BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 03.11.02

Interview: LORD FILKIN, Home Office Minister.

On the eve the Asylum Bill returns to the House of Commons, we asked the Minister what areas of the Bill the Government are prepared to compromise on to avoid defeat in the Lords.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: But that was last week, what about this week. Well, the Government's new Asylum Bill is facing trouble. It started out being fairly uncontroversial, but when it got to the House of Lords for their approval the Government added hundreds of amendments - changed the whole character of the original Bill. The Lords weren't having that and the Government lost a whole series of votes on the Bill. On Tuesday, it comes back to the Commons and the Government say they will reverse all those defeats. But, this session of Parliament comes to an end on Thursday, so unless someone compromises, they risk losing the whole thing. And this is an important piece of legislation. The Minister in the Lords responsible for it is Lord Filkin. Good afternoon. LORD FILKIN: Good afternoon. HUMPHRYS: A serious risk of losing this Bill, isn't there? FILKIN: I don't think so. I think that most of the key measures have been approved by the Lords, including most of the major changes that we made following the summer to deal with some of the growing problems that we'd had from certain countries. However, there are a number of measures that were defeated on Thursday, some of those are absolutely fundamental to the success of the Bill and I find it utterly...ultimately, I think unbelievable that the Lords would not see the sense of those measures when we seek to make that case back to them again next week. HUMPHRYS: Well, maybe they will, but probably they won't. You know what they can be like, you're one of them yourself. So it's not a question of whether you compromise, but how you compromise. FILKIN: I think our mind is open on some issues as to whether with common sense and goodwill there are different ways of expressing some issues, but at least a couple of the issues, they are so fundamental to what we are seeking to do that I think that they have to be in the Bill and the Government had a very clear mandate for these reforms. There's a very clear mandate in the country for recognising we want as a nation to give asylum to those who justify it, but to stop the abuse, to stop the high numbers of people who use the asylum system as a way of getting to Britain to work. HUMPHRYS: Let me just pick out a couple of the things that seem very important to most people. Certainly the question of these massive asylum centres opposed by people on both the right and the left here because some people say would destroy - we are talking about seven hundred people in one centre - it will destroy the village, the whole area in which we live. Other people say we absolutely don't want asylum seekers to be treated like this, their children treated as pariahs, kept in this centre not being able to go to other schools. That's something where you will have to compromise, isn't it? FILKIN: The case for asylum centres is very clear and strong. It's basically saying that we have to be quicker at processing asylum claims whilst we give people the support that they have asked us to. People in asylum, in accommodation centers, are basically people who said they want asylum but they also want the State to support them whilst their asylum claim is being processed. By giving people the support in high quality accommodation centres, we will be able to considerably increase the speed of processing right through to the final decision. HUMPRHYS: It's the question of the size of these places, though, isn't it. I mean a centre of seven hundred and fifty people, that changes the whole character of the area in which it's placed, doesn't it? FILKIN: Well, one could frivolously say that Eton School is about, I think, eleven hundred residents. HUMPHRYS: That would be being frivolous, wouldn't it? FILKIN: Well, nevertheless, the key thing about accommodation centres is also not just the speed of processing but having in there high quality support and facilities. For example, having good education facilities, good health care facilities, good translation facilities, having the legal processing there, good legal support and therefore having all those things there both gives the support and enables us to deal with cases and sort out the genuine cases quickly. HUMPHRYS: So, no compromise on the size of those accommodation centres, they're going to be big and that's it? FILKIN: I think that our minds are reflecting on the range of needs and circumstances in which we think accommodation centres will be used. HUMPHRYS: Ah, so a possible compromise there then? FILKIN: I don't think we would compromise from the key principles which is basically... HUMPHRYS: No, no, it's the size of the thing I am talking about. FILKIN: The support should be in the centre and secondly we should reduce the burden on local facilities and thirdly we should ensure we get the speed through. HUMPHRYS: If that can be done with a much smaller centre, then so be it? FILKIN: I think that there will always be a need for some accommodation centres of the size that you have been talking about. HUMPHRYS: Ah. FILKIN: The debate will be whether there's a need for others of different sizes and forms as well. HUMPHRYS: Let's look at another bit of the Bill which is upsetting a lot of people. This bizarrely called Henry the Eighth clause and as I understand it, correct me if I am wrong this is a very, very important one because what it means to many people is that you cannot only change the Bill as it's going through but once it's finished, once it's become an Act, once it's had the Royal assent, you can then say, well actually, this is what Henry Eighth, this is why it's named after him, we don't like that particular bit now, so we will change it and you would have the power to do that. FILKIN: Yes, but only on very minor, small technical issues. There's a lot of political posturing going on about this. This sort of measure has been in at least two or three other Bills this session, it was a process that the Conservative Party, the Conservative Government invented themselves and it's essentially, in essence it's when you've got a very complicated Bill like this is, it's crucial that it's made to work properly and the lawyers can't always spot every single consequential... HUMPHRYS: So will it be written into this clause then, into the Bill that you would only be able to change the minutiae of it, in other words you wouldn't for instance, I mean let us assume that you agreed a compromise on the size of accommodation centres for instance and you weren't actually terribly happy with that compromise, you would not, absolutely not be able to go back to that, to revisit it after the Bill had become law and say we will now change that back again? FILKIN: You are absolutely correct. It only deals with the minutiae, almost the legal bits and pieces that you may not, the lawyers may not always have spotted. Secondly, any use of that power that would effect the enactments in the Bill would have to be approved by Parliament, this is nothing unusual whatsoever. But it is being talked up, puffed up, I would say, so I think we can have one or two speeches in the House of Commons next week, perhaps by Oliver Letwin. HUMPHRYS: David Blunkett described people who are opposed to the Bill as engaging in silliness. Whether that's true or not and many people would argue that it is not true, these are very important issues here indeed. Surely, you have now got to be conciliatory in your approach rather than aggressive and take them all and punch them on the nose. You've got to say look, we all want this Bill to go through because the Tories want it to go through as well, they want a Bill. Have you not got to be conciliatory and say, yeah we can see the problems you've got, we'll go along with you. FILKIN: Well, let's wait and see what we do in the Commons on Tuesday. Clearly we are reflecting on these issues, we think it's fundamental that we have Bill in the legislation, so does as you say, most sane people. But it's crucial that we have the fundamentals there and we don't compromise on those fundamentals. HUMPHRYS: But ultimately the choice is between a compromised Bill or no Bill isn't it. FILKIN: I'd be extremely surprised if we didn't have the Bill fundamentally intact on its key measures and that that had support from my colleagues in the Lords when it comes back to it, from the Commons next week. HUMPHRYS: Lord Filkin, many thanks for joining us. FILKIN: Thank you.
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.