HC Deb 10 July 1998 vol 315 cc1410-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Pope.]

1.49 pm
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce an Adjournment debate on the specific issue of asylum seekers and the role of local authorities in the associated funding. I see that the Minister has not yet arrived to respond to my debate, so I shall make my remarks as slowly as possible, to give her a chance to catch up—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. Will hon. Members leaving please do so quickly and quietly?

Dr. Cable

I shall preface my remarks with a couple of introductory comments explaining the context within which I chose the debate. Most Adjournment debates stem from essentially local problems, and this one is no exception. My borough, like many other London boroughs, has had to cope with the financial and practical implications of an influx of asylum seekers, including, in our case, unaccompanied children.

I state at the outset my recognition that although we have genuine problems, they are not on the same scale as those of other London boroughs, especially those in the inner city. The Minister—I am glad to say that she has now arrived—represents an inner-city London borough, and I know that she is well aware of the magnitude of the problem. I would not want to exaggerate the difficulties that we have in our corner of London.

However, the fact that a borough with a relatively small number of asylum seekers still has a serious problem illustrates the magnitude of the problem in general. To put the numbers in context, we have about 242 asylum seekers at present, among whom particular problems surround a group of either 17 or 22—depending on how the numbers are measured—unaccompanied children. Hillingdon has almost 150 unaccompanied children, and, in terms of aggregate numbers, we are talking in terms of 2,000 or 3,000 in areas such as Southwark, Haringey and elsewhere. Although my borough's problems are relatively minor, they illustrate the broader issues.

Secondly, I realise that the Government inherited extremely offensive and unsatisfactory legislation, and that they have been battling with the problem ever since they came into office. The Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 and the Housing Act 1996 created a morass of problems, which the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), who is, I believe, the lead Minister in the matter, called a "shambles within a shambles". That is an accurate description. We have a combination of highly defective and pernicious legislation and subsequent court action; that has created the problem that the Government now have.

I also recognise that the Government have given assurances that they will introduce new measures soon, and that the Minister may be inhibited by the spending announcements due next week. None the less, I feel that there are ways in which we could take matters a little further forward in this discussion. A particular question that I wish to pursue—we can pursue it in qualitative terms even if the numbers are not open for discussion—is whether there will be a role for local authorities in the new measures that the Government envisage, and if so, what kind of role that will be. I hope that I shall be able to press the Minister on that question.

My third introductory point is the fact that, when we talk about asylum seekers, Members of Parliament have a responsibility not to whip up xenophobia, racism and other such feelings in their areas. It is easy for such matters to get out of control. In my borough, which I emphasise is not one of the most affected areas, there were reports a few weeks ago of "floods of asylum seekers", but, when the story was investigated, it turned out to involve only seven people. By then, however, local opinions had become thoroughly inflamed. We have a duty to represent our areas and to express their concerns, but also a duty not to inflame public opinion.

Long before I became a Member of Parliament, I was involved in immigration issues, and fought and argued hard for the rights of people to have access to the United Kingdom—for example, in the context of the problems associated with the Asians from east Africa. I strongly support the position taken by my party leader on the rights of people from Hong Kong. I support a liberal and humane approach to asylum and immigration. If we are to sustain that argument, we must deal with the problems faced by local authorities. That is the spirit in which I present this debate.

As most of us know, a substantial number of asylum seekers remain ineligible for benefits under the legislation introduced by the previous Government. Three categories present problems in different degrees for local authorities.

First, there are the single people, of whom there are about 10,000 in London, according to the Hammersmith figures, which are the common statistical basis. Those 10,000 people are all pushing for bed-and-breakfast accommodation, in a city where such accommodation is extremely difficult to get. Because of recent court rulings, they cannot share with other families, so the problem has been fragmented and the demand for accommodation is even greater than it otherwise would be. There is a disparity between the funding that the Government are making available for single people once costs are deducted, and the costs that local authorities have to pay. The estimate that I have been given is that London boroughs as a whole are paying out of their own resources £6 million for this category.

The second group are the families. Under the Government's complicated funding structure, local authorities must pass a threshold of spending—£80,000, I think—before they can begin to claim back some of those expenses. In order to accommodate about 13,000 people, London boroughs must pay out of their own resources about £13 million.

