Lord Avebury: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has a distinguished record as a staunch advocate of the rights of refugees and his timely advice is more relevant than ever as the Government tighten the screws, making it ever harder for genuine refugees to get through the system, and try to starve those who are unsuccessful into going back where they came from, however atrocious the conditions there may be.
The Home Secretary said that the immigration and asylum system was unfit for purpose when it emerged that 1,000 foreign national prisoners had been released without consideration of whether they should be deported, yet the Chief Inspector of Prisons had expressed concerns to Ministers in a number of reports going back several years about the absence of a strategy for managing foreign prisoners. Dr Reid's reaction to the tabloid hysteria was to divert resources into detaining all the foreigners who had been released at the end of a
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sentence, including EU citizens who were not deportable, such as an Irish citizen with health problems and a history of self-harm who had lived here for many years with a British partner and child.
The combustible mix of foreign prisoners, fast-track detainees and young single men in the last few days prior to removal was the probable cause of the disturbance at Harmondsworth which led to the loss of 500 places in the detention system and knock-on effects in all the establishments to which the detainees were transferred. Many, perhaps hundreds, had to be accommodated in prisons, so that the numbers there reached an all-time record of nearly 80,000. When half of Yarl's Wood was destroyed in a previous riot, there was an inquiry by Stephen Shaw, some of the lessons of which obviously have not been learnt. Should there not be a full public inquiry into what happened at Harmondsworth and its causes, considering the damning verdict that it was not performing satisfactorily against any of the tests of a healthy custodial establishment?
The chief inspector reported in July that the average length of detention at Harmondsworth had increased from two to six weeks. At her previous inspection, the longest period anybody had been detained was five weeks, but this time it was two years, with 22 people held for more than six months. No doubt the Minister will explain the reason for the discrepancies between the facts and the story shetold the House a week ago. One reason for the deterioration is that experienced immigration officers had been replaced by basic administrative grade personnel with no direct involvement in casework, their only function being to relay messages between detainees and externally based case-holding officers. One detainee, who had been in Harmondsworth for more than 19 months following a short custodial sentence, could not be removed because his consulate refused to issue a travel document. Your Lordships’ Select Committee on the European Union reported eight months ago that there were only four EU readmission agreements with countries of origin, and those were not with countries that generated many asylum seekers. The committee said that more effort should be made to negotiate those agreements, and to promote acceptance of EU travel letters as a substitute for official passports. What progress has been made on these issues?
Last week, the Minister said that she was not aware of problems arising from the merits test and the reduction of legal aid funding in 2005. BID, in its evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, says that the test, which requires a supplier to assess the chances of success to be greater than 50 per cent in any one case, and to achieve a 40 per cent success rate overall, is a major deterrent. Practitioners are bound to err on the side of caution, because if they take on cases that fail, they risk having their contracts withdrawn. What happens when a practitioner goes out of business? Where a firm was shut down because the LSC thought that it had committed some irregularities, hundreds of clients were left in the lurch. No attempt was made to ensure that their cases were dealt with properly by someone else. I was
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approached one Saturday in February on behalf of one client, a 22 year-old Eritrean who had been detained in Yarl's Wood since 15 September—a period of five months. Removal directions had been given for the following Monday. After numerous telephone calls, e-mails and faxes to MODCU, and to the Minister, her removal was deferred, and competent solicitors came to her rescue. They submitted a fresh application on the basis of new evidence, which was successful. The person concerned is now doing an access course with a view to entering nurse training. Like most Eritreans, she will be an asset to our country and its economy. How many others had just as good a case as this particular individual and failed, because they were not able to get competent advice?
With detainees, the LSC proposes the extension of the exclusive contract model which has been tried out on fast-track detainees, citing it as a successful model of service provision. This is in the absence of any evaluation and despite growing concern about the quality of the fast-track suppliers. Some 55 per cent of the fast-track appellants at Harmondsworth had no representation, because of the merits test, and this together with the speed of the process leads to a very small proportion of successes. At the time of the incident last month, there were 15 Darfurians there, all fast-tracked, who had been abandoned by their representatives from several firms and lost appeals that they had to conduct themselves. Another solicitor picked them up in the nick of time, and one has been granted permission to lodge a fresh application. Two are before the High Court, 11 are awaiting IND approval of their fresh applications, and one, who said that he was a member of the Janjaweed, has I hope by now been deported. Will the Minister issue instructions that people escaping from genocide should not be fast-tracked and should have representation on their appeals?
Sixteen countries are now on the NSA list under Section 94 of the NIA Act, which means that people from those countries have no in-country rights of appeal at all; but while a country may be safe for the population in general, it may still be dangerous for particular groups.
On 24 November last year, an order was passed designating Nigeria and Ghana, but for men only. I asked whether the Government would consider a similar partial designation for countries where rabid prejudice exists against LGBT people, the outstanding example being Jamaica. The Minister, whom I am glad to see in his place, said that he would look into the matter. It was not until a year later and after two reminders, in August and October, that Joan Ryan MP wrote to me saying that she would suggest that the country information on Jamaica be reviewed at the next meeting of the advisory panel in March 2007. That is an inadequate response to the evidence that gays are at risk of persecution and physical harm in Jamaica, and the Home Office should act to remove them from the NSA list.
On Report of the IAN Bill in February, we moved an amendment with government support arising out of a discussion that we had with the Minister at the end of Grand Committee allowing for repeal by order
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of Section 9 and connected bits of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004, which provided for the withdrawal of support from the class of failed asylum seeker with family. If those persons did not take reasonable steps to leave the UK, the Secretary of State could certify them, which would mean that support was withdrawn from adult members of the family, as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, has described. We said that it was an inhumane way in which to coerce vulnerable families but welcomed the increased grants for those prepared to return voluntarily in appropriate cases. The pilots of Section 9, which were then being evaluated, had caused enormous distress and terrible destitution, according to the Refugee Council and others, and had drawn attention to the human rights violations caused by depriving families of support. The JCHR will almost certainly recommend that the Government exercise the power to repeal Section 9. Have the Government published a report on the pilots and will they not act on this before being pushed into it?
When the Home Office launched its new asylum model in January it claimed that by December genuine refugees would be granted asylum quickly and those who failed would be quickly removed. Instead, in the latest Home Office statistics, the number of cases awaiting initial decision is up and 1,200 have been in the queue for longer thansix months. The proportion dealt with in less than two months was down and lower than in either of the two previous years. The number removed was down by26 per cent and lower than any of the previous five quarters. The Home Secretary has been in his job for eight months and it is time for him to take the rap instead of blaming his officials.