Peter Lilley: My Lords, few of us would risk crossing the channel in a flimsy, inflatable dinghy, so we assume that anyone who does so must be fleeing a well-founded fear of persecution by an evil tyranny. But these boats do not set off from Basra, Iran or Africa; they come from Europe carrying people who have been in France, Belgium or Germany—none of which is a tyranny threatening them with persecution. They take this risk because, for whatever reason, they would prefer to be in one safe country—the UK—rather than other safe countries they have passed through. For some, that reason is that they have been refused asylum or fear refusal in France, Germany or wherever, and they believe the UK is more likely to grant them asylum and, even if they are refused, they stand little risk of being deported. They are right. In France, only 25% of asylum applications are granted on first request, whereas the figure in the UK is 64%, plus 59% of those who appeal. Moreover, pre-Covid France forcibly deported 34,000 migrants a year—10 times as many as we did.
One reason for this difference is that the British standard of proof for granting asylum is unusually low. Home Office guidance requires only a “reasonable degree of likelihood” that the asylum seeker is telling the truth. That is far below the criminal standard of “beyond reasonable doubt” and below even the civil standard of “the balance of probabilities”. Home Office rules say that
“keeping the relatively low standard of proof in mind, the claimant’s statements and other evidence about the facts being established can be accepted if they are” detailed, coherent, consistent with local circumstances and plausible. Any well-coached economic migrant should have little difficulty providing a story meeting those criteria. The genuine victims of persecution may have no concrete evidence of their suffering and, if they lack coaching, may be rejected.
The truth is that we allocate the right to asylum by lottery, albeit with odds stacked heavily in favour of claimants. The price of a lottery ticket is over £10,000 to pay the people smugglers, which rules out the poorest people, plus willingness to risk the channel crossing. A lottery with such good odds of winning has been possible only because there is such a high cost and risk of entry. No one who signed the Geneva convention intended to create such a cruel and absurd system.
Some noble Lords propose that we reduce the price of a lottery ticket by letting people apply from their homeland or a third country. But advocates of safe routes do not say whether claimants abroad would have the same rights as at present to legal aid, appeal and judicial review, and low levels of proof. If those advantages are to be curtailed for distant applicants, why retain them for applicants within the UK?
We know what happens when you offer free tickets to a lottery for visas. The US allocates by lot 50,000 visas to people in a different list of countries each year. The response is huge; 20 million people applied for those 50,000 visas last time, including 13% of the population of Albania, 15% of Liberians and 9% of Armenians. I could go on. As noble Lords observed in a previous debate, these are not the main countries from which migrants currently come—precisely. Does anyone imagine that fewer Iraqis, Afghans or Syrians would apply if we offered them a costless, riskless possibility of asylum in the UK? They would be joined by a huge number of economic migrants from other poor and troubled lands. Safe routes would overwhelm our already unsustainable system. Rather than letting anyone in the world chance their luck on our system, what is needed is a radical pruning of the unintended forest of Kafkaesque legal processes which have grown up since 1951. This Bill makes a timid start, but I fear something more radical may be needed.