The third category is unaccompanied children. I shall speak in more detail about this group because, although it is relatively small in number, it presents particular problems under the asylum rules and procedures. There are 890 unaccompanied children in London as a whole. Hillingdon is the worst-affected borough, and possibly also Westminster. My borough has a smaller number. Estimates over the past week have risen from 17 to 22.

Accommodating children is extremely expensive, at £1,000 a week. It is very difficult for the local authorities to access the funding that is available from Government. They must spend £200,000 before they can claim anything back. The restrictive nature of the procedures in the Children Act 1989, under which local authorities are acting, means that services for vulnerable children in the local area are being cut to finance those costs.

I am told that if my local council had been more imaginative in the use of creative accounting, the problem would not have arisen, but councils should not be forced into that position. A literal interpretation of the Children Act 1989 would imply that the interests of vulnerable children are being placed against those of asylum seekers. That is wrong.

We often hear that many asylum seekers are bogus. I tend to take such stories with a pinch of salt. No doubt some are bogus, but surely no one would argue that children were bogus asylum seekers. Most of them are entirely genuine and incapable of dissimulating, as fraudsters would. The current influx of children is from Kosovo, and no one would dispute that that is a war-torn area where ethnic cleansing is being practised, and that there are genuine victims. The particular needs of children and the way in which those impact on local authorities is an issue to which we should give specific attention.

Why is the current practice fundamentally unacceptable? I should not need to speak at length about this point, as Labour, in government and in opposition, has acknowledged why the present situation is fundamentally unsound and unsatisfactory. It is unsound for local authorities because they must pick up a large bill—I believe that the figure is about £26 million for the whole of London. That burden is imposed on local authorities that have stretched financial services and capping limits. It appears to local residents that asylum seekers are being financed at the expense of other services.

The current system is bad for asylum seekers because the payments in kind that they receive under national assistance legislation are barely adequate. Asylum seekers receive food, but cannot get money for travel, which they need in order to pursue asylum appeals. The current payment mechanisms are totally unsatisfactory, and asylum seekers are often introduced to a dependency trap from which they may never escape. The situation is bad for the authorities, for asylum seekers and, almost certainly, for the Government who, at the end of the day, must pay large sums to supply asylum seekers through inefficient mechanisms. That would not occur if there were a properly integrated national programme. Worst of all, the present situation is bad for race relations. As a result of the immediate juxtaposition of asylum seekers and reduced Government services in local areas, people's feelings are inflamed unnecessarily.

The present situation is thoroughly unsatisfactory, but what can the Government do about it? I recognise that announcements are imminent and that perhaps the Government cannot reveal the details of their proposals. However, if the Government are moving towards a national system of asylum benefits that is qualified by the provision of documentation—I believe that that is the proposal on offer—where will it leave local authorities? Will they still be responsible for undocumented cases, particularly children, who are most unlikely to be carrying documents? What role will local authorities play? How will they be reimbursed according to the new proposals under consideration?

I hope that we can make some headway on the issue of transitional arrangements until the Government's new procedures come into effect. The situation is urgent in many cases, and local authorities must receive some relief—for example, we should remove the threshold regarding the amount of money that must be spent before local authorities qualify for reimbursement. Last year, the number of unaccompanied children reached double figures in 16 London authorities. However, only three local authorities had sufficient numbers of unaccompanied children to be able to claim Government money. That is the sort of anomaly for which the Minister's Department is responsible, and I hope that the Government will address that problem without prejudicing their overall expenditure targets, which will be announced next week.

Although the Minister is not responsible for the Home Office, we must put in context the way in which the Home Office is managing the asylum seeker issue. Many Members of Parliament deal with asylum seekers' cases, some of which have been around for years. The delays are appalling. I understand that the problem was inherited from the previous Government, but it is totally unclear why a substantial number of civil servants have not been drafted in to deal with the problem much more expeditiously. That is very strange, and it is quite wrong that the solution to an enormous human and financial problem should be obstructed by bureaucratic difficulties in the Home Office. I hope that the Minister will provide an assurance that proper priority is being given to that issue.

I hope that, in defining their approach to asylum seekers and local councils, the Government will adopt a much more holistic approach. At present, the response to the problem is fragmented: various Government Departments do different things, and local authorities do their own thing. Some of them act adequately and heroically, while others pass the buck to other local authorities. We need a co-ordinated approach that is led from the centre.

