for it implies or indicates that politicians are not genuinely committed to addressing all forms of racism".
Those are hard words but politicians have themselves to blame for the present situation. The way we have dealt with asylum issues must bring shame to those who are responsible for the legislative framework we have established. What is the reality: three major Acts of Parliament over six years and press campaigns that smack of xenophobia?

The situation facing us today is of our own making. The previous administration happily allowed cutbacks in immigration staff to a level which seriously affected the ability to handle the backlog of applications. The present Government did little to recruit additional staff until the backlog reached crisis point. That situation should never have been allowed to happen and the Government should bear full responsibility for it. As my honourable friend Jackie Ballard said in the other place,
"If people in other countries know of a backlog of applications in the United Kingdom, how long it takes to process the applications and the inadequacy of the system to monitor the departure of failed asylum seekers then that in itself is a pull factor that draws them here".
We need to separate economic migrants from those who are genuinely in fear of their lives or who are persecuted in their homeland. What we have done over a period of time is to close all doors so that there is no way in which a genuine asylum seeker can enter the country legally. That is why we see massive exploitation of human cargo and why we see people suffocate in container vans. Those who are responsible for such exploitation are never brought to justice. All of us must condemn such practices.

Let us consider those who arrive on our shores. Have they broken any laws? The law provides for them to claim asylum, which many do. It is the system and the weakness in the decision-making process that create the backlog. If the Government cannot reach a decision on time, they must accept the blame. To make asylum seekers scapegoats is unacceptable.

In May 1997, the average intake per month was 2,590. In December 2000, it was 5,820. The total in that year was 76,040. Today the figure stands at 71,160 or thereabouts—a slowly declining number. As the noble Lord, Lord Judd, pointed out, in terms of asylum applications, the UK ranks 10th out of 25 in Europe. As has been said, this year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the refugee convention relating to the status of refugees. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes a right to seek political asylum. The convention on refugees gave that right legal expression. We have a long history of offering refuge to those who flee persecution. We must maintain our obligations. It is still a reality that the vast majority of refugees remain in the developing world. Many of those countries do not receive sufficient international aid to cope with that influx. We have seen the rise in violence, war and persecution in many parts of the world which has contributed 'to the growing number of asylum seekers.

The Government were ill advised when they made earlier pronouncements about bogus asylum seekers and beggars only to retreat when public opinion condemned such volatile expressions. We support the proposals for common EU asylum procedures, but we are concerned that refugees seeking asylum should remain in the first country to which they flee.

The proposal is flawed. It would place an even greater responsibility on some of the world's poorest countries which already host an unfair proportion of the world's refugees. Of course we need to distinguish between illegal immigration and asylum seekers. We need to separate economic migrants from those who are victims of persecution. We need to co-operate with other EU countries to fight organised crimes relating to trafficking in human cargoes.

But we must never lose sight of the contribution that refugees have made to this country. They have brought economic benefits to this country. Those communities have gone through all the disadvantages and yet come up with success stories. We should welcome them. In generations to come, we shall value their contribution because that will determine the prosperity of our nation.

5.1 p.m.

My Lords, all noble Lords appreciate the initiative of my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry in securing the debate and his introduction of it. The result has been a calm and constructive debate about what we all agree is an extremely difficult and potentially emotive subject. We can also agree that it is both an economic and moral question, as the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, said. We have long accepted our obligations to genuine refugees.

However, there was also considerable concern during the debate, as there is outside the House, that the Government's policy is not working satisfactorily. It is working neither efficiently nor humanely. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 was supposed to deter unfounded applications. Statistics demonstrate that it has not done so. The dispersal and support system was supposed to spread asylum applicants across the country to be looked after. That is not succeeding.

The statistics are clear. The number of applications was 76,000. That does not include dependants. The figure is 100,000 including dependants. Of those applications, half or so are eventually refused but, according to the Home Office, only about 9,000 actually leave. The union tell us that about 12 a month are removed forcibly. About 1,200 a year leave with financial assistance; and others leave voluntarily. The Government's new system is not deterring applications. Neither does it prevent those who are not refugees from staying more or less permanently

Those figures demonstrate that it is not solely a question of perception. People need the reassurance that there is a fair but efficient system which looks after people who come as potential refugees. If they have that reassurance everything else becomes much easier. When the dispersal and voucher arrangements were being discussed during the Bill, there was a great deal of scepticism and foreboding throughout the House. Many of those warnings have proved right.

