HC Deb 25 June 1996 vol 280 cc142-4
8. Mr. Gerrard

To ask the Secretary of State for Social Security what steps he has taken to monitor the effects on asylum seekers of the withdrawal of benefits. [32979]

Mr. Lilley

Since the benefit changes were introduced, we have seen a significant reduction in the level of asylum applications. They were down by about 5 per cent. in March, 25 per cent. in April and 50 per cent. in May.

Mr. Gerrard

What has the Secretary of State done to measure the impact of those changes on the people who have lost benefits? Is he aware of the research carried out by the Commission for Racial Equality and the British Refugee Council, which concluded that a great deal of hardship had been caused, and that even if fewer people than anticipated had gone to the relief agencies, the impact had been no less devastating? If the Secretary of State cannot even be bothered to find out what has happened to some of the most vulnerable people who have been affected by the regulations, why is he rushing off to table emergency amendments to the Asylum and Immigration Bill rather than responding to what the Court of Appeal said about what he should be doing?

Mr. Lilley

The most significant finding by all who have been monitoring the impact of the regulations is that the results have been much less worrying than they all forecast in their lurid claims. The simple fact is that we are removing benefits from only three groups of people. We are returning them from those who entered the country as refugees, but we are removing them only from illegal immigrants, and from people who enter the country not merely without claiming to be refugees but claiming to be something else—business men or tourists—and having the means to support themselves. Finally, we are putting foreigners on exactly the same footing as British people who, having had a claim for benefit refused, make an appeal and do not receive benefit during the period of the appeal.

Mrs. Roe

Am I correct in thinking that my right hon. Friend has received no concrete evidence from organised lobby groups that his regulations have caused widespread hardship to asylum seekers? Does he agree that the real destitution for United Kingdom citizens could well result from the flexible benefits scheme proposed by the Labour party?

Mr. Lilley

My hon. Friend is right on both counts. The sudden silence of members of the Opposition Front Bench may be due to the fact that, to the embarrassment of the bulk of their party, they have proposed a scheme that would enable people claiming unemployment benefit to obtain all their six months' benefit in advance, invest it—perhaps unsuccessfully—and then be left with no benefit, destitute on the streets, for the remaining six months. Yet those Opposition Members propose to restore benefits to asylum seekers precisely because they consider that sort of thing unacceptable.

Ms Lynne

The Secretary of State has said that, if asylum seekers' applications are successful, their benefit will be backdated. How on earth are those genuine asylum seekers supposed to manage between the refusal of benefit and their successful appeal? Most will be destitute.

Mr. Lilley

They will be in precisely the same position as British citizens, and presumably will survive in precisely the same way.

Sir Jim Lester

Will my right hon. Friend continue to monitor the effects of his changes? Asylum seekers do not fit into a handy category of people who are necessarily knowledgeable about our social security benefits. I fear that there will still be people who seek asylum and are not supported as they should be.

Mr. Lilley

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I am sure that he will welcome the change that I have made which ensures that refugees who are found to be genuine at the end of the process will be entitled to backdated benefits in the same way as British citizens, and will therefore be able to reimburse friends, relatives and voluntary groups who have supported them during that process.

Mr. Chris Smith

Following today's further and unanimous judgment of the Appeal Court on the provision of housing for penniless asylum seekers, are not two things crystal clear? First, local authorities up and down the land are having to pick up the bill for the Government's refusal of benefits, thus making nonsense of the Secretary of State's proclaimed savings. Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman's removal of benefits has left many genuine, legitimate claimants—many with children—fleeing from persecution without shelter, food, money or the means of life. Will he now think again?

Mr. Lilley

When the hon. Gentleman studies the judgment, he will realise that it refers to the application of existing law by local authorities, not the Government, in the period preceding the changes introduced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment coming into effect. The House would really like to know why the hon. Gentleman proposes that British people should be allowed to risk the prospect of destitution for six months, yet is so upset about asylum seekers.