HC Deb 16 June 1999 vol 333 cc408-79

'.—(1) In this section "eligible person" means a person who appears to the Secretary of State to be a person for whom support may be provided under section 80.

(2) Subsections (3) and (4) apply if an application for support under section 80 has been made by an eligible person whose household includes a dependant under the age of 18 ("the child").

(3) If it appears to the Secretary of State that adequate accommodation is not being provided for the child, he must exercise his powers under section 80 by offering, and if his offer is accepted by providing or arranging for the provision of, adequate accommodation for the child as part of the eligible person's household.

(4) If it appears to the Secretary of State that essential living needs of the child are not being met, he must exercise his powers under section 80 by offering, and if his offer is accepted by providing or arranging for the provision of, essential living needs for the child as part of the eligible person's household.

(5) No local authority may provide assistance under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 (local authority support for children and their families) in respect of a dependant under the age of 18, or any member of his family, at any time when—

  1. (a) the Secretary of State is complying with this section in relation to him; or
  2. (b) there are reasonable grounds for believing that—
    1. (i) the person concerned is a person for whom support may be provided under section 80; and
    2. (ii) the Secretary of State would be required to comply with this section if that person had made an application under section 80.

(6) "Assistance" means the provision of accommodation or of any essential living needs.

(7) Subsection (8) applies if accommodation provided in the discharge of the duty imposed by subsection (3) has been withdrawn.

(8) Only the relevant authority may provide assistance under section 17 of the Act of 1989 in respect of the child concerned.

(9) "Relevant authority" means the local authority within whose area the withdrawn accommodation was provided.

(10) In such circumstances as may be prescribed, subsection (5) dous not apply.'.—[Mr. Straw.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Straw

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Madam Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 15, in clause 79, page 51, line 2, leave out 'or' and insert— '( ) is a child who is being looked after by the asylum—seeker, or his spouse, who is under 18 and dependent on him; or'. Government amendment No. 70.

Amendment No. 1, in clause 101, page 62, line 37, at end insert— '(2A) Subsection 1(e), (j) and (k) of this section shall not apply to an asylum seeker who has a dependant under the age of 18, but income support shall be paid at the urgent cases rate as prescribed.'. Government amendment No. 3.

Amendment No. 27, in clause 108, page 66, line 38, leave out 'may be' and insert 'are being'.

Mr. Straw

A good deal of reference has rightly been made in our debates on the Floor of the House to the work of the Special Standing Committee and to the debate outside the House that that work generated. I have never believed in the theory that what Ministers and their officials produce and present to the House at First Reading is perfection and can never be worthy of improvement. Indeed, it would render the work of the House otiose if that were the case. Sometimes the way in which a policy is put into practice has not been dealt with satisfactorily in a Bill; sometimes the policy itself may have to be changed. That is part of the very important work of the House. Sometimes, even if the Minister does not want to change the policy, the House decides that it does. It is for Ministers to propose and for Parliament to dispose.

The work of the Special Standing Committee has enhanced the scrutiny of the Bill. That is very much to the credit of the system as well as to the credit of Members who served on the Committee and those who gave evidence to it.

I hope that my hon. Friends will agree that one of the areas that came within the first category of which I spoke—where the policy, which I hope to justify to my hon. Friends, was clear, but where we accept that the execution of the policy and the words used were not satisfactory—relates to the references in the Bill to the Children Act 1989. Wider issues are associated with that, some of which will be debated now, and some later. Given the original wording of the clause that started as clause 99 and is now clause 108, there has been understandable concern about whether we are seeking to remove from the children of asylum seekers the protection afforded by the 1989 Act.

The Government never intended to remove from asylum seekers the protection afforded by the 1989 Act. Rather, it has been our intention to transfer responsibility for providing accommodation and essential living needs from local authority social service departments to the new Asylum Support Directorate of the Home Office. There was nothing sinister in the wording of what is now clause 108, so I assure the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) that there was no conspiracy.

Mr. Allan

Or a cock-up?

Mr. Straw

No, not even a cock-up. Sometimes, first efforts and second efforts do not amount to what is needed, so things need to be changed.

If the House expects Ministers to come to this place and to propose amendments in light of discussion, it is important that there should be some good will on both sides, and a recognition—I make a general, not an ad hominem point—that it is easier for Ministers to do so if they are not accused of a cons`iracy or cock-up every time that they make a change in response to criticism in the House. A more accurate accusation would be that we have listened carefully to the arguments and accepted them, as is the case here.

We have decided to replace clause 108 with new provisions which I believe express far better the intentions of Ministers, and which in particular respond to the concerns of hon. Members, especially Labour Members, about the protection that the Bill should provide for children. The new clause places on the Secretary of State a duty in respect of children—defined as dependants under the age of 18—of asylum seekers. Where the Secretary of State considers that adequate accommodation is not being provided for the child in question, or that the child's essential living needs are not being met, the Secretary of State will have a duty—not a discretion, but an obligation—to use the powers under clause 80 to offer to provide that.

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The phrases in new clause 6 are drawn from equivalent phrases in the Children Act 1989. The purpose is to ensure that the assistance provided in such cases is comparable with that provided under section 17 of the Children Act 1989, of which, for these purposes, local authorities are being relieved. Where the Secretary of State's offer is accepted, he falls under an obligation to provide, or to arrange to have provided, the necessary accommodation or other living needs.

That will address the basic needs for accommodation, food and other support of the asylum-seeking family. As at present, local authority social services departments will retain responsibility for addressing the individual needs of children that extend beyond the norm—for example, needs that arise from physical, medical or educational problems.

We recognise the care and expertise with which social services departments have exercised those duties. The House will recognise in turn that it was never Parliament's intention when the Children Act 1989 went through the House that the Act should be used, as it has come to be used, to deal with the day-to-day living needs of asylum seekers.

The local authorities had that duty imposed on them only as a result of a landmark judgment by the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords, following the previous Government's refusal to provide for any support for in-country applicants for asylum. We can debate the matter at greater length on Third Reading.

One of the reasons why we objected so strongly to the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, which the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) mentioned yesterday—I make no apology for our opposition to it—was that we believed that the 1996 Act would neither be fair nor effective. It has certainly not proved effective—which is why, three years later, we are having to introduce a comprehensive reform of asylum and immigration law—and it is also profoundly unfair.

The 1996 Act was so unfair that asylum seekers took a number of local authorities to court on the ground that there must be some duty on someone to support children who would otherwise be destitute. The noble and learned Members of the Appellate Committee stated that, unless Parliament clearly intended to remove all measure of support from statute, in their judgment, the duty fell to local authorities under the provisions of the Children Act 1989 and, in respect of single people, of section 21 of the National Assistance Act 1948.

Members of the Appellate Committee were judicially interpreting parts of those two Acts in a way that had not been anticipated, but they did so to meet a profound social need. As I have explained and will explain again, we seek to meet that need in a different way.

I recognise that hon. Members want to ensure that the children of asylum seekers are not treated significantly differently because of their asylum status. They will not be. Local authorities are being relieved of their support powers. Local authorities—as it happens, many controlled by the Labour party, but some controlled by other parties—in inner London boroughs and in some Kent districts pleaded with us to relieve them of the burden of supporting asylum seekers in their areas because they could not cope.

Anyone who knows the true burden that has fallen on Kent social services department, on Dover district council and on inner London boroughs including Westminster, Camden, Lambeth and Hackney, as well as Waltham Forest and one or two outer London boroughs, will understand why some of those authorities have been at the end of their tether. Fifty per cent. of all asylum-seeker families are being supported by a handful of local authorities. That burden is simply unsustainable, so we propose instead that local authorities be relieved of their support powers and that those be replaced with a duty on the Secretary of State to provide support.

Aside from local authorities' objections about the disproportionate burden that was falling on a handful of authorities, there was also the fact that, in practice, the kind of support that was being provided by local authorities differed considerably from one authority to another.

No authority has the power to pay any cash whatever to singles. Thus our provision for a mixture of vouchers and cash represents a significant improvement, as I pointed out on the radio yesterday. Local authorities have a power to provide some cash and some benefits in kind to families, but their provision has varied considerably. In some areas, all the provision has been made by way of vouchers, whereas in others it has been made by a mixture of cash and vouchers. I do not happen to think that that is a satisfactory arrangement, and neither do the local authorities. There is now a clear duty, which will be exercised consistently across the country.

I understand—although I do not accept—some of the arguments that the level of support is not sufficient, but we can at least now have a proper argument about what the appropriate level of support should be. Moreover, as the regulations to underpin the primary powers in the Bill are introduced, there can be further and more detailed discussion about the precise levels of support.

I shall now deal with some of the other amendments in the group. Amendment No. 15 follows a similar amendment that was tabled in Committee. As we made clear on that occasion, we intend that the family group to be supported under part IV of the Bill should be the same as in the substantive asylum application. I wish to make it clear, particularly to my hon. Friends who are concerned about whether the definition of "family" includes only blood relations, that that is not the case. It may include minors who are not children—blood relatives—of the principal applicant, but who nevertheless live as part of the asylum seeker's family unit, either because they have been separated from their own parents or for some worse reason, for example, because their parents have been killed. That could include children who are totally unrelated to the asylum seeker concerned, as well as those who are more distantly related, such as nephews and nieces.

For that reason, although for the purposes of the support arrangements, a "dependant" is defined in clause 79 as the spouse and minor children of the asylum seeker or of his spouse, there is provision for regulations to be made adding to that definition, and it will be so added to. In the light of the reassurance that I have given that we intend that the family group for the purpose of the support arrangements should be the same as for the asylum application, I hope that those who tabled amendment No. 15 will accept that there is no need for it.

Amendment No. 1 seeks to exclude asylum seekers with families from the new support arrangements by allowing them access to the social security benefit system throughout their application for asylum. That would affect over 10 per cent. of all asylum seeker households. Last year, for example, some 6,000 applicants—a little more than 10 per cent.—had dependants. Altogether, those 6,000 had 13,000 dependants, so the total number of people, and the burden on the social security system, is significantly greater—it is about three times greater—than the proportion of asylum seekers with dependants to the total number of principal asylum applicants.

To exclude asylum seekers with families from those arrangements would be to drive a coach and horses through a central part of our proposals. We are fully committed to supporting destitute asylum seekers for as long as it takes to consider their applications. We are also committed to that because to do otherwise would be to breach our convention obligations.

Our commitment goes further in the case of families, although that point has sometimes not been understood outside the House. Such families will be supported for as long as they remain in this country. That includes families that may have lost, on their initial application, any appeal and any judicial review, and families awaiting removal or deportation. Families with children will be supported under the arrangements as long as they are here, but the whole purpose of this part of the Bill is to support asylum seekers separately from the mainstream social security system.

There are two reasons for that. First, asylum seekers have distinctive needs which are best addressed through the new support arrangements. They generally arrive with no possessions and need help in acquiring living essentials and adjusting to living in a strange country. Secondly, for some people claiming to seek asylum, the current benefit system is a real attraction. I do not by any means suggest that that applies to every asylum seeker, but we would be naive not to recognise that factor.

It is important in that context to get across again the fact that asylum seekers are people who are in very different circumstances. For example, the asylum seekers who last year came from Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and the former Yugoslavia were almost always able to establish a claim for asylum or for exceptional leave to remain in this country. In the case of some countries, 98 per cent. of people—singles as well as those with dependants—are able to establish a claim. Applicants from those four countries account for 70 per cent. of all acceptances of refugees or people given exceptional leave to remain.

A group of about 14 countries—such as Turkey, Nigeria, Algeria, Iran, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone—contributes almost all the other acceptances. The proportion of acceptances ranges from 6 per cent. for applicants from Turkey up to 82 per cent. for applicants from Rwanda. There is a mixed picture and I concede that some of those who are rejected, either for refugee status or for exceptional leave to remain, have none the less made their claims genuinely and in good faith, although they cannot establish them.

Another 16 countries accounted last year for 14,000 applications, almost every single one of which was abusive and neither genuine nor well founded. They include Eritrea, Pakistan, China, Poland, Lithuania, India, Romania, Kenya, Slovakia, Albania, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Bangladesh, Ukraine, Ecuador and Indonesia. In some cases, virtually none of the applicants have ever been able to establish a claim that their application is well founded.

I turn to the number of applications that have been accepted in the past. The figure for Indonesia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia is nil, and fewer than five applications were accepted from Poland, Albania, Lithuania, Latvia, Bangladesh and a couple of other countries. The numbers are tiny, and applications from those countries are typically facilitated by criminal gangs. Such people come here partly to make use of the benefit system. No Government can readily accept that.

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Mr. Allan

Will the Home Secretary clarify for the record that the largest number of asylum seekers—that is, applicants—come from the top four countries that he named: the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia? The largest national groups to whom the support system will apply will be those very groups whose asylum claims are likely to be recognised.

Mr. Straw

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says as a matter of arithmetic, and I defend the system that we are putting in place. As the House knows—I shall put it on the record—we intend to ensure that families are dealt with under the new system within two months. If their cases are genuine and well founded, as we have adjudged them to be in the past, it is highly probable that they will be in the system for only two months, because they will then be granted refugee status or exceptional leave to remain and will not have to make an appeal.

My hon. Friend the Minister has ensured that these cases are dealt with sympathetically and quickly, and that if we accept a case, we do not let it niggle and go to appeal.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

I have listened with great care to my right hon. Friend's argument, because it is at the heart of his case for the proposed support system. For the avoidance of doubt, will he confirm that the voucher package he proposes is designed to be a disincentive? Is he content for the large number of people who turn out to be genuine Geneva convention refugees to suffer in order for the system to act as a disincentive to others who are merely economic refugees?

Mr. Straw

I am not saying that. The proposed system is designed as a fair and just way of supporting people seeking asylum in this country. The availability of cash benefits—the provision that we are making, but by a different means—is open to abuse and is abused, as, I suggest, my hon. Friend and everyone else knows. There is no question but that there is a small industry of people coming in and seeking cash benefits at port. One of the attractions is the availability of cash benefits.

I am clear that the support we provide will ensure that no asylum seeker remains destitute. We are using the voucher system not to disadvantage existing asylum seekers but to ensure that social security benefits, which were never designed for this purpose, are no longer available, because that amounts to an incentive to people who have no claim whatever to come to this country and abuse the system. That is a different point.

Ms Abbott

I hate to quibble with a colleague who is both a distinguished Home Secretary and a distinguished lawyer, but if cash benefits are an incentive and if his system is supposed to be superior to cash benefits, it must, of necessity, be a disincentive. One of the problems I have with this system is that it is quite wrong to have a welfare system that is set up on the basis of the old poor law deliberately to be a disincentive.

Mr. Straw

I do not accept that that is what it is, but I also do not think that it is sensible policy making to set up a system that is an open invitation to fraud and abuse, as is the system of cash benefits. I remind my hon. Friend that that system is currently available only to people who apply at port. Many of the people who have more well founded applications do not apply at port, because of the way in which they have come into this country. Many of those with profoundly unfounded claims who come in clandestinely, who know the ropes and who apply at port are able to use the cash benefits system, unlike those with well-founded claims. I do not think that that is sensible.

I also do not think that it is sensible for us to end up with a system under which some asylum applicants enjoy one type of support, whereas others enjoy a quite different one through local authorities.

On the matter of the poor law, we do not have to look into the crystal ball or in history books to see how a system such as that which we propose would work. We know about it from the experience of local authorities, and I have not heard local authorities say that they are providing "poor law" assistance. Those that provide assistance have worked commendably hard, and on the whole the results have been good. Their problem, and ours—it is a problem in my hon. Friend's area, as it is in many other parts of inner London—is that the burden on individual authorities is far too great. That is why we need a national system.

I know that many of my hon. Friends wish to speak, as do Opposition Members. [Interruption.] My Parliamentary Private Secretary, who is not supposed to say a word, asks "What Opposition Members?" In any event, it is probably sensible for me to stop speaking now, listen to what my hon. Friends have to say and respond later.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Straw

I was trying to be helpful to my hon. Friends.

Mr. Corbyn

I am trying to be helpful to the Home Secretary.

Mr. Straw

As ever.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I cannot allow two Members to be on their feet at the same time, and I am trying to decide who should have the Floor. I call the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn).

Mr. Corbyn

Before sitting down, will my right hon. Friend tell us the cost of bringing back a social security benefits system for asylum seekers, and his estimate of the cost of the system that he proposes and the system that local authorities have been operating for the past three years?

Mr. Straw

I shall endeavour to provide those figures when I sum up the debate.

Mr. Clappison

I shall concentrate on the new clause and on amendments Nos. 15 and 27, which I tabled along with other Opposition Members. I should add that amendment No. 27 relates to clause 108, and as clause 108 is to be taken out of the Bill, is probably redundant.

We are dealing with an important subject which has caused considerable concern to all who have commented on the Bill—both in the House and outside—and to the witnesses who gave evidence to the Special Standing Committee. Hon. Members will have become more familiar than ever with the body known as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in recent weeks, because of its activities in the Balkans. It was Hope Hanlon of the UNHCR who described the arrangements for children proposed in the Bill as fundamentally unacceptable, and even inhumane". Serious concern has also been expressed by a wide range of major children's charities, including Barnardos, the Children's Society, UNICEF and the Save the Children Fund, as well as by a number of religious groups and interested organisations.

New clause 6 takes the debate a stage further. As the Home Secretary has said, it replaces clause 99, which sought to deprive the children of asylum seekers of some of the important protection afforded by the Children Act 1989. The Home Secretary says that the Government have listened to views that have been expressed. I think that they could scarcely have done otherwise, given the volume of concern expressed to them. We shall see in a moment just how much of what the Government have heard they have implemented, but new clause 6—the modified version of the Government's original intentions—is still the subject of serious concern in children's charities and other organisations, on the grounds that formerly applied to clause 99.

The Government, however, have now retreated from clause 99. Indeed, there seems to be a wide consensus that it was a bad clause. I could say that a political spectrum is opposed to clause 99—now clause 108. Amendment No. 3 removes the clause from the Bill. It is signed by, among others, me, my right hon. Friends, the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn).

Mr. Straw

The new politics.

Mr. Clappison

We could hardly get a wider spectrum than that. I will leave it to hon. Members to guess who stands where in the spectrum.

Clause 99 has now become clause 108, which is to be taken out of the Bill. The key question that we need to deal with is: does new clause 6, replacing clause 108, meet the concerns that generated such widespread opposition to the original clause?

As the Home Secretary said, the Government's intention is that the needs of children of asylum seekers should be met through the new asylum support system, rather than through section 17 of the Children Act 1989, or indeed any other provisions. Quite a number of statutory responsibilities have been stripped away from various agencies by the Bill, but it is section 17 that is the most important. The Home Secretary said that the Government's intention was to transfer the responsibilities under section 17 from local authorities to the new asylum support organisation. That may be the Government's intention, but we have to ask: do new clause 6 and the transfer protect children in as comprehensive and assured a way as section 17 does and was intended to do?

Clause 108 asserted that, if the families concerned were eligible for support under the asylum support system, their children could not be given protection under section 17. That created a problem for families who were entitled to receive support under the asylum support system, but did not, in fact, receive such support for one reason or another, which was all too possible because of the rigidities and inadequacies of the way in which the Government's asylum support apparatus is designed.

We were concerned—and so were many others—that children could slip through the safety net that the Government were seeking to put in place and that, as a result, children and families could suffer hardship, especially children who were taken into care and separated from their families—which is undesirable and should be avoided if possible—or even worse. If children slip through the asylum support system because of its inadequacies, local authorities will not have section 17 powers to step in and to provide protection for those children and to keep them with their families.

The Home Secretary has asserted that it was not the intention of the framers of the Children Act to cater for situations such as the one that he has outlined. That may be so, but he is wrong in one respect. The framers of the Act, which received all-party support, intended to provide comprehensive protection for children, covering all contingencies; going back to the spirit of the Act, I think that that was its intention.

