BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 2.06.02

Interview: SIMON HUGHES MP, Liberal Democrat Home Affairs Spokesman.

Why do the Liberal Democrats oppose Government plans to deal with asylum seekers who come to Britain.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Every other week it seems the government comes up with yet another tough policy to deal with asylum seekers. The problem is not only those who try to get into the country illegally through the Channel Tunnel for instance, but also those who have made an application for asylum once they're here, and had it turned down. It was those Mr. Blunkett had in his sites last week. He said, he wants the law changed so that instead of being allowed to make their appeal in this country, they can be sent back, either to the country they came from, or to a European country they passed through on their way to Britain. The Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman Simon Hughes says that is morally wrong, and he's with me. Good afternoon Mr. Hughes. SIMON HUGHES MP: Good afternoon. HUMPHRYS: What's immoral about it? HUGHES: It takes away the responsibility we have for giving people a fair hearing, and it undermines that, in fact, only six months ago in the government's own White Paper, it said not allowing people to appeal here would undermine justice, so they had that position six months ago, and the logic is seen in a parallel with the Criminal Justice System. If you presumed that you were going to treat people differently between the first hearing and the appeal, people would say that's outrageous. You've got to give people full rights, the same rights to appeal. And the figures show how important it is, about one in five cases last year succeeded on appeal. So the Home Secretary's effectively saying, I want to send out of the country, people, one in five of whom will succeed if they pursue their appeal, to another country, which might well pass them on to a third country, and so on. It's a pass-the-parcel, when we should, if we could get our act together, if we could just organise ourselves well, be able to deal with people here. It's also immoral because it panders to prejudice, it stokes resentment, and it gets rid of the principle which says you have a judicial review of the system in this country, rather than having a part review of the system in this country, and the rest you have to go abroad to exercise your rights to, to use. HUMPHRYS: But they will still, that's the important point, that last point, they will still be able to exercise those rights, albeit in a different country. HUGHES: Well, the two options Mr Blunkett indicated, where they go back to the country they came from, that in most cases is not an option, because by definition they've come from there because they don't believe they're safe there, or they go to 'another safe country.' Well let's take France, which is the obvious example, the definition of what is asylum in France as it happens is different from the UK, because they don't accept non-state persecution. It's been a controversial issue over the years, so the courts here have said, it's not the same to go to France or to Germany, because the standard is not as high as it is in the UK, so it's not giving them the same rights as if they were remaining in this country. HUMPHRYS: But it seems a bit odd to object to them being sent back to a country with a perfectly good record on human rights, such as France, or Poland, or the Czech Republic or Hungary, or... HUGHES: I accept that. The difficulty is that the French, under the present system, might say, well, they're nothing to do with us. That's what they've been saying in relation to the people outside Calais at Sangatte and therefore they logically could say well, we'll pass them back, they must have come from somewhere else, let's pass them back to Germany. The system's a nonsense. I've been to Sangatte, I've talked to people there, many of them don't know exactly where they crossed into the European Union. They were in a lorry, they'd paid their twelve-thousand Dollars in Afghanistan to get to the UK, or to get to Europe and then they were told to apply to the UK. They were dumped at Sangatte, they don't know where they crossed the border. The sane system is to have a European system which says, no matter where somebody appears, whether it's in Italy, people coming off the boats, whether it's in Spain, the people having come across the Straits of Tangier, or whether it's at Sangatte, wherever they appear, we will have a common processing system, technically you have to apply to an individual country, so let's say in that case it's France, but the European Union will share responsibility for making sure that fair numbers are distributed across the EU. And we're not even anywhere near the top of that league table, we're tenth out of sixteen countries, in the proportion relative to population we take. It really is something that we should try to see in perspective and proportion and get a common system agreed between us instead of raising the anti... HUMPHRYS: Nobody I am sure would argue that a common system is to be greatly desired, and the sort of thing you've just described might be ideal, but we don't have it, that's the problem, and