HC Deb 05 March 1997 vol 291 cc837-58

11 am

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

I want to bring to the attention of the House the particular difficulties faced by the London boroughs because of the problems of asylum seekers.

There are, of course, asylum seekers and asylum seekers. I entirely support the policy of the Government to help genuine asylum seekers, but to discourage the growing number of people from abroad who come to Britain on holiday, as students or in some other capacity and, when the time comes for them to leave, declare themselves to be in need of asylum.

The matter was adequately dealt with by the Social Security Committee report on benefit for asylum seekers, which was an all-party document that pointed out that it was costing about £200 million a year for those people, many of whom could reasonably be called economic migrants and some of whom are just benefit seekers on holiday, to remain in Britain. It is wrong that ratepayers in the London area should bear an undue proportion of the burden of expenditure that those people are causing.

I understand that many people want to come to Britain to work, but there is a procedure whereby people can legitimately become part of our community. People who come as economic migrants are sidestepping that.

The Government, with cross-party backing, decided to do something about the matter. The Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 stated that people whose application to remain in Britain had been turned down could no longer receive the social security and housing benefit that they had previously enjoyed. That is estimated to have cut the number of bogus asylum seekers by about half.

It is a great worry to me and many others that the Opposition home affairs spokesman seems to want to scrap the legislation and return to the previous situation. I would consider that extremely irresponsible. It would open the floodgates again, and presumably the £200 million-a-year cost that was estimated when the legislation was introduced would again become part of the charge on the British taxpayer.

In order to try to subvert the legislation, a case was recently brought before our courts and to the High Court which sought to overturn the provisions that the Government intended. The Government are keen to help genuine asylum seekers, but do not want them to be sucked into the racket of evading our immigration laws.

The judges effectively, although not directly, overturned the decision that the Act produced and said that those who declare themselves destitute must be given assistance under the National Assistance Act 1948. The problem of supporting them has landed largely on the inner London boroughs, where most of those people migrate as there is more to do in central London. I am sure that many of them are working illegally, and of course work is readily available in big cities.

The London councils have a particular problem. They are now providing for 3,000 single males, many of whom are from east European countries recently liberated from oppressive regimes. They cannot by any means be said to be from countries where they would find themselves in grave political difficulties if they had stayed at home. There are also about 2,000 families, with young children who must be supported. The cost of that to Westminster council is estimated to be £2 million a year, but over London as a whole, the cost is running at about £140 million a year, which is a great deal of money to be found from the council tax budget.

Mr. Peter Brooke (City of London and Westminster, South)

I would not want my hon. Friend to mislead the House. She should point out that the figure that she has just quoted represents the net expenditure which will fall on the city council. There is a great deal of further expenditure, which is paid for by grant.

Mrs. Gorman

I thank my right hon. Friend. He is a great authority on the matter, as he represents Westminster city council. I know that he has an important contribution to make.

Goodness knows how much it costs for the legal aid that those people invoke to keep challenging the decision that they are not bona fide asylum seekers.

The Daily Mail today reports the case of a woman from Russia who has managed to stay in Britain for five years. According to the magistrates court yesterday, she has cost the British taxpayer £40,000. She was arrested, of course, for stealing. I do not know how people who are not bona fide asylum seekers and whose applications have been rejected time and again manage to remain in this country for so long at the expense of the British public, but the system clearly needs tightening up.

A number of London boroughs—Hammersmith and Fulham, Lambeth and Westminster—are to challenge the judges' decision, as it has placed an enormous financial burden on the taxpayers in central London. Before that decision, Westminster had five applications from asylum seekers for help, but since the judges' decision in October, the number has increased to 300. At present Westminster city council is accommodating 66 families with children and 338 single adults, half of whom come from eastern Europe and are able-bodied males.

Westminster is in a unique position because, being the centre of the capital city, it must also accommodate many other homeless people who find their way to London and take up temporary accommodation places. That means that the alleged asylum seekers whom the council is obliged to support often have to be put in expensive accommodation. There is a limit to the number of cheap bed-and-breakfast places in the centre of a city like London. Much of the accommodation is in hotels, which can charge a great deal more for a week's bed and breakfast than the sum that the council considers adequate, and certainly more than the sum that might be adequate in outer London boroughs or in other parts of the country. Therefore we have this unique situation, which Westminster has to deal with.

The Government have announced—this is most welcome—that they are to contribute £165 a week for each asylum seeker while their requests for asylum are being endlessly considered. Of course, in some parts of Britain, that may be adequate, but in Westminster it is not. It has done detailed homework and it can prove that, on average, the cost for the council is £215 a week for a single adult—and that is based on shared bed-and-breakfast accommodation, not on very expensive flats.

The National Assistance Act says that the assistance given to these people must be provided in kind, which means that Westminster city council has to use its meals on wheels service to take food to them, wherever they are placed, whether in the centre of London or in outer boroughs. In addition to the breakfast that comes with the bed-and-breakfast accommodation, they have to be given a packed lunch, presumably in case they decide to go shopping in the middle of the day or to do a bit of work on the black economy—who knows? They also have to be provided with an evening meal and snacks to keep them through the day because the assumption is that they have no money—they have declared themselves destitute.

In addition, the council has to provide those people with a hygiene pack, which must include a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, a flannel and deodorants. For a family of half a dozen, six sets of those commodities must be provided. Presumably, if those people are here for long enough under such terms, they will have to be provided with clothing, shoe leather and who knows what else. All that cost falls on the British taxpayer and particularly on Westminster residents. The council estimates that, in addition to what the Government are proposing, about £35 a year will fall on each council tax payer in Westminster.

Again and again in the House, we hear the Opposition spokesman on housing, the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), assert for the umpteenth time that all the residents in Westminster are terribly well off, so they can easily afford those extra charges. Nothing is further from the truth. Part of his act—because it is an act; he does it every time he gets the chance—is to cite people living in Mayfair and Belgravia, which we all know are two of the most expensive neighbourhoods in Britain.

The truth is that, out of 100,000 households in Westminster, only 1,500 are in Mayfair and only 3,000 are in Belgravia. Many of those people live in old-style housing association Peabody flats. They are on modest incomes. Many of them are elderly, managing on their state pension and perhaps also a little pension from their work. They pay their full rent and for all their own expenses. Now they are going to be asked to pay £35 to able-bodied males who have come over here on a prolonged holiday and now claim that the British taxpayer should support them.

