HC Deb 09 November 1999 vol 337 cc978-1003

Lords amendment: No. 135, after clause 84, to insert the following new clause—Eligibility for social security benefits— (". An asylum-seeker, and his dependants (if any), shall be eligible for any social security benefits to which they would have been entitled if neither Part VI of this Act or Schedule 1 to the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 had been in force, until such time as the Secretary of State has placed a report in the Library of the House of Commons giving details of the average process times in the determination of—

  1. (a) initial asylum decisions; and
  2. (b) appeals to adjudicators against initial asylum decisions,
and certifying that the average time from the lodging of the application for asylum to the determination of an adjudicator of the appeal against the initial asylum decisions is less than six months. ")

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Mr. Straw

I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take amendment (a) in lieu of the Lords amendment.

Mr. Straw

It may be helpful if I first explain the effect that amendment No. 135 would have if it were left in the Bill. It would restore social security benefits to all asylum seekers until such time as the average two and four-month targets for asylum cases had been met. Social security benefits would be available not only to those who now receive them as port applicants, but to those who are not at present entitled to them following an initial decision or who have claimed in-country. In that critical respect, the amendment, which Conservative Members in the other place supported with the full backing of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), would overturn a key decision in the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 to remove the right to social security and any other benefits from those who claimed in-country.

We estimate—those estimates have been made available and have not been challenged—that the amendment could result in about 40,000 additional asylum applications in a full year. The costs of supporting that number of cases would be about £500 million. It would be a complete reversal of the legislation which the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, among others, helped to guide through Parliament.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

The Home Secretary said that the figures had not been challenged. I would like to challenge them and many of the interested groups and experts who gave evidence to the Special Standing Committee also challenged them. The figures that the right hon. Gentleman has cited are an estimate drawn up by himself with no credible supporting evidence. It is purely finger-in-the-air stuff from the Home Office to get at the Conservative party for supporting the amendment in the House of Lords.

Mr. Straw

First, the figures were not drawn up by me—although I do take an interest in statistics, as is famously known—but by officials. Secondly, although I understand that, on the whole, the Liberals are not in the least bothered about the cost of their promises, because they will never be in government, the Conservatives—at least in the past—were concerned about costs. One of the main reasons that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) argued for the removal of the entitlement to cash benefits for half of asylum seekers is the simple and straightforward fact that, if cash benefits are available to asylum seekers, they act as a pull factor and an encouragement to those asylum seekers who want to abuse the system. There is a significantly higher rate of take-up of cash benefits—including by many people who make fraudulent claims—than there is of benefits provided in kind.

I point out to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) and to Conservative Members—whose spokesperson, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, actively supported the Lords amendment, as she made clear to the House on 26 October—that a consequence of a measure to restore cash benefits to in-country applicants could be to provide an inducement not just for many fraudulent asylum seekers to come to this country, but for some people already in this country, who hold British passports or rights of residence, to invent new identities in order to claim social security benefits. The amendment drives a coach and horses through the arrangements that we are establishing; it is an open encouragement to fraud, and there is no question that the costs would run to £400 million or £500 million. However, we shall not find out for certain whether that will be so, because we invite the House to reject the amendment.

Amendment No. 135 would overturn all the arrangements that we are setting up in the Bill, including one of the key arrangements made by the previous Administration—to remove cash benefits. When the Conservative Government proposed changes to the previous system of support, they did only half a job. They decided to continue cash benefits for those who applied at port; they took away the right to receive cash benefits for those who applied in-country, but they failed to provide any alternative safety net. That was a profound defect in the legislation. Instead of making alternative arrangements, the Conservative Government appeared to believe that in-country applicants would be able to rely on friends and their own community for support. Only a later decision of the courts—to the effect that asylum seekers should not be left wholly destitute while they were pursuing a legitimate claim for asylum—resulted in asylum seekers gaining access to assistance from local authorities under social services legislation. That legislation was never intended for such purposes, and reliance on it has led to huge problems for the local authorities concerned, especially those in inner-London boroughs, and several in Kent—including those in Dover, Folkestone and throughout the southern part of Kent.

The pressure on housing and other social services both from asylum seekers and those housed by local authorities in those areas is intense and unsustainable. It results in problems for London local authorities, and indeed for Kent local authorities, in discharging their duties towards local homeless households under homelessness legislation. Asylum seekers themselves often end up in extremely poor conditions. No one—including some of those who oppose other aspects of the Bill—believes that such concentration of asylum seekers in one part of the country is sensible or defensible.

Mr. Simon Hughes

The Home Secretary will know well that a borough such as mine is confronted daily—as are those represented by inner-London colleagues—by the pressures that he describes. One way of dealing with those matters, to take the pressure off local government, would be for the Government to take the view that, until a decision has been taken on those asylum seekers who want to stay here, responsibility for them could, and should, be taken by the Government. The Government could fund the asylum seekers and ensure the repayment to local authorities of any funding that they have to disburse in advance, while the decisions are made. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that?

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Mr. Straw

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's proposition, and that is exactly what the Bill would achieve. I hope that he will perform the same U-turn as the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, appreciate the error of his ways and of the course adopted by his noble Friends in another place and support our motion to reject Lords amendment No. 135. Our measures are designed to remove responsibility from local authorities, relieve pressure on the hon. Gentleman's borough and many others, and establish a national system of dispersal in which the Government take responsibility.

Implicit in amendment No. 135 is an assumption that the new support arrangements will be in some way inferior to the current arrangements; I do not accept that. Under the new arrangements, asylum seekers who are destitute will receive good-quality accommodation appropriate to their needs. That may take the form of full board and lodging, or self-contained and self-catering accommodation suitable for families and others who are able to look after themselves. In the latter case, the support will include vouchers, in addition to a cash allowance of £10 per person per week, to meet the asylum seeker's and his dependants' living needs. Asylum seekers will have access to a wide range of outlets throughout the country in which to redeem the vouchers.

Dr. Godman

My question about vouchers is prompted by a letter I received from Dr. Alison Elliot, who is the convener of the Committee on Church and Nation of the Church of Scotland. She argues that such a system will be costly and cumbersome, and…demeaning. There is speculation in Scotland that the voucher system will not be implemented north of the border. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, or is that speculation without foundation?

Mr. Straw

I was going to deal later with one matter of speculation about the voucher system: the interim arrangements that will apply from December to 1 April, when the new full arrangements are due to come into force. However, for the convenience of the House, I shall deal with that now.

In a consultation paper issued in August, the Government proposed that the amount of cash support that local authorities are able to pay under existing arrangements for in-country applicants be limited to £10 per person per week in all cases. Many of the responses to the consultation paper objected to changing the arrangements currently applied by local authorities for a period of only four or five months. Those responses included representations from the Child Poverty Action Group and many other bodies.

After heeding the consultation, the Government concluded that, during the interim period before the new national system comes into force on 1 April, local authorities should be able to continue to give all support to families in cash for their living needs, as they choose. Some local authorities operate in that way under the current arrangements, whereas others do not. The £10 cash limit would continue to apply in the case of the single asylum seeker. I should make it clear that, under the arrangements established by the National Assistance Act 1948, local authorities are not allowed to provide any cash at all; therefore, our proposals for the interim period provide additional flexibility.

As for the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) about whether the new full arrangements to be rolled out from 1 April would apply to the whole of the United Kingdom, or whether the use of vouchers would be abandoned in Scotland, the answer is that they will apply to the whole of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Allan

The Home Secretary mentions families held under the current arrangements until April 2000. Does he mean until a fixed date of April 2000, or until the point at which the time limit is down to six months, which is what we previously understood would be the time that families would come under the new system?