by your own admission, twenty per cent of the applicants succeed, that means eighty per cent of them do not succeed... HUGHES: Just let me just be clear about the figures. The figures are roughly that twenty per cent of original cases succeed on the first round, as it were, there are about another twenty per cent which succeed either because there's a judicial review, or because they're given leave to remain here. So about a third, between a third and a half of all people, coming over the last decade, have been allowed to stay. HUMPHRYS: Right, but the majority, nonetheless, are turned down... HUGHES: ...their majority at the end of the process, are turned... HUMPHRYS: ...or well, unless it's third and the figure probably fluctuates a bit, doesn't it? HUGHES: does. HUMPHRYS: But anyway, the fact is, the majority, even if it's only a small majority are turned down and what you're saying, and let's look at it now from a practical point of view rather than the moral point of view, what you're saying is that we, people of this country, should bear their costs. We should carry on housing, clothing, feeding them, all the rest of it? HUGHES: When we signed up to the Convention in nineteen-fifty-one, where Britain actually was a key country in drafting the Convention and establishing the rights, the deal was that the countries who were receiving applicants would look after the asylum applicant until they could deal with their case. Now most applicants for asylum do not come to Britain, they don't come to Europe, they go to Pakistan, or they go to Central Africa, we get a very small proportion, if, and the figures as the UN commissioned this week says, have been cut by half in Europe over the last decade, if we can't organise ourselves, the fourth most successful economy in the world, to process these cases, that's a failing of us, and the only reason there's perceived there's a crisis, is because we haven't put the resources in, we haven't had the processing done properly. You can have a perfectly proper system, and a quick system, and a fair system, without saying 'I'm sorry, if you're going to appeal, you're going to have to appeal from somewhere far away, where to be honest, there's no guarantee you will have the same opportunity to do so as if you're here.' HUMPHRYS: But it is perceived as a crisis and there are enormous political ramifications of all of this as we both know, and as everybody watching this programme knows, and something has to be done, most people believe, and if you look at another set of figures that the financial figures, we read this morning that it's going to cost in the current year about a billion pounds to deal with asylum seekers. Now for a politician to sit there and say, don't worry about it, we should pick up that bill... HUGHES: ... it was us that don't worry about it. It's, take a European context, Mr. Blair said when he goes to the Seville Summit of the European Union leaders, that he wants the Spanish Prime Minister who's in the chair at the moment to come up with some proposals, we should go to the European Summit with proposals, we should say, come on, this is a matter we need to share responsibility for, and we should say get our act together quickly. But the UNHCR, the other agencies, are willing to help us. They're quite willing, it seems to me, to say 'ok, whether people are in Sangatte, or in Spain, or in Britain, or anywhere else, let's deal with them civilly, let's uphold the human rights we've always done, but let's make sure we have the resources in to progress the case. We have a nonsense system at the moment, I agree with you. For people to have to smuggle themselves under the Channel in order to put a case to come to Britain is a nonsense. It is a much more sane system, that wherever you appear in Europe, you can put the case there. Indeed a much more sane system than that would say, if you get out of say, Afghanistan last year, and you get to a relatively safe country like India, then why can't you put your case as an asylum seeker in India to come to the UK just as at the moment you can put your case for a visa to come to the UK, so there is a bigger picture and it could be done quickly, and it really doesn't mean saying we can't do anything now, and all the evidence is that if you just put up the barriers and have a fortress Europe mentality, that doesn't actually stop people trying to come here, and it certainly doesn't uphold the human rights of people who now look to us from countries where for the last two-hundred years we were very happily walking into their countries, conquering them, running them, administering them, and migrating into them. HUMPHRYS: A slightly different issue, but yes, ok, accept that point... HUGHES: ...we've gone round the world... HUMPHRYS: ...indeed, indeed, indeed... HUGHES: ...into everybody else's, and they're now looking to us for help... HUMPHRYS: ...indeed we have, but we have to deal with the world as it is today, and not as it once was, or indeed as it is as you would like it to be. Are you, be clear about this, are you saying you have no problem, you do not believe it is a problem that we have the number of asylum seekers coming here today that we had, that isn't problem as far as you are concerned? HUGHES: I believe it shouldn't be a problem to deal with. HUMPHRYS: Well is it? HUGHES: Well it is only because the government have not dealt with it competently, it's a failure of the past and present government, and I'm not blaming individuals, they have not realised that throughout Europe over the last ten years there's been civil war in Southern Europe, and they ought to have had the resources in place, it's a bit like the prison issue - it's no good thinking that you can resolve the problem of overcrowding prisons without having different policy either to have more prisons or to have different sentencing. It's all predictable. So yes, it is a problem, but it's a problem of the government's own making. And the solution is not for the Home Secretary to change policy in six months for the third time to say we're going to be even tougher, to pander to prejudice, to be honest, sometimes to only quote half the figures, as he accepted he did when he'd done an interview on the BBC a few weeks ago, which was then corrected in the Commons later in the day. We really must tell people the facts, and if people know that about a third to a half of all cases are valid, and for the other people, they want to be economic migrants, and we should have a case for letting them put their case, then we would have a sane system, but we have an insane system at the moment, and anybody that's been to Sangatte and seen the terrible conditions we condemn people to, as a continent, would realise how insane a system it is. HUMPHRYS: Though some people would say, they chose to come here, they chose to go to Sangatte and if we're talking about figures, just, just have a look at them, seventy-two-thousand applications last year, that was an increase that has increased, that had, it tends to go up and go down a little bit, granted, but that was an increase in the first quarter of this year... HUGHES: ...yes but John... HUMPHRYS: a lot of people say that is, that is a worryingly large figure... HUGHES: ...on the figures, if you look over the decade as a whole, in Europe the figures have been cut by half, but in Britain they've gone up, more people have come to Britain, and that's because, if one country suddenly tightens its system, what happens? People don't go away, they just go somewhere else within Europe, they go to another country, it's very irresponsible. HUMPHRYS: That's our problem, exactly. HUGHES: Well yes. That is a very irresponsible system for us to say, right, we're going to tighten now, thank you very much France, you take the burden. Because then what happens, the French will tighten it even more... HUMPHRYS: ...yes but you see... HUGHES: it is a pass-the-parcel, and that's a nonsense. HUMPHRYS: ...but the French view is, is that our rules are simply too lax. The French are not at all surprised that we've got people coming here, they believe that they're too lax, we are too lax? HUGHES: Of course, and that's why you need a common system so that there isn't a great difference between what happens in Belgium or Italy or Spain... HUMPHRYS: ...but in the absence of that common system... HUGHES: ...but why should there be an absence? HUMPHRYS: ...well because there is. I mean let's just deal with it as it is today, lunchtime on a Sunday, there is an absence of a common system, and what you seem to be saying, is let us actually have a more lax system... HUGHES:, no not at all. I'm saying, have a system, let me give you a practical example, and I deal with lots of asylum seekers and immigrants in my constituency on a weekly basis, more than almost any other MP. You go to Sangatte, you interview the people there, you give advice as to which are likely to get successful asylum cases, you let them put their case, for the others who are economic migrants you seek to deal with them in a different way, and then when you decide somebody does fail, you have a much more honourable system about returning people home which makes it highly likely they go home and not at the moment, that they disappear into the, that system altogether. HUMPHRYS: Can I in the last minute or so deal with a different subject, that of Myra Hindley, as the Home Affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democrats. David Blunkett apparently wants to change the law so that as a result of the Human Courts ruling last week, he would not effectively be forced to release somebody like Myra Hindley, indeed, she's made her own appeal. Is he right to do that, or is he wrong? HUGHES: The European Court are right to say that it should not be for politicians, but for judges to decide how long somebody serves. HUMPHRYS: So he's wrong? HUGHES: Parliament should set the maximum sentence, and if David Blunkett wants to bring before parliament a proposal that if somebody is sentenced to life that means they serve all their days in prison, he can do that. I think he's very wrong to do that, because no... HUMPHRYS: think she should be released? HUGHES: No, that should be done by the judges. The court should decide in our view whether it's safe to release somebody, not politicians, and you should never have a mandatory sentence for anything, because every case is different. HUMPHRYS: Simon Hughes, many thanks.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.