Indeed, the Opposition of the day—which was, of course, the right hon. Gentleman's party—sought and received assurances from the then Government that the Act would provide a safety net to protect children and to keep families together, even when homelessness legislation or possibly—although they did not contemplate it at the time—immigration and asylum legislation failed children. Their intention was that all children should receive comprehensive protection.

That was the assurance that was sought by the then Opposition. That was the assurance that was given by the then Government. I give way to the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on that point. [Interruption.] I am sorry; I thought that he wanted to intervene. I may have brought some twinges of recollection to his mind. He will perhaps remember the amendment that was moved by the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke)—then the Member for Monklands, West—who sought to include that very assurance in the Bill.

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Such an assurance was the basis of the Children Act 1989, which Barnardos described as a landmark piece of legislation implemented with all-party support establishing the principle of acting in the best interests of the child and providing a framework for protecting and safeguarding the welfare of all children who were on British support. Barnardos goes on to say: We are aware that the Government's intention in clause 108 is to only remove families, whose needs arise out of their being destitute, from section 17 of the Children Act. This introduces a discriminatory element into the working of the Act and violates its overarching principle that the child's welfare shall be the court's paramount consideration. Back in 1989, the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston, speaking for the then Opposition, said: It is to assert the paramountcy of the child's interest that we have tabled the amendment."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 18 May 1989; c. 137.] Today, however, the roles have been reversed. We still support the principle of the 1989 Act—that all children on British soil should be given the same protection—and are now seeking an assurance from the Government that that principle shall continue in legislation. We want there to be a safety net for all children, because no child should go without protection. Labour Members may care to reflect on the fact that the previous Government were prepared to give such an assurance.

Mr. Straw

I have sought to give the assurances that the hon. Gentleman is seeking. However, is he saying that he believes that the current arrangements—in which the burden falls disproportionately on a handful of local authorities—should continue?

Mr. Clappison

The first part of the Home Secretary's intervention seemed to contradict the second part. He has been attempting to tell us that the Bill is as good as the 1989 Act and that it will provide the same protection, and we are questioning whether that is so. The matter requires examination. The Home Secretary seemed also to be saying that the Bill will not offer the same protection.

Mr. Straw

The whole purpose of new clause 6 is to transfer the duty for asylum-seeker families that arises under the 1989 Act to the Secretary of State; but it amounts to the same duty. The hon. Gentleman seems to be saying that he believes that that duty should be undertaken only by individual social services departments, and that he therefore disagrees with many Conservative-controlled local authorities, such as Westminster, which say that the burden is falling intolerably on them and should not continue. Will he clarify the point?

Mr. Clappison

The Home Secretary is meandering on to an entirely different path. The issue at stake is whether the provisions of the Children Act—which has been in force since 1989, through much of the life of the previous Government—will continue. Will future arrangements for children preserve the same duty?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again, but I need to press him on this point. We—but also Conservative-controlled local authorities—need to know whether he is saying that current arrangements should continue, or whether he accepts the comments of local authorities—such as Westminster, but also many others—that the current burden is intolerable.

There is common ground on the issue of the duties imposed by the 1989 Act, although who should bear those duties is a separate issue. However, the hon. Gentleman has been dodging the question that I have asked him three times. Is he saying that the current system—in which individual local authorities support asylum seekers without national arrangements—should continue?

Mr. Clappison

It is a separate point. However, if the Home Secretary wants to move on to the matter of dispersal—[Interruption.] That is the issue exciting his colleagues from Kent—the hon. Members for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) and for Erith and Thamesmead (Mr. Austin)—and perhaps other Labour Members. The Home Secretary may be aware that, in Committee, the Opposition—unlike all his colleagues in Committee—made it clear that, in principle, we did not oppose, but supported, the Government's proposal. If Ministers look at the Committee's proceedings, they will see that that is so. We did not oppose what the Home Secretary was trying to do, but were asking about the protection of children, which is quite a separate matter.

Dr. Ladyman

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clappison

Yes, the hon. Gentleman was on the Committee and he will be able to confirm my point.

Dr. Ladyman

I put it to the hon. Gentleman that, in Kent, the burden of supporting children under the Children Act currently falls on the pocket of council tax payers. The Government's amendment would transfer the cost to the Secretary of State. Is he or is he not in favour of that transfer?

Mr. Clappison

The hon. Gentleman will remember that, in Committee, we supported what the Government were trying to do and that it was his hon. Friends who had difficulty. Incidentally, I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has now found his voice, which was not often heard in the Committee. We made our support quite clear, even though the Government's aims are controversial in some quarters. I know that some hon. Members view the system as being one of forced dispersal, and we have some concerns about the details, but that is a separate point. My question to the Home Secretary now is whether the protection being given under new clause 6 is as good as the protection currently available under the Children Act. New clause 6 is intended to look as though it offers greater protection, but does it in fact merely draw a veil over a hole that stubbornly remains?

The new clause is certainly complicated. Subsections (3) and (4) are its key provisions, but subsection (5) continues to deny children protection under section 17 of the Children Act. Do subsections (3) and (4) protect children by allowing for the provision of accommodation and living needs? Under subsections (3) and (4), the Secretary of State decides whether the accommodation or support being provided for the child is adequate. Many of those involved, including the Immigration Law Practitioners Association, are highly critical of the substantial number of provisions in the Bill containing that form of test, which leaves matters at the mercy of the Secretary of State—in practice, at the mercy of officialdom.

An even more significant issue arises when we consider how the Secretary of State is to intervene to protect those children who he decides are not being provided with adequate accommodation and living needs. In those circumstances, the Secretary of State must exercise his powers under clause 80 to offer help. The problem is that it may well be that the Secretary of State has already exercised his powers under clause 80 and that it is that exercise of powers which has created the situation in which the child is going without accommodation or support. Given the rigidity and inadequacy of clause 80 and the asylum support system, that is all too possible; and, as the hon. Member for South Thanet will remember, expert witnesses said that that might happen.

Those expert witnesses also warned of another danger inherent in the Government's system. We all want asylum seekers to be dispersed, but the system is so rigid and inflexible that asylum seekers might well be dispersed from Kent and London, but end up drifting back to Kent and London because of the statutory prohibition on their preferences being taken into account.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

I represent a London borough in which there are many Somali asylum seekers, and I am in favour of a dispersal policy, provided there is adequate support in other parts of the country. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that people would be able to reject the accommodation and support provided in the north of England and go back to a London borough, and that it would then be for the borough to shoulder the burden of their support, even though such boroughs are already experiencing the problems that have triggered the need for a dispersal policy?

Mr. Clappison

The hon. Gentleman was not a member of the Committee, so he may not realise that, in Committee, we explained that we were in favour of dispersal, but that we were concerned that dispersal without any opportunity to take preferences into account—the Secretary of State will be statutorily forbidden to take preferences into account—would create a far higher risk of asylum seekers being dispersed to one part of the country but drifting back to another. In short, we wanted to avoid the sort of problems identified by the hon. Gentleman.

Let us take the case originally brought to the attention of the Special Standing Committee by the Immigration Law Practitioners Association as a critique of the original clause 99 and clause 108. I shall quote briefly from the ILPA evidence to the Committee: What of the child whose destitute asylum seeking parents 'may' qualify for s74 support, but have disentitled themselves by rejecting an offer of accommodation in a far flung location? Is the child to be separated from them and taken into care for the lack of s17 powers to meet his needs within his family?"—[Official Report, Special Standing Committee, 17 March 1999; c. 262.] That scenario is all too possible, given that the Bill forbids the new agency from taking preferences into account. The Government appear to have given no ground in the new clause. They have questions to answer on the protection of children and their welfare.

The Government have ignored suggestions from the Conservatives and others that would have made the system a little more flexible by allowing some preferences to be met. Asylum seekers would still be dispersed around the country to relieve the pressure on Kent and London, but there would be less risk of their drifting back. Local authorities and others in those areas have experienced that and warned us about it in their evidence to the Special Standing Committee.

How will subsections (3) and (4) of the new clause work in the case put in the expert evidence of ILPA? It is the parents who reject an offer. We are concerned about the welfare of children, who should not suffer under any circumstances, whoever their parents are and whatever their basis for being in the country. The intention of the original Children Act 1989 was that any child on British soil should benefit from its comprehensive protection which puts their interests first. In the case put forward by ILPA, would a different offer be made? Why does the new clause exclude any support under section 17 of the Children Act 1989, whereas the original clause excluded only support under subsection (1) of that section?

We need to consider the Government's words to see whether they give effect to the Children Act. It is all very well talking about a transfer of responsibilities. Will the protection be as good as it is under the Children Act? In a written answer on 9 June, the Home Secretary said that the assistance to children of asylum seekers under the new clause would be comparable to what would otherwise be available under section 17 of the Children Act 1989."—[Official Report, 9 June 1999; Vol. 332, c. 333.] He has used similar words today. The word "comparable" creates a nagging doubt in my mind. The word is often used by officialdom in such circumstances. The hon. Member for South Thanet looks puzzled. We want "comparable" to mean "as good as". We want an assurance that the protection will be not just comparable with, but the same as, that afforded by the Children Act, the point of which was to provide a comprehensive safety net for all children.

We agree with the Government's wish for a policy of dispersal that works, although not all Labour Members do. We have tabled constructive amendments to make it work. We are afraid that the Bill increases the risk that it will not work. In all this, we want children to be protected and we want their welfare to be put first. The former Opposition sought comprehensive protection when the Children Bill came before the House in similar circumstances. The then Government gave that assurance. We are looking for the same protection. Will the Government live up to what they were seeking in opposition?

5.15 pm
Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

I shall speak mainly about amendment No. 1. Over the past few weeks, my hon. Friend the Minister has listened to the concerns that have been expressed and he announced concessions on the support system in a written answer last week. His moves are welcome, but I do not believe that we have gone far enough. Amendment No. 1 would be a reasonable compromise. Many of us have serious concerns about the proposed voucher-based support system. Those concerns are particularly strong in respect of children. The amendment is a compromise, because it would leave others in a support system that has fundamental flaws.

I shall deal first with the principle of the support system. Over the past few weeks, the Government have changed the way in which they talk about it. They initially talked about it purely as a deterrent. It has gradually become clear that it covers more than 70 per cent. of income support, and they have softened their approach. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) that the support system was designed with the express aim of deterring abusive applicants. That is also true of other aspects of the Bill. There is a moral problem with a scheme that is designed to do that in the knowledge that it will inevitably also penalise the genuine. When some of those genuine applicants have young children, we should be concerned.

There are also practical issues. Is the proposed system better than the alternatives? Will it work? The Government are still saying that they believe that genuine applicants will not mind whether they are helped in cash or in kind, or what their location is. I seriously question that, particularly for families with children. I am sure that some of my hon. Friends will have comments to make about the effects of a voucher system on children. Location certainly matters. It matters whether young children are in the same area as others with the same ethnic background—children they can form relationships with, play with and go to school with.

We all agree that delivering the system with the concession that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced last week in a written answer depends on speed. At Question Time this afternoon, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister talked about targets, saying that an average decision time would be two months, or six months including an appeal. I am still confused about the meaning of the time scales. I have heard that the average length will be two months and that most cases will be dealt with within two months. That is confusing. Whether we are talking about an average or about most cases, it is not a norm that will apply to everyone. Some people will inevitably be in the system for significantly longer. That is important, particularly where children are concerned.

I am wary of suggestions that everything will be all right if we delay the introduction of the system. Let us say that the Home Office does not meet the targets by next April and there is a delay. Some of us have doubts about the ability of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate to plan for the new support system in any case, but the worst that we could do to it is ask it to plan for that system to be introduced at some unknown future date.

One cannot expect any organisation to deliver efficiently on that basis, let alone one that has experienced serious problems—even if we are told that they are being tackled—over the past year or two. If the targets are to be met, why do families with children have to be put through the bureaucracy and complexity of the support scheme, with all the decisions about whether they will be supported, at what level and where, and all the administrative costs of the voucher system?

The key argument, which I have heard frequently and which the Home Secretary has used again today, is that cash benefits would act as a draw. Some of the evidence in support of that has been anecdotal, such as that we all know that lots of Poles or Chinese turn up, get their benefit book at the port and go off to work illegally. The only hard evidence that I have seen in any of the Home Office documents is the statement that the claim is justified by what happened following the 1996 Act.

That Act took away cash benefits from in-country applicants. I recall that the then Government argued that any genuine applicants would claim asylum the moment they stepped off the aircraft or boat. We pointed out that 36 per cent. of the asylum claims granted by that same Government in 1994, and 27 per cent. in 1995, were to people who had applied at port; they had recognised many in-country applicants.

The argument that any genuine applicant would apply at port was a load of rubbish; but now we are hearing almost the opposite: that a fraudulent applicant will apply at port, because that is how to get benefits. That is the logic of the argument that cash benefits are a draw. Let us examine the evidence to support that claim. It is true that after 1996 the proportion of applications at port and in country changed. Before, about a third had been at port; in 1996, that went up to 40 per cent.; in 1997–98 to 51 per cent.; and this year, so far, it has gone back down to 40 per cent.

One might have expected that trend to develop, but one would also have expected it to be reflected in the figures for acceptance for asylum or for exceptional leave to remain. If there were real evidence that the availability of cash benefits to port applicants was a draw, one would have expected the percentage of people who were being granted asylum or exceptional leave as port applicants to start to drop away; but that simply has not happened.

In 1998, 39 per cent. of all grants of asylum were to port applicants; that is the highest figure in the past five years. In the same year, 64 per cent. of all grants of exceptional leave went to port applicants; again, the highest figure in the past five years. The majority of the people accepted, according to Home Office statistics, had applied since 1996.

Let us consider some of the individual countries, as the Home Secretary did earlier. It was suggested that everyone from Afghanistan is genuine; 80 per cent. of applicants from there, in each of the past four years, have applied at port. For those from Yugoslavia—also genuine applicants—the highest figure for applications at port in the past four years was 54 per cent., and this past year it was only 40 per cent. The figure for Somalia has hardly ever gone over 50 per cent.

We are told that China generates all these fraudulent applicants. In fact, before the benefit changes, 71 per cent. of Chinese asylum applicants in 1995 were at port, declining to 60 per cent. in 1996. In 1997 and 1998, the figures were down to 26 and 25 per cent. The trend has gone the opposite way. It becomes absolutely clear when one examines the figures that there is no hard evidence to back up the simplistic claim that cash benefits act as a draw.

The fact is that the statistics have never been analysed. I have not seen the slightest analysis of the figures from the Immigration and Nationality Directorate to back up the claim. One can play with statistics in various ways. For instance, there has been an increase in applications at port over the past few years from people from Pakistan. The best that can be said for the statistics is that they are not very clear. We should not base a significant change in policy—it is completely different from what we said in 1996, before the general election—on such dubious evidence.

A big mistake in discussing the asylum support system is to talk about it as if it were a right, which it is not. There is a gateway, and people have to prove that they are destitute to go through it. They will not all get accommodation and support in the form of cash and vouchers. The Home Office estimates in its asylum support manual that only 70 per cent. of families will get the full package of accommodation and support.

What happens to the other 30 per cent? It certainly cannot be pretended that they are getting more than 70 per cent. of income support to live on, because they will be getting only the cash and the vouchers and not, for example, payments for heating, light and electricity. There is no reason to suppose that they will all be abusive claimants. Where will they be? They will be living with other members of their family, with friends or with other members of their community, who will very often themselves be on low incomes. We are expecting the deprived to support the even more deprived.

I was amazed that the Home Office asylum seekers support document said that one of the reasons for setting up the system was to contain costs through incentives to asylum seekers to look first to their own means or those of their communities for support. I have searched in vain through all the details of the proposed support system for what the incentive for that might be—in fact, I can think of one very good one: it will keep people out of this rotten voucher-based system.

I seriously believe that we are in danger of hurting families with children. That is the reason for amendment No. 1. I am concerned about the whole principle. We are in danger of setting up a system which is wrong in principle, which will hurt some of the most vulnerable people and, what is probably even worse, will not work in practice and will end in a shambles.

The principle and the practice both matter, and we should not support the imposition of the system unless we are convinced on both points.

5.30 pm
Mr. Allan

I give a small cheer for new clause 6. The Home Secretary said that he wished to see some recognition of the fact that the Government have, to an extent, taken into account hon. Members' concerns, and new clause 6 seems to go some way in the direction that we wanted. I would have given two cheers had the Government stuck simply to supporting amendment No. 3, which seeks to remove clause 108, exempting asylum-seeking children from the Children Act 1989, without then introducing the additional limited powers relating to section 80 support in new clause 6.

I would have given at least two and a half cheers had the Government accepted amendment No. 1, tabled by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and his hon. Friends, which is a much better solution to the problem of families with children. I shall reserve three cheers for when the Government scrap the entire support system and revert to the more sensible and cost-effective benefit-based system,0for which the Government argued at the time of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, but on which they seem to have changed their mind.

The time that people, particularly families, will be on the support systems is important. The Home Secretary reached for his pen and calculator as the hon. Member for Walthamstow referred to mean and average times. I am sure that the Home Secretary could build the d'Hondt divisor in there somewhere, as he calculates whether a significant number of people will be dealt with within two months.

As the hon. Member for Walthamstow said, if we are talking about averages, a two-month average could mean that a significant number of people were on the system for four months if another group of people were dealt with almost immediately. A six-month average would be even more worrying. If a number are dealt with at the beginning of that period, some will be on the system for 10 months, if we are talking about four months beyond the four-month average period for the appeal. Therefore, even under the Government's formula and even assuming that they meet the targets that they have set themselves we are talking about potentially considerable periods. There is widespread concern on both sides of the House, including on the Labour Back Benches, about whether they will meet those targets under current arrangements.

In the general debate about the support system, the Government seem to want to have it both ways. On the one hand, they say that the system is expected to be a deterrent, that they have the problem of people being drawn in by an over-generous system, so they have to reduce the generosity in order to deter people. At the same time, they seem to be arguing that it is a fair and humane system. Those two arguments are fundamentally incompatible. Either it is a harsh system which will act as a deterrent, or it is a humane system which, at best, will have a neutral effect in terms of whether people will choose the UK over any other country in which to apply to claim their rights under the 1951 convention.

Many of the arguments used by the Home Secretary when describing the support system could be applied elsewhere in the benefit system if he chose to do so. It is very much the Victorian poor law attitude; that the system must be harsh so that only those who genuinely need it will stick the rigours of the system. It is indistinguishable from the philosophy of the workhouse to argue that people who genuinely flee persecution will put up with hardship here, so it is all right to impose such hardship and it is a way of sorting out the sheep from the goats. That is an unacceptable approach to the delivery of a support system. We should be separating the sheep from the goats by processing their claims and dealing with them effectively.

I think that I share with many hon. Members the view that the most effective way to deter people from making unfounded applications is to deal with them quickly, to demonstrate that they are unfounded and then to send the individuals back to their country of origin. It is the time factor that is critical, not whether someone is receiving 70 or 100 per cent. of income support. The difference between 70 and 100 per cent. of income support is hardship for those individuals. It makes no fundamental difference to whether they apply in the first place. It makes a difference only to their standard of living during the intervening period and, in particular, in the context of the amendments that we are discussing, the standard of living of their children. There are deep concerns about what that may imply.

The issue of principle is important when one considers the Children Act 1989. That Act was intended to be a principled piece of legislation. As has been said, it was intended to be applied to all children, placing children's rights at the forefront of any decision about their future and their support. It was not intended to be selected from at will. It was intended as a platform on which children's rights could be appropriately judged by the courts against any other legislation in respect of their welfare.

As a matter of principle, it is disturbing to see any diminution of a significant and landmark Act. The fact that we are prepared to enact such fundamental standards demonstrates the paramount importance of children's rights. The Children Act has worked well. It is depressing that we should tinker around or muck about to remove a particular category of children and deal with them differently.