Mr. Straw

If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall answer that point in a minute.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

I am puzzled by the news my right hon. Friend has just imparted, because local government is one of the responsibilities of the Scottish Parliament and separate arrangements have always been made for Scotland. If the legislation is to apply UK-wide, it should have been discussed in the Scottish Parliament and there should have been discussions between UK Ministers and Scottish Ministers; yet, as far as I am aware, no such discussions have taken place.

Mr. Straw

With great respect to my hon. Friend, she and my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde dealt with this matter at some length in interventions in the debate on the timetable motion. I believe that no one—not even the Scottish National party—could argue with the fact that if we have a Union, questions of immigration and asylum must be a reserved matter, not a devolved matter. However, the issue does have an impact on local authorities, so we have held detailed discussions with the Scottish Executive.

In response to a point raised earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde, we propose that there should be a concordat to inform and govern the relations between ourselves, the Scottish Executive and Scottish local authorities. We recognise the local sensitivities. We are grateful for the co-operation that we have received from those bodies as well as from the relevant bodies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In setting up the new support arrangements, we are providing a level of support that is broadly equivalent to that which asylum seekers could expect to get, were social security benefits still available to them. Under those plans, support for children will be equivalent to 100 per cent. of child benefit levels.

We have amended the Bill to place a Secretary of State under a duty to meet the accommodation and essential living needs of families with children under the age of 18. Members on both sides of the House will recall that that was a matter of concern; we have ensured that we have met it. The assistance that families receive will be comparable to that provided under section 17 of the Children Act 1989. All the other safeguards for children contained in that Act will continue to apply. New arrangements will ensure 24-hour cover so that families always have somewhere to turn in an emergency.

The House knows that we propose to disperse most asylum seekers away from London and the south-east, to relieve the pressure on those areas. In doing so, our aim is to make better use of spare and underused housing in less pressured parts of the country. 1 believe that that is sensible, and I do not believe that the genuine asylum seeker who is fleeing persecution will mind where in the country he is properly accommodated for the period while his claim is processed.

We shall neither disperse asylum seekers at random nor leave them in isolation. Rather, we shall seek to house people from similar backgrounds in the same general locality, wherever possible, in sufficient numbers for them to rely on a degree of mutual support and help. We shall also form partnerships with the voluntary sector to establish one-stop shops that will assist asylum seekers in navigating their way around their new surroundings and accessing local health and welfare facilities as necessary. We are providing funding for those centres.

As we said in the White Paper, we are determined to achieve faster processing targets for asylum applications. As is plain from the text of the White Paper that I published in July 1998, we never said that the new support arrangements would be introduced only when the two and four-month targets had been achieved. New support arrangements have always been due to come into force in April 2000. We said that we would aim to beat the two and four-month targets for most—but not all—applicants by April 2001. Early introduction of the new support arrangements is a key part of the wider strategy for reforming the system, achieving the targets, and bearing down on the so-called pull factors in the present system which, unquestionably, have attracted many asylum seekers with unfounded claims to this country, as they have to many other European countries.

We recognise that, especially in the early stages, there may be cases in which support under the new system lasts longer than six-months. Similarly, for in-country applicants, support through local authority vouchers may last longer than six months. For families, support through vouchers is the arrangement provided by many, but not all, local authorities, whereas for single asylum seekers it is the universal system of support provided by local authorities.

For that reason I agreed, earlier in the summer, following representations from colleagues, that families with children would not be brought into the new support system until the process targets for those cases could be achieved. We aim to achieve those by April 2000.

It may reassure my hon. Friends to know that since 1 October, all new applications from families with children have been identified for rapid processing. About 600 such applications were made in October, and most applicants have been given 14 days to prepare their case and return for interview. Of 78 families making personal applications in Croydon, decisions have been made in 50 cases, including two grants of refugee status and one of exceptional leave to remain. At the end of September, the average time for dealing with an asylum appeal to an adjudicator was 13 weeks, which is one month inside the four month target.

Concerns were raised in the other place by the Bishop of Southwark and others who supported amendment No. 135. Those concerns have been raised in turn with me by my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Mr. Casale), who passed on representations from the Council of Christians and Jews. I hope that what I have said about the interim arrangements and the bringing into force of new support arrangements for families will help to reassure my hon. Friend and those on whose behalf he made his points.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

If the faster turnaround time for families with children is maintained, does the Home Secretary intend from 1 April next year to transfer families with children who are currently in the backlog of cases ahead of other applicants away from local authority support or social security benefits towards the new arrangements?

Mr. Straw

The most practical way to proceed is that people whose cases exist before 1 April next year should remain the responsibility of the relevant local authority. That may not last forever, but from our negotiations with local authorities it seems to be the least disruptive arrangement. We may proceed differently in due course, but if someone has waited a year or two years in a particular area, it would be unacceptable to require that person to move in order to meet a national dispersal policy. Typically, such people will have made arrangements for schooling, health care and so on. Financial responsibility will move to the Home Office, but we will not move people who are settled, for the time being, and whose cases have frankly taken too long to be dealt with. I hope that that policy is acceptable across the House.

In discussing our targets for families and others, I am talking about meeting targets for most cases, not all. Some families will inevitably stay longer in the system. In relation to other cases, we have announced that we will make discretionary payments to asylum seekers—families or single people—who stay in the support system through no fault of their own for more than six months, another point on which concern was raised earlier in the year. There will be a single payment of £50 per person for an asylum seeker and his or her dependants. That would be additional to the normal support, and paid in the form of a cashable voucher. A further payment will be made in cases, hopefully small in number, where a person remains in the support system for more than 12 months.

The arrangements to be established under part VI of the Bill will be fairer than the present system. They will be better than they are for some asylum seekers at the moment, and in all cases, they will certainly be no worse. They make more effective use of available resources, and they will be a disincentive to those who seek to exploit the asylum system for their own ends.

Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea)

Would my right hon. Friend tell me how confident he feels of his ability to meet the targets for single claimants by April 2001? In the Select Committee on Home Affairs, I asked the Lord Chancellor a similar question about the target for appointing adjudicators to enable the targets to be met, and he said that he would be a very brave man if he answered that.

Mr. Straw

I am a brave man, so I shall answer the question. We aim to meet the target. The target for appeal cases has already been met, although we cannot guarantee that it will continue to be met as the number of asylum claimants increases.

It is well known—indeed, it has been a matter of considerable debate in the House—that the number of asylum seekers in this country has increased greatly in recent months and has created a huge burden, not least for local authorities in Kent. The number has not risen because we are a soft touch, as the Opposition claim—I reject that suggestion. The largest increase is in asylum seekers from countries in the former Republic of Yugoslavia, which has been subject to great violence and political disruption. Many of those people are genuine asylum seekers, others are chancers who masquerade as genuine asylum seekers. The second largest increase is in asylum seekers from Somalia, where there is no effective Government and great political violence. Although we also receive applications from countries where the risk of persecution is non-existent or tiny, the pressure on all European countries is related to the extent of political violence in other individual countries.

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To put the matter in perspective, Ireland, which previously received no asylum claims, has received 1,000 applications in one month. Given the size of the Republic of Ireland, the proportion of claims is significantly higher per head of population there than in the United Kingdom.

