§ The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Peter Lilley)
With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the regulations to reform benefit arrangements for asylum seekers, sponsored immigrants and others. I have today laid before the House the regulations together with the accompanying Command Paper.
The aim of these reforms, together with the measures in the Asylum and Immigration Bill, are to ensure that the United Kingdom remains a safe haven for those genuinely fleeing persecution; to deal more speedily with their claims; and to discourage unfounded claims from people who are actually economic migrants.
Of course genuine refugees come to the United Kingdom to escape persecution, not to obtain our benefits. Their rights to asylum will not be altered in any way, and anyone who arrives here as a refugee and seeks asylum at the port of entry will continue to have access to benefits while their claim is considered by the Home Office.
More than 90 per cent. of people claiming asylum, however, are eventually found not to be genuine refugees. The vast majority of asylum claimants are economic migrants. The number who come here is influenced by the ready availability of benefits. Relative to Britain, other European countries offer less generous benefits and less opportunity for work and have tightened up the procedures applying to asylum seekers. As a result, since 1993 the number of asylum claims in western Europe as a whole has fallen by more than a third, yet in Britain it has doubled.
Consequently the proportion of all asylum seekers in Europe who come to Britain has more than trebled in the past decade. The huge number of unfounded applications means that the tiny proportion of claimants who are genuine face an unnecessarily long process. The total cost of social security benefits alone for asylum seekers already exceeds £200 million a year, yet more than 90 per cent. of that money goes to people who are not genuine refugees. No responsible Government could ignore that growing misuse of taxpayers' money.
One way to address the problem is to speed up the processing of asylum claims. The revised procedures in the Asylum and Immigration Bill will speed up the processing of claims. But it is crucial that the new procedures are not in turn overwhelmed by a rising tide of unfounded claims. So benefit changes are essential to discourage unfounded claims.
Under the new benefit regulations, those who enter the country as refugees, declaring themselves to be asylum seekers at the port of entry, will still be entitled to claim benefit while the Home Office deals with their claim. So will those who claim after entering the country as visitors, if there has been a significant upheaval in their homeland since their arrival. But at present some 70 per cent. of all asylum claims are made by people who entered the United Kingdom as tourists, students or business men. As such, they demonstrated that they had the means to support themselves while they were here and accepted that they would not be entitled to claim benefit. Yet, under current rules, when they subsequently apply for asylum, they become entitled to benefit. We propose to end entitlement 332 to benefit for those who entered the country saying that they were not here to seek asylum but subsequently changed their story. From now on, there will be no benefits for those who misrepresent their case.
British citizens do not receive a benefit while appealing against refusal. Successive Governments have upheld that policy, or every unsuccessful British benefit claimant would have an incentive to appeal against refusal of his or her benefit. However, under the present rules, asylum seekers are allowed to retain benefit during an appeal. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of asylum seekers appeal against rejection. Yet 96 per cent. of their appeals turn out to be unfounded. I therefore propose that once an asylum seeker's claim has been considered and rejected, entitlement to benefit will cease. They will no longer be able to prolong entitlement to benefit by appealing against refusal of refugee status. In that respect, asylum seekers will, in future, be treated in the same way as United Kingdom citizens whose claims for benefit are refused.
Particular concern has been expressed at the prospect of large numbers of asylum seekers losing entitlement on the day when the new arrangements come into force. Of course, I understand those concerns. When the proposals were announced last October, there was an obvious danger of a surge of pre-emptive claims during the consultation period to get on to benefit before the new regulations came into effect. To discourage that, we announced that those who made in-country claims or appeals after 11 October would lose benefit entitlement once the regulations took place. That announcement seems to have dampened the surge of pre-emptive claims. I have taken note of concerns about handling a large number of benefit terminations simultaneously and the transitional impact that it would have on local authority finances. I have therefore decided to amend the transitional arrangements significantly. No one will now lose benefit when the new regulations come into effect on 5 February.
The 13,000 or more asylum seekers who have made in-country claims or appeals since 12 October and are receiving income support, housing benefit or council tax benefit will continue to get benefit unless or until their claim or appeal is subsequently rejected. That transitional protection will substantially reduce the potential impact on local authorities.
