HC Deb 22 July 1996 vol 282 cc89-91

Lords amendment: No. 166, in page 88, line 40, at end insert ("section 144(1A) or")

Mr. Curry

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 169 to 173, 190 to 197, 303, 323, 325 and 326.

Mr. Curry

We now move to the parts of the Bill reconciling welfare provisions under homelessness with social security provisions as they relate to asylum seekers.

The Government's policy is that no one who is here temporarily or illegally or who is seeking asylum is entitled to housing through the housing register. The same groups are not entitled to homelessness assistance, with the exception of people seeking asylum at the port of entry, who are entitled to homelessness assistance up to the first decision by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

The Court of Appeal found against my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security on the ground that he exceeded his powers. The amendments are designed to structure primary legislation to avoid the risk of successful legal challenge in respect of housing legislation. In effect, the prohibitions will apply unless the Secretary of State specifies otherwise by regulation on, for example, people with settled immigration status and people who have been granted refugee status or exceptional leave. The regulations will be made ahead of commencement, so this is a reconciliation measure to ensure that the Bill's provisions equate to the provisions in parallel legislation. I therefore commend the Lords amendments to the House.

Mr. Raynsford

This group of amendments is a shabby illustration of the Government's continued vendetta against asylum seekers—a vendetta which has brought considerable shame on this country internationally and has tarnished our reputation, acquired over 300 years, for being fair and willing to accept people who have suffered torture and discrimination in other countries, and who have been able to seek refuge here. Now we can no longer hold our heads up high in the international community as a country that is willing to welcome people who have suffered appalling torture in other countries.

A week ago tonight, I was speaking about one such person who had come to this country after suffering grotesquely at the hands of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. That person, simply because he arrived in London late at night, confused and frightened, and did not speak any English, failed to make his application for asylum at the port of entry. Because of that, had he applied after 5 February, he would have been treated as a bogus asylum seeker, and would have been denied benefits and entitlement to any social security assistance or housing. That is a comment on the Government's extraordinarily crude, vindictive and unpleasant values in denying to people who have suffered appallingly elsewhere an opportunity to enter this country, and to be welcomed and helped to establish themselves again on a reasonable footing.

7.30 pm

Previous generations of refugees—from Nazi Germany, the pogroms in Russia and eastern Europe in the 19th century, and even before that from the repression in France against the Huguenots at the time of Louis XIV—were welcomed in Britain. Refugees of today, even if they come from vile regimes like that in Iraq, will be treated in the shabby way that the Government seek to introduce.

In his brief speech, the Minister referred to the Government's defeat in the courts as a result of the implementation of their changed rules affecting asylum seekers. Rather than proposing amendments to the law to overturn the policies that caused those defeats—policies described as draconian in impact—the Government have responded simply by seeking to legitimise the policy that they previously sought to adopt. The amendment is part of that shabby process.

Quite apart from that wider policy background. there are serious reasons for reconsidering the amendment. While asylum seekers who arrive in this country wait for the Home Office to reach a decision on their application for asylum, they cannot register on a housing waiting list. Many must wait for three years or more because of the Home Office's extraordinary inefficiency in processing asylum cases.

In areas where people earn additional points for the time they have been on a waiting list, those individuals will be denied the opportunity to obtain points because they will have been ineligible to register on the waiting list. Although at the end of the process, perhaps three years on, the Home Office may grant them asylum and they will therefore become eligible to go on a waiting list, by the very nature of these restrictions, which will be enforced by the amendment, their chance of being rehoused will be put back by that wait. It will not be the asylum seekers' fault but the fault of the Government, because of their slow processing of asylum cases.

It cannot be right to hit people twice with the double whammy of, first, denying them the opportunity to be considered for housing when they arrive in the country as refugees and, secondly, making them suffer an additional penalty because of the Home Office's failure to process their case expeditiously. I hope that the Government will think again. I fear that they will not. No one can be proud of this chapter in the history of this country's policy towards asylum seekers. It will be frequently recalled in future years as evidence of the Government's inhumanity and political ineptness.

Mrs. Maddock

This is one of the most mean-spirited parts of the Bill. Outside the House there has been incredible lobbying to get the Government to change their minds and ensure that people who flee terrible regimes are dealt with fairly when they arrive on our shores.

There has been widespread support from the Church. It is galling to hear the Government say that we need moral guidance from the Church, yet when the Church gives the Government moral guidance, they choose to ignore it.

We have already heard of the case of people who arrive at a port of entry speaking not a word of English, perhaps having fled from torture and dreadful conditions with their children and family. If they do not do the right thing at the right time, they are penalised for ever more.

This matter has been debated widely and has had a lot of press coverage. It is sad that, at the Bill's final stages, the Government have still not listened. They could at least have promised that they would ensure that the procedures for dealing with people who managed to have their case heard were dealt with quickly. That would have done far more to alleviate the problems of illegal immigrants than this mean-spirited measure. I feel extremely sad about this. The Minister responsible for the Bill is not mean-spirited, and it is unfortunate that he could not persuade his colleagues to do something better.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 167 to 173 agreed to.

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