§ The Secretary of State for Social Security (Mr. Peter Lilley)
With permission, I should like to make a statement to the House on the Government's intentions following the Court of Appeal decision on the vires of the regulations made in February on asylum seekers.
The Government propose to restore the fundamental policy, which was upheld by healthy majorities in both Houses of Parliament. As my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish has said in another place, the Government's intention is to introduce amendments next week to the Asylum and Immigration Bill to restore Parliament's intention.
There are only three categories of people whose benefits were affected by the regulations. The first is illegal immigrants who claim asylum. I cannot believe that it is right to reward illegality. There may be a reason for someone to leave their own country illegally, but there can be no reason illegally to enter this country, which offers sanctuary to genuine refugees. That issue was not addressed in the Court of Appeal judgment.
The second group who no longer qualify for benefit are people who arrived in this country claiming to be something other than asylum seekers. It is not merely that they fail to make a claim for asylum at their port of entry, but they enter the country as business people, students or tourists. They succeed in convincing the immigration authorities that they have the means to support themselves, and they agree not to be a burden on British taxpayers.
One reason why those seeking to abuse the system do not claim asylum at their port of entry is that the process of deporting bogus immigrants is much more protracted after they enter the UK than if they make their claim at the port. I cannot believe that that group should be entitled to benefits if they subsequently change their story—but that issue was not addressed in the judgment by the Court of Appeal.
The third group affected are those whose claim for asylum is turned down after due consideration by the immigration authorities, but who then appeal. British citizens do not generally receive benefit while appealing against its refusal. Successive Governments have upheld that policy, because otherwise, every unsuccessful British benefit claimant would have an incentive to appeal against refusal of benefit. Following the judgment, asylum seekers are now entitled to retain benefit during an appeal. Until the new regulations took effect in February, the vast majority of asylum seekers appealed against rejection, yet 97 per cent. of their appeals turned out to be unfounded.
In the case of British claimants, nearly half eventually win their appeals against benefit refusal, compared to the handful of asylum claimants. It would be extraordinary to treat asylum seekers—only 3 per cent. of whom are found to be genuine refugees—more generously than British citizens, nearly half of whose claims are found to be genuine. That issue was not addressed in the judgment of the Court of Appeal.
In one respect only, British citizens appealing against refusal are treated more leniently than foreign asylum seekers. If a British claimant's appeal is upheld, benefit is backdated. That has not been the case with asylum seekers 38 whose refugee status is confirmed on appeal. I propose in future that any refugee whose appeal is successful will have his entitlement to benefits backdated. That will mean that, where families, friends or voluntary groups are convinced of the validity of an individual's claim, they will be able to support the claimant in the knowledge that he will be able to reimburse them when his claim for refugee status is accepted.
By removing the incentives for bogus asylum seekers to come to this country or to lodge valueless appeals, fewer bogus claims will be clogging up the system. Genuine refugees will have their applications processed and right to stay established much more quickly. In any case, genuine refugees come here not to claim our benefits but to escape persecution. It is as much in the interests of genuine refugees as of taxpayers that action should be taken to discourage unfounded applications. The interests of genuine refugees are damaged if consideration of their applications for asylum are held up by a huge and growing number of unfounded applications from economic migrants.
The court had no difficulty accepting my objective of discouraging economic migrants. Since the regulations were introduced in February, the message has been getting across. The number of asylum claims was down 7 per cent. in March, one quarter in April and nearly one half in May, and 84 per cent. of that decline was due to a fall of in-country applications. That is good news above all for genuine refugees, as it will be easier to deal speedily with their claims.
We are determined that the judgment will not provide a blank cheque for bogus asylum seekers. We must clearly move as quickly as possible to restore the position and reinstate the message. The February regulations were debated in both Houses, and the policy was endorsed by healthy majorities. Their conformity with primary legislation has been considered by five judges. Three endorsed the Government's position. In the latest judgment, two judges ruled the regulations ultra vires. The latest judgment takes effect immediately, and is being implemented by Benefits Agency offices. It will remain in effect unless and until it is reversed by a higher court or overtaken by primary legislation.