We must recognise that the level of support proposed is inadequate. There will be problems. In many other areas, when considering levels of support and definitions of poverty the Government have never decided that people are adequately supported on 70 per cent. of income support. Even when one factors in additional fuel costs, and so on, nothing like an adequate level of support will be provided for families under these proposals.

We shall discuss the actual level in detail later, but, in the context of families, there is a particular issue, which is that when calculating support payments we can already come up with a formula that discounts the cost of utilities. For families, it is about £12 a week. That factor is built in, but it does not significantly increase according to the number of children. The amount of income support does increase quite properly, because children create extra expenses, but the utilities costs do not increase incrementally.

If we have a system as proposed here, where we end up with a proportion of income support being paid for each individual, we find that, relative to those on a regular income support system as proposed in amendment No. 1, the larger the family, the more disadvantaged they will be relatively. Each member of that family will have a proportion deducted for utilities costs in a way that would not happen for a family on standard income support.

Liberal Democrats' preference for the Home Secretary's system of support, if it is to come into effect under section 80, is to allow it to be tested against the Children Act. That is what we argued in Committee. If, as the Home Secretary said, the system can genuinely support individuals, why not allow that to be tested? Why does not the Home Secretary have the confidence that, an asylum seeker having been offered his package of support, the courts would reject any claim for support under section 17? We do not expect people in the UK on housing benefit or income support to go the courts and say that they want section 17 support under the Children Act instead, because the court would properly rule that individuals are supported, that children are not in need, because they have a means of support through the benefit system.

If the Home Secretary is confident that his support system for asylum-seeking children under section 80 is genuinely good enough for those individual asylum-seeking children and their families, I do not see why it would ever be successfully challenged in court, and why any court would decide that somebody had to have section 17 Children Act support.

To allow the support system to be challenged would be very much within the spirit of the Children Act. There was no intention that the section 17 provisions should be used for asylum-seeking children. Without the 1996 Act, that would never have been necessary. But if this Bill genuinely puts in place a support system for all children, we shall no longer have the problem of successful challenges under section 17. Therefore, I see no reason why the Home Secretary should break an important principle, which is that the Children Act should apply universally with the interests of the children paramount, and not be dependent on a child being in one category or another.

Another major concern has to be that of the Secretary of State's judgment. That is not a personal comment against this Secretary of State's judgment. For us to base the entry into the system on a Secretary of State's judgment as to whether living and accommodation needs are being met breaches the principle of the Children Act in terms of removing the automatic right and the interests of the child being paramount and replacing that with something that is bound to be subjective to a degree on an individual Secretary of State's judgment, whether it be this Secretary of State or another one from whatever party who will subsequently operate the provisions. We do not know what definition future Secretaries of State will use to decide whether accommodation is adequate and meets peoples' living needs. Our deliberations in Committee left me pessimistic. We tried to find a decent definition of what would be adequate accommodation, and asked whether the normal rules for overcrowding or for people sharing rooms would apply. We were told that the Home Secretary would have his own rules on that.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

Another problem with the support system is its apparent lack of flexibility. It may not be able to help a family caught up in an emergency. That is why many people in Scotland think that a serious mistake has been made in the way in which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has amended section 12 of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968.

Mr. Allan

I am grateful for that intervention. My colleagues in Scotland have expressed anxiety about the Bill's application there. Responsibility for matters such as social services will rest with the Scottish Parliament, but these proposals will be implemented from Whitehall by a UK-wide directorate. There is genuine scope for discussion about the interaction between the two systems.

The Home Secretary said that he felt that local authorities were doing well in coping with the current system provided for by the National Assistance Act 1948 and the Children Act 1989. However, the evidence from Kent county council was that the relevant people there wished him luck in attempting to bring in a system that they had found to be appalling. We were told that, although the council managed it well, the voucher system was expensive and inefficient, and that it caused problems for asylum seekers and their families.

In response to the earlier comments from the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), it is important to note that local authorities are being rebated for the costs incurred by their additional responsibilities. The Government are proud of the fact that they have rebated those costs in full rather than partially, as was the case under the previous Government. The unfortunate burden imposed by the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 has been a problem for local authorities, but local people should be reassured that they are no longer losing out.

The Home Secretary seems to be proposing to nationalise a system that has been shown to be bad at supporting children in certain areas. I do not see how that will make it any better. If the system fails, as I and the hon. Member for Walthamstow fear, local authorities will pick up the pieces. If people are not offered the appropriate support package and want to drift back to their community, they will do so. Local authorities may not have to provide vouchers, cash payments or accommodation, but they will have to deal with all the resulting social problems.

Ms Abbott

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), who did such a workmanlike job in Committee, is alone on the Conservative Benches? That shows how little the Tories care about the living circumstances of refugees and asylum seekers.

Mr. Allan

The lively debate on this and other matters is between members of my party and Labour Members on both the Back Benches and the Front Bench. We share an approach to the solutions that we would like to find, but I praise the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) for his evident concern for the welfare of the children of asylum seekers. I wish that we could convert him to the extent that he rejects the voucher system outright. Instead, he says that Conservative Members do not oppose the system in principle, even though they consider it appalling. That position is not entirely credible.

5.45 pm

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees gave some important evidence in the oral sessions of the Special Standing Committee, to which the hon. Member for Hertsmere referred. Its representatives accepted that the proposed system in some ways would give people the very basic level of support. Therefore, because people would not starve, they could not go so far as to say that it is incompatible with the UN convention, but they remained worried that different countries would provide different levels of support.

Britain is a wealthy country and can give a level of support to people seeking asylum that is different vrom what other, poorer countries can provide. However, although the UNHCR may consider that the level of support provided here does not breach the convention, it was clear that its representatives believed that we could do more. They considered that we should be proud of that, and not be grudging about it.

Dr. Ladyman

On a point of accuracy, did not the UNHCR evidence make it clear that that organisation believed that the support for genuine refugees had to be of a particular standard? That point may be slightly pedantic, but we are talking about people seeking that status.

Mr. Allan

I shall check the record, but my understanding is that the UNHCR is concerned to enable people to access their rights under the convention. They cannot do that without support.

Ms Abbott

For the avoidance of doubt, the UNHCR representatives made it clear in informal meetings with Members of Parliament, if not in their oral evidence to the Special Standing Committee, that, just as there should be no discrimination between refugees and British citizens, so there should be none between asylum seekers and British citizens. Any such discrimination would render nugatory people's right to seek asylum.

Mr. Allan

The support system is central to that right. The United Nations convention on the rights of the child is relevant to any discussion of the Children Act 1989. It is unfortunate—to put it mildly—that the Government have not taken the opportunity provided by this Bill to end the UK's reservation on that convention with regard to immigration. They opposed that reservation fiercely in opposytion, and the Bill represents an early opportunity to end it and thus demonstrate their commitment to the rights of the child and to international conventions.

Be that as it may, there is concern that the Bill would breach article 26 of the convention, which deals with children's rights to benefit from social security, and article 27, which covers children's rights to an adequate standard of living. Regardless of the reservation that exists, I hope that the Government will aim to meet the terms of that important convention, at least in spirit.

In conclusion, two matters arising from what the Home Secretary has said deserve examination. He said that the duty in the new clause is effectively the same as the duty under the Children Act 1989. However, two crunch questions need to be asked. The first has to do with the gateway under the support system. Clause 80 makes it clear that support depends on the Secretary of State's judgment about destitution and the suitability of accommodation. At present, the courts apply the Children Act test of levels of destitution, but new clause 6 will make it a matter for the Secretary of State to judge whether a person has access to support under clause 80. That will enable the Secretary of State to indicate that he has discharged his duties, but at what level will families be considered to be appropriate for support under clause 80? That is the first crucial question.

Mr. Straw

I shall deal with the point in greater detail when I respond to the debate, but, in practice, local authorities exercise a gateway under the Children Act. Although they have a duty to provide essential living needs and accommodation for children in those circumstances, they have a discretion about the level that they provide, and that is based on an assessment of need. The hon. Gentleman's point, therefore, is not a strong one.

Mr. Allan

The Home Secretary raises an interesting question. Do we trust him more than a social worker when it comes to making an assessment about children? Those of us who sat through the Committee remain concerned about the criteria that the Home Secretary would apply in deciding whether someone would have suitable accommodation or adequate living conditions. The Under—Secretary has told us that this tough-talking part of the Bill means that access to the gateway would be difficult and that anyone who had belongings, anywhere to turn or any other support would not pass through the gateway. That is certainly my impression and I hope that the Home Secretary will offer some reassurance today.

The second critical matter is the factors that will be taken into account when providing support or deciding whether duties have been discharged. The Children Act 1989 raises several points about the welfare of children and their access to education and their families. The decision to remove any reference to the preferences of asylum seekers is intended to avoid legal challenges, but we are concerned that access to education and so on will not be taken into account.

As the Bill stands, a person can say that his family is in a certain place where there is an appropriate school, and the Home Secretary may take that into account. The person must not say that he would like to live there. As long as he is offering not a preference but a circumstance, the Home Secretary can take it into account. We remain concerned about how judgments will be taken about the holistic needs of children, accommodation and basic living needs. Will decisions take fully into account education, family access and other forms of support?

I should like the Government to accept amendment No. 1 and to stop mucking the system about. They should stop tinkering with a bad system, saving Home Office staff the headache of setting up the Asylum Support Directorate. The staff have enough problems dealing with immigration work. To impose further work on them would not use most effectively resources that could be better directed. Amendment No. 1 would direct resources towards the Benefits Agency, which has experience and already has a system in place.

The Government should save the taxpayer the additional administrative costs of going through that rigmarole. That might bring some bad headlines in the right-wing press, but it might also persuade Labour supporters to become excited again about their party and to turn out to vote.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North)

I am incredulous at the synthetic outrage that the Conservative party has expressed on immigration and asylum. Throughout the past decade, the Conservative record has been one of indifference at best and contempt at worst.

I sat for seven years on an inner city authority that has one of the largest and most diverse communities of refugee asylum seekers. However, that did nothing to prepare me for my experience as a Member of Parliament. On my very first day, families poured into my surgery. Many—and many had children—had been waiting for a decision since 1990, 1991 or 1992. They included Iraqis, Kurds, Sudanese, Somalis and Bosnians, and the situations in their own countries made them disproportionately likely to have had a valid claim. Some of them had had the most appalling experiences, and their traumas were well documented by the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture.

The paralysis placed on their lives by the absence of an effective decision-making process has made it impossible for those families to settle or to begin to recover from the psychological trauma that many of them have experienced. Every day, Labour Members see the tragedy of people whose families have been scattered across the globe in the aftermath of war and who have been unable to obtain travel documents or visit their loved ones for years.

We have heard much about these cases, but I should like to give an example to put a human face to the problem. A young Sudanese woman came to this country as a child in 1993 with her father. She has been disabled by a fungal infection of brain and eye which is increasingly rendering her blind. Clinical opinion is that the indecision that has caused every member of her family to suffer clinical depression is a major factor in her absence of recovery. She is bright and highly motivated, as many of our asylum seekers are. This is the third year in which she must defer college entry because there has been no decision about her status for six years.

The absence of effective decision making has blighted the lives of vulnerable people. It has also achieved the opposite, encouraging people without a well-founded fear of persecution. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) talked about the pull factor. I believe that the pull factor remains the absence of a likely swift decision. That has been the position throughout the 1990s, and it remains the case today.

Having allowed the Immigration and Nationality Directorate to degenerate into chaos, the Conservatives introduced the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, applying the most crude and brutal deterrent by removing all forms of subsistence from families who make in-country applications and people who have lost their appeals. The courts rightly determined that families could not be left destitute, triggering extensive dependence on the National Assistance Act 1948 and the Children Act 1989. The Children Act should not be used to provide a system of mass support. It was intended to provide a safety net so that families with children in trauma could be provided for. It was never intended to be the principal means of support for families, particularly in the London boroughs and Kent.

The 1996 Act has left people in situations such as that of a woman in my constituency. She was trapped on the 30th floor of a tower block and, because she lost her benefits after she lost her appeal, the council was unable to move her to alternative accommodation even though her severe post-natal depression led her to threaten to throw herself and her baby out of the window. Her GP and her health visitor documented her as a serious suicide risk, but nothing could be done.

In another case well documented by the Medical Foundation, a young Arabian man, whose mother was beaten to death by Iranian police who were searching for him, slept overnight at the airport after his plane arrived late. His day-old claim for asylum left him without benefits for two years. He is trapped in a trauma-induced mental illness.

The 1996 Act was so fundamentally dreadful that it deserves urgent review. The Conservative party bequeathed us a system that treats asylum seekers contemptuously and inefficiently. The new proposal would replace that disastrous inheritance, which has left more than 50,000 families in temporary accommodation across London. Poor and cashless, they face a voucher system.

I have made my concern clear to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, particularly about children. There are powerful arguments about the stigmatising effects of vouchers and the restrictions that they impose on people's ability to shop cheaply in markets or charity shops. No one disagrees that people with no genuine claim to asylum are attracted by the fact that there will be no swift decision. Even when the final decision comes, unless there are compassionate grounds to remain, removal is also not swift. That is why people exploit the system.

6 pm

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made it clear that he remains committed to the principles of the voucher system. I echo my hon. Friends' welcome for the fact that there has been consultation and consideration of other options. In response to representations about the need for people to have spending money, the cash element was doubled, which was necessary and helpful. I speak as the parent of a small child at a very deprived inner-city primary school who has been asked for £11.50 this week in two separate and, as it happens, perfectly reasonable requests, one of which was for a subscription to the toy library. Such facilities are all part of creating a community in which all children, understandably, want to be involved. The system must include a reasonable amount of spending money if it is to work.

The proposed single payment system is also welcome for people who arrive in this country without so much as a change of clothing, those who do not have adequate clothing to accommodate the changing seasons and weather conditions and, of course, those with growing children, whose demands for clothes and shoes far outstrip any family's ability to keep up and to pay for them. The restoration of the provisions of the Children Act as a safety net is also very welcome. I commend my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for listening to representations about that.

Above all, I welcome the serious commitment to investing in and speeding up the decision-making process in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate. That is the absolute key to the system. I welcome the commitment not to place families in a cashless system until the IND has reached the target processing time of two months for an initial decision and four months for an appeal.

Reference has been made to average processing times for the majority of claimants. I again ask my right hon. Friend not to activate the new system until the majority of cases—I suggest at least 90 per cent.—have been processed within the two-month and four-month periods for at least three months. We can then be absolutely confident that the IND is operating at the capacity that the Home Secretary has assured us it will have. The commitments that have been made and the promised investment are extremely welcome, but everybody is justifiably sceptical about the IND, given the years during which we had to endure unacceptable delays.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will also agree that the correct decision to give families priority in processing will mean no more than a marginal delay for single applicants. They include not only people who are highly traumatised, such as victims of torture, but, importantly, applicants who do not have a genuine case, and they should not be able to draw out their case. Speed is of the essence for families and single people.

In the spirit of tackling child poverty and social exclusion, I seek assurance that the total value of the support package of cash, vouchers and payments in kind, such as utility bills, will not fall below the emergency income support level, properly adjusted for family size, and does not include provision for those items that people on income support would not be expected to buy from their benefit. If that is the case, and decisions are being processed in line with the targets, people will be less fearful that asylum applicants will remain below the poverty line in a largely cashless system for months on end. That was our principal fear.

After years and years of neglect and the introduction of the absolutely appalling Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, change was essential. If we build on the welcome changes made by my right hon. Friend, we can ensure that we shall start to build a new system that offers all applicants justice, dignity and speedy and fair decisions, including those on removal, where necessary, at the end of a failed appeal process. There must be compassion and swift progress towards a fresh start for the desperately vulnerable people who need to be able to get on with rebuilding their lives.

Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

I support amendment No. 1, to which I added my signature to those of my colleagues, including that of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard). The amendment would remove families with children from the voucher system altogether.

I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has introduced changes to the Bill in the past few weeks to create a support system that will make it easier for families with children who are seeking asylum to function more normally. I welcome also his clarification about the Children Act 1989. The Bill will be improved by those changes.

I do, however, still have major concerns about the Bill, some of which have been mentioned by other hon. Members. I welcome the increase in cash in hand for asylum seekers' families, but I am concerned about the overall value of the support package. My right hon. Friend says that the package is equivalent to 90 per cent. of the support that other families receive and that 20 per cent. of it consists of payment in kind, such as the provision of electricity, water and other utilities. I require assurance that the support package totals that stated 90 per cent. The Refugee Council is concerned about whether the payment in kind genuinely represents 20 per cent. of the support package. Will my right hon. Friend clarify those costings? I know that there will be further discussion of that later in the proceedings, but we need to make it clear that the package does not cause people to fall below the poverty line. There is enormous concern about families, particularly those with children, among many Labour Members.

Like other hon. Members who have spoken, I am not happy about the voucher scheme being applied to anyone, but the proposal in the amendment would be an acceptable compromise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow said, which ensured that families with children do not fall below the poverty line. I seek assurance that the support package for asylum seekers will work on the same basis as that for income support, and that income will not be deducted from payments if, for example, accommodation is furnished. One of my main concerns about the Bill is that it will place families with children below the poverty line.

The Welsh Refugee Council, of which I am a member, has experience of families seeking asylum in Wales. It believes that the voucher system causes unnecessary stress and stigmatism. Wales does not have as much experience of asylum seekers and refugees as other parts of the country, but 800 asylum seekers have settled there, mainly around Cardiff, since 1997. In studies carried out by the Welsh Refugee Council in the Cardiff area, organisations invariably said that the asylum seekers and refugees with whom they work were living on the margins of society and their needs were not being met. They describe them as an invisible minority, who are often socially excluded from the community and who face institutional and personal racism.

Children are particularly burdened because they are often the first to learn the language of the country and to speak English through going to school, so they must often guide their parents through negotiations. I am deeply concerned that we may be placing those children in circumstances where they may be stigmatised and suffer unnecessary stress because they are part of a family who must live on vouchers. We must accept that those children have often been through overwhelming, traumatising experiences and we should be doing our utmost to allow them to integrate into our society with other children in the best way possible. I cannot believe that making their families use a voucher system to meet many of their needs is the best way to achieve that. I am extremely anxious about the stigma that will result. I am therefore very pleased that, only last week, at a conference at which I spoke, the Welsh Refugee Council and Cardiff county council launched a strategy to work with asylum seekers and refugees.

Given that, at the moment, children of asylum seekers receive a 100 per cent. allowance, issues surrounding the value of the proposed support system are very important. A drop to 70, 80 or 90 per cent. of support received by other children would be significant.

I was reassured when my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said that he did not intend to introduce the voucher scheme until a certain threshold of applications had been reached. I would like clarification of the six-month period; it should apply to the vast majority of families. What if we get the system up and running but there is a blip, the computer crashes or goodness knows what else happens, and that six-month period becomes much longer? What will happen to the families then? Will they remain on the voucher scheme for a much longer period? Will they be able to use the cash system?

It would have been much easier and simpler, and much more generous and compassionate, to exclude families with children from the proposed system altogether. Although amendment No. 1 is a compromise for many of us, it would be a very good move to accept it. I still hope that such an amendment might be accepted during the passage of the Bill. We all know that the vast majority of asylum seekers are men without children or dependants. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary referred to the number to which the proposed provision would apply; it is only a minority.

We should recognise the specific needs of children and women. Many of the women have had traumatic experiences before coming to this country—for example, many have been raped and find it very difficult immediately to talk about such experiences on arriving here. They need access to health care and counselling. I am therefore also very pleased that, in Cardiff, we have a support group for women asylum seekers, in which they can talk about such issues. They cannot be addressed immediately—women need access to cash to get to such meetings, and they need help and support.