In one case, a man from Romania, who came over here on a coach tour for a football match—if the hon. Member for Perth and Kinross (Ms Cunningham) would listen, she would hear practical examples—decided that he did not want to go back, declared himself an asylum seeker and is still here four years later. He has never done a stroke of work in his life. Why should someone who is elderly and who is scraping along on their basic income have to support people in those circumstances?

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)

My hon. Friend is exploiting a rich seam and she is doing so assiduously. Is she aware that there is widespread resentment? This morning, I was reading a letter from a constituent of mine, who has fallen into a Catch 22 situation between health and social service provision, about the assistance that is available to people who do not have the right to reside in Britain, yet are milking not only the taxpayers, but the caring services, on which so many others depend.

Mrs. Gorman

My hon. Friend is entirely right. In my constituency at the weekend, I had the case of a woman who has managed to remain here for five years by playing the system. She has given birth to two children while she has been here and she is so addicted to the social services that, when she needs to go shopping in Basildon, she telephones her social service assistant worker and asks for a minicab to take her there because she cannot bring back her shopping. That is a fact, which I will and could demonstrate if I had to. Such things go on and they get up the noses of all constituents, including those of Opposition Members, who seem to think it is funny that elderly British people, who are managing to live on their modest incomes, should fork out for alleged asylum seekers, who are simply parasites.

As I have said, Westminster has a particular problem and particular expenses. My purpose in bringing this matter to the attention of the House is to say to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health that Westminster's special circumstances should be given special treatment. Best of all, we acknowledge that, although this matter has to be dealt with, it is a national problem and should not be landed on the doorstep of a relatively small group of residents in the centre of London, who have many other problems associated with residence in London and who need to be given special care and help.

This matter needs to be aired because I am talking largely about Westminster. Of the 100,000 households in Westminster, more than half are on below-average incomes. Westminster has inherited many Greater London council estates such as Mozart and Lissom Green, which are given special estate assistance grants by the Government to help the low-income people living there, who have particular problems, but those people are all part and parcel of the community charge scheme. In addition, about 16,000 households live in either Guinness Trust or Peabody estates, which again cater specially for people on modest incomes. They provide good-quality homes, but, like everyone else, the people who live there pay their rates and 50 per cent. or perhaps more are elderly people on modest incomes.

As I was a member of Westminster city council, I have many friends among the residents in those places—people who used to be my constituents. It is true that, in many cases, they have made careful provision for themselves in their old age, have a small additional pension as well as their old-age pension and pay all their rent and their bills and ask for nothing from the state. They are proud and happy to do so. Such people should not be exploited by people who are exploiting the system.

In Britain, about 70,000 alleged asylum seekers are going through umpteen appeals against deportation. All of them can exploit the loophole provided by the National Assistance Act. It is an extremely important matter. I have outlined some of the costs in Westminster, but the people are distributed throughout Britain and other council areas will be grateful for the assistance that the Government have already announced. However, it ill behoves Opposition Members to laugh at this and to treat it as a joke. We know what they would do because we have heard it from the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman: they would sweep away the measures that the Government have tried to introduce and reinstate the previous position.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Gorman

Would the hon. Gentleman forgive me because I want to sit down soon and let others into the debate?

The cost will again be landed on the doorsteps of British taxpayers, and particularly on the doorsteps of Westminster city ratepayers. They do not deserve to have to pay those costs out of their own pockets.

11.19 am
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

This debate is welcome in the sense that it provides an opportunity to talk about the problem of asylum seekers and the situation facing local authorities. However, I think that the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman)—who, today, appears to be batting for Westminster council—should pause for a moment to think about why people seek asylum. Britain is a signatory of the 1951 Geneva convention, which requires that if someone is genuinely and legitimately in fear of persecution for political, religious or social reasons, they should be guaranteed a place of safety in the country to which they flee. That principle should be adhered to.

Britain has among the smallest numbers of asylum seekers of any European country. Compared to most other continents, Europe has one of the smallest numbers of asylum seekers. The real burden of the world's refugee crisis falls not on western Europe but on Mexico, Jordan, India and on other countries that are near to places where there has been great civil strife or which have Governments who are deeply oppressive towards their own people. So the idea that there is a huge flood of people trying to get into western Europe and into Britain, and particularly into Westminster city council accommodation, is slightly over-egging the pudding. It is also missing the point.

It is a major step for someone with a legitimate fear to seek refuge in exile. So far as I am aware, no hon. Member has been woken up by the police at 4 am, taken into custody with no rights of access to a judicial system, and, with his or her family, forced to flee into exile for their own safety. It is not an experience that most British people have had, and we should think very carefully about what a major step it would be to undertake such a journey.

When asylum seekers arrive in the United Kingdom, they must apply for asylum. Under the new legislation, if they do not apply immediately at the port of entry, their chances of being granted asylum are severely diminished. If one has grown up in Iraq and has always been completely terrified of anyone wearing any type of uniform, it is fairly unlikely that—after managing to steal oneself out of Iraq, possibly using false documentation, aliases, guides and other measures—one will trust a person wearing a uniform whom one encounters when first arriving at the airport. It is more likely that one would first get out of the airport and then think about the next step.

In the United Kingdom there has been a systematic erosion of people's ability to seek asylum and to have their cases properly determined. There has also been a vindictiveness against asylum seekers—it has been parroted in this debate by some Conservative Members—which has been promoted by some newspapers, particularly the Daily Mail. For very many years, that newspaper has had a long and dishonourable record on this issue.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will tell the House what mandate he has from the British people to share their citizenship with foreigners.

Mr. Corbyn

I am unsure how one answers such a totally ludicrous question. If someone has a legitimate fear of persecution, they flee abroad and try to seek asylum. Many people sought asylum from Nazi Germany. Presumably the hon. Gentleman, on the basis of his comment, believes that they should not have been admitted to the UK, and that people fleeing from oppression in any regime should not be admitted. He talks utter nonsense. I suggest that he start to think more seriously about human rights issues. Suppose he had to flee this country because an oppressive regime had taken over. Where would he go? Presumably he would not want help from anyone else, because he does not believe that help should be given to anyone else.

Let us return to the issues facing people fleeing areas of oppression. Currently if they arrive here, seek asylum and are refused, they have lost all access to benefits. They then have to undergo an appeal process, which can take a very long time. During the appeal process, what on earth are they supposed to do unless they are declared destitute and consequently supported by a local authority? We need to restore benefit rights for all people pending the outcome of their appeal. Not to do so is a gross abuse of individual human rights. Moreover, removing benefit is not saving any money because, in many cases, it costs far more to look after the children involved by placing them in foster care than by allowing their families to look after them in the normal and proper way.