However, the Government also propose to assist local authorities with any unavoidable additional costs arising under homelessness legislation or the Children Act 1989. My right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Health and for the Environment will discuss the details with local authority associations shortly. I believe that this fully meets the most pressing concerns put to the Government by the Social Security Advisory Committee and local authorities. Taken together with measures proposed in the Asylum and Immigration Bill and further work between my Department and the Home Office on improving asylum decision times and priority setting, these changes will make a significant contribution to addressing the problem of bogus asylum seekers.
The Government further propose that people from abroad whose leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom is subject to some limit or condition—for example, that they should not have recourse to public funds—should be excluded from non-contributory benefits. That will bring these benefits into line with exclusions which already apply under income support, housing benefit and council tax benefit rules.
333 The arrangement whereby people are allowed into this country on the understanding that a sponsor has promised to support them, has been widely abused. Nearly half the sponsors renege on those agreements. The regulations will hold sponsors to their agreements and benefits will become payable only if the sponsor dies or the sponsorship agreement breaks down after five years. Finally, the Government propose to amend the arrangements to remove the Secretary of State's discretion to make interim payments in some circumstances.
No responsible Government could fail to tackle a situation where well over 90 per cent. of benefit is not going to genuine refugees. These reforms will ensure that the United Kingdom remains a safe haven for genuine refugees. They will help to deal with their claims faster and they will discourage bogus claimants who are bettering themselves at the taxpayers' expense. The changes that I have made will end concerns over the transitional arrangements, alleviate burdens on local authorities and protect the British taxpayer. I believe that the measures are both fair and necessary and I commend them to the House.
§ Mr. Keith Bradley (Manchester, Withington)
Is it not clear that the Secretary of State's statement is further evidence of the harshness of his Administration? Why did the Government not listen to the views of all the groups with an interest in the subject, such as immigration welfare agencies, the churches and local authorities throughout Britain, who urged them not to start down this road?
The Opposition clearly support proper measures to stop fraudulent asylum applications, but surely tackling the appalling administrative delays in the procedures would be far more effective than this indiscriminate attack on applicants?
The Opposition welcome some of the changes that have been forced on the Secretary of State, but a number of issues still require clarification today and I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman a number of questions.
First, the right hon. Gentleman, in his statement, claims that 90 per cent. of all applicants are not genuine. However, the Government's own figures show that 23 per cent. of applicants are either granted refugee status on conventional grounds or are granted exceptional leave to remain. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept the Government's own figures in that respect?
Secondly, what are the implications for parliamentary democracy of the right hon. Gentleman's authorisation of letters to asylum seekers telling them that their benefits will be cut off on 8 January this year? Does not that show that the right hon. Gentleman expected to push the proposals straight through the House without any parliamentary scrutiny?
Why did the right hon. Gentleman originally set a timetable of only 21 statutory days between laying the regulations and their coming into force, when 18 of those days were during the Christmas and new year recess with no opportunity for hon. Members to comment effectively on the draft regulations?
Why was the Social Security Advisory Committee given only one month to consult on those vital changes when its usual period of consultation is considerably longer than that? Why has the right hon. Gentleman not waited, as he has been asked to do by many hon. 334 Members, to have sight of the report of the Select Committee on Social Security, which is currently holding an inquiry into the proposed changes? Would it not have been better to have the benefit of the evidence that was to be put before that Committee?
Has the right hon. Gentleman seen the evidence of his own officials, who, when summoned before the Committee and asked how they expected asylum seekers to survive after 8 January—the original date of implementation—were quite unable to answer, merely replying thatMinisters believe that in reality the majority of claims are unfounded.How will people manage in that situation?
What consideration has been given to representations to the Social Security Advisory Committee that the distinction between port and in-country applications is an artificial one? What assessment has the right hon. Gentleman made of the evidence from various refugee organisations that there are good reasons why many applicants do not claim asylum until after they have entered the country, such as having a well-founded fear of officialdom, wishing to seek an interpreter or legal advice, or wishing to make contact with family and friends to give them support when they make the application?
Is the Secretary of State aware that, when the then Home Secretary introduced the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993, he fully anticipated a rise in the number of applications and set a three-month limit for decisions on those applications, but, owing to Home Office incompetence, the average waiting time is 19 months? Does not that backlog mean that asylum seekers who are unable to find work or alternative sources of funding will be unable to survive for such long periods without the support of the social security system?
Will the Secretary of State confirm that, following the revision of the original regulations, the expected savings are still an estimated £200 million? Will not they be offset, however, by the appalling additional cost to local authorities of, for instance, having to take children into care? Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that authorities will receive a 100 per cent. reimbursement of those costs?