To leave the judgment in effect would mean disbursing nearly £300 million a year—the vast majority of it on bogus claimants. That is not in line with the clearly expressed wish of Parliament, in the interests of taxpayers or in the interests of genuine refugees—who come here not to claim our benefits but to seek our liberties.
The House is determined that Britain should remain a sanctuary for people fleeing persecution. We are acting now to ensure that this country remains a safe haven, not a soft touch.
§ Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)
Is it not profoundly telling that the Secretary of State—the latest in a straggling line of Ministers—has had to be taught the rules of natural justice by the Appeal Court? Is it not the case that, during the past two years alone, Ministers have been found to have acted unlawfully on four occasions by the Appeal Court and on seven occasions by the High Court?
Did not the Appeal Court on Friday administer a timely reminder to the Secretary of State that no Government, however long in office and however arrogant they may have grown, are above the laws of common humanity and justice?
39 Does not the Secretary of State feel ashamed that his policy earned the most damning of indictments from Lord Justice Brown, who said that the measures wouldnecessarily contemplate for some a life so destitute that to my mind no civilised nation can tolerate it"?Does he understand that simply using a whipped vote to force through a further change in primary legislation in order to get around an inconvenient decision of the courts is yet another demonstration of the incompetence of the present Administration?
Does the Secretary of State not realise that his measures—even if they are subsequently implemented—will come nowhere near achieving the savings for the public purse that he has claimed? Is he not aware of the enormous extra cost that local authorities already have to incur, especially where the needs of children have to be met? Is he not simply saving money from one part of the public purse and imposing extra cost on another?
Are not the Secretary of State's claims about dramatically lower numbers claiming asylum themselves misleading? The Government's published figures show that there were 9,305 applications in the first quarter of 1996, compared with 9,905 in the first quarter of 1995 and 7,110 in the first quarter of 1994. Is not the fall in numbers that he claims simply the usual effect of the winter and spring quarters?
Is not the real answer to the problem to speed up the processing of asylum applications, rather than to remove all means of support from those seeking asylum? In that respect, are not the Government doing worse rather than better? Last September, there were 64,000 outstanding applications. By November, the figure had risen to 68,000.
The Secretary of State's argument comparing asylum seekers with British citizens applying for benefits is unsound. He is simply not comparing like with like. Can he not see the difference between someone appealing against a decision on the facts of his entitlement based on an objective criterion relating to his circumstances and someone appealing against a decision on the Home Secretary's opinion as to the genuineness of his fear and anxiety? Surely those are two completely different circumstances.
Let me welcome the right hon. Gentleman's decision to backdate eligibility if an appeal is subsequently successful, but point out that it does not address the need to stay alive while an appeal is being considered.
Does the Secretary of State not understand that his policy is forcing many of those who are legitimately seeking refuge from persecution to become completely destitute? Would he like to tell the young man from Eritrea who came to my advice surgery, who fled his country in fear of his life, who put in his asylum application three days after arriving here, and who is existing on one free meal a day from a local church, what precisely he is expected to do in the meantime?
Does the Secretary of State not realise that his measures affect the genuine and the non-genuine alike, and that all the evidence—including the facts produced by his right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary—shows that more genuine applicants apply in-country than at the port of entry?
40 Will the Secretary of State now at last acknowledge that, in a supposedly civilised country, he is leaving people to starve, and has acted with both inhumanity and injustice? Will he now think again and abandon his Foolish intention to legislate his way round the problem? Common humanity demands nothing less.
§ Mr. Lilley
The hon. Gentleman said that I needed to be taught justice. I was then being taught in company with judges in the lower court and the most senior judge of all who have heard this case, who agreed with my position.