We should consider the experiences of people who have fled countries. A couple of weeks ago, I spent several hours talking to a group of asylum seekers from Iran. That regime—despite the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and numerous other human rights abuses—is beginning to be cosied up to by the British Government and by the rest of western Europe, because they now prefer to support Iran rather than Iraq. The people whom I met told me, chapter and verse, of how they had been treated by the regime in Iran—of how they had been summarily imprisoned, with no access to the courts; of how their families had been beaten up and abused while they were in prison; and of how the regime murdered one man's fiancée in front of him because he would not talk about the secret activities that he was supposed to be involved in. I heard about many other similar cases.

Those people came to this country and applied for asylum. Their applications were refused, and they appealed. They are now living a life of virtual destitution, while the Home Office ponders what to do for them. Those people stood up for their communities against an oppressive regime. I remind the House that merely because a regime calls itself democratic does not mean that human rights are guaranteed. Around the world, many regimes call themselves democratic and have a multi-party democracy, but that does not mean that human rights are universally respected or that people are safe.

The hon. Member for Billericay said that no one in eastern Europe has any justification for seeking asylum. That is a sweeping statement. I presume that she has not had an opportunity to read the papers from Amnesty International or from Helsinki Watch on what is happening in Albania.

Mrs. Gorman

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Corbyn

I will in a moment.

Perhaps the hon. Lady has not had a chance to consider what is happening in Romania, where homosexuality is a criminal act, or in Bulgaria and other places. All is not well merely because there is multi-party democracy and a market economy. Perhaps events in Albania are not a credit to the market economy system.

Mrs. Gorman

I did not say that every eastern European's application for asylum in this country was bogus. However, many countries that were in the former Soviet sphere of influence have now established democracies, and some people from those countries come here to claim asylum. Of those claiming benefit from Westminster city council, about 50 come from countries in which there is no longer oppression.

Is the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) aware that—in a report signed by Labour Members—the all-party Social Security Select Committee, which considered the matter, stated: Any responsible Government would want to examine ways of controlling expenditure of £200 million a year, when it is known that well over 90 per cent. of people who claim asylum turn out not to be genuine? Genuine applicants, such as those described by the hon. Gentleman, are frustrated and suffer delayed applications because of those who are not genuine.

Mr. Corbyn

The hon. Lady seems to have moved on a bit from the cant and prejudice that she produced in her earlier speech. However, she does not deal with the point. I am a member of the Social Security Select Committee and took part in that inquiry. I did not sign that section of the report, although I produced a minority opinion, which I am sure that she would disagree with profoundly. However, that is up to her.

I merely want the hon. Lady and the House to understand that democracy does not always follow multi-party elections. The UK, for example, prides itself on its close relationship with Turkey, yet many Kurdish people have fled Turkey and appealed for a place of safety here. Many of them have died trying to get out of Turkey because they have a point of view that is different from that of the Turkish Government. I think that there is a foreign policy implication and potential initiative in that situation.

Since last year, people from the Ivory Coast have sought asylum in the UK. I recall a discussion with the Home Office about the safety of people from the Ivory Coast. The Minister told me that he was assured that everything was okay in the Ivory Coast. The students whom I met who had sought asylum in this country from the Ivory Coast told me that their Government were so keen on carrying out the economic wishes of the International Monetary Fund and others that they were crushing anyone who opposed them—they crushed trade unions and they crushed student opposition, sending troops into various universities and closing them down. Is that how a democratic Government should behave? No. We must recognise that those people from the Ivory Coast are justifiably seeking asylum.

Dr. Godman

I hesitate to intervene in the debate, because I come across few asylum seekers—an experience that I suspect that I share with the hon. Member for Perth and Kinross (Ms Cunningham). I have come across a few at Greenock prison. One concession was offered a few months ago by the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe)—a promise that those women seeking to avoid the infliction of genital mutilation would be given sympathetic consideration when seeking asylum. That is at least one concession in this picture of unrelieved gloom.

Mr. Corbyn

At least the Minister was forced into that concession during a debate in this Chamber. I wonder whether those who make decisions on refusing people asylum, refusing them benefits and forcing them into destitution have ever taken the trouble to sit down and listen to the stories of people who have been tortured and abused.

The process depends on refugees applying at the point of entry. That is often difficult to do, for reasons that I have already outlined. It is also often difficult for people to talk about the torture experiences that they have been through. Many soldiers who were tortured during the second world war found it difficult to talk about their experiences for years. That is no different from the position of people who have been tortured in Iran, Iraq, west Africa or anywhere else. The issue is not simple. They feel a sense of failure, a sense of humiliation and a sense of defeat. We should have a different attitude towards asylum seekers.

Almost uniquely among European countries, this country routinely puts in prison people who seek asylum. There are nearly 900 people in British prisons who have sought asylum. It costs £20 million a year to keep them in prison. I have been given a letter from several people who are being held in the Home Office holding centre at Haslar. They complain about their treatment and the way in which the immigration service carries out its duties. They say: Another problem, literally fatal for certain detainees, is deportation without prior notice of the date being given. Those under notice for many months are often collected from Haslar for deportation at a week-end when it is quite impossible to have recourse to their solicitors or other help. We should think a bit more seriously about how we treat those people.

For the past few weeks, there has been a hunger strike at Her Majesty's prison in Rochester. I understand that that hunger strike is not continuing at the moment. When I raised the issue on a private notice question, the Home Office Minister was dismissive. She appeared to have no understanding of the moral force of people undertaking a hunger strike to draw attention to their problems. Hon. Members should stop and think for a moment about the circumstances of those who come to this country seeking asylum, go to prison with no direct access to the courts and then, thinking that they have been badly treated and fearful of what will happen, undertake a hunger strike and, in some cases, a refusal to take fluids. If that happened in another country under a regime of which we disapproved, the British Government would say that it was a terrible indictment on the human rights record of that regime that prisoners were forced to undertake a hunger strike to draw attention to their situation. In this country, people who say that get routine abuse from Home Office Ministers and Conservative Members. Stop and think for a moment about the moral courage of those who have undertaken a hunger strike to ensure that their case is at least looked at.