A most interesting Answer to a Written Question by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, on 6th February stated that there are 534 staff employed by the National Asylum Support Service of whom 523 work in head office and one in each of 11 regions. So whoever else has been dispersed, it is not the support system. Its motto seems to be, "Go where we say", not, "Come with us". That issue may need to be considered.

Reference has been made about the review of the voucher system. On 27th November the Home Office asked for responses by 22nd December. If the Home Office could respond to those submissions with the same speed with which they expected other organisations to submit their view on this difficult subject, we should have had the result of the voucher review in mid-January, even allowing for Christmas; I do not tie the Home Office down to a precise number of days. When shall we see the results of the voucher review?

Several noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry, referred to the need for guest workers. We need some immigrants for economic reasons which I understand. But a separate system of work permits addresses that question. It works reasonably smoothly and allows temporary and often permanent immigration into this country in the national interest. That is the system which should be addressed with regard to that question; it is not the subject of today's debate.

The underlying, long-term problem which is the subject of today's debate is clear. We live in a crowded island. We have debates on the shortage of housing and land, in particular in the South East, the Midlands, the west of England, the London area, and so on. I think that we have been tolerant of foreigners throughout most of our history. Many Members of your Lordships' House—we have heard from the noble Lord who spoke recently—are descended from immigrants and many holders of ancient peerages have a lot of overseas blood. We have a long tradition of accepting refugees. There is no doubt that we have benefited from that.

Despite some of the newspaper headlines, I believe that there remains in this country a great reservoir of caring towards those who come to our country in this way. It was illustrated magnificently in the debate, notably by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham who spoke about what was being done to look after refugees in the North East. Over many years, we have accepted economic migrants and sympathise with their reasons for coming.

However, the world is much smaller. Travel is much easier than it used to be. Information travels more easily. More people know about the conditions in other countries. Reference has also been made to the fact that there is fighting in many parts of the world. Civil war and repression give rise to huge movements of refugees. I believe that we cannot take all who would like to come. We have an obligation but we need a humane and efficient policy to deal with it if we are to reassure our people. I am sorry to say that I do not think that the present system is working humanely or efficiently.

This country has made a considerable contribution to development aid and conflict resolution. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, spoke about them. They play a huge part. But criminal gangs have given rise to increased problems with asylum seekers. I hope that the Minister will find a minute or two to tell us more about what is being done to combat criminal gangs, because we all hate that phenomenon and want it to be dealt with as severely as possible. In particular, we want an assurance that the organisers of the gangs who profit from the practice are at least in danger of being locked up.

The debate has also raised other questions. My noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry and the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, referred to appeals dismissed in the absence of the applicant. That is a result of dispersal and of the difficulties in making contact with legal representatives in time.

There has also been confusion in the past few days about the costs of current asylum policy. The Minister in the Commons, Mrs Roche, said that the cost was £600 million, but the Home Office letter to No. 10 Downing Street in the Sunday Times said that it was £834 million this year. There seems to be some confusion. It would be helpful if that was cleared up.

The Home Secretary has started talking about revising the 1951 convention and about EU co-operation. That is useful, but it is for the long term. The daily problems need to be dealt with. That is why my right honourable friend Ann Widdecombe has suggested secure reception centres for asylum seekers. That is a humane contribution to the problem, not an inhumane one. We can look after people better in reception centres, where interpreters, social workers, lawyers, medical services and immigration officials can attend to them. Of course, the change cannot be made overnight, but it can be given priority, particularly as the Ministry of Defence is shedding barracks and camps. This seems a good time to start. We have done it in the past in special cases, and it must be at least part of the future of this very difficult subject.

5.12 p.m.