Why did the Secretary of State not wait for the outcome of the judicial review sought by the London boroughs of Westminster and Wandsworth—Tory flagships, I believe? What consideration has he given to the remarks of his former Cabinet colleague, the right hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), in his support for the Westminster application? Should not the Home Secretary accept amendments to the Asylum and Immigration Bill—currently in Committee—which gives the power to deny child benefit to hundreds of thousands of people who are lawfully settled in this country?
Why did not the Secretary of State accept the firm and overriding conclusion of his own Social Security Advisory Committee that the proposals should not be proceeded with? I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we shall continue to oppose them vigorously in debate, and ask him to confirm that he will honour the commitment to allow a full debate in the House before 335 the proposals are implemented. Opposition Members wish to ensure that we afford full protection to genuine asylum seekers.
§ Mr. Lilley
The Opposition's response reveals that they have not changed an iota. They still oppose every measure that is intended to ensure that money is put to good use, and goes to those who are genuinely entitled to it rather than those who are not.
The hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) said that the proposals were harsh. In many respects, however, they simply put asylum seekers on the same footing as British citizens, and endorse rules that have been endorsed by Labour Governments for British citizens. If the hon. Gentleman considers that harsh, he should have opposed his own Government.
The hon. Gentleman believes that the Labour party would support proper measures to deal with the problems, but has suggested no such measures, and no way of ensuring the making of savings and proper direction of the £200 million that will be saved. Labour has opposed every change and improvement in the treatment of asylum seekers made by the Government over the past 15 years.
The hon. Gentleman asked why I had said that more than 90 per cent. of claims were not from genuine refugees. That was the finding of Home Office investigations and the subsequent reviews carried out by judicial adjudicators. We grant exceptional leave to remain, but that does not mean that the people involved are refugees; such leave may be given for humanitarian reasons—because someone is ill, or has suffered a mishap since entering the country. A person may be allowed to remain here temporarily, although the circumstances—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) would do well to listen to my answer, rather than nattering on about matters that he manifestly does not understand. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman clearly does not understand the difference between exceptional leave to remain, granted by the Government—[Interruption.]
§ Madam Speaker
Order. The Minister is attempting to answer questions. If the hon. Member for Blackburn wishes to ask a question I shall look his way later.
§ Mr. Lilley
The hon. Member for Blackburn does not know the difference between exceptional leave to remain and refugee status under the international United Nations convention, which is a different matter.
The hon. Member for Withington also asked why the original suggestion was that the regulations should come in on 8 January. That was the earliest date that they could be introduced, given the statutory consultation period. We said before the recess that we would allow time for debate, and time has been put aside for debate over the next 21 days, before the regulations come into force on 5 February. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that rather than showing a grudging attitude towards it.
The hon. Gentleman said that the distinction between those who claim at the port and those who claim subsequently within this country, having entered as visitors, tourists or business people and then changed their story, is artificial. Most of us think that if people have 336 been asked at the port for their reasons for coming to the country and have said that they are coming here as tourists, business people, visitors or students, demonstrated that they have the means to support themselves during the period of their stay here, and accepted that they will not be a burden on public funds, but subsequently, after entry, change their story, albeit after talking to legal advisers who may suggest that they change it, it is not artificial to prevent them from being treated on the same basis as those who honestly arrive as refugees and claim at the port of entry.
I confirm that the long-term savings should be of the order of £200 million. Of course there will be an impact because of the transitional measures that we have announced, and the costs of helping local authorities remain to be determined. However, we do not think that those will be nearly as large as some alarmist suggestions would have us believe, because there will also be savings to local authorities because of the reduced flow of asylum seekers that will result from the discouraging effect on bogus claims of the measures that we have introduced.
It would have been foolish for us to wait until the end of the judicial review sought by Westminster council, because one of the reasons for the review was that the council did not know the outcome of the consultation process. We have now announced the outcome, and I believe that it will be satisfactory to boroughs in London and elsewhere that have problems in that respect. I believe that the measures in general show that we have thoroughly considered the representations made during the consultation period both by concerned lobbies and by local authorities, and have fully met the most serious concerns that they expressed.
None the less, the basic question remains: how could any Government not tackle a situation in which we are paying out more than £200 million, 90 per cent. of which goes to people who are subsequently found not to be genuine refugees?
§ Madam Speaker
Order. After that initial Front-Bench exchange, which has taken about 20 minutes, I now insist on brisk questions and answers. If Members seek to put questions they must be brisk and to the point, and I want the answers likewise.