Attitudes towards asylum seekers need to be changed. Routine imprisonment should end. Access to benefits should be restored for those applying for asylum. If they are refused asylum but are undertaking their legitimate right of appeal, they should continue receiving benefits until the appeal has been determined. It is wrong to force them into destitution or to throw them out of the country, often with no access to lawyers or anyone else.

The Government's regime on asylum seekers is creating a serious situation, with a class of destitute people that is paralleled across Europe. Those who have applied for asylum, have been refused and are fearful of deportation end up going into hiding in the poorest areas of Paris, Frankfurt, Madrid, Berlin, London or Amsterdam. They are subject to the worst kind of exploitation by rogue employers, drugs and prostitution. They cannot reveal their identity because they would be deported. Only the Churches around Europe have drawn attention to the issue and tried to do something about it. I hope that we shall recognise that we should have a slightly more humane approach towards asylum seekers in this country.

Last year, the Churches Commission for Racial Justice held a conference called, "Why Detention?" A report of the conference has been published. There was universal condemnation of the principle of imprisoning asylum seekers and a plea for a more understanding approach. Europe must stop its xenophobic attitude towards those who seek a place of safety here and adopt a more humane approach.

There is also a foreign policy agenda. Where is the outright condemnation from the Government of the denial of human rights in Iran, Iraq, the Ivory Coast and many other countries? I find it very muted on many occasions. They seem more interested in trade and selling arms to those regimes than in defending human rights. History shows that unless we stand up for human rights wherever they are abused around the world, eventually it will come back and our human rights will be abused. A lot of brave people in this country have stood up for the rights and needs of asylum seekers. Local authorities are being told that they should pay a large share of the bill. I do not want them to have to do that. Central Government should give more support to local authorities to ensure that asylum seekers do not live in destitution. Above all, I want a change in attitude and a more humane approach to this serious problem of the victims of injustice from around the world.

11.36 am
Mr. Peter Brooke (City of London and Westminster, South)

I shall be briefer than my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) and the hon. Member for Islington. North (Mr. Corbyn), because this is a short debate and I want others to get in. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate.

The problem that we are discussing arises from the autumn of 1995, when various announcements were made at the Conservative party conference about the Government's intentions. There was evidence through the autumn of that year of a lack of interaction between Government Departments. Brussels often praises Whitehall for having better co-ordination between Departments than any other Government in the European Union, but that co-ordination was not in evidence in this case. The Social Security Advisory Committee wrote a hostile report on the Government's intentions. I suspect that once the Home Office had legislative cover and clearance for its Bill, it washed its hands of the consequences, which would fall on other Departments.

On Second Reading of the Asylum and Immigration Bill, in December 1995, I alluded to some of the problems that I could foresee. I mentioned in particular the problems of unaccompanied children coming to Westminster and other central London boroughs. Perhaps as a consequence of that debate, there was a delay in bringing forward the amendments to the benefit regulations, quaintly named the Social Security (Persons from Abroad) Miscellaneous Amendments Regulations 1996. The Opposition were satisfied with a 90-minute debate. Some Conservative Members felt that that was inadequate time to discuss the regulations. I was the last to speak before the replies to the debate and was allowed three minutes. I said that the drama that I foresaw would be played out on the streets of my constituency rather than those of some of my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench who were introducing the measures.

A legal case went against the Government in the summer, as a result of which they had to amend the Bill in the House of Lords with primary rather than secondary legislation. As has been said, on 8 October the decision was taken that obliged local authorities to provide assistance to single adult asylum seekers. That decision was challenged in the Court of Appeal, and the appeal was defeated. That series of legal defeats reflects rather badly on the degree of co-ordination involved in the preparation of the legislation before its introduction. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay, I am briefed primarily by Westminster city council, but I shall allude to other areas of central London later. At the heart of the problem is the fact that it is being dealt with on a piecemeal, rather than a co-ordinated, basis.

My hon. Friend referred to the £165 per week grant provided by central Government. That is an average figure drawn from estimates that the Government received, which ranged from £95 for cold weather shelter provision to £290. That scatter of figures derives from outer and inner London areas. As the Bishop of London reminded us during the centenary service for the King's Fund only yesterday, costs outside central London are quite different from those in inner London. For two reasons, the £95 for cold weather shelter is an unrealistic figure for provision in central London. First, the rough sleepers initiative has absorbed so much of the accommodation that might be used for that purpose that the central London boroughs no longer have access to it. Secondly, asylum seekers are specifically excluded from cold weather shelters.

Westminster pays £175 for accommodation alone, before the addition of extra sums that it must provide. The rough sleepers initiative, conducted by central Government in conjunction with the voluntary sector, has been a great success. The number of those sleeping rough in central London has fallen from more than 1,000 to below 400 in the past six or seven years. This is a prime case where central Government would render major assistance if they took over the co-ordination in conjunction with the voluntary sector, upon which a great deal of the burden of the problem falls. That would instantly reduce the average unit cost. The piecemeal approach adopted at present increases the likelihood of fraud.

It is recognised widely that the burden of the problem falls on local authorities in London, and primarily on those in inner London. I freely acknowledge that Westminster is not the only authority involved: the borough of Islington is affected in the same way. I alluded to the problem of unaccompanied children during the Second Reading of the Asylum and Immigration Bill in December 1995. This year, Westminster will spend £1.2 million on unaccompanied children. There is no logical reason why Westminster and one or two other boroughs should uniquely absorb that problem. Unaccompanied children—who come to this country extremely well prepared—simply go to a handful of authorities in central London about which they have heard or to which they have been directed, and the council tax payers in those areas must foot the bill.

There is a hazard to community and race relations in central London if such costs continue to fall heavily on council tax. The burden constitutes a risk to the quality of community and race relations in those areas and, in that respect, I endorse my hon. Friend's comments. At the margin, community care budgets are being diverted to this problem and away from council tax payers.

I put it to my hon. Friend the Minister—for whom I have some sympathy—first, that all unavoidable costs resulting from the programme should be reimbursed to local authorities that are acting on behalf of the nation as a whole. Secondly, it would be immensely desirable if the Government would announce their grant levels for 1997–98. It is now 5 March and the fiscal year ends within a month. However, local authorities do not yet know what level of grant the Government will provide.