My Lords, I join in the general congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, for initiating the debate. More than that, this afternoon he has begun to lead us in a more constructive direction in the character and content of the debate. In one sense, his speech might be seen as a fightback from the liberal wing of the Conservative Party. I read it that way. His plea for decency and fact to lead this important debate should be welcomed throughout the House. I was pleased that noble Lords welcomed the way in which his speech was delivered. I found much to agree with in the content of the noble Lord's speech but—then, I found much to agree with in the content of many of the contributions to this stimulating debate, which I hope that people will take careful note of.

The issue of asylum is frequently the subject of public and media discussion, as many noble Lords have said. However, its complexities are rarely well understood. The front page of this morning's Sun newspaper gave an ample example of that. An abuse of statistics is an understated way to describe that front page. It ignored the facts. Last year—it is important to say this for the record—there were more than 9,000 removals of asylum seekers, not the 12 that the front page tended to suggest. That exceeded a previous record of 7,600 in 1999. That compares with 4,840 in 1996. There were also more than 28,000 non-asylum removals last year. The number of cases in which there has to be an escort to a point of destination is 30 per month. I do not understand where the statistics that the Sun decided to alight on came from, but they are misleading. Such misleading statistics and facts have been all too common throughout the debate on a subject that should be dealt with dispassionately, decently and with integrity, because it is a sensitive subject.

At the risk of adding to the welter of statistics that have already been bandied around your Lordships' House this afternoon, it is right to try to put the asylum pressures in context. The total number of applications last year was 76,000. That was an increase of nearly 7 per cent compared with 1999, but it was smaller than the increases in the preceding two years. There was no increase in the period from April to December 2000 compared with the similar period in 1999.

As many noble Lords have said, it is vital to recognise the European and international context of the figures. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, made that point. In comparison with the zero increase here that I have mentioned, other European countries have had increases: the numbers for Sweden increased by 53 per cent, for Denmark by 42 per cent, for Ireland by 18 per cent, for Belgium by 16 per cent, for France by 14 per cent and for the Netherlands by 6 per cent. The figure for the EU, excluding Italy, was 1 per cent. As the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, said, we remain in the middle of the European league for the number of applications received per head of population.

The number of asylum seekers applying in the United Kingdom, as well as in other European countries, is largely a result of political instability in other parts of the world. It can be little accident that the top four countries are Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Somalia. In contrast, we have successfully reduced numbers from countries to which removal is more straightforward. From April to December last year, applications from eastern Europe were at 3,295—almost half the number for the same period in the preceding year.

Asylum is a complex issue for any Government. Many noble Lords have made that sensible point. There are no easy solutions or quick fixes. We are committed by the convention to provide genuine refugees with protection from persecution. We shall do so with pride. However, there can be no doubt that asylum is being used by traffickers, who profit by exploiting illegal immigration. We must take firm action at national and international level to deal with that criminal activity. We must also take action at international level to deal with some of the factors that create asylum pressures for the United Kingdom and Europe as a whole. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Cope, who made that point, arguing for conflict resolution and aid as possible means of solving some of the problems.

On the domestic front, we have embarked on the most comprehensive programme of reform for decades. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, was right to call for investment. We have invested. In contrast with the under-investment in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate under the previous Government, we are investing to create a modern and efficient system. We have recruited more than 3,000 extra staff, including about 500 asylum decision-makers. As a result, a record 110,000 initial decisions were made last year. I pay tribute to the hard work of all IND staff, which has contributed to the tremendous achievement that those figures represent. The backlog of initial asylum applications has fallen by a third, to 66,000, as at the end of last year.

Faster decisions do not mean lower-quality decisions. We have invested heavily in providing high-quality training to our case workers, who also have support from a team ofbarristers working alongside them. As a result, adjudicators upheld decisions in eight out of 10 appeals last year.

The Immigration and Nationality Directorate and the Lord Chancellor's Department are working together to deliver a faster appeal system. The Lord Chancellor has trebled the courtroom capacity, doubled the number of interpreters and appointed an extra 150 adjudicators. The average time that it takes to hear an appeal has halved over the past 12 months. Almost two thirds of appeals are dealt with in four months.