The hon. Gentleman says that the decision is a damning indictment of our policy. If so, it is a damning indictment of a policy, on the treatment of benefit claimants who are appealing against refusal of benefit, that was supported on both sides of the House. The distinction that he tried to draw between the treatment of appeals against refusal of benefit and appeals against refusal of asylum was a distinction without a difference, and bogus in every way.
The hon. Gentleman says that we will not achieve the savings that we set out to achieve. On the contrary, our estimates of savings were based on the assumption that the measures simply checked the rise in the number of asylum seekers. To the extent that they reduce the numbers as they have so far done, the savings will be greater than we anticipated, not less.
The hon. Gentleman claims that the figures do not show a decline, but used figures for the number of claims Largely before the measures had taken effect. The figures for the months since the measures took effect show a 7 per cent. drop in claims in March, a 27 per cent. drop in April, and nearly a 50 per cent. drop in May. He is simply factually wrong.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned a specific case of a claimant. I cannot comment on a specific case, but I can ask questions that he should have asked and answered. Did that claimant tell a different story at the port of entry? Did he come from another safe country and shop around countries before coming here? If not, why did he not make the claim at the port when he was asked his reason for entering this country?
The simple question that the hon. Gentleman did not answer is what Labour would do. Would it allow to stand, or reinstate, the court's decision and the old regulations, so that the House would be obliged to spend £300 million a year on a group of people of whom more than 90 per cent. are subsequently found to have made invalid claims? It is all very well for him to take the sanctimonious high ground but not say whether he would change things. He is like the Levite in the parable of the good Samaritan—only he does not pass by on the other side. He leans over, sees the Samaritan in the gutter, expresses great sympathy, and then says, "I shall subject your matter to a review." The hon. Gentleman is not going to say whether there will be any help from a Labour Government.
The simple fact is that fraud is wrong. The whole House recognises that it is wrong, whether it is perpetrated by a domestic claimant or a foreign claimant. Labour has always been the friend of the fraudster. It has now shown that it is the friend of bogus asylum seekers and the enemy of hard-working people in this country of all races, who simply want to ensure that we remain a safe haven but not a soft touch.
§ Mr. Peter Brooke (City of London and Westminster, South)
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the 41 welcome concession that he has made on backdated benefits will continue to apply if the Home Office decides to challenge the decision to reverse the original decision on appeal?
§ Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)
Does the Secretary of State accept that the withdrawal of benefit has caused severe and intense hardship to some asylum seekers, and that changes in policies on immigration and benefits have created such fear among some of them that they are avoiding any contact with support agencies? Does he accept that those policies are standing the concept of British justice on its head? Under this regime, asylum seekers are considered guilty until they can prove their innocence.
§ Mr. Lilley
Before the regulations came in, the Refugee Council said that there would be terrible problems and that the streets would be full of destitute asylum claimers. After some months of operation of the regulations, it has had to admit thatfewer asylum seekers than were expected have made contact with agencies or been visible on the streets.To suggest that asylum seekers are so destitute that they are too afraid to go to people who can help them seems absurd. It suggests that, when asylum seekers do not need help, they go to people who can help them, but when they need it, they do not. That is not a credible explanation. The alarmist fears stirred up by groups—sometimes in very good faith, through genuine fear that the regulations would have a damaging effect—have not materialised. The claims about destitution are based largely on theory rather than practice.
§ Dame Angela Rumbold (Mitcham and Morden)
Does my right hon. Friend accept that the vast majority of my constituents—I have a multicultural constituency—are absolutely fed up to the back teeth with fraud and asylum seekers' abuse of the system? They will be very pleased with his statement. All parts of the community have felt very strongly about the matter for a considerable time. Does he agree that it is monstrous hypocrisy of the Labour party to condemn his very sensible statement?
§ Mr. Lilley
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her support for the measures. She is right to say that they are supported in all communities. I believe that they have a great deal of support among genuine asylum seekers—although little, of course, among bogus asylum seekers and those who try to misrepresent them.
§ Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)
Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the Home Secretary, who is sitting next to him on the Front Bench, is partly to blame? If the system is underfunded, so that a claim's genuineness cannot be tested effectively and quickly, there will, of course, be delay.
What worries me is that, unless immigrants at the port of entry are able to see a friendly face rather than an official face, they do not often seek the advice and guidance they need, which leads to delay in registering their claim. Once they have registered their claims, they 42 do not have the support of family and friends—unlike resident applicants. Unless the appeal or their application is processed quickly, they are left in a state of limbo. If, in turn, their appeal is delayed—or, as we know often from experience, wrongly decided—the situation spirals. Are they to starve until they get justice?
§ Mr. Lilley
The hon. Gentleman's initial question referred to the resources put into the system speedily to assess claims. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has considerably increased the resources. I have transferred to his Department from my budget £37 million to increase the resources further. It is impossible, however, to keep up with an ever-growing flow of bogus asylum seekers if one positively invites them here by promising them benefits when they arrive. As a result, the system is clogged up to the detriment of genuine refugees whose claims cannot be assessed.
I should have thought that the whole House would welcome the fall in the number of claims since the measures were introduced. The fall is predominantly of in-country claims, which suggests that the hon. Gentleman's rationale for such claims is not founded. People have learnt that, if they are going to claim, they should claim at the port of entry or not at all. It would therefore be right to reinstate the policy and reaffirm it, with the improvement that I have mentioned, which so far the Opposition have failed even to welcome.
§ Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)
Am I right? [Interruption.] Did I understand it correctly that a member of the judiciary said that the policy of this House and this Parliament was "uncivilised"? Have I missed something? Do the judiciary now have a democratic mandate to decide which laws are acceptable, or does this House and Parliament, on the balance of views in the country, continue to decide what the laws should be, while the judiciary apply them without being informed by their personal prejudices?
§ Mr. Lilley
My hon. Friend raises important points about the relationship between the courts and Parliament, but it would not be right for me to pursue those general points in light of a particular judgment that it is my duty to implement, appeal against or alter by primary legislation in Parliament—and I intend to do the last.
My hon. Friend referred to civilisation. Italy provides no benefits for asylum seekers at all, and France provides no benefits for asylum seekers after 12 months. In both respects, our provision is infinitely more civilised and better targeted than anything proposed by the Opposition, or provided in most other countries.
§ Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)
Does the Secretary of State accept that the regulations introduced this year have caused a great deal of misery and poverty? Asylum seekers have been forced to sleep in churches and to beg on the streets, and they are afraid of going to authorities of any sort. Has he not created an underclass of fear in our society? Is it not time that he met some of the organisations that are doing their best to look after asylum seekers, who are quite justly pursuing appeals, to find out what they have to say, rather than pursuing his own prejudices?
§ Mr. Lilley
I am rather sad that the hon. Gentleman, to whom I have previously paid tribute for his consistent 43 interest in the matter, did not express gratitude for the change to which he alluded in previous debates in this House—rendering the treatment of asylum seekers more similar to that of British benefit claimants by making their successful claims backdated to the beginning of the claim. I should have thought that he would welcome that, and the change will have the effect that I mentioned in my statement.
I am constantly in touch, as are my fellow Ministers, with groups working with asylum seekers. Almost all of them report that the outcome of the regulations was much less severe than any of them feared and most had led us to believe.
§ Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the vast majority of people in this country find it unbelievable that foreigners can come here claiming to be business men, students or tourists, and, once here, can seek asylum status and qualify for state benefits? Is it not highly revealing, and a timely reminder to the British people, that, when it comes to a choice between supporting the taxpaying British public and bogus asylum seekers, the Labour party once again supports those who would be a burden on the taxpayer?
§ Mr. Lilley
My hon. Friend puts it extremely well. The man or woman in the street would see the matter exactly like my hon. Friend, and would be mystified by Labour's position on this issue.
§ Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)
Does the Secretary of State recognise that the legal judgment gives him an opportunity to table an amendment that would allow a reasonable period—perhaps a few weeks—in which someone who had fled for their life to this country after having been tortured would have a chance to understand the procedures and would be able to make an application, rather than be left destitute? I am not talking about an indefinite period—just a few weeks. After this debate, will he think again and table a sensible amendment that might unite this House and the country behind a sensible policy?
§ Mr. Lilley
The simple fact is that those who are genuinely escaping persecution come here because they trust this country and do not trust the country they are leaving. They come here to seek our liberties and protections—not because they are in terror of this Government. If they were, they would go somewhere else.
There is a legal distinction between those who claim at the port and those who claim in-country, in that it is more difficult to exercise deportation rights on the latter if they are found to be bogus. That is why many are advised to wait a while and make their claim in-country. I do not believe that it is right that people who come here telling one story should get benefits when they tell another.
§ Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us feel that Britain has a long and honourable history of acting compassionately towards people abroad who have been persecuted—perhaps persecuted to death? But my constituents do not expect the Government to make the taxpayer pay for unlimited numbers of bogus asylum seekers, nor do they expect the 44 Court of Appeal to do other than uphold public policy as expressed through our parliamentary democracy. My constituents do not expect the Court of Appeal to make up the law as it goes along.
§ Mr. Lilley
I am sure that my hon. Friend is absolutely right about the attitudes of the British public, who want to give refuge to the fairly small number of genuine refugees who come to this country to escape persecution. But the public recognise that there is also a great wave of economic migration, and—although there is sympathy for economic migrants—we need sensible immigration control, which should not be undermined by abuse of the asylum system. The role of the Court of Appeal is important, although I should not respond to my hon. Friend's question in the context of a specific judgment with which I have the duty of dealing.
§ Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon)
May I appeal to the Secretary of State and to his party, on the ground of humanity, to abandon this policy, because it is cruel? If, regrettably, he intends to pursue it, I welcome the fact that he intends to do so by means of primary legislation. Have not the Government driven increasing quantities of substantial and contentious legislation through Parliament using the procedures for secondary legislation, which are perfunctory and subject to entirely inadequate parliamentary scrutiny? Should we not be grateful that the judges at least are willing to stand up for the decencies and liberties upon which previous generations of Conservative Back Benchers would have felt it their duty to insist?
§ Mr. Lilley
The hon. Gentleman now finds himself in uncomfortable company, because his new party tabled a clause on pension-splitting measures during debates on the Family Law Bill the other day that gave the most draconian powers to Government, through secondary legislation by a Henry VIII clause, to alter any legislation by regulation. We have no intention of using those powers, and we shall introduce the measure through primary legislation. The Opposition wanted that clause, which gives a clue to the way in which they would govern this country if, heaven forbid, they should ever get a majority in this place.
§ Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock (Batley and Spen)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of my constituents will welcome his statement, as many people in my part of the world are sick and tired of paying taxes for illegal immigrants and people seeking asylum who are not genuine? Which countries would offer similar benefits to me were Ito seek asylum?
§ Mr. Lilley
I think my hon. Friend can be confident that she will not have to seek asylum either now or after the general election, and she will continue to exercise a prominent role in this country. But she is right about the views of British citizens, and about the fact that our benefits and arrangements are honourable, well tailored and—in many respects—superior to those provided in many other countries.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)
At the start of his statement, the Secretary of State said that we 45 should not reward illegality. As he has been turned over by the courts, does that principle apply to him? How will he suffer from that decision?
§ Mr. Lilley
The Court of Appeal was delivering a verdict on a decision of Parliament—a decision endorsed by a healthy majority in this House and by a substantial majority in the other place. If there is any criticism, it is of the Houses of Parliament, and we must collectively bear the shame that the hon. Gentleman attaches to us.
§ Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)
Anybody who wants to see whether there is a difference between new Labour and the Conservative party ought to look at the report of the exchanges in this House, as my right hon. Friend has announced today something that would strike most people as no more than ordinary common sense. Will my right hon. Friend consider—although perhaps not today—the fact that judges take it upon themselves to strike down laws passed by the Houses of Parliament? If judges now feel entitled to do this, should they not take a 70 per cent. pay cut and get some democratic authority, instead of subverting the constitution that they are in place to uphold?
§ Mr. Lilley
My hon. Friend makes some telling points, which I shall not follow, for the reasons that I have already given. He is right to say that I am reasserting the decision of Parliament—seeking the assent of Parliament to do so by primary, rather than secondary, legislation. The role of the courts in this is a broader matter, to which I do not want to allude at the moment.
§ Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)
Rather than complaining that the Court of Appeal did not address the issues, why does the right hon. Gentleman not admit that the court found against him in the most scathing terms? Before he rushes into primary legislation, will he remember that, before he introduced the regulations, he was advised against them by the Social Security Advisory Committee and every organisation and individual that works and deals with refugees? He ought to pause and remember that before rushing into primary legislation.
On the question of applications at the port, why, if applications at the port are the only ones that can be regarded as genuine, which seems to be his view, has the Home Office given refugee status to many people who have applied in-country?
§ Mr. Lilley
The one thing I do recall about those who advised against introducing the regulations was that, in almost every case, the forecast they made of what would follow once they were introduced has proved erroneous. That gives me some confidence that their judgment was wrong.
§ Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)
My constituents expect political judgments to be made by this, their elected House of Commons, and not by remote judges who have probably never met a bogus asylum applicant in their lives. My constituents—both Sikh and other constituents—live cheek by jowl with hundreds of bogus political asylum applicants. My constituents resent those people, who at their expense laugh all the way to the Benefits Agency.
§ Mr. Lilley
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is the place to take political decisions, and therefore this 46 House has a right to know where both parties stand on the issue. We have been discussing it for the best part of an hour, and we still do not know for sure whether the Labour party proposes to go to the people, saying that: it will spend £300 million—90 per cent. of it or more on bogus asylum seekers.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)
May I point out to the Secretary of State that many people in Scotland find it deeply offensive that we are detaining in Her Majesty's prison Greenock those persons awaiting deportation from Scotland? Why are the Government so hostile to the idea of a detention centre being built at Glasgow airport, as I and many others have suggested? The BAA is willing to find space for it.
I see that the Home Secretary is whispering in the right hon. Gentleman's ear. That is an important issue. Those people should not be detained in a small, overcrowded prison alongside remand prisoners. The right hon. Gentleman should practise in Scotland what he has practised in England and Wales.
§ Mr. Lilley
That is, of course, a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, who will have heard and considered what the hon. Gentleman said. The ruling of the court, however, was that the practice of detaining refugees and putting them in hostels and camps was an alternative to providing benefits, should we wish to do so.
§ Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)
I welcome, although I am not terribly surprised at, the effect of the regulations in reducing in-house asylum applications, the vast majority of which are totally bogus, as we all know. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the change will have two effects? It will save the taxpayer about £200 million a year, which the Opposition always seem to forget, and it will improve the climate for genuine asylum seekers, who need their cases to be properly considered.
§ Mr. Lilley
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Those are the two key points. I am only sorry that the Opposition have been unable to see them with the clarity with which my hon. Friend does.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
May I ask a personal, factual question? I hope that it is not offensive. Has the Secretary of State, or indeed the Home Secretary, been present at a port of entry when wretched asylum seekers are arriving? Before I became a Member of Parliament, I worked for P and O, and I did see that. The people were bewildered, and could not answer any rational questions. Have Ministers any idea what it is like to go to completely strange shores, often in desperate circumstances? At that time, the refugees came from Ghana, and doubtless from many other places. Have Ministers any idea of the sheer bewilderment? One cannot ask people to be rational at such a point.