§ Sir Jim Lester (Broxtowe)
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the fact that the Government have considered the widespread concerns of many Conservative Members and of many other people. He has responded to those concerns by dealing with the worst situation that many of us envisaged, and I assure him that what he has done will be helpful, bearing in mind what we foresaw might have happened. I still believe that we should shorten the time taken for appeals, and I ask my right hon. Friend to re-examine the position of people who apply for asylum within a short time of coming into the country. I do not mean the people whom my right hon. Friend described, but there is evidence that many genuine asylum seekers apply within two weeks of arrival.
§ Mr. Lilley
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support for the changes that we have introduced, as a result of discussions, not least those that I have had with him over the past few months. I believe that those changes meet the greatest concerns about the transitional period, 337 but I agree that we must do all in our power to shorten the time taken to assess claims and appeals. As for people who make claims within a short time after entering the country, close inspection of the figures shows that the case for a change is much weaker than some lobbyists have suggested. It would be difficult to make a change in such a way that it did not validate those who have entered the country with one story but have subsequently changed it, in a way that most people would not think should be a justification for receiving benefit. That is especially so in view of the fact that all such people will have demonstrated that they had the means to support themselves, and they should be held to that statement and that promise.
§ Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale)
Is it right that persecuted people should now become homeless and destitute? A number of genuine asylum seekers who apply in-country have been tortured. Should not they be treated with compassion, and not kicked in the teeth? What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the number of children who will have to be taken into care under the Children Act? What will be the cost of that to the public purse? Will he guarantee that we will have a full debate on the matter on the Floor of the House? Will he take note of what his own advisory committee said and withdraw the regulations?
§ Mr. Lilley
The hon. Lady's contribution was characteristically emotive and irresponsible. While this is an emotional subject, it is not a matter on which one should be emotive, which means stirring up unjustified emotion. Of course there is at present a burden on some local authorities and others who care for children, including children who are sent unaccompanied to this country. For the latter group, the changes that I have announced today will make no difference. There is no reason why there should be any increased cost as a result of these responsibilities, nor would local authorities be obliged to take children into care. They must only see that the children are cared for, as is presently the case.
§ Mr. Peter Brooke (City of London and Westminster, South)
May I express my appreciation to my right hon. Friend for the manner in which he has responded to the representations that have been made to him? Does he accept that while the negotiations with the local authority associations are continuing, the devil will remain in the small print? Does he further accept that nothing could do more harm in terms of relations between the host community and asylum seekers than the cost simply being transferred to council tax payers?
§ Mr. Lilley
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his support for the changes that we have introduced. I hope that they will meet the needs and concerns of boroughs and local authorities in areas where there are concentrations of asylum seekers. It will be important to get the details right, but we will be aiming to offer a significant contribution where there are additional unavoidable costs arising from the changes for local authorities. We have significantly reduced the extent of such costs by the transitional measures that I have announced.
§ Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)
Does the Secretary of State recall the evidence given by anti-fraud officers which suggested that many of these claims were not made by asylum seekers—bogus or otherwise—but by gangs 338 working the social security system? Will he report to the House on the steps he intends to take to counter such benefit fraud before the House votes on the regulations so that we can see the extent of claims that have arisen because of people wrongly claiming benefit?
§ Mr. Lilley
There can of course be cases of fraud of the type that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, and we introduced fingerprinting to make that much more difficult. We believe that that has largely eliminated the problem. The amount concerned is a minute fraction of the hundreds of millions of pounds we are talking about today. That money is going to people who are genuinely from abroad but are not genuine asylum seekers and who have come here as economic migrants. I believe that it is right to tackle these problems. I remind the hon. Gentleman that his party strongly opposed the introduction of fingerprinting for asylum seekers, a measure which has enabled us to tackle and largely eliminate the very fraud to which he refers.
§ Sir Nicholas Scott (Chelsea)
In terms of recompensing local authorities which have to bear the burden of expenditure resulting from both homelessness and the provisions of the Children Act, is it not the case that not only will authorities be recompensed for future expenditure but for backdated costs which they have already borne?
§ Mr. Lilley
I am not certain that there are any costs of the kind my right hon. Friend suggests, but he is a distinguished former Social Security Minister and I would not give a 100 per cent. guarantee on that. I shall certainly look at the point that he has made. We believe that the problem of people who would have lost benefit on the day the regulations came into force has been eliminated by the new transitional arrangements. Therefore, it is only to the extent that the problem is on-going that any costs can arise. We will be seeking to assess with local authorities the extent of additional and unavoidable costs arising from that.
§ Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)
Does the Secretary of State accept that the many hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers who were genuinely worried and frightened by his original proposals will be relieved at his partial backdown this afternoon? Will he take the opportunity to talk to his colleagues in the Home Office, and assure them that it is not too late to reconsider the Asylum and Immigration Bill? That legislation—like his original proposals for change in the regulations—is brutal, ill-thought-out and unworkable, and it will impact harshly on people who are resident in this country whose skins happen to be a different colour from his own.
§ Mr. Lilley
It is wrong of the hon. Lady to suggest that anything in the measures or in the Asylum and Immigration Bill is based on race or will treat people of different colour in any different way. Part of the problem that we face now is an upsurge in the flow of economic migrants from eastern Europe. That migration is hard to justify on any conceivable grounds of refugee status, and that is why we are tackling the problem.
I hope that the hon. Lady will withdraw her remarks and not seek to exacerbate tensions between communities. One of the intentions of good asylum control is to cement and harmonise those relations.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)
I thank my right hon. Friend for responding as he has, but could 339 he clarify one point in his statement? Did he say that he would remove the Secretary of State's discretionary powers? If that is the case, could he explain why?
§ Mr. Lilley
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. The proposal to which he refers gives a discretionary power to the Secretary of State, or those acting on his behalf, to give interim benefit payments in cases in which it is known that an individual has an entitlement to benefit, but the amount of the benefit has not yet been calculated. The way in which the rules are framed suggests that the Secretary of State may have discretion to give benefit where an appeal is going on, but it is not known whether the person has an entitlement to benefit. We are trying to eliminate that uncertainty so that only in cases in which entitlement to benefit, but not the amount, has been established can the Secretary of State authorise an interim payment to enable the person to get by.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
I welcome the statement because it moves the line; however, it does not change the principle. The Secretary of State said that extra support would be made available to local authorities. Will the additional support be ring-fenced? If a local authority, for example, was spending at or above its standard spending assessment, would the additional support be on top of its SSA? It is in areas such as mine in the east end where this proposal will have its greatest impact.
§ Mr. Lilley
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the changes, which is unique among Opposition Members. I have said that there will be discussions between my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and the local authorities about the treatment of local authorities. I hesitate to pre-empt any arcane implications that those discussions might have for the complex and, to me, nearly incomprehensible financial arrangements which exist for local authorities.
The intention, however, is to provide a significant degree of help in cases in which there is additional and unavoidable cost—which will be monitored and, by implication, measured ex post facto rather than doled out through the normal SSA system.
§ Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)
May I welcome the transitional arrangements that my right hon. Friend has announced today? I welcome the fact that he proposes to continue allowing benefit to people who seek asylum when they first make UK landfall at a port of entry. Will he confirm to the House that his proposals are fully in accordance with international law on those points?
§ Mr. Lilley
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. I can confirm that we have taken full advice to ensure that what we do is in accordance with the letter and the spirit of international law.
§ Mr. Bernie Grant (Tottenham)
I welcome the Minister's change of heart in relation to some of the regulations, but he has not gone far enough. Will he take this opportunity to make a public apology to those asylum seekers in my constituency who were written to by officials in his Department before Christmas to tell them, illegally, that their benefits would be withdrawn on 8 January? He has written to me about it but has not made a public statement. Could he do so and also say what will 340 happen to asylum seekers whose appeals have been turned down and who are waiting to leave the country? How will they live and what is going to be done with those people and their children?
§ Mr. Lilley
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the changes. They are not, of course, in any way a reversal, but to avoid an upsurge of claims it was essential to announce, as we did, the impact that would be made by the changes on those who made claims in the interim. That has served its purpose. It is now possible the amend the regulations to ensure that there is no withdrawal of benefit from anybody when they come into force.
As for the issue about which I have written to the hon. Gentleman, where people were prematurely given an indication of the date on which the regulations might have come into force, I am glad that he has made his letter public. Our regret that that premature statement was made is therefore already in the public domain. Of course, it was essential at some stage that people knew what the arrangements would be.