The severe pressure on the Immigration and Nationality Directorate has increased. We are working hard to solve the problems that were caused earlier in the year by a combination of the computer system and a change of accommodation. I am happy to debate the terms for the computer system that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald signed in 1996. She almost signed blind a contract that contained no contingency arrangements. I shall debate the matter with her or her deputy at any time. I shall make the contract available to her so that she understands what she signed and why the combination of the contract and having to move to different accommodation created severe difficulties.

We have reversed the cuts in staff that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald planned. We have employed hundreds of new staff; hundreds more are being recruited. I hope that we shall meet the two month plus four month target for new applicants by April 2001, but I cannot guarantee that.

As I have already made clear, if asylum applicants remain in the system for more than six months through no fault of their own, we shall pay them periodic single payments of £50 a head every six months.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)


Ms Abbott


Mr. Straw

I gave way earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), but I shall do so again.

Ms Abbott

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way so gracefully. I am genuinely anxious to clarify the position of those whose cases form part of the black backlog. There are thousands of them in east London and other inner-city areas. My right hon. Friend said that such people would not be subject to dispersal. However, he also seemed to claim that the new support arrangements would apply to them—and they would thus lose their entitlement to benefits. Will my right hon. Friend clarify that point?

Mr. Straw

On a phased basis, we intend to transfer formal responsibility for those people from local authorities. In many cases, we shall use the same local authorities as agents on behalf of the asylum support system. There is no argument between my hon. Friend and me. If people have waited for some time for the processing of a claim—whether it is genuine or unfounded; the circumstances of the transfer from their country are often traumatic—and have settled in an area, I, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and the officials in the Department have no interest in gratuitously disrupting reasonably settled lives. We shall transfer the responsibility for making payments to them, but that responsibility is essentially administrative. In almost every case, the asylum seeker will not notice the change.

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

I would like clarification on the issue of periodic payments. Will my right hon. Friend advise the House how periodic the payments will be? When will they be reviewed?

Mr. Straw

They will be paid every six months.

As this is a short debate, I should like to bring my remarks to a close. I shall do that by seeking to draw out from the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), who is deputising for the shadow Home Secretary, exactly what has happened inside the Conservative party since Conservative peers supported amendment No. 135 in another place just three weeks ago.

In the debate on the timetable motion, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald sought to suggest that her noble Friend Lord Cope of Berkeley had given only qualified support to amendment No. 135 when it was debated in the other place as amendment No. 118. However, I have Lord Cope's speech before me and he gave unqualified support to the amendment, which would cost £500 million and would restore cash benefits to those from whom they were taken away as a result of the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996. Lord Cope said: Therefore I support amendment No. 118."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 October 1999; Vol. 605, c. 1147.] I wrote to the right hon. Lady, expressing some surprise that she was going to continue to ask for arrangements that she had withdrawn from asylum seekers in 1996 and, more importantly, that she was going to continue to impose a severe burden on her constituents, on those of my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser) and on those of every Member representing a constituency in Kent or in London. She replied and said that amendment No. 135 was sensible and common sense. I put that point to her in the House and asked her to understand what she had done, but she brushed aside my suggestion that the amendment would—as it is bound to—continue the existing burden on Kent and London local authorities. She said: Amendment No. 118"— as it then was;— was moved by the Bishop of Southwark…and was supported by us".—[Official Report, 26 October 1999; Vol. 336, c. 818.] She said that without qualification. That was the right hon. Lady's view just two weeks ago, but we are now told that she has changed her mind. Instead, she has tabled an amendment that is, frankly, almost meaningless.

I understand the truth, and I think that everyone else does. As I warned the right hon. Lady in the debate on 26 October, one of the dangers of the kind of instantaneous opposition that she practises and her willingness to answer every telephone call from a journalist and then to give an instantaneous quotation, is that one ends up speaking before one thinks. That, of course, is exactly what she has done. There was a suggestion that I should not offer that warning to the right hon. Lady, in case she learned the error of her ways. However, she is so incorrigible that there is no danger of that.

The right hon. Lady thought that the amendment was a good ruse, so she got Lord Cope of Berkeley not just to support it sotto voce, but to add his name to it and to whip into the Lobby every Conservative peer, including hereditary peers, who could be found. However, she had not worked out for a second what the amendment would cost, but when I put the cost to her, as I did in a letter that I wrote to her and again on the Floor of the House, she thought that she could brazen it out. What she did not see in the debate on 26 October was the faces of the Conservative Members sitting behind her. Their faces were filled with horror at what she had let them in for—and she has let them in for something.

The amendment, which the Opposition are trying to move in lieu, is of no consequence. It is meaningless, but I shall not detain the House on why it is. It seeks to have some information put before the House, but after the relevant part of the Bill has come into force rather than before. We want the hon. Member for Aylesbury, who will speak on the right hon. Lady's behalf, to tell us why the Conservative Members supported that £500 million amendment and why they were ready to continue the burden on the people of Kent and of London, a burden which they placed on them in the first place and which the Bill and my motion seek to relieve.

Mr. Lidington

I would have had rather more regard for the Home Secretary's final tirade had he not been the then Opposition spokesman who fought tooth and nail against the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993, the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 and every measure taken by Conservative Governments to enforce stricter laws against illegal immigration and the abuse of the asylum system.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) explained fully during her remarks on the timetable motion that Conservative peers joined Cross Benchers, Labour peers and Liberal Democrat peers to support the Bishop of Southwark's amendment as the best vehicle for getting a further debate in this House about the way in which the Government's voucher scheme, which we have said repeatedly that we support, risks being destabilised by inadequate preparation and forethought on the part of Home Office Ministers.

The reason for the Home Secretary's patent embarrassment tonight has been the faces and expressions of his right hon. and hon. Friends on the Benches behind him. The last thing that he wanted, particularly this evening after proceedings on a different Bill, was a debate on an issue that arouses disquiet not just among members of opposition parties, but among many long-standing and loyal members of his own party.

We are entitled to be sceptical about the Government's reassurances, not simply because of their record in opposing Conservative measures to restrict the abuse of asylum, but because of their record during their two and a half years in office. There have been record queues, record asylum applications and record backlogs building up at the Croydon headquarters of the immigration and nationality directorate.

Mr. Straw

The hon. Gentleman is surely not leaving the Opposition's support for amendment No. 135 there. Is that all that he intends to say about it?

What the hon. Gentleman claims about the position taken in the other place is simply untrue. Lord Cope said none of the things that the hon. Gentleman suggests he said. He said nothing about the amendment being a vehicle for debate. There are many other vehicles for debate. He said that he supported it. That is what the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald said. When she wrote back to me, she was trying to justify the content of amendment No. 135. Why has the hon. Gentleman changed his tune and backed off?

Mr. Lidington

The Home Secretary fails to point out that when my right hon. Friend wrote to him, she made it clear that she was not prepared to take any lessons on the issue of asylum seekers from a Government who had presided over record numbers of applications, the vast majority of them bogus, and who had presided over the grinding to a halt of the processing system because of the mismanagement within the Home Office, presided over by Ministers.

It is no good the Home Secretary seeking to attribute all blame for delay and difficulties in administration on the situation that he inherited. His Department's annual report a year ago, which I assume he read before putting his name to it, stated with regard to the immigration and nationality directorate: The situation has now settled, and the majority of problems have been resolved. However, if we examine the check list of the targets that the Government set for themselves in the White Paper on asylum and immigration published in July 1998, we find that they are failing dismally to achieve the objectives that they had set, taking into account the situation that existed.