I hope that the Home Office—in this respect I make common cause with the hon. Member for Islington, North—can improve the speed with which it processes these cases. Between December 1995 and May 1996, applicants under the legislation prior to 1993 waited an average of 43 months for initial decisions. Between October and December 1996, the waiting time increased to more than 48 months. The comparable statistics for those who were treated under the legislation that was introduced in 1993 are 10.7 months in the earlier period and 12.2 months in the second period. The time taken by the immigration appellate authority to determine appeals lengthened from eight to 10 months in the same period. Outstanding appeals increased from 14,000 in February 1996 to nearly 22,000 at the end of last year. So the burden on local authorities is being extended because the process of handling applications is slowing down rather than accelerating.

I said that I sympathise with my hon. Friend the Minister, who will come to the Dispatch Box on behalf of the Department of Health as much of the expenditure flows through that Department. However, I am not sure that the Department of Health should necessarily take the lead in co-ordinating this process. It originates in the Home Office, and I believe that it would be desirable if that Department took the lead—not least because a lack of co-ordination at the end of 1995 led to this situation. I promised that I would be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I now sit down within 10 minutes.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. Five hon. Members hope to catch my eye in the 25 minutes before the winding-up speeches begin. With the co-operation of the House, I hope that they will all be successful.

11.46 am
Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

I shall try to be brief. The right hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke) has discussed this subject on several occasions and raised the issue of responsibility. His speech contrasted considerably with that of the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) at the beginning of the debate. I must admit that I was one of those who laughed at some of the things that she said, not because I do not take the subject seriously, but because it was obvious that she does not have the slightest clue about who asylum seekers are, the circumstances in which they find themselves, and what happens to them.

I agree that London boroughs should not carry the responsibility for asylum seekers, but what are the alternatives? The right hon. Gentleman suggested that the Government should shift the responsibility somewhere else. The hon. Member for Billericay seemed to endorse the Government's option of appealing the court decisions and returning to their favoured position of removing benefits completely and leaving asylum seekers with absolutely nothing. I remind the House that the measure applies to asylum seekers who apply in country, and not to those who apply at the port of entry. That is despite the fact that the success rate for asylum applications of people who apply in country is at least as great as—and sometimes greater than—that of people who apply at the port of entry.

In the first four months of last year, 775 people were awarded refugee status, 610 of whom were in-country applicants—precisely the people who have been denied benefits. The Government were warned about the repercussions from the beginning. The Social Security Advisory Committee warned the Government not to change the social security regulations in 1995, and pointed to the likely consequences of that action.

The Government's reasoning was the same then as it is now: they still talk about economic migrants and benefit scroungers. Anyone who deals with asylum seekers knows the reality. It is rubbish to say that people come to this country because the benefits here are more than the average wages in the countries from which they have come. They may be, but we should consider what that means in real terms, and what standard of living people have had in their own countries.

An Algerian asylum seeker told me that he had been a general practitioner in Algeria and that his wife had been a vet, but people were telling him that he had come here to live on benefits. I have known an 18-year-old Somali girl for a couple of years. She is struggling to look after six children younger than herself. They all live in a bed-sit, and she showed me photographs of her house in Somalia, which has a mosque in the back garden that her father built. Yet we tell those people that they have come here to live on a few pounds a week in benefits.

The people who manage to get to this country are usually not the poorest or most downtrodden. The poorest people are in refugee camps in neighbouring countries: that is where the majority of refugees end up. How many of the 20 million refugees worldwide are trying to get to Europe, never mind the United Kingdom?

The Government lost the court case on the benefit regulations. At the last minute, they included these provisions in the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996. Time and again, those of us who served on the Committee considering that Bill and who participated in the debates asked what would happen and who would have ultimate responsibility. We said that local authorities would be stuck with the problem of having to deal with children under the Children Act 1989 and with homeless people on the streets. We did not know then that the courts would decide that the National Assistance Act 1948 could be used. We pointed out the problems and said that council tax payers would have to pick up the bill.

Even if we accepted the Government's view—which I do not—that only a tiny proportion of people who claim asylum are genuine refugees, we cannot defend a policy that leaves genuine refugees destitute. The hon. Member for Billericay defended the Government's position. Even if only a small number of cases are genuine, how can anyone defend such callousness? Genuine asylum seekers will be left without a penny to live on. Only one other country in Europe has such a policy, and that is Italy. On the outskirts of large towns such as Naples one sees shanty towns full of asylum seekers. That is the logical consequence of the Government's policy.

It is a disgrace to any civilised society even to consider leaving genuine asylum seekers without a penny to live on. That is what we should be debating, not the financial position of a few local authorities that have been dropped into this mess by the Government, who want to leave them in that mess. Hon. Members should read the Refugee Council's report, which shows the impact that having to live on nothing has on the lives of asylum seekers. People have to walk miles to soup kitchens to get a meal.

As the right hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South said, delays should be eliminated. Why are people having to wait four or five years for a decision on their case? Why are the queues getting longer? In 1993, we were told that the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 would make things better, and we were told last year that the 1996 Act would makes them better, but waiting times are getting longer. If we want to encourage people to make bogus applications, the way to do so is to let the queues get longer, but that penalises the genuine asylum seeker. I believe that the majority of applicants are genuine: I do not believe the 90 per cent. figure.

Long queues encourage the bogus applicant, so the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department should do something about it. Why has the number of cases awaiting appeal gone from 13,000 to 21,000? Many of those people will have to await their appeal—which they may well win—without a penny, because their benefits have been cut off. Do not tell me that that is what happens to people who are refused benefits through the social security system. Few people who are refused social security benefits are left destitute without a penny. The people who are refused benefit tend to be those claiming a particular benefit to which they are not entitled.

We should not treat in such a way people who come here to escape from appalling conditions. They may have been in gaol and may have been tortured. To put them on the streets without a penny is a disgrace to any society that calls itself civilised.

11.55 am
Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) on securing this debate. The topic of asylum seekers is fundamentally important for two obvious reasons. First, it matters crucially that this country honours, as it always has, its obligations under the Geneva convention. It is equally important that abuse of the asylum rules by the large number of people who make asylum applications knowing that their position as illegal immigrants has no bearing on the Geneva convention should be debated openly, so that it is fully understood and tackled.

Bearing in mind the fact that year in, year out the number of people found to be genuine Geneva convention cases ranges from 1,000 to 3,000, it stands to reason that the other tens of thousands of applicants include people who knowingly abuse the system. Those people do a disservice to genuine refugees, who are held up in the queue, to which the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) alluded, and do not receive the treatment and care that should come their way.

Mr. Corbyn

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Wardle

I shall not give way. The hon. Gentleman and I have often discussed this matter, but I am aware of the time, and I would like to make progress.

