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General Synod: Debate on Asylum - Archbishop of Canterbury's remarks

Friday 13th February 2004

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at the General Synod, London.

Thank you Mr Chairman: I wanted to say a few words in support of Father Houlding's amendment. The main points have been put before you very clearly, but I want to underline the fact that we are facing in the proposals around this subject a really quite serious constitutional development of which we ought to be aware of. That is to say the creation of what is in effect a hermetically sealed jurisdiction. Instead of an admittedly highly unsatisfactory, and vastly complex appeals process as it now exists, we have a single tier appeals system which does not provide for independent assessment.

Only this week the Lord Chief Justice expressed his views on this. The all party Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights has had very sharp things to say about this and has interrogated David Lammy at length on this subject during this week also.

When you see the existing system in practice you realise under what strain it operates. Undertrained and under informed adjudicators, I'm sorry to say, are often involved in this – however hard working they may be. And I speak on this matter with some feeling having been quite closely involved with one particular appeal over some 18 months, where I've had the not very helpful experience of reading judgments that have been sent down from one or two appeal tribunals.

Not only are we dealing with a level of a simple lack of information about some situations worldwide, we're also dealing with what has been mentioned more than once – an assumption of guilt or an assumption of inadequacy on the part of the applicant. And it wasn't until this particular case had gone to the very highest level that the initial judgment was finally overturned.

Father Houlding has spoken about some of the statistics; it's been claimed that overall under 5% of appeals are actually upheld. The truth is different if you break it down according to the level at which appeals are heard, and the communities affected. On that basis, as you've heard, we're talking about one in five overall cases involving some level of serious and potentially fatal error.

A constitutional point and a practical point, and finally and obviously the theological point. I'm not at all certain with due respect to your previous speaker that there are countries for which that we can simply say that we have no responsibility. And once people are here they deserve the protection of the rule of law in its most rigorously traditional understanding. But if that is to work, if the appeal system is to be made to work, we need to think a great deal harder about the training and equipment and what we've got. We do not need a short cut, a single tier appeal system which takes away independent assessment and in fact gravely reduces and imperils the civil rights of those most at risk.

© Rowan Williams 2004

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