The target for asylum decisions during the financial year 199 000 was 59,000. In the first half of that financial year, the total number of decisions taken was 20,605. It was running at a rate about one third below the Government's professed target. The same applies to appeals disposals. The target was 46,000, but the actual number of appeals processed was 15,000 for the half year—again, roughly one third down on the target that Ministers had set for themselves.

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The impact of that is seen in the additional expenditure that the Government have to find. According to a recent written answer from the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), the budget for asylum seekers support, for which they had set a target of £350 million for the current financial year, will be between £450 million and £490 million,

Not only the Opposition but the Government themselves have linked delays and backlogs to the effectiveness of the new support arrangements which they plan to introduce under part VI. On page 40 of the White Paper, the Government said that they could not establish the new, faster asylum process, to which they were committed, without first tackling the backlogs. They also said, on page 36, that delays send a clear message to abusive applicants that the system cannot cope and is ripe for exploitation.

Earlier this year during proceedings on the Bill, the Government repeatedly made a virtue of their intention that the new system of support should be short term. In the asylum support information document published by the Government in March 1999, the arrangements embodied in part VI are described as: a short-term, basic safety-net arrangement". The then Minister with responsibility for immigration told the Special Standing Committee on 4 May that, in considering the accommodation needs of asylum seekers, it must be remembered that they are likely to be here for only a short time.

Some Liberal Democrats may have strong objections in principle to the voucher scheme, while other Conservative Members support the measure in principle but are gravely worried about the difficulties that the Government face in implementing the scheme. However, there are real concerns about the gap that is opening up between the Government's stated objectives and the practical challenge that the Government face in implementing these complex new arrangements in the short time scale that Ministers have set themselves.

Mr. Marsha Singh (Bradford, West)

In 1996, the Conservative Government's removal of cash benefits from asylum seekers was a disgraceful and inhuman act. In seeking to restore those benefits, they now accept that and that they were totally wrong.

Mr. Lidington

I am not sure what point the hon. Gentleman is making, but what I find extraordinary, and what I suspect he finds somewhat embarrassing, is the way in which Ministers, having denounced the measures introduced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), now seem to be inching towards something which they believe follows in his footsteps even if they do not wish to alert their own Back Benchers to that fact.

The Government have set themselves a tight timetable for introducing the part VI measures. The voucher administration contract is due to be let at the end of this year. That contract will presumably have to arrange for the printing and distribution of the vouchers, for retailers to accept them and for a proper audit system to avoid fraud. All those systems must be put in place within three months flat.

The contract for the supply of Home Office-funded accommodation faces an even tighter time scale. That is intended to be awarded at the end of January 2000, leaving just 44 working days between the award of the contract and the new system coming into operation.

The sort of problems that the Government may face can be seen from their recent statements on the asylum seekers support agency. As recently as June, Ministers predicted that they would need between 100 and 200 additional staff to ensure that that agency operated efficiently; but less than five months later, the figure has risen to 512. That is between two and a half and five times the Government's original estimate of the number of staff that would be needed.

We have heard a lot from Ministers about the importance of the interim measures. There is broad agreement across the House that they are necessary to alleviate the burden on local authorities as quickly as possible but we are still waiting for the details, and we read in the newspapers of protests by local authorities about underfunding from the Home Office under the current arrangements and under the proposed arrangements in the Bill. The failure to clear the backlogs means that the Government will have to operate a multi-tier system of support from April 2000. There will be no simple transfer from the arrangements they inherited to a brand new, sparkling, hunky-dory system of asylum seeker support.

I understood the Home Secretary to say that somebody who had claimed at a port before April 2000 would continue to receive social security benefits after 1 April 2000 until either there had been an adverse decision on the case and the applicant was awaiting appeal or until some unspecified future date at which an unspecified transfer arrangement would come into force to take that asylum seeker on to the new part VI arrangements.

Similarly, somebody who had made a claim in-country before the end of March 2000 or was appealing after an adverse decision would remain on local authority support—or at least that level of support—until he, too, could be transferred at some unknown date and by some unknown arrangement to the new part VI arrangements. New asylum applicants would go on to the new arrangements from day one except for families with children, who, as the Home Secretary has said, would be treated in a different way. It seems that, after 1 April next year, the Government will be trying to run in parallel at least four different arrangements for asylum seeker support. Inevitably, that will breed a certain measure of complexity and it poses a real challenge for the practical operation of the scheme. The Government are at serious risk of underestimating how difficult that challenge may prove.

If I want to be partisan in the debate, I might say that the Child Support Agency is etched on the memory of many Members on both sides of the House. [Interruption.] Before Ministers become too excited—

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

They all supported it.

Mr. Lidington

Before Ministers become too excited, they should remember, as my hon. Friend points out, that they voted for the establishment of the CSA. They should also remember their experience this summer with the issue of passports and the payment of retirement pensions to newly retired people at the turn of this year, when many of them had to wait many weeks to receive the pension to which they were entitled because of a breakdown at the Benefits Agency.

Presumably, the new system under part VI of the Bill will involve the Home Office—or its contractors or agents—providing accommodation, furniture, bed linen, laundry facilities, washing and cooking facilities, crockery, cutlery, access to legal advice—

Mr. Allan

Changing light bulbs.

Mr. Lidington

Changing light bulbs, as the hon. Gentleman says. Some medical checks and medical cover will also be provided, and the Home Secretary knows that the British Medical Association is concerned about that. All that provision will have to be set up at breakneck speed and must be operational by 1 April next year. Disquiet is being expressed not only by politicians, but by local authorities—even those that want the new system to be put in place as quickly as possible—and the Immigration Advisory Service and organisations such as the Refugee Council. If the Home Office does not reflect carefully and devote continued concentration to the practical implementation of its scheme, there is a real danger that it will end up with a botched job. That will not be in the interests of the genuine asylum seeker or of fairness in this country.

It is in the Government's interests, and those of the asylum seekers on whose behalf they claim to be acting, for them to make sure that they put in place the practical arrangements for which the Opposition have been calling and report to the House of Commons regularly on what they have managed to achieve, rather than leave it to leaks and rumours in the media to provide Members of Parliament with information about their constituents. I hope that, even now, the Government will accept the amendment that the Opposition have urged on them. It would help them to ensure that the practical implementation of their scheme benefits the people of this country.

Mr. Gerrard

I shall try to be brief because I know that other hon. Members want to take part in this debate. I do not want to spend very long on the Tory amendment because all we have heard from the Tory party in this debate has been utter hypocrisy. Not a single word has shown any real concern for asylum seekers and what happens to them. It is obvious that the one purpose of the amendment, which does not even try to get at the figures that matter, such as those on what is happening to families or individuals on the support scheme and how long they stay on it, is to amass ammunition for a knockabout argument with the Government over a couple of months. The amendment has nothing to do with the genuine interests of asylum seekers.

Everyone who is concerned with asylum and immigration wants a system that works, and works efficiently. I believe—I think that most people do—that the best deterrent to fraudulent claims is a system that makes quick decisions and enforces them. Creating such a system is the most important thing that we could do to sort out the problems.

The amendment is about more than decision making. It goes to the heart of the Bill's provisions on the support system; it refers to cash support. I want to put it on record again that I still believe that a cash support system is far superior to one that is based on vouchers. I shall not rehearse all the arguments about vouchers; suffice it to say that a cash support system is better, cheaper per capita and far easier to administer.