§ Mr. Lilley
The hon. Gentleman misunderstands. Those who are most bewildered reveal their circumstances to the immigration authorities when they arrive. My concern is those who have concocted a convincing tale to get through, by pretending to be business men, tourists or students, and who demonstrate that they have the means to look after themselves while they are in this country— 47 they probably have a return ticket, and have gone through the visa system. If they subsequently change their minds, having sussed the place out and learned how the benefit system works, it would be extraordinary for them to be entitled to benefits. Such people will have convinced the authorities that they have the means to support themselves.
§ Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)
From the Secretary of State's reply, it would seem that the definition of a bogus asylum seeker is failure to apply at the port of entry. As other hon. Members have said, many of the most vulnerable people do not know that that system applies and do not have the English language which would enable them to ask the relevant questions and to understand the relevant answers.
If the Secretary of State is really unaware of the hardship that the changes to the rules made by his regulations will cause, may I give him an example from my constituency? A woman from Somalia is claiming asylum status. She is seven months pregnant and has absolutely no money, nowhere to live and no friends or relatives to support her. The Secretary of State might not find that shameful, but I and many of my constituents certainly do.
§ Mr. Lilley
The simple fact is that people who have genuine claims can make them at the port of entry. It is not merely that they have to make the asylum claim there—they have to refrain from telling some entirely spurious and different story. If they say that they are not sure why they are here, they will probably be questioned further until it is discovered that the real reason is to seek asylum. Then they will be entitled to benefits.
If people got here with the story that they were coming for a different purpose, with evidence to that effect and proof that they had the means to support themselves and accepted that they would not be a burden on the British taxpayer, they should not be entitled to help from the taxpayer when they subsequently change their story. I am astonished that the hon. Lady thinks otherwise.
§ Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)
Does the Secretary of State realise that, with the small exception of the positive amendment produced today, his continuing policy will be roundly condemned by all those who work with refugees and asylum seekers, not least the Churches? Whatever political niche he may find in the history books, it will certainly not be as the good Samaritan.
If the hon. gentleman is going to insist that applications for asylum must be made at the port of entry by people who are repressed, downtrodden and fearful, and who have fled God knows what, will he ensure that there will be people there who speak every language, to enable them 48 to understand the situation? That includes Eritrean, which might help hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench, who referred to that matter earlier.
§ Mr. Lilley
I can reassure the hon. Lady that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary ensures that there are a wide array of interpreters covering many scores of languages to deal with the problems of people who would not otherwise be able to make themselves understood. That issue is covered, and I should have made it clear in response to the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson).
§ Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)
We have heard a lot from Conservative Members about what they allege their constituents think. I am sure that my constituents want a system that is just, fair and humane. They do not expect to see it while this Government are in power.
If the Secretary of State really plans to help genuine asylum seekers, will he change his mind about withdrawing the Benefits Agency freephone telephone line for ethnic minorities? If not, how does he think that its withdrawal will help people genuinely seeking asylum?
§ Mr. Lilley
The hon. Lady says that most of her constituents want a fair system. Of course they do; but I do not think that they will think that it is fair if British citizens who are refused benefit, appeal against the refusal and get no benefit while they are pursuing their appeal for the next six months, are treated much less fairly than those who come from abroad who are refused asylum, appeal against the decision and—under the ruling and the apparent policy of the Opposition—will be paid benefit while they do so, even though nearly half the British appellants are found to be genuine against only 3 per cent. of asylum claimers.
As for the freephone line, the objective is to encourage people to apply direct to their local offices and not via the freephone, which, in a large proportion of cases, we have found, has to refer them to their local offices. It will cut out the middleman and speed up the process.
§ Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall)
What plans, if any, has the Secretary of State to give extra money to local authorities such as mine, where many asylum seekers live, that have to pick up the bill for supporting the people who will be deprived of benefits?
§ Mr. Lilley
The hon. Gentleman may not have heard the question of my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke), who has—naturally—campaigned for proper compensation to be given to local authorities such as his, which have large concentrations of asylum seekers. We responded to that by reaching an agreement with the local authority associations to reimburse a very significant proportion of the costs. That agreement is in place and is unaffected by the judgment.