Britain has always honoured the Geneva convention, and has given sanctuary to people with a well-founded fear of persecution in the country from which they are fleeing and whose first safe country landing is in the United Kingdom. The only occasion that I know of when our proud record under successive Governments of honouring the convention was sullied was the recent al-Masari case. Reference to the primacy of British business interests in Saudi Arabia brought the integrity of our asylum criteria into question, and, when the Government lost the appeal, a thoroughly undesirable person was allowed to remain in this country and continue his political activity.

I want to make three points on detention, the asylum queue and the wider issue of asylum, the European Union and broader immigration policy. Much of what is said about detention is confused or misleading. Protesters may genuinely be concerned about refugees in detention, but the fact is that only a tiny proportion of applicants are detained. In virtually every case—not in 100 per cent. of cases, but in almost all of them—a detainee is someone whose appeal has been refused, who is waiting to be removed from the country and is only temporarily in detention, or whose application has been refused and is awaiting appeal but is considered likely to abscond. However, it is a tiny proportion of the number of people concerned.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Wardle

If my hon. Friend will allow me, I must make some progress.

My next point concerns the asylum queue. As I have already said and as is widely known, there are people in the queue who have arrived in this country and been welcomed as visitors but who have then overstayed that welcome, found work and assimilated themselves into the local population, quite unlawfully. When apprehended and questioned, they are frequently advised by immigration lawyers or advisers to apply for asylum because, once they are in the queue, they can stay here and qualify for social security. As my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke) said, it may take four years to resolve the case.

Recently, Ministers have pointed to the fall in the number of asylum applications and to the success of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996. It is a welcome development if some bogus applicants are no longer applying, but it does not deal with the underlying problem of the queue. In December 1995, on Second Reading of the 1996 Act, I explained what I felt was the only way to tackle the problem, which was not simply to pass more legislation—Bills do not resolve what is fundamentally an administrative problem—but to process the queue swiftly.

On Second Reading, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary said that some 75,000 people were in the asylum queue at the end of 1995. He estimated the cost to be about £200 million a year. I said that I had every reason to believe that he was grossly underestimating the costs and that when the figures for social security, housing, school places, the health service and so on were added to that figure, the cost was likely to be closer to £500 million or even £750 million a year. I recommended that he should think again about his promise to spend £37 million on the appeals section of the asylum division and on the Lord Chancellor's Department and that he should spend about £150 million a year for two years to process the queue. As the hon. Member for Walthamstow said, once the queue is gone, the attraction of making a bogus claim disappears. At the same time, it would help the genuine applicants because they could be dealt with promptly.

Mr. Marlow

My hon. Friend said that everyone is concerned about people going into detention and many people do not go into detention. The Home Office is unable to give me an answer to my question, but perhaps my hon. Friend will have some idea. Does he know how many people who do not go into detention but who are bogus asylum seekers disappear and do not turn up ever again?

Mr. Wardle

I cannot give my hon. Friend an exact answer. Undoubtedly many people who are not detained but are in the queue and see their appeal coming closer to resolution, disappear into the undergrowth. That is unlawful and wrong and should not happen. It is all very well to talk about new legislation and new measures, but while the queue exists, the temptation to join it as a bogus applicant is there. That is fundamentally wrong. We must process the queue and ensure that those who do not qualify for leave to remain in this country are removed from here, including those who have absconded. That is being missed in all the headline chasing about new Bills every other year. That is not what is needed. We need competent administrative action.

I should like to raise the link between asylum and the European Union and the wider but directly related issue of immigration and border controls. Under the third pillar of co-operation in the EU, there has for several years been harmonisation of asylum policies—the Dublin convention is one example of that. The European Commission wants to go much further—it is perfectly open about its ambitions. It wants to take the third pillar into treaty competence and that includes asylum policy. The Government have said that they will resist that and I am sure that they are right to do so. The cornerstone of that resistance is not to allow Britain's border controls to be dismantled, as is required by the existing European treaty. The moment those border controls are gone, the ability to determine where a person has landed as the first safe country becomes confused.

There was recently a welcome announcement by the Dutch Government that they now recognise—the operative word is "now"—that no future British Government will willingly relinquish border controls. I should like to believe that it is significant that, until I made a fuss about this two years ago, there were no Government speeches or great policy statements on the subject of our border controls. There was only the occasional furtive and uneasy answer to parliamentary questions. Undoubtedly, Ministers in other EU member states and their officials all assumed that, sooner or later, Britain would cede its border controls when required to do so by the European Court. That position has changed, but the battle is not yet over.

The best thing that the Government can do is to be open and frank about the legal threat to our position as it now stands. There has been some progress with the recognition by the Dutch, but the problem is still there. By rehearsing the nature of the problem openly rather than glossing over it, the full force of British public opinion, including people of all ethnic origins, would be brought to bear to persuade the Commission that this country will not wish to change its stance.

Unfortunately, time and again Ministers have given Parliament the strong impression that the Government consider that they have a sound defence against the requirement in article 7A to dismantle border controls. The Government, effectively, seem to face both ways because they have said that they will never give away the border controls, but then say that we have an adequate defence.

It might be as well for Ministers to remind themselves of "Questions of Procedure for Ministers" which states: Ministers have a duty to give Parliament and the public as full account as possible about the policies, decisions and actions of the Government and not to mislead Parliament and the public. They should also remember the Scott report, which said: If the account given by a Minister to Parliament withholds information on the matter under review, it is not a full account. Time and again we have not been given a full account on this subject in Parliament. While the Government gloss over our vulnerability but assert, at the same time, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary has done, that the Government will not break European law, we are not getting to the bottom of the problem. The only way to do that is to be open with Parliament and the British public and to ensure that, with the force of British public opinion behind the Government, these matters can be dealt with to British satisfaction at the forthcoming intergovernmental conference. To do that would put our asylum and immigration policies into the proper framework. This is a subject to which I fully intend to return in the next Parliament.

12.7 pm

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

I speak as the Member of Parliament for Dover, which is a port of entry, and which has many immigration officers who have to carry out difficult work. They enforce our border controls with great difficulty, because there are many attempts at illegal immigration using asylum techniques, fraudulent documents or other methods. They face a difficult battle. There are police officers and special branch people at the port, as well as five social security benefit fraud investigators to deal with many of those who try to get into this country to take advantage of our system, either to claim benefits or to gain residency here.