The hon. Gentleman asked what would happen at the end of the appeal stage when, having exhausted all their appeal rights, people are found not to be genuine claimants. At present, they lose the right to benefit and the right to work in this country. There will be no change in that. Of course, once they are found, having exhausted all appeal rights, not to be refugees and if they are not given exceptional leave to remain, they will be expected to return to their own countries.
§ Mr. Nicholas Baker (North Dorset)
Does my right hon. Friend accept that our international obligations, as well as our duty to genuine refugees, demand that we reduce the magnet that the benefits and jobs available in this country currently provide? Is he aware that he will have the tacit support and understanding of many Government Ministers in African countries for doing precisely that? Is he aware that the current rising tide of unfounded applications for asylum is threatening good race relations in this country?
§ Mr. Lilley
My hon. Friend's experience in this area gives authority to what he has just said and I entirely endorse it. The measures that we have taken are absolutely right and it would be grossly irresponsible, as the Opposition's position is grossly irresponsible, not to make any changes either to the asylum procedures under the Asylum and Immigration Bill or on the benefits side. They are effectively allowing thousands and thousands of people with unfounded asylum claims to block up the procedures and affecting those with genuine claims. We should put those with genuine claims first.
§ Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)
The Secretary of State said that by taking away benefits while someone is waiting for an appeal, he is merely putting them on a par with any other person waiting for an appeal. Does he not understand that asylum seekers who wait for appeals may be without money for several months and may be forced, if they have no friends to support them, to go back to where they came from? People who might well have won appeals may end up going back to countries where they are in danger of being persecuted. Could he give an example of someone else waiting for an appeal who would be under the same sort of pressure?
§ Mr. Lilley
I endeavoured to explain to the House that the rules will be effectively identical for both British 341 citizens and asylum seekers. No other means of support is made available for people whose claims for income support, say, are rejected during the period in which they appeal against such decisions. I remind the hon. Gentleman that, in the case of asylum seekers, 96 per cent. of appeals are finally rejected.
§ Mr. David Shaw (Dover)
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that nine out of 10 applications for asylum are ultimately turned down and that those people have been costing the country some £200 million? If that is the case, my constituents welcome the decision that he has announced today.
§ Mr. Lilley
I can confirm the figures that my hon. Friend has given. As he knows, the Opposition have pretended recently to be against the abuse of the welfare system. Of the benefits that go to domestic claimants, the most vulnerable benefits are subject to some 10 per cent. abuse, but at least 90 per cent. gets through to those who are genuinely entitled to it. In the case of benefits for asylum seekers, the proportions are reversed, yet the Labour party wants that position to remain unchanged.
§ Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)
Does the Secretary of State believe that no child will end up in care as a result of his disgraceful statement? If he does not, will he estimate how many children will end up in care?
§ Mr. Lilley
I have tried to explain that no change that I have announced today will affect the most heart-rending cases where children are sent to this country unaccompanied. As for children accompanied by families, it is open to local authorities to help the family look after its children. Local authorities are not required to take the children into care.
§ Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that his response on transitional relief, which will be warmly welcomed by any reasonable person, represents a response to the most persuasive evidence that was given in public to the Social Security Select Committee inquiry into this matter? Is not the lesson to be learnt that he has responded fully to those concerns because they were factually based, and those people who feel that they have not been responded to should think again about the emotive language and exaggeration that they use in putting forward their case?
§ Mr. Lilley
I entirely endorse the points that my hon. Friend has made, which are given greater authority by the fact that he has been chairing the sub-committee of the Select Committee investigating that matter. I naturally look forward to receiving his report as soon as it is available.
§ Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey)
If the evidence for those changes is so overwhelming, why did the Secretary of State's adviser, the Social Security Advisory Committee, in an unprecedented statement, say that it wanted the draft regulations completely withdrawn?
§ Mr. Lilley
It is far from unprecedented that the Social Security Advisory Committee, whose job is to consider and receive all the representations made following the Government's announcement of proposals for social security, should say that a proposal should be withdrawn. Those proposals invariably generate hostile representations. I have often been told to withdraw proposals before I have responded to the most serious and 342 poignant concerns that they raise. I remind the hon. Lady, however, that almost every other country in Europe has tightened up either on its procedures or benefits, or both. It is extraordinary that the Labour party should think that this country should take an ever-rising proportion of asylum claimants in western Europe. The number that we take has already quadrupled and the Labour party clearly wants our share to go up even more.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)
May I anticipate the response of the church leaders in south-east London and say on their behalf that they will be grateful that the transitional arrangements have been modified? However, there remains the problem of the children of people who are unauthorised to be here but who have been here for more than five years, who are then sent away. This may be a Home Office issue. The real test is that people who come from abroad and change their stories will no longer be able to get the benefits that are denied to people in this country, who may be in an even worse position.