The problems of everyday life that families with children experience are bound to be made worse by the provision of vouchers instead of cash. What will be the smallest amount that a voucher will be worth? Problems about not being able to get change from vouchers and having to trek across towns and cities in order to exchange them have been well aired. I know that a commitment has been made to ensure that vouchers can be exchanged in vast numbers of shops, but I cannot believe that such shops will always be accessible to families. What about markets, jumble sales and charity shops—all the places to which we are able to go to acquire the things that make an ordinary life? If one has had traumatic experiences, building such an ordinary life is essential in getting over them, but we are limiting the ways in which families will be able to do so. At the moment in Cardiff, for example, vouchers may be exchanged only at Tesco and at a halal butcher, so great difficulties lie ahead.

6.15 pm

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for listening to the concerns of his colleagues and others in the House. I am pleased about the changes that he has made, but my fundamental belief is that all children should be treated equally. Children are children, from whatever country, of whatever race, however short a time they may be here and whatever the status of their parents. While they are in this country, they should be treated exactly the same as children who are born here or who already live here. The support system is creating two classes of children because two different systems will operate.

I know that the voucher system has been designed to deter people from coming to this country. I accept that my right hon. Friend's changes have ameliorated the effects on families with children and that he has changed the original proposals concerning the Children Act 1989, but I am still uneasy about the fact that the Act in its entirety will not apply to asylum seekers' children. Breaking up the terms of the Children Act, which was ground-breaking legislation, in such a way is a dangerous precedent.

Before I came to the House, I was an assistant director of Barnardos. I know that, through its work with asylum seekers' children, it is deeply concerned about the effects of the Bill—as are all the major children's charities, including UNICEF. Deep concerns have also been expressed by the Law Society and many other bodies. We have made much progress in developing the Bill over the past few weeks, but we could do better for families and children who come to this country in deeply traumatising circumstances.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover)

On several occasions in Committee and on the Floor of the House, Members have drawn on experiences in their constituencies to highlight points. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) drew an accurate distinction between her experiences in an area where asylum seekers settle and form families, and those in constituencies such as mine—in Kent and other areas—where people come and go. Local experience changes the perception not only of the Member but of the local people.

Many hon. Members have thanked Ministers for the concessions and changes that they have made so far, although some of the thanks has been rather mealy-mouthed. I should like to offer a lonely expression of thanks for the basic elements of the Bill, because they address many of the problems and difficulties encountered by my constituents and in east Kent in past years. I shall mention some of those problems.

Dover district council and Kent county council were suddenly confronted with massive burdens, not just of costs but on resources, which they had never had to meet before. Real crises arose in meeting just basic human demands. The councils coped well and have adapted and set up systems, but they confronted major problems. That is why when I led a delegation from Tory Kent county council to see the Minister, it lobbied very hard for a shift from local authority to central Government spending on asylum seekers. The county council has welcomed some of the changes in the Bill.

Problems of social tension have also arisen in the community—probably the worst problems that we have experienced. They have been caused in part by a small number of extremists—one cannot call them anything other than fascists—from the British National party and the National Front, who have marched in the streets of Dover, held demonstrations, tried, but, thank goodness, not very successfully, to recruit local people and distributed vile literature.

Local people perceive that most of the asylum seekers with whom they have come into contact are not genuinely fleeing oppression and persecution. There are very special reasons for that perception, arising from their recent experience.

Before 1996, we had no asylum seekers in the area; we had never really met them. Lots of people were passing through and going to other areas, but they were not settling in Dover. We had a tiny ethnic minority of less than 0.6 per cent. of the population. I suppose that, as a Welshman, I was part of a certain ethnic minority.

By September 1997, within a single year, for reasons that we know, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people from the Czech Republic or other parts of eastern Europe, who would fail the criteria for asylum—none met the first interview criteria—settled in the area. Having failed the first interview, they used the present discredited, long-winded appeal system to spend as much time as possible in the area.

Members might remember the infamous documentary film that was made by some Czech film makers. It was filmed in Dover and shown throughout eastern Europe.

It depicted a family of Czech people picnicking on the Dover sea front, drinking red wine and eating French sticks, and generally having a nice time. The documentary explained the ease of access to cash benefits, the means of accessing the system and the ways that the duration of stay in the United Kingdom could be lengthened. That had a definite effect. The film was almost as good as a holiday brochure and it was almost an invitation to have a holiday.

I believe that the message has now got through that east Kent, Thanet and Dover are not part of the prosperous south-east. They are not part of the garden of England. It is not difficult to imagine that someone who lives in a rundown part of Dover—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I think that I should direct his attention to the precise subject matter of the new clause and the amendments grouped with it, which is support for children. Although I understand some of the general considerations that overhang the debate, I must advise him to try to tailor his remarks to the particular question of support for children.

Mr. Prosser

I am quite satisfied with the changes that have been made in support for children, and I would appreciate the opportunity to address some of the remarks that the Secretary of State made in opening the debate, when he talked about vouchers taking away the attraction—taking away the pull factor.

It is not difficult to imagine that people living in difficult circumstances, in a poor part of Dover, would be resentful if they felt that their new neighbours were taking advantage of the system at their expense.

I do not want to increase the number of myths and lies that are being circulated in Dover, partly by our local newspaper, but it is true that groups of young single male asylum seekers, who are on cash benefits and make their own arrangements for accommodation, crowd into single small houses and, by sharing the rent and by sharing—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must reflect on his words and realise that they do not fall within the terms of the group of amendments before us. He should concentrate his remarks on the type of support for children.

Mr. Prosser

In that case, I shall stand by my support for the concessions and changes in respect of the proportion of cash versus voucher support for children, and perhaps find an opportunity to participate in the later debates.

Ms Abbott

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on one of the aspects of the Bill that has caused most concern.

We have been assured that, in order to encourage the Home Secretary, we should not fail to congratulate him on the concessions that he has made. As the Home Secretary is not a blushing political ingenu and needs no encouragement, I shall content myself with saying that I appreciate the fact that he has listened to the many arguments that colleagues have made, and that I especially appreciate the increase in the cash element of the support system because, literally from the day when I saw that Ministers were proposing to give asylum-seeker children 50p a day, it was my strong belief that, whatever the issues of principle, that was unconscionable. I tabled an early-day motion, which many Members felt able to sign. Whatever else happens during scrutiny of the Bill, at least I know that asylum-seeker mothers will have a little more cash to play with each week, and I am grateful for that concession.

There has been much discussion in the newspapers about the Government's climbdown on the system of support, especially in relation to children. I have the advantage over journalists and others who believe that there has been a climbdown in relation to the system of support in relation to children as well because, having served on the Committee, I have read the Bill many times over and I know that—as the Prime Minister was at pains to say when interviewed about the matter on the "Today" programme earlier in the week—there has been no climbdown. The system of support remains fundamentally flawed, including in relation to children.

In an intervention on the Home Secretary, I said that it was wrong in principle that any part of our welfare system should be designed to be a disincentive. The Home Secretary responded that that was quite wrong. All I can do is quote back to the Home Secretary from paragraph 4.20 of his own document "Asylum Seekers' Support", published in March. It says: The arrangements set out in this paper which are based on the principle of support in kind with a minimal cash provision are expected to have a significant disincentive effect". That is what the Home Secretary was saying in March, and I believe that that thinking underlies the system of support.

I put it to the Home Secretary again that it must be wrong for any part of our welfare system to be designed to have, in his own words, "a significant disincentive effect" because that is a return to the thinking of the poor law, and it is thinking on welfare rights which this society left behind a century ago.

Colleagues—especially Ministers—have talked about the support system as though it is merely an alternative form of income support. The argument that I have advanced against the support system, and particularly against including children within the scope of the support system, is that it is quite different from income support, as colleagues have said.

First, the judgments that will be made by the new support directorate are entirely subjective. Clause 84 says: The Secretary of State may provide … support for persons who it appears to the Secretary of State may be destitute. Hon. Friends might think that I am quibbling over words, but anyone who has battled with the social security system over a constituent's rights knows how much social security and welfare administrators can make of the precise wording of the Bill. The Bill offers no rights. It simply says: The Secretary of State may provide … for people who it appears … may be destitute. The support system gives rise to no sense of entitlement. It depends on a series of subjective judgments, one of which is encapsulated in clause 83, which says that the Secretary of State must take into account when persons apply for support whether there is support (or assets) which … might reasonably be expected to be, otherwise available to the person"— not that they are in receipt of that support or those assets, but that there is support (or assets) which … might reasonably be expected to be, otherwise available". In my view, that opens a very wide doorway for the assiduous immigration and nationality benefits clerk to deny benefits and support to persons who are currently my constituents.

As for assets, I took care in Committee to question the Minister about what he meant by "assets". I asked him whether he meant that women asylum seekers might be required to sell their jewellery and their rings, and the Minister said that that was exactly what he meant.

We are not discussing a system that parallels the income support system but will simply be administered by different people; we are considering a system that is subjective and discretionary, and which has a series of loopholes into which, I fear, many deserving people may slip.

6.30 pm
Mr. Mike O'Brien

I am sure that my hon. Friend would not wish to mislead the House. I said various other things, including the fact that we were not seeking to obtain people's wedding rings or their personal jewellery. However, certain communities hold considerable wealth in jewellery and gold. If I remember correctly, I referred to someone whom I had met who had £4,000 in gold with her when she arrived. I said that she certainly should not be regarded as destitute. Perhaps my hon. Friend would wish to qualify what she said.

Ms Abbott

The Minister is aware that he did not rule out people being obliged to sell their jewellery.

Mr. Straw

I cannot let my hon. Friend continue. She knows that under the existing social security arrangements, someone who has £4,000 in gold or jewellery will be required to sell that. Is she suggesting that she or the House has ever suggested that those rules should be changed so that people can transfer their cash wealth into jewellery, keep it on their wrists, and thereby abuse the social security system? Is that what she is proposing? If not, there is no disagreement whatever between what she is saying and what my hon. Friend the Minister said.

Ms Abbott

The fundamental disagreement between us about the Bill centres on the amount of discretion that it gives to the Immigration and Nationality Directorate and the new support system. If the Bill stated that a person with assets worth £4,000 or more—or even £3,000 or more, as the income support system stipulates—was not entitled to support, I could not argue with that. However, all the Bill states is that support can be denied to people who have support (or assets) which … might reasonably be expected to be, otherwise available". In 12 years of dealing with the social security system, I have seen deserving people denied benefits because of lesser loopholes than that.

Mr. Allan

With reference to the social security parallel, does the hon. Lady recall that the £3,000 asset limit that exists in the social security system was proposed in the Standing Committee and fiercely rejected by the Government, with the clear implication that they intended to go well below the £3,000 limit on assets?

Ms Abbott

Indeed. As I said earlier to the Minister, if the Bill specified the amount of assets that the Government had in mind, no one could argue with that, but the Bill merely refers to support (or assets) which … might reasonably be expected to be, otherwise available". We are not dealing with another form of income support simply managed by a different section of Government. We are dealing with a system of support that presupposes that people should turn to their family and community, and under which support will be available only on the basis of a series of subjective judgments. The checks and safeguards built into our income support system, specifying the amount that can be held in assets which would prevent people from having to sell jewellery or assets that have personal or family significance, are not part of the Bill.

The proposed system is not an alternative to income support in its underlying principles or in its value. Colleague after colleague has asked Ministers about the value. I wait with interest to hear what Ministers will say.

Meanwhile, the Home Secretary's document, "Asylum Seekers' Support," which was published in March 1999, helpfully sets out the value of the support system. It states: The proposed provision is set at 70 per cent. Even more helpfully, it explains why provision is set at only 70 per cent.—it is because the interests of the taxpayer must be kept in mind. The same document contains a table, for the avoidance of doubt about whether people are to be given the equivalent of income support or forced to live below the poverty line. The table shows that a single adult aged 25 or more on income support receives £50.35. Under the Home Secretary's new support system, that person would get £35.25. A couple aged 18 or more on income support gets £79. Under the Home Secretary's support system, the total package in vouchers and cash would be worth £55.30. I could go on.

For much of the debate, we have been bandying about percentages, but when we compare the cash equivalent, including the food vouchers, in the Home Office document to the income support cash equivalent, it is clear how far the support system falls short. Since the document was published, Ministers have started to row back. They argue that the sums do not take into account utilities and so forth, but the Refugee Council said that there is no way that the cost of utilities built into the housing package offered under the support system makes up the difference between the value of that and income support.

It cannot be right that any section of the welfare system should be deliberately designed to be so humiliating to obtain and so substantially below the poverty line. The Home Secretary indicates by his body language that he does not believe that the support was humiliating to obtain. Fortunately, with the voucher system, we do not have to look into the crystal ball—we can read the book.

Thanks to cuts by previous Governments, there are already refugees and asylum seekers in receipt of vouchers. We know that people queueing up in supermarket queues with vouchers are stigmatised. We know that their children are called voucher children. We know that the system carries a built-in stigma.

I also know that in Hackney or Stoke Newington, the only place where people can cash their vouchers is Tesco in Mare street, which means that they must walk from Stoke Newington to Mare street. Ministers have assured me that, under the new system, vouchers will not be so restrictive, but I would be much happier if we had more details about the running of the system. We know the current problems of the voucher system, and we know from what Ministers have stated in their document that the national voucher system that they propose is designed to be "a significant disincentive".

As I said at the beginning of my remarks, I welcome the fact that at least asylum-seeker mothers will have a little more cash in hand to spend on their children, but it is important that the House does not lose sight of the fact that the overall value of the package has not been raised. Mothers will have a little more cash, but fewer food vouchers.

Let us move away from the vexed question of the value of the system—Ministers are at pains to assure us that what they said in March is no longer true, in the light of insistent representations from colleagues—and consider how the system will work, and whether it will provide the sort of welfare system that we would want for our own families and children.

Let us pause and consider who will administer the system—the people at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate. They are the people who have lost passports and whose department in Croydon is in chaos. Ministers are asking the House to contemplate a support system being run by people who cannot manage the system that it is currently in their power to run. Is that designed to inspire confidence in hon. Members?

I have raised the question with Ministers from the outset, and they always ask what I would do. Let me tell them. We had perfectly good manifesto commitments on appeal rights for visitor visas. I would have passed a short Bill to meet the manifesto commitments and spent the intervening time reforming Lunar house in Croydon. Before moving to such a huge, composite Bill and the rickety system of support, through which I am confident many people will fall, I would reform Lunar house and examine the management ethos, the training and the organisational problems in the department. Even if the Bill were not fatally flawed, there would still not be proper system support from the people who are supposed to run it.

This support system is not appropriate for anyone as we approach the millennium, and it is certainly not appropriate for families with children. I could detain the House by discussing many of the precise features of the Bill, which, as anyone who knows anything about how our social security system works knows, set up all types of loopholes through which people can fall.

Ministers say that if they accepted the amendment, 13,000 people with children would have to go back on income support, which would be a terrible burden and abuses would occur. I cannot believe that in what is still one of the richest countries in Europe, as we approach the millennium it is too much politically and economically to offer to some 20,000 asylum-seeker families the same level and type of welfare that is currently available to British citizens.

The support system is wrong in principle. Although I commend the Home Secretary for making concessions, they do not alter the underlying principle of the support system, which is based on subjective judgments and is designed to be a disincentive. Moreover, the system will not work because it will run side by side with a system of forced dispersal. One wonders why Ministers go to the Home Office and repeat the mistakes of their predecessors. Forced dispersal did not work with the Vietnamese or the East African Asians, and ad hoc dispersal by local authorities is not working now. Local authorities send people away from their areas, but the people scramble back because they have hardly any cash and want to be with other people they know and who speak their language. They might also want to be near their mosque.

A system of forced dispersal together with the proposed support system simply will not work. Far from my borough of Hackney being relieved of the burden of supporting asylum seekers, it will have broadly the same population of asylum seekers, but a substantial proportion, having fled from areas to which they have been forced to disperse, will be in our midst with no proper means of support.

Amendment No. 1, moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), is excellent and I hope that, even at this late stage, Ministers will accept it. If they cannot, I hope that Members in another place reading this debate will see that the bulk of hon. Members in this House realise the dangers of the support system. Asylum seekers have no one to speak for them, but they look to the Government to make a substantial amendment to the support system to save the Government from themselves.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

Although I support amendment No. 1, I wish to pay tribute to the Home Secretary. I hope that my tribute is not regarded as mealy mouthed because my right hon. Friend has been extremely generous with his time, his attention and his willingness to engage in arguments that were at odds with the way in which he has been required to frame the Bill. I only wish that he had had the freedom to approach some of the fundamental problems that are still enshrined in the Bill in a different way, and perhaps within a different time scale.

6.45 pm

I shall set my comments in the context of what is happening outside this place and what has happened in my life. Although Britain has to deal with the problem of increased numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, we would be deceiving ourselves to pretend that Britain is their leading provider of succour and sanctuary. Many of our European colleagues have taken a larger share, at a greater cost, of the responsibilities that are to be borne in accepting refugees. That needs to be acknowledged.

The personal side of this matter is that, before coming to this House, I spent more than a dozen years working in race relations and on anti-racist issues. One of my most profound experiences was when I was working with European anti-racist movements and spent a brief period working in Rostock after the four days of rioting and attacks by neo-Nazi gangs on the blocks of flats on the Lichtenhagen estate that housed refugees and asylum seekers. It was devastating to see how indiscriminate the brutality was to adults and children alike. It was perpetrated against a community that was already vulnerable and traumatised, but that, with the best will in the world, had been left isolated and stigmatised within the estate.

That experience made me extremely cautious of any policy that separated one family from another, or one type of child from another. It is important that we retreat from that prospect whenever we can. I echo the call from my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) that if we are genuinely committed to an inclusive society, we must start with the inclusion of all children, irrespective of race, ethnic origin and the status with which they arrived in this country.

It is the principle of the voucher status that we propose to attach to refugee children and their families that troubles me most profoundly. I understand the arguments that underpin that: that introducing a voucher regime will make the regime tougher, have a deterrent effect and help to reduce fraud. However, the more that I have thought those arguments through, the less credible they appear to be.

On deterrence, we must address the question of why people flee in the first place. The last thought in refugees' minds is whether they are fleeing to somewhere with a cash-based or a voucher-based system of support. The overriding reason why people flee is because they are afraid—of persecution, disaster and destitution. It is an insult to the House and to wider society if we sign up to the presumption that lurking hordes of potential refugees are hiding in the forests and on the hillsides of Kosovo, tuned into their radios waiting to hear the benefit uprating from the Secretary of State here. Do we imagine that they will suddenly shout out, "It's not enough. We're not coming", thus sending the Treasury officials into a huddle and making them agree, "Okay. We'll raise it a bit more"? Or that we then wait until they arrive and say, "See? We told you so"? That makes no sense at all.

If one talks to families who have fled here, they tell of the trauma in their family lives and in the communities that they understood and were part of. They tell of how difficult it is to put down roots with which they feel safe. The idea that a voucher system acts as a deterrent is nonsense in terms of the causes of flight.

On fraud, does it help the Government or society to deal with fraud in the benefit system by introducing a separate regime for refugees and asylum seekers that is voucher-driven? It is a retreat from any joined-up thinking process to say that that helps us move in an appropriate direction. There is fraud in the benefit system, but were we to suggest that we put everyone who is currently on benefits on vouchers, we would quickly realise how absurd and unworkable that was. [Interruption.] I am cautioned not to give anyone ideas, but I mentioned that only because I am convinced that we could not possibly be going down such a path.

A voucher system providing less than income support is more likely to increase fraud than to reduce it. We in the House need to remind ourselves that income support levels were calculated and defined as financial survival levels—the breadline. How can we say to people that they have to feed their children while living at 70 or 90 per cent. of the breadline level, and do it legitimately? I do not know how to explain how they are supposed to do that.

We have defined survival level; if we ask people to live on less than that, how will they survive legitimately? The answer is that they probably do not do so. If they are to survive, they may be forced to do so illegitimately. The danger is that they will be pushed to do so by precisely the measures that we propose to introduce to meet the problem of the system being defrauded. It would be a tragedy if we ended up with a regime that ran the risk of criminalising those whom we have first stigmatised.