I have yet to see any convincing proof of the simplistic argument that cash benefits are a pull, although it is stated as an assertion, almost as if it were simply a matter of fact or common sense, and inevitable. The only statistics that I have ever heard quoted to support such an argument are on the shift in the balance of applications, as more people began to apply at port after cash benefits were withdrawn from in-country applicants. In fact, applications at port went from one third of the total pre-1996 to about 40 per cent. during 1996, up to 51 per cent. in 1997, and back down to 41 per cent. in 1999. Therefore, the balance has not shifted significantly.

Let us consider the detailed analysis of what has happened. In 1998—these are recent applications—nearly 40 per cent. of grants of asylum and 64 per cent. of grants of exceptional leave were made to port applicants. If it were true that fraudulent applicants were attracted by cash benefits, one would have expected the proportion of people being granted asylum and exceptional leave at port to have fallen. It did not.

Let us consider countries such as Yugoslavia, Somalia and Afghanistan from which no one disputes that many genuine applicants come. There are widely different patterns in the proportions of people who apply at port and in-country; the argument is not simplistic. There are obviously all sorts of factors at work concerning where people choose to apply. The question is not just simply of the pull of benefits. If there were such a pull, why are there so few asylum seekers in Scotland, where they still receive the full rate of income support, whoever they are? We have not seen floods of people suddenly deciding to go to Scotland.

9. 45 pm

As for the other targets that the amendments address, the obvious question is: can they be achieved? They are not being achieved now. I had a written answer two weeks ago telling me that the current average time for processing was four years. I see the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) nodding—but many of those people applied before the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993, and the Government whom he supported deliberately put them into a separate queue, and created a backlog by not processing their applications. They tried to speed up applications overall by dealing with recent applicants while letting the older applications stay in the queue.

Listening to the Home Secretary, I was a little worried that we might be starting to move down that road again, by creating a fast track for families with children, for whom target times will be met while leaving other people to sit and wait longer, or by dealing with new applicants fast and letting previous applicants wait.

It may be true that appeals are being dealt with within 13 weeks on average, but that is after a period in which relatively few decisions have come out of the Home Office. If decisions from the Home Office are made more quickly, so that there are more of them, there will be a question mark over whether the appeal authorities will be able to deal with the increased flow.

The other direct consequence of the Government's rejection of the Lords amendment is that we shall adopt the interim scheme. Hon. Members who have not yet done so should read the consultation paper, because it will definitely affect their local authorities. The scheme is a Government scheme in all but name, but will be run by local authorities.

Can we really expect local authorities to operate a voluntary scheme of dispersal? It may be voluntary for the local authorities, but not for asylum seekers, who will be told where to go. What will happen when different local authorities adopt different standards, and different tests of destitution are applied?

How will families survive? My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made great play of a commitment that he gave in the summer that families with children would not go into the support system. None the less, they are going into local authority support systems. He said that local authorities would be able to provide cash if they chose, but if they do not have to supply cash to families, that must mean—[Interruption.] I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend would confirm that local authorities will have to give cash to families, and will not have a choice.

Mr. Straw

I am glad to offer my hon. Friend reassurance. Under the Children Acts, under which support for families with children is provided, local authorities have the discretion to provide support either in cash or in kind, or a mixture of both. There is a wide range of provision, and we do not intend to change those arrangements when we bring in the interim arrangements that will apply between 1 December and 1 April.

Mr. Gerrard

The implications of that seem to be that there will be families with children who have to live on vouchers.

Much play has been made about what the voluntary sector will do. We are making all sorts of assumptions about what they will contribute in the new support scheme, such as supporting people who cannot be removed.

Mr. Clappison


Mr. Gerrard

I want to finish my speech, if the hon. Gentleman will let me, because I know that other people want to speak.

We are asking the voluntary sector to support people who may be destitute, but the support that they get may be taken into account in deciding whether they qualify as destitute for local authority purposes. That is important, because we are telling the voluntary sector that it will not be able to top up payments and give people additional help. If voluntary organisations do that, what they give will be taken into account in assessing destitution.

I am sorry to see us enacting the Bill in this form. I hope that I am wrong, and that in a year, 18 months or two years, my right hon. Friend will be able to demonstrate that we have a system, including a support system, that works. However, I am afraid that that will not happen and that we are passing a Bill that will create even worse chaos than exists now.

Mr. Allan

I commend the Bishop of Southwark's amendment. It was supported by a rainbow coalition of all parties and of none in the Upper kaufHouse. It is a tribute to the Bishop of Southwark and those in the upper House who took an independent view and were not tempted to view immigration matters as a sensitive political concern about which they must at all times be defensive. It sometimes appears that the other place is more willing to celebrate the contribution made by refugees to this country.

The Home Secretary appeared at one point to have seen the light when he referred to international conditions being the main driver behind the recent increase in asylum applications. That is the argument advanced by the Liberal Democrats in recent years, but the Home Secretary contradicted himself later by describing the cash benefits as the principal pull factor. The Home Secretary appears to argue either position as it suits him.

The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) said earlier that Liberal Democrats said nice things about the Home Secretary, but the hon. Gentleman himself played a constructive role in Committee. We formed an effective opposition in that Committee, but unfortunately the Home Secretary was not able to appreciate that.

We agreed with the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) when he said that the issue is primarily administrative, not legislative. Getting the administration right is the key, not simply banging through more legislation to pile on top of what we have had already. We were promised a fundamental review of all immigration legislation in this Bill, but other issues have been tagged on—not least the support system that we are debating. In our view, the Government are following the Conservatives' pattern of talking tough and legislating on immigration but then watching the system descend into further chaos. The support system in the Bill will continue that pattern.

The Lord Chancellor's comments about the likelihood of meeting the six-month target and recruiting the adjudicators have already been mentioned. The Home Secretary also said that the Government were aiming to meet the target, but that is meaningless in terms of holding the Government to account on those targets. We have also heard the evidence of the unions who represent workers in the immigration service. They appeared before the Special Standing Committee and said that even with the workers who were being recruited, the service would not be able to keep up with the growing backlog. The immigration service unions have since confirmed the problems faced in Croydon and elsewhere. We cannot therefore sit here and blithely accept the Home Secretary's assurances that he hopes to meet the target.

In the context of dispersal, it is vital that local authorities be given assurances about the targets, because they need to be able to plan. The local authority in Sheffield has voiced its concerns to me, and I am sure that other hon. Members will have had the same experience. How can local authorities plan for education and social services unless they know how long they will be responsible for applicants for asylum? Local health services have similar problems.

We provided a tremendous reception for Kosovans in my local authority, but that was based on full backing from the Home Office and a clear idea of what would happen. That will not happen under the new system and the asylum support directorate. The situation will be chaotic, and local authorities will find that difficult. However, we can be sure that they will continue to pick up the pieces for people who are desperate. The social services and other agencies, including the churches and the voluntary sector—often funded by the local authority for precisely that purpose—always do, whatever we put in the Bill about specific responsibilities for local authorities.

We are concerned that the Asylum Support Directorate is advertising under the Government scheme—not the one in the amendment—for other accommodation outside the consortium. How can a local authority plan to participate in such arrangements when advertisements are placed seeking other providers of accommodation in its area? Again, it may not always feel included in those discussions, nor able to contribute effectively to decisions about where people should end up.

The messages that have been given out have not always been helpful. I join in the commendations of the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser) for the way in which he has taken a principled position, but it is clear that local authorities have been told that knife-wielding maniacs from Kent will be coming their way under the dispersal arrangements that the Government will impose. The publicity that has been created—and examples have been cited in the House—has been entirely counterproductive when it comes to getting local authorities outside London and the south-east to co-operate and participate. I very much regret some of the comments that have been made.