Although many of us may support the Geneva convention and want to see people with a legitimate fear of persecution being able to come to this country for protection, we do not want people to take advantage of our compassion, and many of them who come here are doing that. When the recent hunger strike at Rochester was investigated, it was found that nearly all, if not all, the people involved were not genuine asylum seekers but illegal immigrants who were being detained with a view to being deported. Many people want to take advantage of this country.

The world is full of economic migrants, who can travel more easily than ever before. I accept that there are trouble spots, but there are not as many as asylum seekers would have us believe. We must also face the fact that, even in the case of brutal dictatorships such as Iraq, we cannot take in all those who suffer. I would like to help all those people who suffer from Saddam Hussein's actions, but we cannot do so. Almost the whole population of Iraq is persecuted and oppressed, and we could not take them all in.

Mr. Marlow

My hon. Friend has cited the example of Iraq. If people are desperate to get out of Iraq, why do they not go to Jordan or somewhere else in the middle east? Why do such people come all the way here? Is it because they are seeking the economic benefits of this country? Why do people have to traverse a continent to get away, instead of going to the country next door?

Mr. Shaw

My hon. Friend raises the question of how so many migrants, who seek asylum or become illegal immigrants, reach this country.

Mr. Gerrard

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Shaw

I cannot give way again, because of the shortage of time. Too many asylum seekers enter the country initially as family visitors, tourists, students and business people, and then suddenly discover that they want to remain as asylum seekers. That is why the Social Security Select Committee produced a report on the Government's proposals. I accept that the report was not unanimous, but we had no difficulty in saying that the Government's actions were right.

The problem is that far too many people have jumped on the asylum bandwagon. There is an industry supporting people who try to remain in this country when they cannot justify their presence. I have recently come across the Migrant Training Company. Labour councillors in Camden have apparently been involved in a £1 million fraud with taxpayers' money, and European grants have gone astray. I understand that a Labour parliamentary candidate has also been involved. There is a serious possibility that Labour councillors in Camden will have to be surcharged as a result of that fraud.

We have to face the fact that real problems are caused by asylum policies and immigration. We cannot go on meeting the bill, which at one stage was £200 million a year, for attempts by 40,000 people to seek asylum. Many of those people are not genuine. My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) mentioned a lady from Russia, who is an arts graduate and claims that she had problems at her university. That is not a good enough reason to cost the British taxpayer £40,000. The situation cannot continue.

I have much sympathy for Westminster council, which has had to bear considerable costs. Outrageous accusations have been made that the resources that Westminster receives from the Government are unfair, but it bears many costs that should properly be borne by the whole country. It is the central authority in London. I also have sympathy for Kent, which also bears some of the cost of asylum seekers. Dover district council has also had to bear the costs of some cases. It is unfair for local authorities to have to bear the costs, when the Geneva convention is a national policy.

It is also unfair that Camden council, and other Labour councils involved in the Migrant Training Company, are abusing the system and engaging in fraud. The Government have a serious problem, because they cannot tell councils that they will take over 100 per cent. of the bill, but allow Labour councils to take advantage by setting up fraudulent companies, such as the Migrant Training Company, for the benefit of Labour councillors and a Labour parliamentary candidate.

Mr. Corbyn

Where is the evidence?

Mr. Shaw

The evidence is sitting in the Department for Education and Employment, which has a European Court of Auditors report showing that the company has been involved in serious fraud. That is a disgrace, and the Labour councillors and members involved should be exposed. The Government have the right approach, but I have much sympathy for the councils that incur unreasonable expense.

12.15 pm
Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) on obtaining her Adjournment debate. The issues she has raised concern a number of London boroughs, but I am not sure that some of her general comments were helpful. I remind her that it is easy to raise and exploit fears about immigration, but the challenge in a multiracial society is the maintenance of good race relations.

The Government's defence is that the current shambles over payments under section 21 of the National Assistance Act 1948 is not their fault, but the fault of the judges. The Government claim that the judges have put local authorities in an invidious position, and that they have rushed to the rescue with a special grant to help out the local authorities.

I am not sure that that is a correct assessment of the judgment. The judges in the Court of Appeal said that, because asylum seekers were disqualified from assistance under the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, they automatically qualified under the National Assistance Act 1948 for assistance from local authorities. As the 1948 Act had not been repealed by Parliament, the judges interpreted the general will of Parliament as a desire to continue to provide for those in need. That is the principle that has been behind the poor law for 350 years.

The present situation of local authorities is not the fault of the judges, in the stark way that the Government claim, but arises from the confusion caused by two conflicting Acts of Parliament. Clearly, the legal advice received by Ministers was not entirely sound. The local authorities had to appeal, because the Government refused to reimburse them for payments they made under section 21 of the 1948 Act. It was clear that the local authorities would not be reimbursed without a legal ruling that would enable Ministers to blame the judges for the Government having to pay for an alternative benefits system for asylum seekers, administered at a high cost by the local authorities.

I might add that the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 did not remove asylum seekers' entitlement to national health service treatment. Asylum seekers would be admitted to hospital if they became physically ill through lack of funds, suffered hypothermia from sleeping on the streets or contracted a disease. If asylum seekers become mentally ill as a result of stress and depression, they would be entitled to treatment under the mental health Acts. It would be interesting to see the after-care programme for such cases.

Yesterday, when we discussed the special grant of £165 for each asylum seeker that the Government are giving local authorities, I asked about cash payments. The Department of Social Security has ruled that such payments are not lawful under the National Assistance Act 1948, and would not be eligible to be reimbursed, although the expenditure is lawful under general local government powers.

I understand that there is conflicting legal advice, but the present situation is absurd. Social workers' time is being used to deliver groceries and take people shopping. One silly example is that people cannot be given money for toothbrushes, because they have to be bought for them. The hon. Member for Billericay gave the example of the use of the meals on wheels service to provide food, when the service is already under much pressure. Local authorities could meet their responsibilities in a more cost-effective way if they could make direct cash payments. That idea should be pursued.

The recent Refugee Council report, "Just Existence", tracked 15 asylum seekers who had lost entitlement to benefit and were being offered various kinds of help by local authorities. No one reading that report could fail to be struck by the desperation of those people's lives and circumstances. Whatever the eventual judgment on their status, each personally saw overwhelming reasons for not being able to return to their country of origin, and would endure any conditions in this country rather than face that alternative. That is the reality that must be taken into account.