Mr. Allan

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the evidence that we already have of existing fraud in the voucher systems that have been set up under the National Assistance Act 1948? People are trading vouchers on the black market, so they receive less of the value and vouchers circulate in odd ways that were never intended.

Mr. Simpson

I am aware of that and I will come on to it in a moment, but I want to address other aspects of a system that builds in new and additional bureaucratic complications. This will increase the opportunities and invitations to commit fraud. Asking the Immigration and Nationality Directorate to administer such a voucher system seems to be to be a flirtation with another disaster.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary because they have been directly and personally involved in trying to sort out the mess that is currently the IND. It is, however, bizarre to suggest that the IND should take on the responsibilities involved in running a voucher system. Many Members would settle for a commitment for it to run a "we will answer your letters" system. That is where we are stranded at the moment. Putting a voucher system on top of that chaos could create an awful mess.

People retreat from any system that stigmatises them. There is already enough evidence of such stigmatisation, in the way people are treated when they present vouchers. Various Members have said, "Look, that is not the case. If you go into a supermarket today, there will be people in the queue with vouchers from the supermarket magazine and vouchers from The Sun. One more voucher will not make any difference." However, organisations that support refugee communities could tell hon. Members of the harassment and stigmatisation that refugees currently experience. We ought to be learning the lessons of the downside of this drift into vouchers and be looking for ways of reversing it, rather than looking for ways of extending and entrenching the system.

Vouchers also create subcultures of exclusion, and in those subcultures it will be easier to perpetrate other forms of fraud. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) said that there is an illicit trade in vouchers. I hope I do not shock my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, or any other Member, by pointing out that it is easier to forge a voucher than a fiver. There will be those who feel that the value of their voucher fails to reflect what it takes to feed their family, and some enterprising souls will almost certainly produce their own vouchers.

The Treasury regularly consults monetary indicators such as MO, and the amount of money in circulation, but we are seriously risking the prospect of having to introduce a new monetary measure—V0, the number of vouchers in circulation. If we ask people to live below the poverty line, their responsibility as parents to feed their children probably overrides all else. That will be their priority, and it will drive some into attempting to forge vouchers. If we have blocked off ways of allowing people to survive legitimately, we will not be able to detach ourselves from being responsible for pushing them into having to survive illegitimately.

My fear is that not only will we get into a mess with the administration of the system, but the blame will be carried by the people who are already the principal victims of persecution, fear and flight. It will serve only to reinforce all the stereotypes attached to the position and treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in this society.

I suggest that one of the most obvious abuses of the existing system is not the number of people who band together to share the costs of a house, but the massive exploitation by private landlords of people whom they can overcrowd. We went through that in the period of Rachmanism. This country faced a bigger, one-off crisis when we had to deal with the forced flight of Ugandan Asian refugees. I am old enough to have been around when we were forced to make our own preparations and calculations for dealing with those refugees, and I can tell the House what we were able to do.

A large amount of centrally determined cash was deployed nationally, through housing associations and local authorities, to ensure that we had accommodation available that was capable of receiving the refugees. Those measures, at least in theory, recognised that we could not ask London and the south-east to carry a disproportionate burden when society as a whole should have been taking responsibility for the refugees.

That is the other direction in which we could and should be going. We should strengthen lines of local, social accountability. We should not ask people to carry disproportionate costs or shares of the burden. We should adopt mechanisms that allow local authorities and local communities to play a constructive part in minimising the traumatic upheavals that asylum seekers and refugees have to face.

I am saddened that the Bill almost hangs or falls on a massive error of judgment. We are in danger of pursuing a mechanism that will entrench the stigmatisation of refugees and asylum seekers and of pushing the destitute and the poorest of people into living below the breadline. That is the bottom line of the financial figures that we are being offered. It would inevitably create fears such as those that I encountered in the lives of the people who were attacked in Rostock. I fear that a playground for the far right, and a breeding ground for racist prejudices, may be created, leading to further persecution and isolation of those communities.

We set ourselves benchmarks when we came into office. One of those of which I felt proudest was the commitment to build a genuinely inclusive and non-discriminatory society. I simply say to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, in friendship, that I do not believe it is possible to achieve this through the proposed voucher system.

7 pm

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

I begin by welcoming some of the concessions that the Government have made on the support arrangements, especially with regard to children. I tabled an amendment in Committee that provided that the support arrangements would not continue if an asylum seeker did not have his claim determined within six months. Another amendment was tabled that provided that the support arrangements would not be introduced until the Government had reached their targets. Amendment No. 1, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), would provide that the support arrangements should not apply to asylum seekers with children.

The Government's compromise takes into account both those elements: the time that it takes to determine a case, and the removal of families with children from the support arrangements until the Home Office determines claims within its initial target period of two months. That throws up many questions.

What constitutes a target? Is it an average or a mean? How can we ensure that, once the targets are in place, we do not revert to the current lamentable state of affairs in which initial decisions, instead of taking two months, take 20 months? I hope that the Government will succeed: I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be successful. However, in case he is not, I should have liked an assurance that any asylum seeker—not just children—would be protected from being dealt with under a system substantially harsher than the current one until the Government have reached their targets.

I should like to raise an issue that I mentioned in my maiden speech, about which I feel strongly. We are discussing support arrangements for children. It has always struck me as strange that, if a 17-year-old who has been appallingly treated comes to this country, we say how terrible their situation is, whereas if someone is 19, 20 or older, we tend behave as if that did not matter—and, as a result of the present proposals, such people will inevitably be put to the back of the queue while others are fast-tracked. I understand the need for that, but surely the Government could agree not to introduce these support arrangements until they meet their targets. I do not think that that is too much to ask, and I hope that, even at this late stage, the Government will agree to reconsider this matter in the other place.

My concern is that these measures, such as they are, will protect the 10 per cent. of asylum seekers who have dependants, but will do nothing for the 90 per cent. who do not. I have a great problem with that, if we take the 90 per cent. income support level as beneath the poverty line.

I welcome the fact that the Government have significantly increased the cash component, but, notwithstanding that, there are problems relating to the nature of the voucher system. We are asking people to live on less than anyone else in the entire country, but we are preventing them from shopping in the cheapest places. If a mother has to buy some new socks for her child, she can get a pair for about £1.50 in Sainsburys in Whitechapel in my constituency, where her voucher will be accepted. If she came out of Sainsburys and walked 20 yards across the street to Whitechapel market, she could get a pair of socks for her children for about 40p—but her vouchers will not be accepted there, so they will be worthless.

We are expecting these mothers to look after their children at a cost that we do not inflict on other people in Britain. I hope that Ministers will think about that when they consider the other proposals—including the size of the one-off cash payment to be paid after six months so that parents can provide for their children, and so that utensils which may or may not have been provided, and clothes which may or may not have worn out, and which may or may not have been appropriate for the British climate when people arrived in this country in the first place, can be replaced.

My understanding of what the Home Secretary said is that there will be a one-off payment of approximately £50—that would naturally be in addition—for the six months. That is about £2 per week per asylum seeker, or 30p a day. I hope that that could be at least doubled: I gather that the figure of £100 per person is also under consideration. I should be grateful if the Minister would consider that matter.

I want to direct my remarks to the 90 per cent. income support package. I am grateful that the Government have acknowledged that the support package that they provide must be the equivalent of 90 per cent. of income support. I am delighted that the Government would not force asylum seekers to live on less than that amount, which is already below the poverty line. Given that, could my right hon. Friend give us a breakdown of that package, and explain how it has been worked out? I have been perturbed by some of the calculations used. I must admit that my maths is appalling, but even I can understand that if the estimate of how much it costs the average social security claimant to pay for their utilities is 8 per cent.—which is the figure that the Government use for other social security claimants—the figures do not add up to 90 per cent. Seventy per cent. plus 8 per cent. does not equal 90 per cent.

The Government have said that other items will make up that amount, such as the provision of utensils. Other claimants who are put into privately rented accommodation get utensils anyway. I hope that we will not deal with asylum seekers differently from other claimants.

The speed of the decision making is intrinsically related to the fairness of the system. I hope that the Government will consider the slogan on which we have based this legislation—fairer, faster, firmer—and will consider how to make the system fairer and faster. We should examine the discretionary element of the support arrangements. Some hon. Members have had a disturbing brush with the Home Office because of its officials' idea of discretion in other areas relating to asylum seekers. Asylum Aid referred to a decision stating: You state that the men drove you to a place one and a half hours away and told you to run before they opened fire on you. The Secretary of State … considers that if the men had intended to kill you they would have done so straight away rather than give you a chance to escape".

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

Order. I gently remind the hon. Lady that the subject of the new clause is support for children. She is now straying wide of the mark.

Ms King

Thank you for your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was trying to establish a firm link between the need for careful use of a discretion on which asylum seekers' support arrangements depend, and the fact that that discretion has been used very poorly in earlier cases.

While we are discussing the Bill's provision for women and children, let me mention the need for gender guidelines. It has been raised before, and I trust that it will surface again in future discussions.

The key words are "fairer", "faster" and "firmer". We can be fairer only if we are faster. Of course we must protect children first, but please let us not do so at the expense of the 90 per cent. of other asylum seekers who have no dependants. Let us not forget that our duty under the 1951 convention is to protect anyone who seeks asylum here. I trust that this Labour Government will have regard to that when making any further amendments to the Bill.

Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

I, too, support the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), and commend the role that he and his colleagues played in Committee.

I wish to register my concern about the introduction of vouchers. I am not speaking on the basis of constituency concerns, although I respect those of my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser). I consider the position of those who have fled from Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria or Sierra Leone, and ask myself a fundamental question: do I think it right for such people to be compelled to live on 70 per cent. of what is deemed to be the minimum necessary for people who live here? It is as basic as that.

I accept that some people are not genuine refugees and asylum seekers, and I know that we must tackle that problem in areas such as Dover. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for the changes that he has made. As a supporter of the Government, however, I believe that the introduction of vouchers is wrong in human-rights terms, and will backfire on them.

The Government tell us that they have a turnaround target of two months for most asylum decisions—which I do not think is being achieved by any European country at present—and that most appeals will be completed within a further four months. They say that they intend to bring forward the target for families with children to April 2000. They also say—I want to ask the Minister specific questions about this; others have already mentioned it—that the voucher system will not be introduced for families until the Government are satisfied that the targets can be met.

I listened to what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said this afternoon. He is satisfied that those targets can be met, but I am not. What does it mean? The Government are referring not to a time when the targets have been met, but to a time when they are satisfied that they will be met. In any event, if the targets can be met, why is the voucher system necessary? If the situation can be dealt with so quickly and efficiently, we do not need vouchers. Why should we set up an alternative support system?

7.15 pm

I was not a member of the Committee, but I tried to follow its work and to read the evidence submitted to it, and the Government did not make their case that people were generally coming here for cash. In comparison with other countries, we are not particularly generous. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) said, we retain the illusion that we are uniquely generous and welcoming, but nowadays other countries have a better record than ours. I believe that the Government are so concerned about not being taken for a mug by the rogues that they are forgetting their duty to be decent to the genuine.

The Government have made their case that the system they have inherited is a shambles which has not improved over the past two years; but their response to the shambles—I think my hon. Friend the Minister called it a shambles within a shambles—is a strange one. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) pointed out, we are dealing with a system that does not work, and are therefore setting up a parallel organisation run by very much the same people who are not running the existing one. The Government have decided to set up an alternative bureaucracy called the Asylum Support Directorate. "Directorate" is a funny word. I could not understand why they chose it, and thought that the obvious word was "agency"—until it occurred to me that the last time we set up a support agency, it was called the Child Support Agency.

Faced with a department, a management, a staff and an information technology system that need strengthening, we are going to set up an agency alongside that organisation: an alternative bureaucracy employing hundreds. We shall be setting up an alternative Royal Mint. The agency will administer travel expenses, and arrange London accommodation for thousands of asylum seekers. I fear that the bogus will run rings around that, and that the genuine will be caused grief. I ask Ministers to think again. After all, this alternative bureaucracy will not process a single extra application, or speed up the system.

I also think that we should look again at the 70 per cent. income figure. Although more of it will be cash, it will still be only 70 per cent. of what is said to be the minimum. Although I welcome the increase in the cash element, I am struck by the sheer inefficiency of the voucher system. Others have produced parallels; the closest parallel that I can offer is the experience of being in a duty-free shop abroad with a currency that cannot be taken out of the country. People cannot spend their money wisely in such circumstances. I believe that it will be impossible to make the voucher system seem humane. I know of no other country that is using it, and I am concerned about its impact on those who have been deeply damaged by what they have come from.

I am concerned about the evidence given by the UNHCR, the Refugee Council, UNICEF and Amnesty International. That formidable group of organisations has been very critical of what we are doing. I ask the Minister to think again, because I think that the proposals will severely backfire on the Government.

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

I will be brief. We have had an excellent debate, and, in all conscience, I merely want to put my views on record. When my children ask me what I did, I want to be able to show them what has been written down.

Earlier speakers have begun by saying what wonderful concessions have been made, and how well the Home Secretary has behaved. I endorse all that, but I think that we have reached a pretty pass when, after one Minister has consulted and produced some relatively minor concessions, there is dancing within the parliamentary Labour party. We have gained some concessions, but I hope that the clinical analysis undertaken by my hon. Friends the Members for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan), for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) has caused the Minister to think again, especially about new clause 6. The problem is that when the Home Secretary introduced the debate, he said that the reason why he opposed the amendment was that the provision was central to the Bill. That is why I support the amendment. To be honest, that is why I will vote against the Bill on Third Reading.

People have mentioned the poor law. We need to put the Bill in its historical, reactionary context. It is one of the most outstandingly reactionary, racist Bills of the past two centuries. People need to remember what the poor law was about. People have mentioned it, but they need to remember how it came about. It came about because, in 1795, a group of magistrates in Berkshire, a short way from my constituency—they might still be in my general management committee—decided in all succour that people who were faced with distress should have benefits that were linked to the price of bread.

Idiots and reactionaries such as Malthus then said that that would mean that the working class would start to procreate and that there would be overpopulation, so they introduced the system of the workhouse. As a disincentive to people claiming benefit, they introduced a system where whole families were forced into workhouses to live in poverty—and that included children.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman may have used the word "children" just now, but he is beginning to make a speech that would be more appropriate for Third Reading. We are specifically talking about support for children.

Mr. McDonnell

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The next sentence would have clarified the matter and given you relief.

The whole point of that system was to impoverish people to ensure that they refused to claim benefit; it was an incentive to work as well. The Bill impoverishes children to act as a disincentive to fraudsters—that is the level that we have reached. We are about to put children into poverty to provide a disincentive to people claiming cash benefits.

People have referred to income support as the poverty line. The Government were elected to tackle poverty. The Prime Minister, wonderfully, has set a target of eliminating child poverty not just in this country but throughout the world; the target year is 2015. Now, we are taking a poverty line level that we inherited from the previous Government—which we do not accept and are trying to improve—and forcing children and families to live below that level.

What has been said is clear. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow made the point clearly. He clinically took apart the Minister's argument. There is no statistical substance—no evidence at all—that cash benefits increase fraud, or are any incentive to claim. We have been through all the figures.

There may be an issue around cash benefits. I do not jest when I say that there may be some ideas. Why do we not apply them elsewhere, so that people can withdraw cash benefits and use them elsewhere in the social security system? There is one place in this city where all cash has been removed and people use a voucher system. It is called the City of London, and it has not in any way eliminated fraud. People in the City are raking it in. What the Government are trying to do in the Bill goes against the grain of everything that we have stood for as a party—everything that we have stood for in trying to look after children in poverty.

If there is fraud, let us investigate it and prosecute. If there are delays in the system, let us speed up the system. That is the way in which to tackle the issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser) has referred to the position in his constituency. In my constituency, I have Heathrow. The largest number of unaccompanied children coming into the country come into my borough; the largest number come to my constituency. I see some terrible cases. All hon. Members have had such cases. Many may have read about them. Some will have them in their constituency surgeries. Children come here in the most desperate circumstances, having experienced horrors—and what are we going to do with them? Put them into poverty.

Mr. Straw

Let me provide my hon. Friend with complete reassurance. He is talking poignantly about unaccompanied children—and rightly so—but there will be no change in the arrangements applying to unaccompanied children. I give him that absolute assurance.

Mr. McDonnell

I am grateful for that, but, if the Secretary of State had been listening carefully, he would realise that it was one reference of several. Children with families also come into my constituency having had terrible experiences. We are going to put them into poverty. I have families living in horrific bed-and-breakfast accommodation, desperately trying to get their children back into normal life. What are we going to do to them? We are going to give them some cash; otherwise we are going to give them vouchers.

At a meeting in my constituency, I expressed the view that vouchers stigmatise. We already see that happening. When people in a queue produce vouchers, it is not—as the Home Secretary has implied in other meetings—like someone getting out a credit card, or a leaflet, or voucher giving 2p or 3p off. Those vouchers are identifiable. Someone on the till may be a bit racist. They may refuse to accept the voucher for a purchase, or may deliberately underchange that person when he or she tries to give a bit of cash and a bit of voucher. It is happening under the existing system.

People may not think that vouchers stigmatise. As someone said at the meeting to which I have referred, we should remember free school meals. We should remember what it was like then—something that many in the Chamber will have experienced.

I urge the Government to think again about what they are doing with the Bill. They are trying to introduce a fairer, faster system which, I hope, will deal with all the problems, but their proposals are tarnished by the attack on childhood, the introduction of lower benefit rates for children and the stigmatising voucher system. I deeply regret the fact that we are associating ourselves with such a measure, which I expected from the previous Government, not the present one.

Mr. Corbyn

In such a debate it is hard to add anything new to what has already been said, so I will be brief.

I put on record my appreciation and support for the cause of my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), and for the good contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) and for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson). They are right: many Members have been deeply disturbed by many of the contents of the Bill.

I am pleased to say that the Home Secretary and Minister have been prepared to meet people, to listen, to engage in debate and to discuss—that is obviously welcome. Unfortunately, we are still faced with a fundamental problem: the principle behind the provision on the way in which children are treated.

I have been a Member of Parliament since 1983. I was on the Standing Committee that dealt with the 1986 Social Security Bill. The former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), was then a junior social security Minister. I recall as plainly as yesterday asking him on what basis asylum-seeking families were entitled to only 90 per cent. of income support. I think that that was where the whole notion of an incentive came in—the belief was that, if we gave 90 per cent., there would be a disincentive for asylum seekers to come to this country. Frankly, it was a punishment for asylum seekers and on their children. That punishment has continued.

I took an active part in the debates surrounding the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996. The Labour Opposition were rightly appalled at the way in which the then Government sought to remove all benefits from asylum seekers. It was disgusting; it was outrageous. When that happened, an informal network of support grew up. Churches took to sponsoring individuals. Families who had gained settlement here shared their income support, which was only 90 per cent. of what other people received, and sought to look after other children.

Fortunately, there was a court judgment, which meant that, under the National Assistance Act 1948—the very principle of universal benefits behind the welfare state—those families were able to receive some level of support. In my wildest dreams, I never thought that, in this Parliament, we would be introducing a Bill that not only does not end the principle of voucher systems but establishes a whole new system—this time to be called a directorate—to administer a voucher system.

7.30 pm

Children growing up in families on income support do not do very well, and the Prime Minister has been quite right to draw attention to the fact that about one third of all children—perhaps more—grow up in households living only on income support. Those children do badly at school, and in many other ways, because there is not enough money to go around. They have more illness and poverty, and less joy than children in wealthier households.

What on earth is the justification for expecting an asylum-seeking family with two children to exist on about £45 per week less than their counterparts who are receiving full income support? Such an arrangement would be an absolute punishment of the poorest children in the United Kingdom.

