Government backs FoRB training course for asylum decision-makers

House of Lords 15 October

Baroness Berridge
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to improve the assessment by the Home Office of asylum applications made on the grounds of religious or belief based persecution.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Williams of Trafford) (Con)
My Lords, all asylum decision-makers undertake a bespoke training package on how to assess religious and belief-based persecution claims. UK Visas and Immigration is currently working with the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief to develop a specialist considering religion or belief in the asylum claim training course. This will be introduced in the new year and will enhance asylum decision-makers’ religious literacy in dealing with these complex issues.

Baroness Berridge
I thank the Minister for the work done by her and her officials since the publication of a report co-authored by the All-Party Parliamentary Group drawing attention to the problems with assessing these claims and, in particular, to policy and practice being somewhat different. Will the Minister outline what plans the department has to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of that training so that in a few years’ time we are not facing the same difference between training and the decisions being made?

Baroness Williams of Trafford
I thank my noble friend for her Question, her follow-up question and the tenacity and commitment she has shown on this issue. The new specialist course will form part of a continuous training package for asylum decision-makers, technical specialists and senior caseworkers. UKVI expects to roll it out in early 2019. UKVI has an internal audit process to assess the quality of decisions and interviews and the application of policy. Allowed appeals are also regularly analysed. In addition, independent audits are carried out by the operational assurance and security unit.

Baroness Bakewell (Lab)
My Lords, there was considerable publicity around the case of the Pakistani humanist Hamza bin Walayat who failed his asylum application in part, it is thought, because he failed to identify Plato and Aristotle as humanists. What steps will the Home Office take to ensure that asylum assessors are better educated about the beliefs of non-religious people, including humanists?

Baroness Williams of Trafford
The noble Baroness outlines precisely why training in religious literacy and, indeed about those who have no beliefs or are humanists, which is a belief in and of itself, is required in order to make proper decisions.

Baroness Hussein-Ece (LD)
My Lords, the Minister will be aware of the report Still Falling Short, which was produced recently by the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration group highlighting that LGBT+ asylum seekers were routinely disbelieved by Home Office decision-makers, and were falling short of the legal standard required in asylum applications. For example, one applicant was told that LGBT+ people cannot possibly follow a religion and that their application was rejected. What is being done to address this failure?

Baroness Williams of Trafford
I think I outlined the process to my noble friend, but the noble Baroness is right to point out that you can be LGBT and have a religion. The care with which asylum case decision-makers make their judgments is very important, as are the sensitivities around interviewing LGBT people and those who are persecuted for their faith.

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
My Lords, having visited Pakistan earlier this month and seen first-hand the abject, festering conditions in which many of the country’s religious minorities live, and having heard accounts of abduction, rape, the forced marriage of a nine year-old, forced conversion, death sentences for so-called blasphemy—the Minister may have heard the interview on the “Today” programme on Saturday morning with a young woman whose mother has spent eight years on death row for so-called blasphemy with a death sentence hanging over her—and in one case, children being forced to watch as their parents were burned alive, I ask the Minister: how can the Home Office in all those circumstances continue to say that what is happening in Pakistan to religious believers and humanists is merely discrimination, not persecution?

Baroness Williams of Trafford
I do not think I or the House would disagree with the noble Lord in the examples that he cites, particularly those in Pakistan of certain religious groups being persecuted under blasphemy laws. Sadly, the laws in Pakistan are quite different from the laws here; unpalatable though we might find them, they are the laws there. Nevertheless, each application to our asylum system should be dealt with in terms of the persecution that people might face.

Lord Elton (Con)
My Lords, how long will it take from rollout for the whole of the relevant force of people to receive the training? What oversight will there be to make sure that it has been understood and implemented?

Baroness Williams of Trafford
I think I outlined that process just now to my noble friend Lady Berridge. We are expecting to roll it out in 2019. With regard to quality assurance, the audits are going to be carried out by an operational security unit for both the quality of the decision and the application of the policy.

Lord Rosser (Lab)
My Lords, there have been media reports that a further problem is that staff considering asylum applications are rushed because there is a backlog to deal with, and that in addition staff have targets to meet in respect of the number of decisions they have to make each week on whether to grant or refuse asylum seekers. Is there still a backlog of people waiting for an asylum decision or for an appeal to be heard? If so, how big is that backlog? What targets in reality are staff making asylum decisions expected to meet each day, week or month?

Baroness Williams of Trafford
My Lords, it is important that the decisions made are the right ones. I could not comment on decisions being rushed, but I can go back to the department to ask that question. There are certainly a lot of decisions to be made, because people want to come to this country and I can try to ascertain a figure for the backlog.

The Lord Bishop of Leeds
My Lords, before training is rolled out, will some religious leaders in this country be consulted on what sort of training might be appropriate, and the sort of questions that may be asked of asylum seekers? At the moment, I should be hard-pressed to answer some of them.

Baroness Williams of Trafford
I would struggle with the questions proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, and might also struggle with questions on my religion. Religious leaders have been engaged. What is to be established is the reason for persecution, therefore religious literacy is needed for the assessors—it is not a test of religious facts.

Humanists UK have issued the following press release: Home Office to introduce training on assessing religion or belief asylum claims

Humanists UK has been working with the Home Office this year to introduce new training for all asylum assessors on claims related to freedom of religion or belief. The new day-long training, which will be the first specific training on the matter, will be rolled out early next year.

Alongside the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief, and the Asylum Advocacy Group, Humanists UK has been working this year on materials that will be used as part of that training process. The introduction of the training was announced by Home Office minister Baroness Williams of Trafford in the House of Lords, in response to an oral question from APPGIFoRB Co-Chair Baroness Berridge.

Humanists UK has been supporting a number of humanist asylum seekers this year, most notably Hamza bin Walyat, who earlier this year received widespread media coverage after he was told he would be deported for failing to identify Plato and Aristotle as humanists (in spite of the fact that neither are). This prompted 150 philosophers to sign a letter pointing this out, arguing that it is unreasonable for someone who has not been educated in the West to be expected to know this, and even a student educated in the UK would only encounter these philosophers only if they studied Philosophy or Religious Studies to A-Level.

Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group Baroness (Joan) Bakewell raised Hamza’s plight in the Lords debate, and was told that ‘The noble lady outlines precisely why religious literacy, or indeed literacy to those who have no belief at all, or indeed humanists, which is a “belief” in and of itself… this training is required in order to make proper decisions at that process’. In response to a subsequent question, she added ‘The questions the noble lady, Lady Bakewell, put forward [about Plato and Aristotle], I would have really struggled to answer those, and indeed, questions on my own religion I might very much struggle with as well.’

Welcoming the announcement of the upcoming training, Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented, ‘We are delighted to have worked with the Home Office on this new training on freedom of religion or belief for all asylum assessors and look forward to seeing it rolled out in the new year. We hope it will mean that the sort of assessments that have affected the lives of non-religious claimants so severely in the past won’t be repeated in the future.’