For those who are allowed to stay at the end of the process, we are working to ensure speedy and effective integration into society. My noble friend Lady Whitaker made a plea for that, and that is exactly what we are doing. Over the centuries, refugees have enriched our society. Last year, we launched a national strategy to co-ordinate the efforts of central and local government and the voluntary sector to ensure that we achieve that integration.

Again, I want to echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, in complimenting the noble Lord, Lord Carr of Hadley, on the work that he undertook when he faced similar problems in the early 1970s. I believe that his work provided an example and a beacon which future governments must live up to. We certainly intend to play our part in doing exactly that.

In the interests of genuine refugees, we must also face up to the need to remove those who make unfounded claims. That is perhaps more straightforward in relation to some countries than it is to others, but it is always extremely resource-intensive. We are providing substantial additional resources to support asylum removals.

Next year we intend to return 30,000 failed asylum seekers. That is a bold claim and it will certainly be a tough target for us to meet. We are recruiting additional immigration staff and expanding detention capacity. The development of three sites which will provide 1,700 extra beds is under way. With the International Organization for Migration, we are developing a voluntary return programme. However, no one should underestimate the difficulties of that task. In the case of many countries, achieving the return of unfounded applicants is extremely difficult. Those difficulties are shared by all European countries.

In parallel with the additional resources, the 1999 Act represents the most comprehensive overhaul of immigration legislation for three decades. Two key provisions were rolled out from April last year. The new National Asylum Support Service began on 3rd April. I would argue that it has established a coherent, national system of support to replace the shambles created by the legislation of the previous government. That left local authorities in London and the South East with an intolerable burden. The new scheme has been phased in very carefully.

I believe that those who, for example, criticise the dispersal arrangements must remember that it was pressure from many Conservative authorities which led to the introduction of that scheme by our Government. Those authorities have welcomed that approach. I accept that, as with any new system, there will be operational difficulties and pressures. However, the system is working better than many people predicted. As it beds down, the distribution of responsibility for supporting asylum seekers will be much better and fairer.

During the course of the debate this afternoon we heard praise indeed for the extension of the civil penalty scheme, which deals with those who bring in to this country clandestine entrants by road, through the Channel Tunnel, by ferry, and so on. As we made clear, the purpose of that measure was to encourage hauliers and others to improve security and thus prevent their vehicles being used and abused by the facilitators who organise clandestine and illegal entry for their own profit.

We are now seeing the benefits of the scheme. The civil penalty has created strong commercial pressures on hauliers and ferry operators to introduce better security systems. In early December, P&O Stena Line introduced carbon dioxide checks on vehicles which use their ferries at Calais. As a result, so far almost 1,400 persons have been found and handed over to the French authorities. Compared with the four weeks before the checks were introduced, in the four weeks from 6th December there was a 41 per cent reduction in undocumented passengers and clandestines dealt with at Dover.

Other measures in the 1999 Act are also helping. Wider powers to fingerprint applications are helping us to tackle fraud and abuse by deterring multiple applications. In December, a new electronic fingerprint system was introduced at the Asylum Screening Unit in Croydon. It will be extended to the major ports soon. More than 100 fingerprint matches have already been identified from new applicants at Croydon. Thirty-two applicants have been arrested. Of those, 11 have been charged with various offences, including making false statements and obtaining leave to remain by deception. Four have been convicted, with two receiving sentences of imprisonment for three months. We are also now extending civil penalties to freight trains.

The Act has been implemented in a planned, phased way. We are yet to see the full effect of its provisions and of other measures that we have introduced. In particular, we have still to see the full effect of faster decision-making and appeals, extending the civil penalty to rail freight, and increased removals. However, there are good signs that our strategies are having an impact on unfounded claims from Eastern Europe.

I want to turn to the need for effective international action—

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. If he is passing from his rosy account of the 1999 Act, is it only by inadvertence that he has, I believe, failed to mention the disgraceful voucher system and the statutory theft of asylum seekers' money which it perpetrates? Will he deal with that matter because I did raise it?