Ms Abbott

Ministers have argued that, contrary to what they say in print, the proposals are not meant to serve as a disincentive. They also argue that they are only relieving local authorities of their duties under the National Assistance Act 1948, as local authorities have begged them to do. Clause 103, however, states that the Bill will also remove from local authorities their discretion to provide help—under the Health Services and Public Health Act 1968 and the National Health Service Act 1977—to elderly asylum seekers, so as to prevent illness.

The point about clause 103 is that, whereas Ministers claim that they are removing local authorities' national assistance obligations—because local authorities have asked them to do so—they are not even allowing local authorities to provide discretionary help to elderly asylum seekers or to prevent illness. Providing that help is entirely optional for local authorities.

Mr. Corbyn

My hon. Friend makes an important point, but I do want to stray too far in dealing with it, as that would take us away from the substance of new clause 6. However, the provision would remove the principle of local authorities' right to some discretion. Although I should not mind removal of that right of discretion if it were replaced by a system providing full support for asylum seekers; the only way in which that objective could be achieved would be by allowing asylum seekers the same access to the social security system as they had before implementation of the 1996 Act. If that access were restored, we would resolve the issues raised by discrimination and the incredible cost spent in administering an ineffective and inefficient system.

We inherited from the Conservative Government an expensive, inefficient and nasty system; now, we shall establish a directorate to continue in much the same way. Although I realise that the Government have made some concessions on the amount of cash to be made available, I cannot understand why we are introducing a voucher system.

Every teacher in a classroom knows that it is his or her job to try to educate and bring up that group of children in the best way he or she knows, providing them with security for the future. Every teacher knows that if children come from a very poor background, they might bring with them particular problems.

Often, however, the children of asylum-seeking families have experienced all sorts of other distress. They may have witnessed violence, or have had violence meted out to them. They have may have witnessed great upheaval, and have a sense of insecurity. If those children also know—as my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) said—that their parents cannot afford the small but so important things in life, such as sweets or a school trip to the fairground, they will have been very cruelly discriminated against. Children can be very cruel to one another. The system that we are being asked to support today will not only continue that cruelty, but exacerbate it.

In approving the proposals, we shall also be feeding xenophobia directed against asylum seekers. We shall introduce a system that stigmatises people, impoverishes children and costs us all a great deal of money to administer. Nor will it solve the problems that it is intended to solve.

I am with my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington on the issue. It is wrong of the Labour party, which has always campaigned for the principle of universal benefits and a universal welfare state, to be involved in introducing a system that is the antithesis of a universal welfare state—a state in which the community as a whole provides for the needs of everyone, in the expectation that the community as a whole will participate for the greater good. That is what the welfare state is about; today we are walking away from it. What we are doing is wrong.

I hope that the Home Secretary will realise the depth and strength of feeling on the issue, not only among Labour Members but among the community that we represent. I hope that he will also appreciate what is being said by those who attend churches and who work in local government, by teachers and social workers, and by ordinary people who see impoverished children in our city.

There are 47,000 asylum-seeking families in London, which is far more than in any other part of the United Kingdom. Local authorities have done a great deal to do their very best to support those families, just as they supported them after implementation of the 1996 legislation.

All the groups that have been lobbying us on the issue—the Refugee Council, the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, the Children's Society, Oxfam, citizens advice bureaux, and so many others—have also lobbied us before. I do not think that, after the 1997 general election, any of them expected to have to write the same type of letter to Labour Members, offering the same type of advice.

I ask the Home Secretary to reflect on what the Bill is about and on what he is doing, and to give us some encouragement that that system will not continue, and we shall return to a system of universal benefits.

Mr. Coleman

I should like to begin as many of my hon. Friends have done, by warmly welcoming many of the Government amendments. I am especially pleased that the Government have significantly increased the cash element in the support package for asylum seekers.

I should like also to join almost every other Labour Member who has spoken by paying tribute to the sensitive way in which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and my hon. Friend the junior Minister have recognised the very real concerns of Labour Members, listened carefully and taken on board many of those concerns. Nevertheless, major concerns remain.

I should like briefly to highlight three reasons—some of which have already been mentioned, but I do not apologise for that—why I support amendment No. 1, which would exempt families with dependent children from the proposed support package. First, however, I pay tribute to the work done on the Bill by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), both in Committee and with various agencies.

I represent an inner London constituency with a very large number of asylum seekers, many of whom have children, and a significant number of whom have waited for years for their applications to be processed.

My first reason for supporting amendment No. 1 is based on doubts and concerns—which I hope the Home Secretary will deal with today—about the Government's claim that the current support package is equivalent to 90 per cent. of income support. It is a very important point, because the Government have advised us that, added together, the voucher and cash support elements will equal 70 per cent. of income support. Ministers also say that the other elements of the support package will definitely make up the 20 per cent. difference, as the bulk of that is composed of utilities costs.

Last week, I asked the Library to research what percentage of income support a typical family, comprising two adults and two children, would spend on utilities—electricity, gas and water. Although it is not possible to calculate a precise figure, as costs vary between different parts of the country, the Library has told me that no more than 10 per cent. of income support entitlement should be spent on utilities. There is, therefore, a significant discrepancy between that percentage and the one provided by the Government.

One suggestion made to me by Government sources is that an element of the package is the cost of accommodation furnished with items such as saucepans and cutlery. That explanation does not hold water, and I hope that it is not the one that we shall hear later from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. Anyone acquainted with the private rented sector in inner London will be well aware that almost no available unfurnished accommodation is remotely affordable for families living on income support and housing benefit. So the reality is that British families living in private sector rented accommodation will inevitably live in furnished accommodation. In other words, UK citizens do not have their income support reduced in any way as a consequence of living in furnished accommodation, and to penalise asylum seekers for providing them with furnished accommodation would be invidious, wrong and certainly open to legal challenge.

We should also not lose sight of the fact that the package already contains an in-built cut in benefit for asylum seekers with children, even if we accept that the Government's figures add up to 90 per cent. of income support entitlement, which I do not believe. Although it is true that asylum seekers have historically received 90 per cent. of income support, asylum seekers' children have always received 100 per cent. of income support. For that reason, I believe that, if the Government refuse to accept the extremely modest amendment No. 1, they should at least be prepared to agree to the demand—made by, among others, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, Oxfam, the Refugee Council of Great Britain and the Children's Society—that the income support entitlement set for the support package must be a minimum of 85 per cent.

The second principle behind my support for the amendment relates to the use of vouchers. Their use is offensive in principle, but I believe that there are special and particular problems attached to their use by families with children. There is a range of practical reasons why the use of vouchers is inefficient and expensive, some of which have already been mentioned by my hon. Friends. Anyone who has shopped for food will know that there is an inevitable reduction in street spending power entailed by the use of vouchers. I live two streets away from Shepherds Bush market, where it is possible six days a week to buy vegetables, fruit, chicken and other staple dietary requirements at a fraction of the cost at which they can be purchased at the only supermarket in my constituency where vouchers are currently redeemable.

It is true that a £1.10 bus ride away in south Fulham, where vouchers are currently not redeemable, there are cheaper supermarkets where it might be possible, under the new arrangements, to buy such items at prices similar to those offered on the street market—I doubt it, but it might be possible. However, the bus rides to and from those supermarkets will probably cost most of the asylum seekers who live in accommodation on the Shepherds Bush road, where all the bed-and-breakfast hotels are, at least one day's worth of their meagre cash allowance. We are told that the Home Office currently intends that the lowest denomination voucher will be worth 50p, thus obliging the asylum seeker either to spend in multiples of 50p, or to dip into the minimal cash allowance which, even at the increased level, is set at the huge figure of £1.43 per day.

My main objection to the use of vouchers for families with children is that the practice is, in effect, divisive, degrading and, as many of my hon. Friends have said, deeply stigmatising. It is divisive because the non-asylum seeker does not understand vouchers; inevitably, unfounded rumours about scroungers arise and are exploited by deeply unsympathetic and sometimes racist elements in the community to spread disharmony and discrimination. Vouchers are degrading because, in a cashless system, queues form at checkout desks as asylum seekers sign their vouchers: in many cases in my constituency, vouchers are issued only in denominations of £1, so signing them all takes a considerable period of time. In addition, because it is a cashless system and no change is available to voucher users, items have to be changed at the checkout because the total bill does not add up to a round figure that can be met by vouchers.

Finally, the system is stigmatising because a visit to any supermarket where the vouchers are redeemable will, time and again, provide a replay of the scene that I am about to paint. In Hammersmith and Fulham, the supermarket in question is located in a prosperous area where a four-bedroomed house might cost up to £500,000. However, nearby in the Shepherds Bush road are a number of bed-and-breakfast hotels and hostels, some of which are of an extremely unsatisfactory nature. Many asylum seekers have been placed in such accommodation. The head teacher of a local primary school told me the other day of the regular breaktime football kick-about matches that now take place every morning between two teams: the voucher children against the rest.

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As my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) said far more eloquently than I can, we have already returned to the days when poor children are branded as such at school by having to wait in a separate queue to receive their free school meal. Such an outcome is blatantly contrary to the Government's policy of social inclusion and cannot be justified by any explanations based on so-called deterrents to fraudulent applications.

I am sure that Ministers will understand that those of us with a recent experience of dealing with the Immigration and Nationality Directorate are highly sceptical about its ability to meet the extremely ambitious targets set for dealing for applications. An initial decision at eight weeks, followed by an appeal timetable of a further 16 weeks, is simply not consistent with the IND's recent record. To meet such targets will require a truly spectacular improvement in service delivery. There is a danger that the attempt to meet the targets will result in a deterioration in the quality of the decision making involved.

I was disturbed to learn from a written answer received from the Minister of State on 22 January that, in some cases, a decision to refuse an asylum application would be taken by an officer at administrative officer grade. Administrative officer grade might mean that a full-time member of staff earns about £9,000 a year; such staff are almost certainly inexperienced, with little or no specialist training. What measures do the Government intend to introduce to ensure that there is proper supervision of decision making by appropriately senior trained and experienced staff? If the Government are confident and determined to stand by the targets that they have set for the IND, I refuse to accept that we should continue to insist that families with children have to endure such a humiliating daily experience, even for only a short period of time. That is why I strongly believe that they must be exempted from the package.

My next reason for supporting the amendment relates to the issue of dispersal. As a London Member of Parliament, I am acutely conscious of the huge pressure on temporary accommodation in London and other areas of the south-east, and I recognise that there is a need to relieve that pressure. I am gravely worried that the Government's current support package is doomed to failure, despite their good intentions. I am well aware that the support mechanisms for refugees—especially those with children—in my borough are among the best, if not the best, provided in the United Kingdom. They have emerged slowly, but coherently, over many years as a direct consequence of the commitment of a range of different agencies, including the local authority, the Churches and the voluntary sector.

Those support mechanisms include an accessible and affordable translation service and a first-class free legal aid service. There is also an education service that is ready and able to cope with children from many different backgrounds: one school in my borough has children speaking 146 different languages. There are at least two experienced family projects, which provide a safe place for refugees and their children to meet, to prepare food and to eat together. There are separate Somali refugee, Iraqi refugee and Iranian refugee projects run by dedicated members of those communities who are accountable to and funded by the local authority.

Such support mechanisms are crucial to vulnerable people, especially families with children, many of whom have already been deeply traumatised. However, even if we strip all that away, Hammersmith and Fulham would still have friends, families and support provided by members of the different ethnic groups who have already settled well in the local community. I know that the Government intend to manage the dispersal process sympathetically and with due regard to such concerns, but I fear that for understandable reasons, the necessary mechanisms, have not yet been put in place. The academic research into the necessary support mechanisms—real research, carried out on the ground—has not been done.

The danger is that, without support, families will not stay in the location where they have been allocated accommodation, and that some will return to London with no money to feed their children and no access to any sort of benefit whatsoever. We know the terrible consequences of such a scenario. Desperate people will be left with little or no option but to consider begging, crime or prostitution to fund their essential needs. I urge the Government to ensure that they have put in place the necessary support mechanisms before the process of dispersal begins so that we avoid the nightmare scenario of large numbers of refugee children begging in our capital city.

The families with dependent children covered by amendment No. 1 account for less than 15 per cent. of asylum seekers. The cost of removing them from the system is not insignificant, but it is certainly not prohibitive for a country of our size and wealth. I urge the Government to reconsider their decision not to support the amendment.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)

I had not intended to speak and I shall make only a few comments, but, like many others, I have been moved by the passionate and eloquent speeches of some of my hon. Friends.

I join other hon. Friends in thanking my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for being prepared to give some concessions and provide a more flexible system for those seeking asylum. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), who has presented his arguments with reason and statesmanship over many weeks. We are grateful to him for that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser), who is not in his place at the moment, discussed the considerable strain that his community has experienced. Hon. Members may not be aware of the pressure that he has been under and the dignity with which he has tried to find solutions to the current appalling system that has been imposed on Dover. The situation has placed a great strain on the community, which is not used to large influxes of refugees and has had to cope with any number of racist thugs and marches. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his attempts to find solutions rather than behaving like a previous Member of Parliament for the area, who had a similar name to mine. When I arrived in Parliament a couple of years ago and said, "Hello, I'm Shaw from Kent" I was greeted with considerable shock.

I welcome the Government's measures to speed up the system, but I am still very concerned. The jury is still out on the IND. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) said that it did not reply to his letters. I doubt whether letters from asylum seekers are even opened.

The main issues are income support and vouchers. Kent social services did not give a ringing endorsement to the voucher system in its evidence to the Special Standing Committee. As a former social worker in Kent, and having talked to colleagues, I can tell the House that vouchers are a nightmare. We have to think seriously about whether they are a practical solution. More importantly, as some of my hon. Friends have said eloquently, vouchers will do nothing to foster community relations. They separate people and there will be more of the voucher children whom we have heard about. It does not take a great deal to imagine a mother with two children standing in a shopping queue handing over vouchers with two racist thugs standing next to her. How is she going to use the 24-hour hotline, particularly without any cash to make the call? The system will increase the racial tension in our communities that my hon. Friend the Member for Dover has done so much to try to dispel in his area.

Income support is to be reduced to 70 per cent. for families with children. I have spent years working with families on low incomes. Even those in supportive communities often find it very difficult to make ends meet. They have the flexibility to find the cheapest goods, perhaps by buying second hand or from a boot fair. The voucher system removes that flexibility. Reducing income support payments increases the risk of more begging, more crime and more of the resentment and racism that my hon. Friend the Member for Dover has tried to address.

The amendment is very modest. It affects very few people, but the consequences of not accepting it would be huge. I hope that my right hon. Friend will think again.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

In any consideration of the issue, we have to understand the appalling mess and shameful disgrace that the Government have been bequeathed. It is worse than the legacy of incompetence that they have faced so often. The previous Government had a venal approach to asylum seekers. It was a stupid and ignorant approach to human beings and a wicked disgrace which has demeaned this country. That is the context in which the Government have had to try to put together something embodying humanity, fairness and efficiency.

My constituency has nothing like the scale of distress from asylum seekers that we have heard recounted eloquently by some of my hon. Friends this afternoon, but I have seen families that have fled from another country in fear of their lives and are desperately anxious about the possibility of having to go back to a country in utter turmoil. They have been faced with destitution and incomprehension in this country. Mr. Lukiden Kenyi, who is a gentleman in the full meaning of the word and who is watching this debate, has waited seven years for his asylum application to be dealt with. His life is on hold and he is unable to use his manifold talents. That is part of the appalling legacy that the Government face.

When I saw clause 99, which later became clause 108, I was distressed that the Government were proposing amending the Children Act 1989. If the previous Government, albeit on an all-party basis, did one decent thing—and perhaps they did only one—it was to introduce the Children Act 1989, which makes the best interests of the child paramount. I felt that amending the vital section 17 of that Act was an invitation to local authorities to discriminate between families from this country and asylum-seeking families that approached them for help under that section.

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The Children Act 1989 applies to all children. Section 17 introduced the vital concept of the entitlement of children in need. Children with disabilities, from families who have difficulty in looking after them, who have been abused or who are at grotesque risk of abuse are entitled to services under that section, which also applies to families in the most demeaning circumstances.

We have heard descriptions of poverty and we should recognise the fact that all families living on social security and on housing benefit are living in poverty. The legacy of the previous Government was that a third of all children in this country were living in poverty. Families who have not been able to manage their incredibly limited money, and who, by misfortune, have run out, come cap in hand to social services departments, typically on a Friday afternoon, to beg a little bit of food to see them over the weekend, and that food is provided because otherwise the children would be in care. The most paltry request that I have made is that asylum-seeking families should be included under section 17 of the Children Act 1989.

Ministers have not only listened to our arguments but have acted on them. That reflects manifold credit on them. They have made changes, and I welcome my right hon. Friend's support for amendment No. 3. I have great difficulties with new clause 6, but I understand that there has been some movement in providing slightly more in cash and less in vouchers. The speeding up of the system is very welcome, as is the commitment to the sympathetic dispersal of people around the country, which should help us to avoid some of the problems that have occurred in places such as Dover. If managed sympathetically, it should help people to establish themselves in communities where their language is known and their culture recognised.

I recognise my right hon. Friend's determination to deal with the huge number of claims that apparently have little merit and to apply the system with humanity, responsibility, efficiency and probity. I have observed the Government's approach to the issue. I absolutely deplore the decision not to give social security to families with children, which is a modest request. Children do not come here of their own volition and I cannot see any justification for not giving their families the full range of benefits. I am terribly sorry that the Government intend to maintain their exception to the United Nations convention on children's rights on immigration and asylum matters.

The Children Act 1989 provides the opportunity to give proper support to children, and its profound significance should be properly recognised. If my right hon. Friend can assure me that new clause 6 will not prevent asylum-seeking families with children from getting the same range of support from social services departments under section 17 as all other families, so that they will not feel the need to beg on the streets or put their children at risk, I am prepared to trust the Government's commitment and Ministers' integrity and responsibility and vote with the Government.

That one vote does not mean very much, but my right hon. Friend should recognise the huge responsibility on his shoulders to produce an improved system that humanely and efficiently meets people's needs, enabling children of asylum seekers to be treated on the same basis as children from this country. If that happens, and the Children Act 1989 remains unamended, I am prepared give the Government my trust.

Dr. Godman

First, I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to other hon. Members, for my absence from this debate for about 40 minutes. I had a meeting with the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy). I explained that to the Chairman of Ways and Means, who was the previous occupant of the Chair.

I was only too willing to endorse amendment No. 1, for several reasons. I have always been opposed to voucher systems. I remember the necessitous clothing vouchers that we had in Strathclyde, which stigmatised children among their schoolmates, and the asylum seekers' vouchers will do the same. Can my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that his voucher system is immune from the pernicious activities of loan sharks? I do not know what the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) is, but I have had experience in my constituency of loan sharks holding many giro books belonging to social security claimants. I hope that we shall not see something similar with the voucher system. The voucher system is rotten. Vouchers are cumbersome and bureaucratic and, as many of my hon. Friends have said, they stigmadise those who hold them. We are dealing with children here and we must treat them compassionately and sensitively.

I offer my compliments to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for his genuine willingness to listen to the legitimate concerns raised by my hon. Friends, many of whom have much more experience than I do of asylum seekers. Those males in Scotland who have had their applications rejected—I think that they are called persons awaiting deportation—invariably finish up in the prison in my constituency.

But here we are talking about support for children, and the voucher system is not right. The Asylum Support Directorate, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie said, will be cumbersome and bureaucratic.

I am also totally opposed to putting families on 70 per cent. of income support. Many of my constituents—too many—are on income support and they are on the breadline now, so those who receive 70 per cent. of income support will be in a much worse position.

The effect of the Home Secretary's measure will be exacerbated by what he seeks to do to the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968. I know that my right hon. Friend will have something to say about emergency procedures, but no one knows better than my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie just how important section 12 of that Act is for children caught up in emergencies when the social security system cannot help them. It is wrong for the House to change that Act.