There have been examples of when the Government of the day, Conservative or Labour, have faced up to the difficulties presented by immigration problems. The country's response to the Ugandan Asians crisis, for example, ultimately reflected credit on most of those concerned. We had a concerted national response to the problem of the boat people, which was led by the Government of the day. I realise that the asylum seekers issue is much more complex than either of those two examples. However, we need Government leadership, which must be integrated and co-ordinated. That is what most of us are seeking from the Government.

2.4 pm

The Minister for Public Health (Ms Tessa Jowell)

I begin by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) for raising this important issue. The House will know that asylum seekers who claim asylum at the point of arrival are entitled to social security benefits that cover their needs for housing, food and other necessities while their applications are considered. Local authorities have become responsible for supporting asylum seekers under the National Assistance Act 1948 and the Children Act 1989 as a consequence of the previous Government's removal of entitlement to benefit for people who claimed asylum after entering the country or whose initial application had been turned down.

We recognise that the current arrangements have placed an undue burden on local authorities and, quite inappropriately, on social services departments. Local authorities are in a difficult position in having to meet an open-ended commitment without having any control over the number of people approaching them for assistance. The point was well made by the hon. Gentleman. Staff and other resources that should have been used for community care services are being diverted, to the detriment of other service users.

The current support arrangements are a mess, and we are having to consider a way of relieving the burden on local authorities, but we still need them to play a role given their access to and expertise in this area. As a matter of priority we initiated a wide-ranging interdepartmental study to examine the asylum process from beginning to end, including the present arrangements for welfare support. It is unacceptable that any asylum seeker should be left destitute, but, equally, we are conscious that a balance must be struck between reducing the benefit incentive for economic migrants to make unfounded asylum applications and the need to support asylum seekers while their applications are considered.

The study team has now completed its work, and we are considering its findings carefully across government. We shall carefully examine all the options before deciding what to do, and we shall announce the way ahead as soon as we are able to do so. I am fully aware of the sense of urgency with which our announcement is awaited. The Government's policy on asylum seekers is that we should deal with their cases quickly and fairly so that genuine refugees receive the protection to which they are entitled and those who seek to abuse the asylum process are given no opportunity to play the system by pursuing appeals that have no chance of success.

Our aim is to put in place a strategy for dealing with asylum issues that is responsible, properly thought out, comprehensive and enduring. We intend to implement a clear, coherent and comprehensive policy across the board. In the meantime, it is our responsibility to operate the law as it stands. The removal of benefits in 1996 and subsequent court judgments have had severe consequences for many social services authorities, especially in London. The local authorities for the boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark, in which my constituents live, are facing precisely the sort of pressure that the hon. Gentleman referred to. I know that that pressure is shared by other hon. Members and by my hon. Friends, especially those who represent London constituencies.

A new duty has been imposed on many social services authorities to support adults for whom they have never before had to provide services and for which they do not have funding. Although there is no new duty in respect of families with children and unaccompanied children, the numbers are very high and the burden on local authorities is therefore substantial.

At 29 June, just over 10,000 adults were being accommodated by London authorities and a further 1,000 were being accommodated in the rest of Great Britain. In addition, almost 6,500 families and some 900 unaccompanied children were being accommodated by London authorities alone.

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

My hon. Friend will be aware that my constituency includes Heathrow. Other hon. Members present today will testify to the scale of the problem of unaccompanied children. Although it is a problem that we welcome because we want to stand by our humanitarian concerns and uphold people's right to live in peace and security, the scale of the problem is placing an increasing burden on our local authority and diverting resources from the local community.

We have two desperate requirements: first, additional financial resources and, secondly, assistance with and a review of practice at ground level to ensure that the services that we provide are appropriate and adequately supported by both the local authority and the local voluntary sector. I urge the Government to deal with those issues as rapidly as possible.

Ms Jowell

I thank my hon. Friend for the two important points that he has raised, which will no doubt be relevant to, and supported by, other hon. Members.