My Lords, I was hoping to come to that in my later comments. However, the noble and learned Lord has raised the issue. Of course, we recognise that problems exist in relation to the voucher system and, for that reason, we set up the review. We are satisfied that it is consistent with our obligations under the Human Rights Act. The review is considering evidence and allegations that have been made about the voucher scheme—for example, that it is stigmatising and humiliating. Obviously, if problems exist, we shall seek to tackle them. Undoubtedly the review will be thorough. We are most grateful for the contributions made by Members of your Lordships' House and others and by organisations which, quite rightly, represent the interests of refugees and refugee communities.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for making that point. I am most grateful to him. Can he tell us what is being done in relation to the matter of change, which several of us asked about?

My Lords, undoubtedly that is one issue on which the review will pass an opinion. I shall not pre-judge the outcome of the review. It would be quite wrong for me to do so, and I am sure that the noble Lord would not expect that.

In a debate in this House on 1st March last year on the subject of asylum, I believe that it was the noble Lord, Lord Renton, who said:
"It is for consideration whether we should now consult other countries, especially Germany, which has absorbed even more immigrants, as to whether the Geneva Convention should be modified".—[Official Report, 1/3/00; col. 579.]
Perhaps I may re-emphasise that we are committed to meeting our obligations under that convention. However, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has begun a debate within the EU and beyond about how we can develop a more rational and effective international protection regime—one that enables us to devote less time and effort to dealing with unfounded claims for asylum. As several noble Lords, and notably the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, said, the convention was conceived in different times. There is an urgent need to develop an international protection regime which is better suited to this new and different age. I am glad to say that that is being recognised by the UNHCR.

In the meantime, we must work closely with our partners in Europe to develop practical solutions. We are working closely with the French Government. Security at Calais has been tightened. We have agreed on the introduction of juxtaposed controls for Eurostar passengers. Juxtaposed controls will enable UK officers to operate our immigration control at stations in France which serve the Eurostar.

In addition, at the Franco-British Summit last Friday in Cahors, we reached agreement to extend those controls to all passengers using Eurostar, whether they intend to travel to the UK or only to Calais. That is a significant improvement in our security, given that in January alone 458 inadequately documented passengers arrived here, having boarded the Eurostar with a ticket for Calais.

The French Government intend to have those measures ready for implementation by June this year. I believe that that demonstrates their understanding of the great concern which the abuse of this route causes to the United Kingdom Government and our citizens. We have also agreed to work together closely in developing a replacement to the Dublin Convention in a way that operates more effectively than the current convention, which does nothing to discourage asylum shopping.

We are also working with other countries to tackle the organised criminals who control the traffic of human beings, particularly through the Balkans. We are extending the immigration liaison officer network in the western Balkans and other countries. Officers will be sent to Zagreb, Budapest, Vienna and Rome as soon as possible. We are working with the Italian Government and other EU member states to provide hands-on assistance, advice and training to help the authorities in that part of the Balkans.

As a follow-up to the discussions at the informal Justice and Home Affairs Council on 9th February, the United Kingdom hosted a meeting of officials on 12th February to take that work further forward. In accordance with the conclusions of the Nice European Council, we are looking for early agreement on measures to impose tough penalties on traffickers across the EU.

We have a comprehensive strategy to deal with asylum. We are investing substantial additional resources. We are streamlining procedures to deal fairly but more quickly with asylum claims. We are putting in place new measures, such as the civil penalty and new fingerprinting systems, to tackle illegal immigration and to deal with those who abuse the system. Those are tough measures. During the passage of the Immigration and Asylum Act, the noble Lord, Lord Cope, said,
"indeed, it is tougher in some important respects than the approach of the previous government".—[Official Report, 29/6/99; col. 183.]
We are also taking action at the international level to deal with asylum pressures, which affect the whole of Europe.

Only a few minutes remain in this debate, and I am aware that many questions were raised on which I have not touched. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, asked how many appeals were dismissed because appellants could not turn up at an appeal hearing. Statistics on appeal outcomes are the responsibility of the Immigration Appellate Authority. Although about 80 per cent of appeals are dismissed, I understand that figures for those dismissed because the appellant did not attend are not available.