I, along with my hon. Friend, am proud that it was our old and dear friends, the late Willie Ross and the late George Willis, who put that Act through the House all those years ago, because it has helped many families. We should not deny to the children of refugees the assistance given to Scottish children in need by that wonderful Act.

I also happen to believe that, by this measure, the Home Secretary and his officials bring us into a grey area between the competence of this place vis-a-vis reserved powers and the devolved powers of the Scottish Parliament with regard to the protection of children. If I were a Member of the Scottish Parliament—I speak as the husband of an MSP—I would be concerned about this measure.

The Social Work (Scotland) Act is exclusive to Scotland. Its aim is to help people in need, especially families. If I were an MSP I would want to take the matter to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council because, with respect, that very fine fellow, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary—his remit runs throughout the United Kingdom—is coming into Scotland and diminishing that important Act which has helped many children in my constituency and, I have no doubt, in my hon. Friend's constituency and elsewhere in Scotland. I have been given some indication by that fine fellow, my right hon. Friend, that he may have something to say about the 1968 Act as it is affected by the Bill.

However, I have said that I will be brief and I shall try to hold to that promise. I am completely opposed to a voucher system. It is disgraceful that we should say that families will receive 70 per cent. of income support. In terms of helping children, the diminution of the value of section 12 of the 1968 Act is a major mistake and I hope that it can be changed. It will cause anger in Scotland.

Some of the complaints that I have raised have been voiced to me by members of the Scottish Refugee Council and by others in social work departments and in my constituency. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will continue to listen to the legitimate concerns that I have raised in this brief intervention tonight.

8.15 pm
Mr. Straw

This has been an important and wide-ranging debate, which has not only covered new clause 6, which clarifies the duties under the Children Act 1989 and ensures that they are effectively and seamlessly transferred to the Asylum Support Directorate in respect of children of asylum seekers, but has ranged much more widely on account of amendment No. 1, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), to include the whole principle of cash versus vouchers.

In the course of the debate I have been asked many questions. I apologise if I am unable to answer all of them, but I am ready to accept interventions, and I shall ensure that answers are given in writing.

As it turned out, the heart of the debate concerned the issue of cash versus vouchers for families. To pick up the easiest questions, my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman), asked whether the vouchers would be immune from loan sharks. I was expecting him then to buttress his argument in favour of the social security cash system against—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman is seeking to answer many questions from his own Back Benchers, but he must address the Chair.

Mr. Straw

I now turn out to be a recidivist, as I committed the same offence last night. I shall accept that as a final warning and hope to amend my ways.

I was rather expecting my hon. Friend to come up with an argument in support of his that cash was better than vouchers. But—if I may tease him with this—his point supports our argument rather than his. His point was that as, at the moment, loan sharks ask for social security benefit books—an entirely cash-based system—as security against a loan, what would happen with vouchers? The imagination of loan sharks knows few bounds, but precisely because vouchers will not be freely negotiable—they will be redeemable only by those who properly receive them—the opportunity for them to be used as security for loan sharks should be greatly diminished.

My hon. Friend also asked about section 12 of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968. As I explained to him in a note, we intend to move amendments in the other place, consistent with those in new clause 6 in respect of the Children Act for England and Wales, to ensure that similar responsibilities are seamlessly transferred.

As to whether that is a reserved or devolved area, it is a reserved area; there is no question about that. There are bound to be some reserved areas. After all, this is the United Kingdom Parliament and I have no need to remind my hon. Friend, as a supporter of the Union, of the section within the Scotland Act 1998 which acknowledges the sovereignty of this Parliament. Of course, many reserved areas will involve co-operation with devolved bodies, including Scottish local authorities. We shall deal with that matter in a sensible way, and discussions are already in hand with the First Minister in Scotland.

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde also asked about emergency arrangements. I can assure him absolutely that they will be in place. It is not part of our policy to see children or families destitute on the streets. For the most part, emergency arrangements will be agreed with local social service departments to provide 24-hour cover to deal with the problems that concern my hon. Friend.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I thank the Home Secretary for giving way, and I apologise that pressure of time has meant that I have not attended the entire debate. Is the Home Secretary aware that the chairman of the Human Rights Commission in Northern Ireland has written a letter—I am not yet sure whether it has been sent to the right hon. Gentleman or to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—pointing out some of the anomalies that will cause problems in the courts in Northern Ireland?

I recognise that this is a reserved matter, but the measure must operate alongside Northern Ireland human rights legislation, which gives people equal rights and allows them to take the Home Secretary to court. Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to reconsider the matter and perhaps table amendments in the other place?

Mr. Straw

I was not specifically aware of the letter to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I shall make myself aware of it and ensure that he is given a reply. If amendments in the other place are necessary they will be tabled, but I do not want to anticipate decisions that I may make in the light of consideration of the letter.

I detect general approbation in the Chamber for the changes that we propose in new clause 6. They will make it absolutely clear that the benefits for children of the Children Act will not be lost if an asylum seeker and his or her family becomes the responsibility of the Asylum Support Directorate, but instead will be transferred from the relevant local authority social services department to that directorate.

To pick up a point raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), if it should happen that the Secretary of State refuses to take responsibility for an asylum seeker, that person would automatically revert to being the responsibility of the local authority's social services department—unless the refusal was not made by the Asylum Support Directorate but was a wilful refusal of a reasonable offer of support by the asylum seeker.

However, even in those rare circumstances in which a person refuses an offer that is considered to be reasonable and a reasonable discharge of the Secretary of State's duty, the children would become the responsibility of the relevant social services department. The adult who refuses such an offer, I am sorry to say, would have to look to his laurels as, under our homelessness legislation, would any United Kingdom citizen who wilfully refused an offer of accommodation.

Mr. Clappison

The children would be taken into care.

Mr. Straw

That would, of course, be the ultimate decision that the social services department might have to make—as it would in respect of any other child considered to be at risk under the provisions of the Children Act.

That connects with the point that I want to make to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), in particular. The only duties under the Children Act being transferred from the local authority social services department to the Asylum Support Directorate at the Home Office are those in respect of accommodation and essential living needs. The local social services department's much wider duty in respect of the welfare of children remains continuous and is unaffected by new clause 6 or by any other measure in the Bill.

Mr. Clappison

Is the Home Secretary aware that the same points were made in Committee in defence of the original clause 99—now clause 108—by the Under-Secretary? Is he aware also that children's organisations such as the UK committee of UNICEF have looked at new clause 6? It stated:

We remain of the view that it is inappropriate for asylum-seeking families with children to be excluded from obtaining accommodation". The same concerns exist now as existed about the original clause 99.

Mr. Straw

I am sorry to say that the hon. Gentleman, uncharacteristically, has missed the point. There is no dubiety about the fact that, under new clause 6, the responsibility on a local authority to provide what amount to the Children Act provisions—accommodation and essential living needs in respect of children in need—is transferring from the social services department to the Asylum Support Directorate. The concern expressed by my hon. Friends about what started off as clause 99 was that the local authorities were being relieved of their duty under the Children Act in respect of asylum seekers' children, but that no corresponding duty was being placed on the Secretary of State and the Asylum Support Directorate.

We have rectified that. The answers given by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and me about the welfare of children other than in respect of accommodation and essential living needs are the same, because that duty of welfare will remain with the local authority social services department. I hope that that explains the matter.

Mr. Clappison

The Home Secretary said earlier that the local authority would still be able to care for a child who has fallen through the safety net, but the point is that it would not be able to care for that child under section 17 of the Children Act. The same points were made in Committee by the Under-Secretary, and the Government have not moved from that. The Government are taking away local authorities' section 17 responsibilities, which are intended as a safety net.

Mr. Straw

I do not want to labour a point that I have explained three or four times. I am sure that most hon. Members in the Chamber understand it. The difference between new clause 6 and what began as clause 99 is that there is now a very clear duty imposed on the Secretary of State in respect of the obligations to provide accommodation and essential living needs that otherwise rest with a local authority's social services department. That is absolutely clear.

Moreover, I listened carefully to the remarks of the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), but I was no clearer at the end of them whether he was supporting the arrangements for a national system of support for asylum seekers, or opposing it. It is also evident that he has received no assistance from any other Conservative Members. I do not recall one speaking either in his favour or against him, and for a large part of the debate he was alone on the Conservative Benches, apart from the occasional Whip.

Mr. Clappison

Will the Home Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw

Of course I will, if the hon. Gentleman will relieve our darkness and say whether he supports the arrangements in principle.

Mr. Clappison

The Under-Secretary will confirm that we supported them in Committee. This debate is not about the arrangements, although I can understand why the Home Secretary wants to get on to that subject. It is about protecting children. We are worried about whether new clause 6 goes far enough to protect children and remedy the defects of the original clause 99. I do not think that the Home Secretary has gone far enough yet.

Mr. Straw

I look forward to the Conservative amendments that will be tabled in the other place, but it is interesting that the hon. Gentleman's concern is not widely shared in the rest of the Conservative party.

Mr. Clappison

That is a cheap remark.

Mr. Straw

I think that it is entirely fair to point out that no other Conservative Member was present while such an important measure was being debated.

Mr. Dawson

Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that section 17 of the Children Act does not meet the accommodation and financial support needs of anyone in this country? The spectre of children begging in the street has been raised. If families were reduced to such levels of destitution, even if they were being supported by the Asylum Support Directorate, will my right hon. Friend assure me that they would therefore be entitled to assessment under section 17 of the Children Act?

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Mr. Straw

I can reassure my hon. Friend on that point, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary says that no asylum speaker has been found begging in those circumstances. I appreciate the spectre of concern, and that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre has great expertise as one professionally responsible for implementing the principles of the Children Act 1989. However, the purpose of the Bill, the Asylum Support Directorate and the mixture of vouchers and cash is to ensure that no child and no family are destitute while an application for asylum is being dealt with.

The arrangements continue to apply to families even after applications for asylum have been dealt with, rejected, rejected again on appeal, and rejected by the divisional court or the High Court. They still apply when the family is waiting for removal, until those refused asylum or exceptional leave to remain exit the country. Those given asylum or exceptional leave to remain switch swiftly to the cash benefit arrangements that apply to any citizen or individual with normal residence in the UK.

Amendment No. 1, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, goes to the heart of one side of the argument about whether we should have a mixed system of cash and vouchers or stick, at least for some asylum seekers, to cash alone. Some people who have heard the debate might take from it two errors. First, they may believe that asylum seekers receive social security benefits. As my hon. Friend knows, that is not the case. A good half of asylum seekers who apply in-country have no entitlement to social security benefits, but are entitled under the Children Act 1989 or the National Assistance Act 1948 to benefits in kind if they are single or to a mixture of benefits in kind and cash if they are a family.

Secondly, and more importantly, some people may fall into the error of thinking that everyone who applies for asylum will have his or her application recognised as genuine and well-founded under the 1951 convention or the ECHR and be given refugee status or exceptional leave to remain. The UK's record is extremely good. The hon. Member for Hallam cannot have it both ways. The courts and the over-slated Immigration and Nationality Directorate have interpreted our obligations under the 1951 convention more widely than has been the case in many other countries. I want the proud tradition of this country to continue when asylum seekers meet convention criteria or the criteria set out in article 3 of the ECHR, as it has for the 4,000 refugees admitted from Kosovo.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and others mentioned incentives and disincentives. On our generous interpretation of our obligations under the 1951 convention, about 30 per cent. of the 40,000 who apply for asylum are recognised as refugees or given exceptional leave to remain, and 70 per cent. are not. The blunt truth is that a very high proportion of the 70 per cent. are wholly abusive claimants.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser) mentioned advertisements in Czech newspapers—we are not talking about Somalia, from which 98 per cent. of those who apply are taken in as refugees as quickly as possible—detailing the availability of benefits in the UK and offering arrangements to travel here through criminal organisations that traffic in humankind. That stark reality stares us in the face.

Mr. Clappison

Before the Home Secretary concludes his remarks, will he return to the unfortunate point of children being taken into care? Is he content that children should be taken into care under the circumstances that he has described, and that section 17 powers will not be available to local authorities to prevent children being taken into care? Does he know that when the Children Act was being debated a member of Labour's Front-Bench team said: A child should not find himself in care as a direct result of homelessness."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 18 May 1989; c. 137.] His own Front-Bench team wanted section 17 to allow children to be taken into care.

Mr. Straw

The duty on a local authority to consider the welfare of a child arises irrespective of background circumstances. No matter whether the child is an asylum seeker, or the child of a Conservative Member, or has some other grave impediment, that duty applies. I have made the point over and over to the hon. Gentleman that that duty is not affected by whether the child is an asylum seeker. If a child is at risk or lacks parental support, the local authority has a duty to consider whether to take the child into care. That duty is unaffected by the Bill.

I was dealing with the argument about vouchers versus cash. One part of the reality with which we must deal is that 30 per cent. of those who apply—9,000 people last year—were acknowledged as people fleeing persecution or otherwise facing serious danger. Those people were admitted to the UK and given refugee status or exceptional leave to remain. However, more than 20,000 people had no such claim and entered the UK abusively or were already here. Those people came with the idea of gaining benefits or some other economic advantage. They entered the country unlawfully, not on grounds covered by the convention, or, having got here, they sought to evade immigration control and the provisions of their temporary permits by applying for asylum. Every hon. Member who has an immigration case load knows that such abusive asylum claimants are on the increase.

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Straw

In a moment. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. Far too many private conversations are being conducted in the Chamber. Conversations should take place outside.

Mr. Straw

I have received deputations from the Chinese community and letters from leaders of the Asian community calling for such abuse to be brought under control.

Points have been made about the incentive of cash benefits in the system.

Mr. Allan

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw

I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman a couple of times, so I shall now give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones), as I said I would.

Dr. Jones

I am concerned that my right hon. Friend seems to be saying that, because people abuse the system, it is all right to make genuine refugees and asylum seekers suffer by imposing a voucher system, even though he has not addressed the arguments about whether that system deters bogus claimants at all. Will he please respond to that and also to the point, on which there is agreement, that the way to deter bogus claimants is speedily to assess their cases and to set up an effective gateway for asylum seekers?

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend anticipated the point that I was about to make. She will know—this matter is generally kept private—that I have a close relationship with my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson). I was writing a note to say that a genuine claimant fleeing persecution in his own country would have no interest in whether the support available in this country would be supplied in the form of cash benefits or vouchers. Uncannily, as I was writing that down, I heard my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South make that point.

It is, of course, true that anybody fleeing persecution such as that in Kosovo, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and many other countries has no interest whatever in whether the support available to them in a safe country such as United Kingdom is supplied as a mixture of cash, vouchers and payment in kind, such as the provision of accommodation, or as cash only, as in our social security system. That is why I say to my hon. Friends that, as long as we get right the level of support—which I accept is their next concern—there is no way in which the provision of that mixed system instead of social security benefits will deter genuine asylum seekers who are fleeing persecution in their country from coming here and availing themselves of their rights under the 1951 convention.

We strongly believe, however, that the availability of cash benefits provides an incentive to come here for people who are not genuine claimants and who wish to enter this country not because they are fleeing persecution but because they want to claim those benefits. It is impossible to look down the list of countries from which we now accept many thousands of asylum seeker applications and not come to that conclusion.

Large numbers of applicants come from eastern European countries, where there are no longer any human rights abuses. Perhaps just three or four people out of the thousands who come here from those countries have ever been given asylum status. I therefore say to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, who said that the cash and voucher system will be a disincentive to genuine claimants, that that is simply not the case. I rely very strongly on the agreement between my hon. Friend and myself on that point, which is that the system is intended to be a disincentive to fraudulent and abusive claimants.

Ms Abbott


Audrey Wise (Preston)


Mr. Straw

I shall give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington and then to my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Audrey Wise).

Ms Abbott

I never said that the voucher system would be a disincentive to genuine refugees under the Geneva convention. I said that it is designed to be a disincentive across the board. I have spent many hundreds of hours—in Committee, on the Floor of the House and in private meetings—listening to Ministers talking about economic migrants and non-Geneva convention asylum claimants. Ministers harp on about the pull factor of benefits, but they entirely discount and never mention the tremendous push factors behind those waves of economic refugees. If Ministers were serious about checking those waves of refugees—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady knows that interventions should be brief.

Mr. Straw

Of course I understand the push factors. I have never sought to criticise individuals who seek a better life here, but the natural, logical conclusion of my hon. Friend's argument—if she pursues it, and I do not think that she will—is that we should have no immigration control. Of course there are push factors. People who seek to come to Britain, including those from eastern European countries, want, on the whole, to better themselves. I understand that entirely; that is one of the reasons why, sadly, in a rather unequal world, we must have a degree of immigration control.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Straw

I promised to give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Preston.

Audrey Wise

There seems to be an uncomfortable element of trial by ordeal in what my right hon. Friend is saying. We are not saying that the system is a deterrent to genuine asylum seekers. He is not answering the question why genuine asylum seekers should be put through more suffering. As well as trial by ordeal, there is an element of pre-judgment. All asylum seekers, including the genuine ones, will suffer because some are not genuine or do not qualify—but we do not know which ones they will be, do we? Will he remove this rather nasty trial by ordeal and punishment?

8.45 pm
Mr. Straw

I think that we are reaching a degree of consensus—[Interruption.] One understands Opposition Members wishing to laugh about this issue. It is fascinating that the House has filled up considering that, for many hours of this debate, the hon. Member for Hertsmere was alone on the Opposition Benches.

There is a consensus in recognition that a mixed system of vouchers and cash, which we are intending to provide, will not of itself act as a disincentive to genuine claimants. My hon. Friend the Member for Preston suggested by implication that the nature of vouchers and the overall level of the package will penalise genuine claimants, the other points that I have made notwithstanding.

Mr. Allan

I want to tease the Home Secretary to put something on the record. He went from one extreme to the other by saying that all asylum seekers' claims are founded, and then that 70 per cent. are unfounded, and seemed to imply that they were all the type to respond to television advertisements and were setting out to be deliberately abusive. That is a dangerous characterisation, and I do not think that he has the evidence to support it. Some asylum seekers will be cynical abusers, but many others are sad and desperate people whose claims simply do not meet the 1951 convention criteria.

Mr. Straw

Some people from some countries are of course genuine applicants but, none the less, cannot meet convention criteria. I can think of someone in my constituency whose fear was unquestionably genuine but whose claim did not meet convention criteria. As it happened, when he returned to Kenya, he did not run in to any of the problems that he had anticipated. I can think of scores of cases from my constituency—as can my hon. Friends from their constituencies—of people who have made up the application from top to bottom. In one case in my constituency surgery only last Friday, I discovered after some questioning that this chap who had submitted an asylum application had paid an unofficial immigration adviser £5,500 to make it up. I am afraid that such ripping off of people is all too typical.

One of the uncontroversial points—at least on the Government Benches—is that we should take proper control of such unscrupulous immigration advisers. Had the Conservatives done so in response to the amendments that we tabled to the Asylum and Immigration Bill, such exploitation would not be going on.

If the hon. Member for Hallam looks down the list of countries from which some thousands of asylum applicants are coming, and notes that fewer than 1 per cent. of them—in some cases 0 per cent.—are given either exceptional leave to remain or refugee status, he is bound to conclude, as everyone who has any experience of these matters does, that most of them come to this country without any basis for a claim and are often facilitated by criminals who are involved in the trafficking of human beings.

Having dealt with some of the issues of principle, let me consider the issue raised by many of my hon. Friends concerning whether we should move to this system of vouchers. As I have sought to explain, the main reason for the change—there has never been any dubiety about the use of a system of vouchers with some cash—is to reduce the incentive among abusive claimants to exploit the system.

Another reason for moving to the new system is that the locally based arrangements are not working. I listened to my hon. Friends speaking about the current arrangements; my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Coleman), a former leader of Hammersmith and Fulham council, acknowledged that many London boroughs were doing very good work with asylum seekers, but, strikingly, representatives of those very London boroughs have been to see me and the Under-Secretary to plead with us to end the locally based system because of the pressure on individual London boroughs.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw

In a moment.

