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Obituary: Lord Avebury

Journal of Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Law

Edited by:
Alan Desmond
Bloomsbury Professional
Publication Date:
September 2023


Refugees, migrants, those suffering human rights violations and those who work with them all over the world mourn Eric, Lord Avebury who died on 14 February 2016.

Lord Avebury’s work for the rights of refugees was always linked seamlessly to his work to stop the violations of human rights which caused them to flee. At Freedom from Torture’s Proving Torture conference in 2015 the then UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, indicated that it would be invidious to single out any one member of his distinguished audience, but that he had to had to make an exception for Lord Avebury, whose intervention during a visit to Argentina had managed to shorten Mr Méndez’s own captivity and torture.

Lord Avebury was, for example, persona non grata in Turkey for his work with the Kurds. He worked tirelessly for the rights of the Chagos Islanders and for human rights in Bahrain. The catalogue of the causes he espoused is lengthy; many, although even then not all, have been recorded by his family on his blog:

To those working on immigration, asylum and nationality it felt as though these were his main interest, but those working on the rights of Romany gypsies and travellers, on human rights in Peru or Bangladesh felt just the same. All benefited from his research skills. There was no one to whom he would not pick up the phone and he well understood that everyone loves a Lord and used this to bring support to the powerless and unloved. Trained as an engineer, his IT research skills also left standing most of the NGOs whom he approached for help on their specialist areas of expertise. He generally had the answer before they did. His knowledge of parliamentary procedure was encyclopaedic and he steered ILPA and others through the complexities of challenging legislation. Many properly attributed victories solely to the combination of that tenacity and courage and a very powerful intellect. He pursued complex questions through Bill after Bill, statutory instrument after statutory instrument, year after year.

Laurie Fransman QC in his introduction to the third edition of his British Nationality Law records:

‘A debt of gratitude is owed to Lord Avebury…for his contribution as a parliamentarian to a better and fairer British nationality law over the years and decades. In his relentless pursuit of such improvement he has remained untouched by fatigue, defeat or despair, and undoubtedly has achieved more than any other single parliamentarian in modern times. The statutory provisions righting historical wrongs…would not have found their way onto the statute book but for him.’

Lord Avebury worked with ILPA on the rights of British nationals with no other nationality or citizenship for many years. Laurie Fransman QC and Alison Harvey sat in the opposition advisors’ box at the foot of the golden throne in the House of Lords during debates on the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 passing notes to Lord Avebury as he wrung concession after concession from the Government, culminating in ss 4B and 4C of the British Nationality Act 1981, and provisions on children born out of wedlock. It took him four years to get the then government to bring into effect the provisions of that Act relating to illegitimacy. It look until 2009 to persuade the Government to extend s 4B of the British Nationality Act 1981 to cover British Nationals (Overseas) with a link to Hong Kong, but, working closely with ILPA all the way, he did it.

When the Bill that became the Immigration Act 2014 was passing through parliament, ILPA members raised at a late stage the possibility of pressing for an extension of the provisions on illegitimacy. Lord Avebury needed little encouragement from the ILPA Secretariat. To his, and ILPA’s, astonishment, his amendment received a favourable response and despite his failing health he brokered ILPA’s comments on the drafts produced by Government in meeting after meeting with officials. He showed similar tenacity in exposing that the government was failing to apply s 4B of the British Nationality Act 1981 correctly because it had failed correctly to interpret the nationality laws of India and Nepal, managing to extract many minutes of meetings and official documents from them in the process, many of which have found their way onto Wikipedia. When he won a victory, he would be quick to pen an article on it in, for example, the Times of India, to make sure that people knew their rights.

In 2002, Lord Avebury’s fierce opposition to non-suspensive appeals and to the concept of safe countries of origin led him to another lengthy campaign, the dogged pursuit of opportunities to challenge the designation of countries of ‘safe’ through debate on statutory instrument after statutory instrument. It was in part this work, in particular on Jamaica, that led to his longstanding commitment to LBGT rights in asylum and he was a patron of the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group.

Immigration detention was another theme that Lord Avebury pursued through debate after debate. The prohibition on the detention of breast-feeding mothers can be traced to his efforts, triggered by a case drawn to his attention by ILPA and turned into to a campaign by his inspired popping of the Baby Milk Alliance onto the cc-line of his email to the Minister. He did not, alas, live to see the publication of the latest draft of the Short-term Holding Facilities Rules, first published in draft in 2006, then again (twice) in 2009, but it is in large measure thanks to his efforts that a fourth draft has finally appeared in 2016.

Lord Avebury was mindful of the difficulties under which NGOs labour and was forever trying to ensure that parliamentary proceedings were transparent to those trying to follow them from outside. He was always quick to share letters as soon as they were received from Ministers, to share timetabling and groupings of amendments. He was quick to ask that ILPA and others be consulted on matters of concern or to be allowed to attend his meetings with Ministers.

A Buddhist, he was philosophical about his approaching death, although sorry to be out of things. He had predicted his death for July 2016, based on the average period for which a person with his type of blood cancer lives after diagnosis. In those calculations, as in his life, he had perhaps not factored in his age at the onset of the illness or his having used up eight of his nine lives already.

Many ILPA members and many of their clients have lost a friend. Lord Avebury was well-loved and is sorely missed. The balance of power tilts a little more in favour of the powerful and against the powerless with his death.

Alison Harvey