One of the tests of the new measures that will be announced as a result of the review will be the capacity to deal with the pressures being faced by local authorities such as that of the hon. Member for Twickenham. I wish to underline the fact that some of the most distressing asylum cases involve unaccompanied children who have no source of support or nurture other than that provided by the local authority. In many cases, there is intolerable tension between meeting the demand in terms of cost and responding in a humanitarian way, which none of us would want local authorities to avoid. My hon. Friend has highlighted the tensions and I hope that the review will meet those points.

We recognise that it is not right that a financial burden on the scale that this issue represents should be imposed on council tax payers, or that community care services for local people should suffer. We have continued to make available to local authorities three special grants to alleviate the burden imposed on them. Last year, the Department of Health paid local authorities almost £40 million to support adult asylum seekers. The majority of claims by local authorities for reimbursement of expenditure on adult asylum seekers was fully met in 1997–98. However, we have listened carefully to what local authorities and local authority associations have been saying about the costs of supporting asylum seekers and we have therefore undertaken to increase the adult grant by some 18 per cent., subject to parliamentary approval, to £165 a week per adult asylum seeker accommodated in 1998–99.

With regard to local authority support for asylum seeking families, under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 local authorities have a general duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children who are in need within their area and, so far as is consistent with that duty, to promote the upbringing of such children by their families by providing a range and level of services appropriate to those needs. Section 17 duties are for children under the age of 18. The Government paid £28.4 million for that grant in 1997–98 to target compensatory funds to local authorities with significant numbers of asylum seekers with children.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

Will the Minister acknowledge that one of the difficulties for local authorities is that there is a threshold above which they receive compensation from the Government? They are juggling with a few tens of thousands of pounds within the tight finances that apply to local government to try to stretch the money over the services. That is causing huge difficulty, especially in areas where money to support asylum-seeking children has to come directly out of the children department.

My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), whose constituency shares a borough with mine, has pointed out that that is causing huge stresses and tensions in the boroughs, because parents of vulnerable children and children in need are being asked to give way for asylum-seeking children. We want to cater adequately for both categories, but the threshold often prevents us from doing that.

Ms Jowell

I entirely accept that some local authorities have difficulties. The hon. Lady will be aware that the grant is not intended to meet the full costs of care for children, but is focused on local authorities that deal with the largest number of children. Whatever formula is settled on, it is extremely important that it is administratively simple and gets the resources to where they are most needed.

The purpose of the children's grant is to provide compensation to local authorities for unforeseen additional expenditure in carrying out their duties under sections 17 and 18 of the Children Act 1989, rather than the reimbursement of the full costs. The grant is to support children in need, and their families, through support for the whole family, or to support children of 16 or 17 who are without a family and are not already being looked after by social services, which are affected by changes in social security benefits and housing legislation for asylum seekers. The grant is intended to keep the family together.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is seeking resources of a commensurate level for the current financial year. The number of families with children being supported by local authorities has been rising steadily, and the Government recognise that local authorities will need resources to reflect that increasing demand. For unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, we currently have a grant of up to £3 million a year, as the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) said, to help meet local authorities' costs in respect of them. As she suggested, authorities qualify for the grant if they spend more than 5 per cent. of the children block standard spending assessment on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

We introduced that threshold because many authorities deal with only a handful of unaccompanied children seeking asylum and the amounts of money involved do not justify the administrative costs that would be incurred in paying grant to them. We are, however, reviewing the arrangements for the grant and have taken on board the views expressed by some local authorities about the threshold.

We intend to continue to support local authorities for as long as the current arrangements exist. The courts imposed a new duty on local authorities for supporting adult asylum seekers for which there was no personal social services funding. The families with children grant and the unaccompanied asylum-seeking children grant recognise that local authorities already had a duty to those groups under the Children Act 1989, and they are considered to be a contribution to the increased costs that local authorities face. We have listened carefully to representations from local authorities and local authority associations about the conditions of various grants. We have undertaken to reconsider the grants and we will put proposals and special grant reports for 1998 and 1999 before the House in due course.

The hon. Member for Twickenham made a very important point about the needs of asylum seekers. We need holistic solutions that transcend the boundaries between Departments, and that is a test of our capacity for joined-up government. The awful circumstances facing many asylum seekers are evident from our constituency surgeries every week. That experience underlines the importance of conducting procedures fairly, transparently and speedily. We must ensure that local authorities have the capacity to respond to difficult demands.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes past Two o'clock.