The noble Lord said that interviewing asylum seekers immediately on arrival was unfair. It is our objective, as it was of the previous government, of whom the noble Lord was a member, to interview asylum seekers as soon as possible after they make their claim. That is part of our effort to speed up the process, and it is an effective approach.

The noble Lord also questioned the arrangements for statement of evidence forms to be returned. We will soon ensure that guidance about the completion of those forms is available in the 60 languages that are most commonly spoken by asylum seekers. We believe that the time limit for completing the forms, which represents about one quarter of the two-month period for making the initial decision, is fair. About three quarters of applicants complete the form on time.

The noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, asked about the measures that we are taking to integrate graduates and skilled workers. We are committed to ensuring that refugees should have every opportunity to rebuild their lives in the community for their benefit and that of their families. Last November, I believe, we launched the full and equal citizens initiative, which examines the ways in which government and the wider community can do more to help with integration.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked about the number of asylum seekers who did not want accommodation but did want vouchers. As of 29th January, 33,300 applications for support had been received, and 9,100 were for subsistence support vouchers only.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked whether the Immigration and Nationality Directorate would cease to use prisons for the detention of asylum seekers. Some 500 prison places are provided for detention of asylum seekers. That is only a temporary arrangement, which will last for roughly 12 months. It is not desirable for that part of the prison system to be used in that way.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, asked when we would announce the conclusions of our consultation process. I have dealt with that point. There have been many useful representations. Earlier this year, we said that they would be drawn together and that is still our intention. I shall of course ensure that the correspondence to which the noble Lord referred is chased up. It is important for Members of your Lordships' House to have a timely response to the important questions that they ask.

The noble Lord also asked whether case workers could go to asylum applicants to interview, rather than vice versa. That matter was raised in the noble Lord's correspondence. Without pre-empting that matter, I doubt whether such an arrangement would in all events be practicable. The conduct of an interview requires suitable premises and often an interpretation facility. It is essential to use our operational capacity to best effect. However, we are increasing capacity in Liverpool and Leeds to enable additional interviewing in the regions.

I have tried to answer as many questions as I could during the debate.

My Lords, I asked a question to which the noble Lord did not respond; namely, about the costs of the process. The suggestion was that it was £600 million, but a letter from the Home Office in The Sunday Times said that it was £834 million.

My Lords, I willingly confess that I struggled to find the figures in my briefing notes. I shall endeavour to correspond with the noble Lord—I always do, and find it very amenable. He will be provided with those figures.

This has been a useful, valuable and stimulating discussion. We have moved the debate on. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, is to be congratulated on that achievement this afternoon. We have had a civilised debate—such debates should be conducted in that way—and the noble Lord will help us along that important path.

5.35 p.m.

My Lords, this has been a moving debate on an important subject and I thank all those on all sides of your Lordships' House who took part in it. The debate has been singularly free of political cant, as several noble Lords said, and it explored several issues that are of continuing importance in this context.

Several noble Lords referred to the failure of the voucher system. In response to the winding-up speech of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, I have to say that the matter will not rest there. Those who are in receipt of a voucher may find that deeply unsatisfactory, for all of the reasons that were mentioned. It is no good to be told, "It will all be sorted out one day". Recipients need to know when that will be done. Those noble Lords who raised the matter will doubtless return to that matter.

I suspect that the same is true of the question of dispersal, which is of great importance. My point about the long interviews conducted at airports of people who had just arrived after a difficult 12-hour journey from another part of the world needs further investigation, as does the time for filling in statement of evidence forms. We also need to ensure that notes are available in the right language for those who fill in those forms.

The debate has moved this difficult issue forward. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, and my noble friend Lord Garel-Jones for supporting my suggestion that we should find a place in the immigration statistics and rules for details about economic migrants. Such migrants might, in due course, be able to come to this country for some years as guest workers.

Finally, I was struck by the words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham. He referred to charities in the North East that helped refugees and illegal immigrants, and said that that demonstrated a civilised world to those who had lost touch with civilisation. I hope that our debate this afternoon will be seen by the outside world as a step in the same direction. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.