If that locally based system is to be ended, there must be a national system, and if there is to be a national system, there must be arrangements by which the pressure on the local areas is relieved, and that means that there must be some system of national dispersal. However, as was repeatedly explained in the Special Standing Committee, it will be a sensible dispersal. People will not be scattered to the four corners of the United Kingdom, to areas with which they have no connection. We propose to develop relevant clusters.

I can testify that in many areas outside London there are well-settled ethnic minority communities—I think of my constituency, where there is a small Bosnian Muslim one. Because of that, we are taking some people from Kosovo. The same arrangements and connections can apply under the Asylum Support Directorate arrangements, and they will, because it is not in the interests of the Home Office that we should introduce dispersal arrangements that do not work and that lead to a drift back to London.

Mrs. Gorman

I came into the Chamber rather late, but I have been following the debate on the monitor. I notice that the Home Secretary has said that he has not received a great deal of support for vouchers. I should like him to know that, in contrast with the difficulty that some of his hon. Friends are creating for him, I certainly—and, I am sure, many of my colleagues and a lot of my constituents—support the voucher system because it helps to reduce many forms of abuse, including the supply of money to pay some of the bogus people who give advice, a practice which his hon. Friends seem to support.

Mr. Straw

I am very pleased that I gave way. In my situation, one treasures support from whatever quarter it comes.

On the value of the—

Mr. Gapes

Will my right hon. Friend allow me to intervene? He knows that I represent a London constituency in which there are many Somali refugees. I support a dispersal policy, but I am worried about what might happen if people who are moved far from London choose to leave the accommodation provided by the new system and return to the London boroughs where they have relatives, before their cases have been determined. I should be grateful for my right hon. Friend's assurance that, if there is any sign that that is happening, measures will be taken to ensure that London local authorities get support if they are faced with increasing pressures despite the new system.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That intervention was too long.

Mr. Straw

Let me say two things to my hon. Friend—if I can remember what they are. First, if someone was provided with accommodation somewhere in the north-west, where there was a settled Somali community, but decided of his own volition to leave that accommodation and move back to Ilford to stay with friends and relatives, he would still be able to claim the essential living needs part of the asylum support that we are providing. He would therefore receive his cash and vouchers, but his accommodation costs would not be paid. Perhaps the point has not been brought out strongly enough. That person would get that element in any event. As I keep saying to my hon. Friends, no part of the package will leave people destitute. If they chose to live with their relatives, they would get living support, but not accommodation.

Secondly, in extreme circumstances such as my hon. Friend describes, there are reserve powers in the Bill that would have to be used. I do not anticipate that they would need to be used, but we are trying to anticipate every eventuality.

I shall deal first with whether the vouchers and cash will be comparable, then with how vouchers can be used and the target for families. As my hon. Friends are aware and as the Special Standing Committee discussed at some length, the aim of the support package is that it should be comparable to what is currently received by families who are on a mixture of social security and housing benefit, or families who are in receipt of benefits in kind from a local authority.

I understand the concern of many of my hon. Friends about support for children and about the fact that families can build up expenses for renewals, which would not have been accommodated under the original proposals. For that reason, we are making provision for what amount to single discretionary payments every six months. By the way, to those who say that that involves no additional expenditure, may I point out that it does involve additional expenditure and, in my view, it is right that it should, because we had not recognised the need at the beginning.

There is not time to go into detail on the calculations now. We are providing full accommodation costs, whatever they are. The accommodation is also being provided in kind—we are providing not only pots and pans, but bed linen, which is not provided typically in furnished accommodation, still less in unfurnished accommodation—and we are paying for utilities. Broadly, the support that we are providing will be equivalent to the 90 per cent. of income support that is otherwise available to asylum seekers.

I draw the attention of my hon. Friends to the fact that even if someone is on cash benefits and is paid income support and housing benefit, the housing benefit is paid only at the average of the rent available in that sector of accommodation in that area. That can mean that some asylum seekers pay above the level of the housing benefit that they receive.

We have examined the figures carefully, and I accept also that for families with three or more children, the support arrangements do not meet the 90 per cent. level. We are studying the calculations with great care. I give an undertaking to my hon. Friends and to the House that I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State in the other place will be able to deal with these matters to their satisfaction when the Bill reaches another place.

Ms Abbott

May I refer to an earlier exchange between him and my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes)? My hon. Friend asked whether Somalis who were dispersed a long way from Ilford and came back to Ilford would still get their benefits, and the Home Secretary said yes. However, clause 83 clearly states: The regulations may also make provision for the suspension or discontinuation of support under circumstances in which there has been cessation of residence … in accommodation provided". Can the Home Secretary clarify that, as I am sure that he did not intend to mislead the House?

Mr. Straw

Of course the regulations make provision for that, as would any sensible set of regulations. It has always been part of the system that some people who had accommodation sorted out for themselves could be provided with the element of the support package that covered essential living needs. That has always been the case. Of course, if there is a wilful refusal to take accommodation or to accept support in other circumstances, that can be withdrawn.

9 pm

Ms Oona King

May I welcome again the confirmation that the package will broadly represent 90 per cent of current income support? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that if it does not, he will make good that difference?

Mr. Straw

I express my good intentions, because this is a matter to discuss with colleagues as well, but, as I keep saying, it is no part of our purpose to leave the children of asylum seekers short, whether ultimately the application, which is never made by children, is well-founded or not. I hope that my hon. Friends recognise that we continue to examine the calculations and the level of support with great care.

To give further reassurance to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, may I say that provided that an individual applicant is still at his registered address, which need not be the accommodation provided but may be another address at which he has registered, he will continue to receive vouchers under the support arrangements.

My hon. Friend went on at length about jewellery and suggested that asylum seekers would be treated less favourably under the new arrangement than people under current the cash benefit arrangement. She went on at length about the fact that there is a £3,000 floor, below which someone's capital assets are not taken into account in assessing income support. That is true, except for asylum seekers, for whom there is no floor under the existing social security benefits regulations.

My last point concerns the time that we intend that family applications should take within the new system. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow has made many points, both in the House and in other meetings, about the need for speed in getting family applications through. That point has been made by many other hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck)—[Interruption.] Was that right? Oh well, it is somewhere on the District line, anyway. [Laughter.] When I came into the House there was not a single posh place in the country that we represented, and now every posh station seems to be one of ours, not one of theirs.

We accept that one of the major problems in the system that we inherited is the inordinate delays. My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North gave details of a case that had been outstanding since 1990. That is absolutely intolerable. That was supposed to have been dealt with by the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993, but it was not. It was supposed to have been dealt with by the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, but it was not. As my hon. Friend knows, we intend to deal with that.

We believe that speed is one part of the essence of an efficient and effective system. That is why we have set targets to be achieved by April 2001 for most asylum decisions to be made within two months of receipt and for asylum appeals to be dealt with within a further four months. We are determined to achieve those targets. Average waiting times for appeals are already less than four months.

It is important to put on record, too, the fact that when we came into office, and for the two years in which the spending plans were those left to us—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) laughs, but, for the first year, the spending plans were those not only left by her Government, but set by her Government because we had already entered the financial year before the election took place. Far from increasing investment in and the staffing of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, the previous Government were cutting it. No wonder the quality of decision making and administration went down.

We are investing an extra £120 million in the IND over the next three years, including £60 million on speeding up case work. Hundreds more staff are being deployed as case workers, including 200 who are being actively recruited now.

Asylum decisions are currently running at 900 a week and, as I have already said, I hope that that provides substantial reassurance to my hon. Friends. We are aiming to deliver initial decisions on new asylum applications from families with children in an average of two months.

Dr. Lynne Jones

Can my right hon. Friend explain exactly what he means when he says that the target is that most initial applications should be dealt with within two months? Many of us on the Government Benches were hoping to have assurances from him that the Government would not introduce the voucher system for families until a very high proportion of asylum seekers were having their applications dealt with within two months. That would mean far more than 50 per cent.

Mr. Straw

The undertaking I am giving is that there will be an average target of two months in which to process a claim. I should also say to my hon. Friend that that does not mean that 51 per cent. of the applications will therefore be accepted; it could easily be the case that 70 per cent. of the applications will be dealt with within that period. We are trying to get the straightforward cases through quickly—as we have been doing with those of Kosovans, for example. The harder cases, the processing of which may last for some time, will skew the average, but the formal undertaking is for the average target of two months to be met. However, I anticipate that many more than 51 per cent. of cases will be decided in that period.

Dr. Jones


Mr. Straw

If I may, I want to answer directly the point that my hon. Friend has raised. I also want to deal with the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North, which is, how will I be satisfied, before we introduce that target, that it will be met and what will happen if I believe that we cannot introduce a target? I think that she asked for satisfaction of a 90 per cent. hit rate over three months, but I ask her to accept from me that I cannot offer a mathematical target of such precision.

I also ask my hon. Friend to accept that I will be responsible to the House, and to Members on each side of it, if the system fails to meet the target. I shall set the system running, so, before I press the start button, I shall take a very close and personal interest in whether that target will be met. It will be in nobody's interest, least of all mine, to press the start button to begin the process and then to discover that the applications are routinely not taking two months, but four. A great deal of work is going into that.

For that reason, I also give the subsidiary but very important undertaking that, if we cannot achieve those targets for families with children, and if I am not satisfied that they can be achieved, we will not introduce those applications into the new support arrangements in April 2000. The existing arrangements will continue until we are so satisfied.

I have spoken at considerable length in answering the questions and points that have been raised, with great seriousness, by my hon. Friends and by Liberal Democrat Members. I hope that I have satisfied or, at least, reassured them and assuaged many of their concerns.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 331, Noes 161.

Division No. 209] [9.8 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Barron, Kevin
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Battle, John
Ainger, Nick Bayley, Hugh
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Beard, Nigel
Alexander, Douglas Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret
Allen, Graham Begg, Miss Anne
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Benn, Hilary (Leeds C)
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield)
Ashton, Joe Bennett, Andrew F
Atherton, Ms Candy Benton, Joe
Atkins, Charlotte Berry, Roger
Barnes, Harry Best, Harold
Betts, Clive Efford, Clive
Blackman, Liz Ellman, Mrs Louise
Blears, Ms Hazel Ennis, Jeff
Blizzard, Bob Fisher, Mark
Blunkett, Rt Hon David Fitzpatrick, Jim
Boateng, Paul Fitzsimons, Lorna
Borrow, David Flint, Caroline
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Follett, Barbara
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)
Bradshaw, Ben Foster, Michael J (Worcester)
Brinton, Mrs Helen Foulkes, George
Brown, Rt Hon Gordon (Dunfermline E) Fyfe, Maria
Galloway, George
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) Gapes, Mike
Browne, Desmond Gardiner, Barry
Buck, Ms Karen Gerrard, Neil
Burden, Richard Gibson, Dr Ian
Butler, Mrs Christine Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Caborn, Rt Hon Richard Godman, Dr Norman A
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth) Godsiff, Roger
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Goggins, Paul
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Golding, Mrs Llin
Campbell-Savours, Dale Gordon, Mrs Eileen
Cann, Jamie Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Caton, Martin Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Cawsey, Ian Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Grocott, Bruce
Chaytor, David Grogan, John
Church, Ms Judith Gunnell, John
Clapham, Michael Hain, Peter
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields) Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Clark, Dr Lynda(Edinburgh Pentlands) Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Clark, Paul (Gillingham) Hanson, David
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S) Harman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Healey, John
Clelland, David Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Clwyd, Ann Hepburn, Stephen
Coaker, Vernon Heppell, John
Coffey, Ms Ann Hesford, Stephen
Coleman, Iain Hewitt, Ms Patricia
Colman, Tony Hill, Keith
Connarty, Michael Hinchliffe, David
Cook, Rt Hon Robin (Livingston) Hodge, Ms Margaret
Corbett, Robin Hoey, Kate
Corbyn, Jeremy Hood, Jimmy
Corston, Ms Jean Hoon, Geoffrey
Cousins, Jim Hope, Phil
Cranston, Ross Hopkins, Kelvin
Crausby, David Howarth, Alan (Newport E)
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley) Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Howells, Dr Kim
Cummings, John Hoyle, Lindsay
Curtis—Thomas, Mrs Claire Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Dalyell, Tam Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Darling, Rt Hon Alistair Humble, Mrs Joan
Darvill, Keith Hurst, Alan
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Iddon, Dr Brian
Davidson, Ian Ingram, Rt Hon Adam
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C) Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Dawson, Hilton Jamieson, David
Dean, Mrs Janet Jenkins, Brian
Denham, John Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Dismore, Andrew Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Dobbin, Jim
Dobson, Rt Hon Frank Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Donohoe, Brian H Jones, Mrs Fiona (Newark)
Doran, Frank Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Dowd, Jim Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Drew, David Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Drown, Ms Julia Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) Jowell, Rt Hon Ms Tessa
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston) Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Edwards, Huw Keeble, Ms Sally
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston) Primarolo, Dawn
Kelly, Ms Ruth Prosser, Gwyn
Khabra, Piara S Purchase, Ken
Kidney, David Quin, Rt Hon Ms Joyce
Kilfoyle, Peter Quinn, Lawrie
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth) Radice, Giles
Kumar, Dr Ashok Rammell, Bill
Ladyman, Dr Stephen Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)
Lawrence, Ms Jackie Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N)
Laxton, Bob Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)
Lepper, David Roche, Mrs Barbara
Leslie, Christopher Rooker, Jeff
Levitt, Tom Rooney, Terry
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S) Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Linton, Martin Rowlands, Ted
Livingstone, Ken Roy, Frank
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C) Ruane, Chris
Lock, David Ruddock, Joan
McAvoy, Thomas Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)
McCabe, Steve Ryan, Ms Joan
McCartney, Rt Hon Ian (Makerfield) Sarwar, Mohammad
Savidge, Malcolm
McDonagh, Siobhain Sawford, Phil
Macdonald, Calum Sedgemore, Brian
McDonnell, John Shaw, Jonathan
McFall, John Sheerman, Barry
McIsaac, Shona Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Mackinlay, Andrew Short, Rt Hon Clare
McNulty, Tony Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
MacShane, Denis Skinner, Dennis
Mactaggart, Fiona Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
McWalter, Tony Smith, Angela (Basildon)
McWilliam, John Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S)
Mallaber, Judy Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Mandelson, Rt Hon Peter Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury) Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Snape, Peter
Marshall-Andrews, Robert Southworth, Ms Helen
Martlew, Eric Spellar, John
Meale, Alan Squire, Ms Rachel
Merron, Gillian Steinberg, Gerry
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley) Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Milburn, Rt Hon Alan Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Miller, Andrew Stinchcombe, Paul
Moffatt, Laura Stoate, Dr Howard
Moonie, Dr Lewis Stott, Roger
Moran, Ms Margaret Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N) Straw, Rt Hon Jack
Morley, Elliot Stringer, Graham
Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley) Stuart, Ms Gisela
Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon) Sutcliffe, Gerry
Mountford, Kali Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Mowlam, Rt Hon Marjorie
Mudie, George Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Mullin, Chris Temple-Morris, Peter
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck) Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood) Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Murphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen) Timms, Stephen
Naysmith, Dr Doug Tipping, Paddy
Norris, Dan Touhig, Don
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton) Truswell, Paul
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks) Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Olner, Bill Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
O'Neill, Martin Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Osborne, Ms Sandra Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Palmer, Dr Nick Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Pearson, Ian Vaz, Keith
Pendry, Tom Walley, Ms Joan
Pickthall, Colin Ward, Ms Claire
Pike, Peter L Wareing, Robert N
Plaskitt, James Watts, David
Pond, Chris White, Brian
Pope, Greg Whitehead, Dr Alan
Powell, Sir Raymond Wicks, Malcolm
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E) Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen) Worthington, Tony
Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy) Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Winnick, David
Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C) Tellers for the Ayes:
Wise, Audrey Mrs. Anne McGuire and
Woolas, Phil Jane Kennedy.
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Hammond, Philip
Allan, Richard Harvey, Nick
Amess, David Hawkins, Nick
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas
Baker, Norman Horam, John
Baldry, Tony Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Ballard, Jackie Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Beggs, Roy Hunter, Andrew
Beith, Rt Hon A J Jack, Rt Hon Michael
Bell, Martin (Tatton) Jackson, Robert (Wantage)
Bercow, John Jenkin, Bernard
Beresford, Sir Paul Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Body, Sir Richard Keetch, Paul
Boswell, Tim King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Kirkwood, Archy
Brady, Graham Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Brake, Tom Lansley, Andrew
Brazier, Julian Leigh, Edward
Browning, Mrs Angela Letwin, Oliver
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Lidington, David
Burnett, John Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Burstow, Paul Livsey, Richard
Butterfill, John Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Cable, Dr Vincent Llwyd, Elfyn
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife) Loughton, Tim
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Cash, William MacGregor, Rt Hon John
Chidgey, David McIntosh, Miss Anne
Clappison, James MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Maclean, Rt Hon David
McLoughlin, Patrick
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Madel, Sir David
Collins, Tim Malins, Humfrey
Cormack, Sir Patrick Maples, John
Cotter, Brian Mates, Michael
Cran, James Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian
Dafis, Cynog May, Mrs Theresa
Davey, Edward (Kingston) Moore, Michael
Davies, Quentin (Grantham) Moss, Malcolm
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice) Nicholls, Patrick
Day, Stephen Norman, Archie
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen Oaten, Mark
Duncan Smith, Iain Öpik, Lembit
Evans, Nigel Ottaway, Richard
Fabricant, Michael Page, Richard
Fallon, Michael Paice, James
Feam, Ronnie Paterson, Owen
Flight, Howard Pickles, Eric
Forth, Rt Hon Eric Randall, John
Foster, Don (Bath) Redwood, Rt Hon John
Fox, Dr Liam Rendel, David
Fraser, Christopher Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Gale, Roger Rowe, Andrew (Faversham)
Garnier, Edward Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Gibb, Nick Sanders, Adrian
Gill, Christopher Sayeed, Jonathan
Gillan, Mrs Cheryl Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Shepherd, Richard
Gray, James Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Green, Damian Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Greenway, John Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Grieve, Dominic Soames, Nicholas
Hague, Rt Hon William Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Spicer, Sir Michael
Spring, Richard Walter, Robert
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John Waterson, Nigel
Steen, Anthony Webb, Steve
Streeter, Gary Wells, Bowen
Stunell, Andrew Welsh, Andrew
Swayne, Desmond Whitney, Sir Raymond
Syms Robert Whittingdale, John
Tapsell, Sir Peter Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Taylor, John M (Solihull) Willets, David
Taylor, Sir Teddy Wills, Phil
Thompson, William Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Tonge, Dr Jenny Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Tredinnick, David Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Tyler, Paul Tellers for the Noes:
Tyrie, Andrew Mr. Oliver Heald and
Viggers, Peter Mrs. Eleanor Laing.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This is a brief point, which was dealt with at length in Committee, on the representations made by the United Kingdom Council for Overseas Student Affairs—representing British further and higher education institutions—on immigration advice and other technical points, and in relation to clauses 69 to 71 in the amended Bill and to clauses 63 to 65 in the unamended Bill. The only amendments tabled on Report directly affecting those clauses were one that was consequential on an earlier new clause, and one that was tabled by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell). As those amendments are not likely to be debated, our further consideration of the Bill would be assisted if Ministers would supply a letter to UKCOSA on those higher education issues, if such a letter is outstanding.

Mr. Mike O'Brien

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. The point of order was not a matter for the occupant of the Chair, and was therefore not a point of order. However, Ministers have undoubtedly heard the comments of the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley), and we shall leave it at that.

Mr. Bottomley

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We have had a substantial debate on new clause 6, and now have two and a half hours for the Bill's remaining stages. Not many matters other than Government amendments will be dealt with, so if the Minister were able to respond to the point, perhaps outside the Chamber, it would be much appreciated.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. What the Minister does outside the Chamber is entirely a matter for him, but I do not want him to respond to the point here.

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