Ministers resist torture pleas

Inside Parliament
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Harrowing accounts of torture failed to persuade the Government last night to amend its Asylum and Immigration Bill to exempt victims from the "fast-track" procedure for dealing with asylum seekers.

The Home Office minister Timothy Kirkhope said people were not sent back to countries where there was "a reasonable belief" they would face torture. But under pressure from Conservative backbenchers, he added that if MPs could convince ministers of the need, the Bill could be amended in the Lords.

David Alton, Liberal Democrat MP for Mossley Hill, cited a recent asylum refusal where the Home Office Immigration and Nationality Department told a Turkish Cypriot that the Secretary of State, Michael Howard, considered a claimed beating was part of a "cynical attempt" to circumvent immigration rules. The wounds on the man's back were inflicted at his request, Mr Howard judged.

However a senior surgeon for the Medical Foundation could see no other explanation for the 100 scars than the man's claim that he had been tortured by heated iron rods. "The number and severity are stupendous," wrote Dr Gordon Barclay. The man was also suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome.

With the Bill before MPs for its report stage, Mr Alton proposed a new clause which would have exempted asylum seekers from the perfunctory "fast- track" procedures for dealing with most claims if they produced a doctor's certificate saying they had been tortured. But though it attracted cross- party support, the clause was defeated by 279 votes to 265 - a Government majority of 14.

Sir Patrick Cormack, Tory MP for Staffordshire South, said he "would rather the system was abused by one perverse individual who had mutilated himself than that someone who had been tortured was sent back to further torture or torment".

Eric Forth, the education minister, took a stand for free speech and refused to condemn students at Stirling University who, it was said, have invited Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to their campus. Raising the issue at Question Time, Bill Walker, Tory MP for Tayside North, said that after the London bombings, the students' invitation was "at best insensitive, and at worst absolutely stupid".

But Mr Forth said he believed the tradition of free speech on campuses probably overrode any other concern. "I have always been one who has said that all students should be able and free to listen to all points of view - no matter how unpopular and unpalatable. Although I can well understand Mr Walker's concern, on balance I would stand firmly on the principle of freedom of speech and the ability of students to make up their own minds on what they hear, rather than any suggestion of discouraging or, even worse, banning any individual point of view."