The figures given by the Home Secretary in rejecting the amendment were assertions, not facts. They are supported by no evidence other than the assertions of his officials. As happened with the police figures, the Home Secretary sometimes has to return to the House and say that the assertions made by his officials are not entirely what he would have wished to make had he checked them more carefully. We consider that the assertions behind the figures that the Home Secretary gave are based on supposition, in an attempt to make a case that he has decided already.

The hon. Member for Walthamstow rehearsed the arguments about the figures after the 1996 Act, when the choice was between cash benefits and nothing. If a deterrent effect existed, at most it was of about 10 per cent. initially, before fading altogether. The Home Secretary's figures ask us to assume a deterrent effect of 20 per cent., but we have no serious reason to take that as a fact.

The costs of the new system will be much higher—even the Government have admitted that administering vouchers will be more expensive. Officials from Kent county council told the Special Standing Committee that choosing the voucher option would be a disaster. Representatives from the Association of London Government said that the system would be expensive and difficult to administer.

However, the Bill proposes a central unit to administer that system throughout the country and to manage contracts that are supposed to cover details such as the changing of light bulbs and the provision of basic necessities. We are expected to take at face value the assertion that, in effect, the system will cost nothing, whereas a system involving social security benefits would be a full-cost operation. Clearly, rejecting the amendment and going down the route proposed in the Bill will involve an enormous cost.

We are also asked to take at face value the assertion that the administration system will work, yet we hear stories about how little communication exists between the asylum casework section and the new Asylum Support Directorate. The two operations must go hand in hand: the support system cannot work unless the casework is progressing effectively. I hope that the Home Secretary will be able to correct me, but I understand that the computer systems for the casework directorate and the Asylum Support Directorate are not compatible.

Major worries remain about the manipulation and management of the hearings that will allow people to come off the system within six months. There is no evidence that the problems of that self-created millennium bug have been solved, even though the clock is ticking and there are only five months to go until the system becomes operational in April 2000.

The key is to get the determination right and fair at the first attempt. That is the way to speed up the system and resolve the problems with it, but there is no evidence that the Government will be able to deliver that.

My noble Friend Earl Russell referred in another place to the Child Support Agency. The difficulties that he described with that agency bore uncanny parallels with the problems evident in the asylum system. He spoke of implementing simultaneously a major piece of legislation, a major administrative reorganisation and a major new computer system, and described the disaster that that could cause. That is uncannily reminiscent of what happened with the Passport Agency, and I regret that it may also happen with the Asylum Support Directorate.

If the amendment is rejected and the Government's bland assurances and unfounded assertions on this issue are accepted, I fear that we shall have to return to the House in a few years to consider yet more legislation, which will be sold to us as the magic wand to solve a problem that will have got worse in the intervening period.

10 pm

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) talked about a magic wand. There is no such thing and I do not see one coming along.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) spoke with authority and compassion about the effect of the present system on genuine asylum seekers—the situation inherited from the Conservative party. Those of us who represent constituencies with large numbers of asylum seekers, as I do, are well aware of the impact on them of that administrative confusion.

The hon. Member for Hallam also says that he wants a system that is fair, but in my experience, where the system works, it is very fair. For example, last month I held a three and a half hour advice bureau, which dealt mostly with people who were here and had been given indefinite or considerable periods of leave to remain. They were mainly Somalis. They had no complaints about the system that had allowed them to be here as asylum seekers. Nor did they have any complaints about Manchester city council. That council has not had any complaints about the situation—it has done remarkable things for asylum seekers, particularly those from Somalia but also those from Kosovo. We have a large number of people from Kosovo in my constituency.

So many people who have been asylum seekers come to my advice bureau not because they are here or are not being sustained, but because the system has become so clogged with bogus asylum seekers that they cannot get the processing that they need—for example, with travel documents and verification of their presence here.

One of my cases concerns a woman from Croatia who is an asylum seeker. She needs verification of her status from the Home Office because she cannot obtain the benefits to which she is entitled. She is getting cheques on a weekly basis, at best. That is because she has been waiting for 15 months simply for a reply from the Home Office, owing to the misguided legislation of the Conservative party which has resulted in chaos in the system—utter chaos for applications and appeals. As a result, people with genuine and important problems cannot get responses.

Week after week I have to deal with the problems of people not only from Somalia, but from Sierra Leone, Algeria, Libya—an appalling case involving a man who had had a frightful wound inflicted on him—Iraq and many other countries. They have no problem with being in this country. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has treated all of them very well indeed. The problem is that they are in a state of limbo because the system is clogged with bogus asylum seekers.

Last weekend, I had a discussion with senior members of the race relations sector in Manchester. As it happens, it was at an event organised by Asian constituents. They told me of their total support for this legislation. They do not support it because they are happy with it—who can be happy with legislation that has to introduce such Gordian measures? My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is not happy that he has had to introduce it. They support it because they believe that it is the best way to cut open the system and rid it of the awful consultants and solicitors who have battened and leached on certain people, urging them to apply for asylum when they are not eligible and making money out of human misery.

That human misery is twofold. There is the human misery of the genuine asylum seekers who are not having their cases dealt with efficiently or satisfactorily, and that of the people who have been induced to apply for asylum who are never in a million years going to get it but whose cases must be considered as if they are genuine, just in case they turn out to be such.

That is the unhappy dilemma facing my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. He is using better endeavours—better than any Home Secretary whom I have encountered in my 29 years in this place—to deal with problems that are often insoluble, always vexatious and sometimes—far too often—exacerbated by the exploitation of the system by people who are exploited by consultants. If there is one reason why I want this Bill on the statute book, it is so that the measures against the bogus consultants and exploitative solicitors can be brought into action. I name Thornhill Ince in Manchester as a firm of solicitors whose exploitation of members of the ethnic minority communities is absolutely scandalous.

I wish, as does my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, that he did not have to introduce the systems that are in this Bill, but I see no alternative. There is certainly no alternative in the amendment that he is asking the House to reject. The conditions that it would impose are not only unfulfillable but would make the situation worse. They would create a vicious circle that would not improve matters for a single human being.

Where I agree totally with my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow is on his emphasis on the fact that these people are all individuals suffering from misery, fear, apprehension and concern about their relatives abroad whom they may or may not see. We must devise not the best, but the least bad system. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is not asking for plaudits for having produced something that, in the words of the hon. Member for Hallam, will wave a magic wand. He deserves credit for understanding the issues in a way that no Home Secretary whom I have known has understood them, and for his honest efforts to achieve a solution. He may regard that as faint praise, but praise it is meant to be. I am not happy that we have to have such conditions in the Bill, but if they can cut through the logjam and discourage the consultants and the solicitors, he has some chance of making the situation better. That is why the Bill's registration system is so important.

Mr. Singh

Does my right hon. Friend believe that vouchers are a more efficient, compassionate and humane way of supporting asylum seekers than cash payments?

Mr. Kaufman

I do not believe that vouchers are more compassionate. I do not know whether they will be more efficient. They are worth trying, particularly on the discriminatory basis that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary described. I cannot say that I am delirious with pleasure at the idea that the Bill contains them, but the situation must be solved because of the many people who are suffering seriously from what my right hon. Friend inherited from the Conservative Government.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

Despite his inaccurate criticisms of the record of the previous Government, I derived a good deal of encouragement from the speech of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). The implication, when one cut through much of the language of his speech, was a recognition at last from a Labour Member that the challenge that we face is how to deter undeserving applicants for political asylum so that applicants genuinely fleeing persecution can have their claims dealt with speedily and effectively, and can be given the asylum to which they are entitled.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howard

I have very little time. I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I will not give way again.