The importance to those people of resolving their status as quickly as possible is also clear. Several hon. Members have already talked about the delays, and I have a constituent who, after nearly five years in this country, has not yet had his appeal against refusal of refugee status heard. That is totally unacceptable.

The delays in the legal process need tackling. If the fundamental problem is not addressed, local authorities face the prospect of having to administer an alternative benefit system for asylum seekers, and to support them in hotels, bed-and-breakfast accommodation, hostels, flats and shelters. The administration will be costly, and will undermine local authorities' ability to perform their other statutory functions.

I know that the Government propose changes, as yet unannounced, in social services departments, but I would not have thought that the role of poor law administration was something that even the present Government had in mind for them. Of course, I could be wrong. Perhaps Ministers foresee the prospect, if a Conservative Government are re-elected, of an extended role for social services departments in dealing with destitution.

Mr. Marlow

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Coffey

I cannot, because of the shortage of time.

As a civilised society, we should offer refuge to genuine asylum seekers; we must also be aware of our humanitarian responsibilities. Our objection to the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 is that it used the withdrawal of benefits to establish who was and who was not a genuine asylum seeker. That was always bound to cause undue hardship.

I understand that a further appeal will be made to the House of Lords, and clearly, if the Lords uphold the judgment of the Court of Appeal, the practice will cease to be an option, even for the present Government. We must therefore consider the best way of giving assistance and benefits to people entitled to them, whatever legislation that process falls under. The assistance must be fair and consistent, and must not carry high administrative costs.

12.21 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Simon Burns)

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) on initiating this important debate. I assure the House that I have listened extremely carefully to the variety of points made by my right hon. and hon. Friends, as well as by Opposition Members.

Clearly there will not be time for me to deal with all the points that have been raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) raised several issues concerning the Home Office in connection with immigration and asylum policy, and I shall ensure that his comments are drawn to the appropriate Ministers' attention, so that he can be given answers. I shall also write to other hon. Members to deal with any other points that I am unable to raise during the short time available.

I must first make it plain that this Government and this country have a justifiable reputation for welcoming to our shores genuine asylum seekers escaping persecution and torture. But the escalating number of economic and bogus asylum seekers who have come here, not because of persecution but because of the economic situation in this country and the benefits it affords them, has caused great concern.

There has been an abuse of the asylum system, as several of my hon. Friends have said. In 1988 there were 4,000 asylum applications; in 1995, the number had risen to a staggering 44,000. Yet by 1996, as a result of the changes that we made to benefits, it had fallen to 28,000.

Although there was an increase in the number of asylum seekers recognised as refugees—from 628 in 1988 to 2,240 in 1996—the proportion of successful applicants granted refugee status as a result of genuine applications fell from 23 per cent. to 6 per cent.

Mr. Marlow

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Burns

I am sorry, but I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that I have only seven minutes left.

As hon. Members will know, asylum seekers who claim asylum at the point of arrival in this country are entitled to social security benefits that cover housing, food and other necessities. Rights to benefits have been withdrawn only from those who claim asylum after they have entered this country. It is those people who now pose such an onerous problem for local authorities.

It is worth looking briefly at how that happened. As some of my hon. Friends have said, the situation arose in early August, when a small number of people who had claimed asylum after entering the country, and so had been denied benefits, approached social services departments for aid. After social services provision was refused, four of the asylum seekers sought judicial review against the local authorities concerned, and an interim court order obliged the local authorities to accommodate them while proceedings were pending.

On 8 October 1996, the High Court ruled that local authorities had a duty under section 21(1)(a) of the National Assistance Act 1948 to provide services as a safety net of last resort to those who, by reason of their circumstances, were unable to fend for themselves.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, with the local authorities concerned—Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Lambeth—appealed against that ruling; the appeal was dismissed on 17 February. We are currently seeking leave to appeal to the House of Lords, because we do not accept that the National Assistance Act should apply to adult asylum seekers who are not elderly, infirm or disabled, and who have no need for community care services.

The judgment has had serious consequences for many social services authorities, especially in London. It has imposed a new duty on them to support people for whom they have never before had to provide services. Although the number of people claiming asylum in this country has fallen since the removal of benefits, thus suggesting that the intended disincentive to economic migrants is working, the numbers remain high, and the burden for local authorities is substantial.

On 21 February, 3,501 adults were being accommodated by London authorities, and at least a further 200 outside London. It is not right that such a financial burden should be imposed on council tax payers, or that services for local people should suffer as a result of the court ruling.

It is precisely because the Government are so concerned about the impact on local authorities of having to house asylum seekers that we are now making a new special grant available to help them to carry the burden. As the House will know, three types of grant are being made available: one for unaccompanied children, one for children accompanied by adults, and the grant for adult asylum seekers, which we approved in Standing Committee yesterday afternoon.

That last grant will allow claims from local authorities up to the equivalent of £165 per person per week, averaged over the relevant period, to help meet the costs of those individuals. In addition, authorities will be able to claim up to £10 per person per week for documented costs incurred in commissioning new premises for housing asylum seekers.

The local authority associations and individual authorities, including Westminster, were consulted on the details of the grant, and have been given guidance on how to claim reimbursement. I certainly accept that Westminster, which has featured prominently in the debate, has a very high number of asylum seekers—292 at the most recent inquiry—but it is not alone in that.

Two other London boroughs currently accommodate more asylum seekers than Westminster, and there are about eight authorities with similarly high numbers. We have listened to what they have said, and we consider that the special grant is a fair and reasonable response to their concerns about adults without children.

The House may be interested to know that the figures from the local authorities show that most of the London authorities are spending less than the £165 per week that we allow. The sums range from a low, in Ealing, of £90 per week, to a high, in Redbridge, of £164 per week. However, two authorities are excluded from that range—Newham, which says that it is spending £205 a week, and Westminster, which is spending about £226 a week.

It must be borne in mind that Westminster is being charged about £226 a week, and the neighbouring borough, Kensington and Chelsea, which is in many ways a similar local authority, about £119 a week. It would be wrong not to take an average figure rather than giving different amounts to different authorities, which would clearly not be any more cost-effective or efficient for the taxpayer. We have no plans to change the existing policy.

Mrs. Gorman

Is my hon. Friend aware that Kensington and Chelsea is giving cash benefits at the moment, which allows it to save about £30 a head? The hon. Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey) seems to agree with me that that is illegal.

Mr. Burns

Our legal advice is that it is illegal, but even—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. We must now move on to the next debate.