§ Mr. Lilley
I very much welcome the points that my hon. Friend made. He is right to say that there is a clear distinction between people who come to this country as refugees precisely because they trust this country and declare their claim for asylum at the port of entry, and those who tell the immigration authorities one story but subsequently change their story once they are in the country, having received advice that it may be in their interest and help to get benefits.
§ Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the underlying principles of his draft order are totally unchanged and that it will simply happen further along the line? While those whose asylum applications have been refused legitimately wait for an appeal to have their cases reconsidered, they will be forced into destitution. The Secretary of State intended that to happen on 8 January but has been forced to put it back by a month.
§ Mr. Lilley
I do not often agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I respect his continuing concern about this issue and the consistency of his line on asylum seekers. He is right to say that, essentially, the change in the transitional arrangements means that no one will have benefit withdrawn on the day that the regulations come in but if, in future, they are found not to be genuine asylum seekers, they will lose benefit at that point. That seems reasonable and sensible, although alas it may not to the hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
May I, as the Member who has the principal port of entry to the United Kingdom, Heathrow, in his borough, warmly commend my right hon. Friend for his clarity of mind, consistency of purpose and courage in tackling what, to my constituents, is obviously an abuse, which enables public funds to be disbursed to their disbenefit? May I also say that it is important, as local authority representatives from Hillingdon have made clear to the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Sir P. Beresford), that something be done to provide funding to accommodate the unaccompanied refugee children who continue to pour in through Heathrow?
§ Mr. Lilley
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who rightly has specific constituency concerns about that issue. 343 I am glad that he welcomes the measures that we have introduced. I will convey the final argument that he made to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, but I believe that the changes that we have announced will mean that local authorities, and people with genuine anxieties about the transitional arrangements, have their concerns properly met. Like my hon. Friend, I believe that the vast majority of people in this country, whatever their colour or ethnic origin, will support those measures.
§ Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)
If these proposals are not withdrawn in their entirety, there will undoubtedly be additional responsibilities for all local authorities under the Housing Act 1985 and the Children Act. Will the Secretary of State give a figure for the amount of transitional relief and the length of time that that will run? My local authority, Camden, expects to be confronted with an increase of £4.6 million.
§ Mr. Lilley
I said in my statement that we would seek to help local authorities that have unavoidable additional expenditures. We believe that those expenditures will be far less than the number that the hon. Lady quoted, which ante-dates the change in the transitional arrangements, which has relieved local authorities of the prospect of the biggest potential impact on their budgets.
When the hon. Lady speaks about removing those measures in their entirety, she is saying that we should continue to spend £200 million, the vast bulk of it going to people who will be found not to be genuine asylum seekers. Where else in the welfare budget or the tax system do she and the Labour party propose to obtain £200 million? Will it come from genuine domestic claimants in order to be given to bogus asylum seekers?
§ Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the widespread abuse of our social security system by bogus asylum seekers is widely resented in this country and is bad for good community relations? In that context, is it not significant that Amnesty International has identified abuse of the asylum system as a significant and difficult problem, not only because of its effects on the taxpayer but because of the way in which it discriminates indirectly against genuine asylum seekers?
§ Mr. Lilley
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. He is right to quote Amnesty International, which did say that that is a genuine problem and, in so doing, rebutted effectively the arguments of Opposition Front Bench Members, who have tried to pretend that it is a non-problem.
§ Mr. Stephen Timms (Newham, North-East)
The Secretary of State knows that the Social Security Advisory Committee, which he appointed, has recommended to him that the proposals that he made should not only be abandoned, but scrapped. Given that he appointed that committee and that the report's recommendation about asylum seekers is perfectly explicit, why has he rejected its recommendations?
§ Mr. Lilley
I am not sure about the fine distinction between abandoning and scrapping, but the reason why I have done what I have done is that, having considered the representations that the Social Security Advisory Committee had received and relayed to me, I believed that 344 the most sensitive issue was that of transitional problems—the possibility of sudden withdrawal of benefit from a large number of people. It was necessary to create that prospect to prevent an upsurge of claims and, having served its purpose, it was reasonable to change that measure in that respect. I have listened to what the committee has said and to what the local authorities, which we have also consulted, have said and I have produced, I believe, a package that most sensible people would consider to be both fair and essential.
§ Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)
May I associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson)? Is my right hon. Friend aware of the housing difficulties in the London borough of Ealing and other boroughs near to Heathrow airport, where, in a recent year, the entire new housing supply had to go to asylum seekers? Has he any plans to ensure that there is a greater dispersal of asylum seekers and appeals so that people on the housing list in Ealing and other boroughs who have been there for months and years are not pushed out of the queue unfairly?
§ Mr. Lilley
I understand my hon. Friend's concerns. There are certainly no powers at the Government's disposal or within the regulations to determine where people live when they have the right to live in this country. But it creates problems when an extra 50,000 people a year come to this country, the vast majority of whom are not escaping persecution, but seeking economic betterment. The amount of extra housing, schools and facilities that those additional numbers require in this country is over and above the £200 million in benefit costs to which I referred.
§ Mr. Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh, Leith)
I have received letters from a large number of constituents who are outraged at the Secretary of State's proposals, which are still unchanged apart from the transitional period. Why does he continue to make the fatuous analogy between those appealing against the refusal of benefit and those appealing against the refusal of asylum? Even right-wing Conservatives should feel slightly uneasy at the prospect of a large number of genuine asylum seekers—even according to the Government's figures—no longer having the means to apply or appeal.
§ Mr. Lilley
I am astonished that the hon. Gentleman cannot see the similarity between an asylum seeker appealing against a decision that deprives him of benefit and a British person appealing against a decision that deprives him of benefit. I do not discriminate between those who come from abroad and British citizens, and do not think that we should do so in the benefit system.
§ Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)
Does my right hon. Friend accept that his statement will be warmly welcomed by the vast majority of people in this country who want Britain to be a safe haven for genuine asylum seekers, but not a soft touch for economic migrants? Will he confirm that the rate of application for asylum in 1995 of 40,000 a year was equivalent to 200,000 applications in a five-year Parliament, and that no Government of any political persuasion could have done anything but take action?
§ Mr. Lilley
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In fact, the position is even more daunting than he suggests because the number of claims is rising rapidly and might 345 continue to rise if the changes that we are making, both in the regulations and the Asylum and Immigration Bill, do not go through. We cannot assume that the level of claims will settle at 50,000 a year; it may continue to rise. This country's share of total claims for asylum made in Europe has risen from about 4 per cent. a decade ago to 13 per cent., and is set to go on rising if we do nothing to bring our system more in line with those of our continental partners.
§ Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)
Throughout the statement the Minister excluded people who are in the United Kingdom with exceptional leave to remain from falling within the "genuine" category. Does he not think that in doing so he does them a disservice and that it would have been better to have told the House that, even according to his figures, the percentage was 75 per cent. rather than 90 per cent.? Does he accept that, as the figure represents just 0.25 per cent. of his Department's entire budget, he has turned a molehill into a legislative mountain? Many in the House will wish to vote against the regulations, so will he say whether there will be a debate on the Floor of the House or in an obscure Committee Room? Will we all have the chance to vote on the proposals? Will they be placed before Parliament in its total authority?
§ Mr. Lilley
The simple fact is that anyone receiving exceptional leave to remain will first have been found by the authorities not to be a genuine asylum seeker. I do not see why I should give a different verdict from that given by officials who have considered the case in the light of the official definitions of refugees. Those people may encounter mishaps; they may come here from a country where there is no persecution and their claim may be heard. They may be sick and we may decide, for humanitarian purposes, to allow them to stay for a while. But that does not make them genuine refugees fleeing from political persecution and we should not present them as such. Where does the Liberal party propose to obtain £200 million from within the welfare budget? Would it take it from pensioners? One per cent. off pensions would be a small figure in the hon. Gentleman's terms and would finance the continued existence of unwarranted benefits for people who are not genuine refugees.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is conceivable that the Government would have been censored by the Audit Commission had they not taken measures to prevent the abuse of £200 million in the social security system? Does he further agree that the measure is likely to improve race relations because the last thing that genuine asylum seekers and immigrants want is people falsely using the system in that way?
§ Mr. Lilley
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We could well be open to investigation by the Audit Office or the Public Accounts Committee if we continued a system in which a high portion of benefit expenditure went to those subsequently found not to fulfil the conditions for which it was intended. In those circumstances, it is only right that we should act responsibly. I do not want to wait until I am censored before I act. That seems to be the attitude of the Opposition.