Mr. Corbyn

Before the right hon. and learned Gentleman goes any further down this road, can he tell us where he gets any evidence that any change in the number of people fleeing to Britain, or anywhere else in Europe, to seek a place of safety under the terms of the 1951 Geneva convention has taken place as a result of a system of payments of benefits either in cash or in kind?

Mr. Howard

I am coming to exactly that point. In view of the criticisms made by the right hon. Member for Gorton and repeatedly made by the Home Secretary and other Home Office Ministers, I want to begin this necessarily brief speech by putting the record straight.

These are the figures. In 1996—the last full year of the previous Government's term—the number of asylum seekers was just under 30,009,640. In the previous year, the number was almost 44,000 —43,965 to be exact. That reduction was a direct result of the 1996 legislation for which I was responsible and the associated benefit changes for which my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) was responsible.

If we compare the figures month by month—a much fairer comparison since the changes were not in force for the whole of 1996—the percentage reduction was even greater than that represented by the figures that I have just quoted. If, for example, we compare May 1996 with May 1995, the reduction was almost 50 per cent. The statistics are a matter of record. If the Home Secretary wants to challenge them, I will give way to him.

At present, the number of those seeking asylum is soaring and out of control; the backlog is soaring and out of control. That is a direct consequence of the decisions of the Home Secretary. He had the remedy in his own hands. He could have implemented in full the measures contained in the 1996 Act and the associated benefit changes, but he chose not to do so. The consequences were predictable and they have come to pass.

I hope that the measures that the Home Secretary is now putting in place will succeed. I give him this personal assurance. I do not join him in criticising the Lords amendment this evening simply to embarrass him and make mischief for him among some of his hon. Friends. I hope that his measures succeed. If they do, it will be greatly to the benefit of my constituents in Folkestone and those in neighbouring parts of east Kent.

The effect of the Home Secretary's measures would be significantly diminished if the Lords amendment were to stand. There is concern among hon. Members of all parties about the backlog. The key to reducing the backlog is to reduce the number of undeserving applicants. That, too, is proved by the record of the previous Government. In 1995, just over 27,000 decisions on asylum were made—27,005, to be precise. In 1996, after the changes that I have described, that number increased to almost 39,000 —38,960. The number of decisions in 1996 exceeded the number of applications for asylum by almost 10,000. The backlog was being substantially reduced, which was a far cry from the situation that we face at present.

The Lords amendment would not help to remedy the present situation. Indeed, it would be counterproductive, so the Home Secretary and my right hon. and hon. Friends are right not to support it. I am sorry that we shall not have the opportunity to vote for the modest amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). I do not quite understand why the Government do not accept it. However, I am serious in my hope that the Government's measures succeed. If they do not, I hope that the Government will not shrink from reconsidering the matter and, indeed, from paying some further attention to the measures that achieved such success in 1996. I shall be ready and available to help the Home Secretary, if and when that moment comes.

10.15 pm
Ms Abbott

I am glad to have the opportunity to speak briefly in support of Lords amendment No. 135. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said that if the amendment were allowed to stand, it would set unfulfillable criteria. On the contrary, the criteria set by the amendment for the average times of determination were those that Ministers assured us over and over again—in the House and in Committee—could and would be met. I do not want to detain the House on this point, but it may be helpful if I repeat the words of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on Report. He said: 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"— that is, the target for the average times. He continued: 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 the applications are routinely not taking two months".—[Official Report, 16 June 1999; Vol. 333, c. 475.] However, tonight, the Home Secretary is presenting us with exactly that scenario. He says that, come what may, he will press the start button and begin the process. I have not yet heard a single assurance from Ministers about whether they can meet the two months and the six months time limits that we were assured, over and over again, they would reach. The Home Secretary tried to claim that there was never any connection between the introduction of the support system and the time targets. However, the Home Office document, "Asylum Seekers Support", published in March 1999, states: The proposed provision is set at 70 per cent. of the equivalent income support because the asylum support scheme is intended to be on a short-term basis, safety net arrangement, and it should be possible to live on these amounts for short periods only. There was much anxiety and concern about the support arrangements among my Labour colleagues and, over and over again, the Home Secretary reassured people that the arrangements were meant to be only short term. However, he now wants to strike out Lords amendment No. 135, and he cannot provide us with a single, practical assurance that those targets will be met.

Mr. Straw

With great respect to my hon. Friend, I have provided a most important assurance, which I also gave on Report, that, in respect of families with children, we will not introduce the voucher-based system of support until we are clear that we are meeting—for most cases, although not for all cases, as I have always made clear—the two plus four target. Moreover—I am sorry if my hon. Friend did not hear what was said, because she was certainly present—we are already rolling out arrangements to fast-track families with children. I gave details about that in respect of the first 600 such people who had made applications in October.

Ms Abbott

As my right hon. Friend will be aware, the concern is about the interim arrangements and what they will mean. I repeat to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench the concern about people whose cases are currently in the backlog. It is one thing to say that they will not be subject to false dispersal, but the transitional arrangements will have to be extremely carefully made, because although those people might not be subject to dispersal, they might lose their housing benefit. In practice, that would mean that they could no longer stay in their current homes.

I have only a few minutes in which to speak, but I put it to Ministers that, if their assurances about meeting the time targets for the resolution of those cases meant anything, they have nothing to fear from the thinking behind Lords amendment No. 135.

Ministers come to the Dispatch Box and say, wide-eyed, that they are putting time and effort into ensuring the right outcome. That might cut ice with Opposition Members who have no experience of the immigration and nationality directorate, for they do not know about the disastrous introduction of the new computer system or about the boxes of unopened files. However, after 12 long years dealing with the IND as a Member of Parliament, I wanted to hear broader assurances. Yes, families will not move straight to the voucher system, but what about single persons? What about the interim arrangements?

The amendment deals with the practicalities of the legislation and the potential to implement it fairly and efficiently. I know that many of my hon. Friends are now poised to troop through the Lobby in support of the Government, but I predict that the Bill will be like the Child Support Act 1991 in the following respect: before too long, it will be hard to find Labour Members who have any clear recollection of ever having supported it.

Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle)

I welcome amendment (a), tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), which makes much more sense than Lords amendment No. 135, which was proposed by the Lord Bishop of Southwark and accepted in another place. The message to all asylum applicants, genuine or otherwise, should not be of the continued availability of cash benefits, but of the Government having to live up to their promises of putting in place, in good working order, targeted systems for processing applications. That is why my right hon. Friend is right to try to place the Home Secretary under a clear obligation to deliver on his promises of greater efficiency.

If there were time, I would make a further suggestion to the Home Secretary, which is that—

It being twenty-two minutes past Eight o'clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker put the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to the Order this day.

Question put, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment:—

The House divided: Ayes 331, Noes 60.

Division No. 316 10. 22 pm
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Cooper, Yvette
Ainger, Nick Corbett, Robin
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Corston, Jean
Alexander, Douglas Cousins, Jim
Allen, Graham Cranston, Ross
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Cryer, John (Hornchurch)
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms Hilary Cummings, John
Ashton, Joe Cunliffe, Lawrence
Atherton, Ms Candy Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr Jack (Copeland)
Atkins, Charlotte
Barron, Kevin Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Bayley, Hugh Curtis-Thomas, Mrs Claire
Beard, Nigel Dalyell, Tarn
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Darling, Rt Hon Alistair
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough) Darvill, Keith
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C) Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Bennett, Andrew F Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Benton, Joe Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Bermingham, Gerald Dawson, Hilton
Berry, Roger Dean, Mrs Janet
Best, Harold Dismore, Andrew
Betts, Clive Dobbin, Jim
Blackman, Liz Donohoe, Brian H
Blears, Ms Hazel Doran, Frank
Blizzard, Bob Dowd, Jim
Blunkett, Rt Hon David Drew, David
Boateng, Rt Hon Paul Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)
Borrow, David Edwards, Huw
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Efford, Clive
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Ellman, Mrs Louise
Bradshaw, Ben Field, Rt Hon Frank
Brinton, Mrs Helen Fisher, Mark
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E) Fitzpatrick, Jim
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) Fitzsimons, Lorna
Browne, Desmond Flint, Caroline
Burden, Richard Flynn, Paul
Burgon, Colin Follett, Barbara
Butler, Mrs Christine Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Byers, Rt Hon Stephen Foster, Michael J(Worcester)
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth) Fyfe, Maria
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Galbraith, Sam
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Gapes, Mike
Campbell-Savours, Dale Gardiner, Barry
Caplin, Ivor George, Bruce (Walsall S)
Casale, Roger Gibson, Dr Ian
Caton, Martin Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Chapman, Ben (WirralS) Godsiff, Roger
Chaytor, David Goggins, Paul
Clapham, Michael Golding, Mrs Llin
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields) Gordon, Mrs Eileen
Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands) Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Clark, Paul (Gillingham) Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S) Grocott, Bruce
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Grogan, John
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge) Gunnell, John
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Hain, Peter
Clelland, David Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Coaker, Vernon Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Coffey, Ms Ann Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Connarty, Michael Hanson, David
Harman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet Mackinlay, Andrew
Heal, Mrs Sylvia McNulty, Tony
Healey, John Mactaggart, Fiona
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N) McWalter, Tony
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich) McWilliam, John
Hepburn, Stephen Mahon, Mrs Alice
Heppell, John Mallaber, Judy
Hesford, Stephen Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Hewitt, Ms Patricia Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Hill, Keith Marshall, David (ShetMeston)
Hinchliffe, David Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Hodge, Ms Margaret Marshall-Andrews, Robert
Hoey, Kate Martlew, Eric
Home Robertson, John Meacher, Rt Hon Michael
Hood, Jimmy Meale, Alan
Hoon, Rt Hon Geoffrey Merron, Gillian
Hope, Phil Milburn, Rt Hon Alan
Hopkins, Kelvin Miller, Andrew
Howarth, Alan (Newport E) Moffatt, Laura
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Moonie, Dr Lewis
Howells, Dr Kim Moran, Ms Margaret
Hoyle, Lindsay Morley, Elliot
Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford) Morris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Humble, Mrs Joan Mountford, Kali
Hurst, Alan Mudie, George
Hutton, John Mullin, Chris
Iddon, Dr Brian Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Illsley, Eric Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough) Murphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen)
Jenkins, Brian Naysmith, Dr Doug
Johnson, Alan (Hull & Hessle) Norris, Dan
Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield) O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Jones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn) Olner, Bill
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) O'Neill, Martin
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C) Organ, Mrs Diana
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S) Osborne, Ms Sandra
Jowell, Rt Hon Ms Tessa Palmer, Dr Nick
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Pearson, Ian
Keeble, Ms Sally Pendry, Tom
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston) Pertiam, Ms Linda
Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth) Pickthall, Colin
Kelly, Ms Ruth Pike, Peter L
Kemp, Fraser Plaskitt, James
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree) Pollard, Kerry
Khabra, Piara S Pond, Chris
Kidney, David Pope, Greg
Kilfoyle, Peter Pound, Stephen
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth) Powell, Sir Raymond
Kumar, Dr Ashok Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Ladyman, Dr Stephen Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Lawrence, Ms Jackie Prescott, Rt Hon John
Laxton, Bob Primarolo, Dawn
Lepper, David Prosser, Gwyn
Leslie, Christopher Purchase, Ken
Levitt, Tom Quin, Rt Hon Ms Joyce
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S) Quinn, Lawrie
Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs Helen Rapson, Syd
Linton, Martin Raynsford, Nick
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C) Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)
Lock, David Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N)
Love, Andrew Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)
McAvoy, Thomas Roche, Mrs Barbara
McCabe, Steve Rooker, Jeff
McCartney, Rt Hon Ian (Makerfield) Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Rowlands, Ted
McDonagh, Siobhain Roy, Frank
Macdonald, Calum Ruane, Chris
McFall, John
McIsaac, Shona Ruddock, Joan
McKenna, Mrs Rosemary Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)
Salter, Martin Timms, Stephen
Sarwar, Mohammad Tipping, Paddy
Savidge, Malcolm Todd, Mark
Sawford, Phil Touhig, Don
Shaw, Jonathan Trickett, Jon
Sheerman, Barry Truswell, Paul
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Shipley, Ms Debra Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Short, Rt Hon Clare Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Singh, Marsha Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E) Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Smith, Angela (Basildon) Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S) Tynan, Bill
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch) Vaz, Keith
Smith, John (Glamorgan) Walley, Ms Joan
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Ward, Ms Claire
Snape, Peter Wareing, Robert N
Soley, Clive Watts, David
Southworth, Ms Helen White, Brian
Spellar, John Whitehead, Dr Alan
Squire, Ms Rachel Wicks, Malcolm
Starkey, Dr Phyllis Williams, Rt Hon Alan
Steinberg, Gerry (Swansea W)
Stewart, David (Inverness E) Williams, Alan W(E Carmarthen)
Stewart, Ian (Eccles) Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Stinchcombe, Paul Wills, Michael
Stoate, Dr Howard Wilson, Brian
Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin Winntek, David
Straw, Rt Hon Jack Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Stringer, Graham Woolas, Phil
Stuart, Ms Gisela Worthington, Tony
Sutcliffe, Gerry Wray, James
Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury) Wyatt, Derek
Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S) Tellers for the Ayes:
Temple-Morris, Peter Mrs. Anne McGuire and
Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W) Mr. David Jamieson.
Abbott, Ms Diane Jackson, Robert (Wantage)
Allan, Richard Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Baker, Norman Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Ballard, Jackie Keetch, Paul
Barnes, Harry Kennedy, Rt Hon Charles (Ross Skye & Inverness W)
Beggs, Roy
Berth, Rt Hon A J Kirkwood, Archy
Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield) Livingstone, Ken
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Brake, Tom Llwyd, Elfyn
Brand, Dr Peter McAllion, John
Breed, Colin McDonnell, John
Burnett, John Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert
Burstow, Paul Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Cable, Dr Vincent Moore, Michael
Canavan, Dennis Morgan, Alasdair (Galloway)
Chidgey, David Öpik, Lembit
Clwyd, Ann Rendel, David
Cohen, Harry Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Coleman, Iain Salmond, Alex
Corbyn, Jeremy Sanders, Adrian
Davey, Edward (Kingston) Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Ewing, Mrs Margaret Skinner, Dennis
Fearn, Ronnie Stunell, Andrew
Foster, Don (Bath) Swinney, John
George, Andrew (St Ives) Webb, Steve
Gerrard, Neil Welsh, Andrew
Godman, Dr Norman A Willis, Phil
Hancock, Mike Wise, Audrey
Harris, Dr Evan Tellers for the Noes:
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome) Sir Robert Smith and
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N) Mr. Donald Gorrie.
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