HL Deb 11 February 1993 vol 542 cc788-829

4.56 p.m.

House again in Committee on Clause 4.

[Amendments Nos. 10 and 11 not moved.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Strabolgi)

I have to inform the Committee that if Amendment No. 12 is agreed to I cannot call Amendment No. 13.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 12: Page 3, line 34, leave out subsection (3).

The noble Baroness said: I shall speak also to Amendment No. 89. The provisions deal with security in two senses: security of tenure and the general position of an asylum seeker. Clause 4(3) and the paragraph of the schedule referred to propose to limit the rights of occupation of an asylum seeker by not allowing him to hold a secure or assured tenancy. That limitation will extend for up to 12 months after he ceases to be an asylum seeker. It is another piece of discrimination, in the sense of the asylum seeker being treated differently from others who hold tenancies. It adds to his insecurity while he awaits the determination of his application for refugee status. It is an insecurity in terms of his accommodation which will continue even after refugee status has been granted by the Secretary of State.

If an application for refugee status is refused, the applicant is likely to be deported. If it is granted, what benefits are there to be derived from limiting the rights of occupation properly provided? A subsidiary but important point is that the provision will require housing authorities to pass on information about the status of an asylum seeker to housing associations so that no permanent right of occupation (no secure or assured tenancy) is granted. Of course, most asylum seekers will tell the housing authority of their status. They need to show why they left their previous accommodation so that they are not regarded as intentionally homeless. It is objectionable to require a matter which should be regarded as confidential not to be so treated. I beg to move.

Lord Strathclyde

Amendment No. 12 goes to the heart of the housing provisions in the Bill by seeking to delete the provision that would limit an authority's duty towards asylum seekers to the provision of temporary accommodation.

I remind the Committee that the intention behind Clause 4 is to ensure that an asylum seeker cannot acquire the right to be allocated permanent accommodation under the homelessness legislation until his right to remain in this country has been established, although that does not prevent the authority providing such accommodation if it so wishes.

But the asylum seeker does have the right to temporary accommodation, if he meets the criteria of priority need set out in the homelessness legislation. Much of the temporary accommodation that authorities provide these days is of a good standard. We believe that temporary accommodation should be sufficient for people whose long-term future in this country has not at that stage been decided, particularly as the length of time required to determine a case should be reduced substantially as a result of the provisions of this Bill.

In providing temporary accommodation for asylum seekers, local authorities should adopt the same sort of approach as they use for other applicants under the homelessness legislation. While this sometimes involves the use of bed and breakfast accommodation, authorities are increasingly looking to other more satisfactory forms of accommodation, such as short term leased housing. There is no intention to treat asylum seekers any differently from others housed in temporary accommodation. And the same standards as to public health and hygiene—and to overcrowding—will continue to apply in all cases. The fact that accommodation provided for the asylum seeker happens at that point to be temporary should not mean that its quality is unsatisfactory. Nor does it mean that the asylum seeker is deprived of any opportunity to secure permanent accommodation in the future; it merely sets back the timing of this corresponding to the progress of his application for asylum.

Once he has been given leave to remain in this country the former asylum seeker starts with what is, in effect, a clean sheet as far as his status under the homelessness legislation is concerned. Subsection (4) of Clause 4 provides that he is deemed to have made a fresh homelessness application. The provisions in paragraph 6 of Schedule 1, which Amendment No. 89 seeks to delete—these are grouped amendments—follow from this. They work by analogy with what is already contained in paragraph 4 of Schedule 1 to the 1985 Act for the generality of homelessness applicants. Those provisions are there to allow an authority to re-house a homeless family in property which would normally be let under a secure or an assured tenancy, without guaranteeing security of tenure until it has confirmed that the family in question do indeed qualify for it under the homelessness legislation.

Without the assurance that it can if necessary repossess the property during this period, an authority would be reluctant to re-house homeless families in their own stock until such time as they had completed all enquiries about entitlement under the homeless legislation. This would mean a spell in temporary accommodation elsewhere (which might include bed and breakfast) for more homeless applicants; clearly that is not desirable. It is fair to say that the parallel provision in the 1985 Act has caused no particular problems, either for local authorities or for individuals.

When we allow for the different circumstances of asylum seekers, and the fact that their applications are deemed to have been re-made following the granting of leave to remain, the provisions in paragraph 6 of Schedule 1 are no different from those that apply to the generality of homeless applicants; there is no intention of imposing less favourable conditions on them.

As I said at the beginning, these amendments go to central issues in the housing provisions in the Bill. Amendment No. 12 is no more than an attempt to wreck those provisions. Amendment No. 89 negates what we see as a central principle of the arrangements that we are proposing. We are ensuring that asylum seekers will receive satisfactory accommodation from the moment they are accepted by local authorities under the homelessness legislation. In due course, when their future in this country is assured, they will be entitled to the same housing provision as anyone else accepted under the homelessness legislation.

I hope that that explains what we are doing in these clauses, and that the noble Baroness can withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Hamwee

I thank the Minister for some of the comments he made in that reply, particularly with regard to the standard and quality of accommodation. I hope that those will be reflected in the code when it is published. I pause because the Minister, who is nodding, may like to give us some assurances on that.

Lord Strathclyde

At this stage perhaps I could give some general assurance about the code. I am conscious that when we discussed the last amendment the noble Baroness mentioned the code. The code which is already published deals with the generality of homelessness legislation. It is done in that way because homelessness must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Therefore, guidance is provided to local authorities to lead them through the legislation.

I have already given certain assurances during the course of this Committee stage that there will be guidance to local authorities; as I have also said on this amendment.

Baroness Hamwee

The guidance to local authorities that that, despite the different treatment on the face of the Bill, should not apply when the detail of the code comes to be applied in terms of the standard, will be very welcome. We have heard several times—and of course it is welcome—that asylum seekers should receive the same treatment as other applicants, and that after they have leave to remain they will start with a clean sheet and will be treated in the same way as the generality of other applicants.

Paragraph 6(1) of the Schedule specifically provides that they may not obtain a secure tenancy or an assured tenancy before the expiry of the period of 12 months, effectively beginning with the date on which the landlord is supplied with information that they are able to remain. If the underlying message is that the generality of homeless applicants are to wait 12 months and more perhaps that means another debate, but I do not think that one can accept that the provision of the Bill treats asylum seekers in precisely the same way.

However, I am conscious of the fact that this debate has not attracted other contributors. The words "secure tenancy" and "assured tenancy", being somewhat technical, have a certain ring which perhaps makes one shut one's ears. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Before the noble Baroness does so, I should like to assure her that my silence was only an indication of my entire satisfaction with the way in which she dealt with the arguments.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 13: Page 3, line 41, leave out from ("shall") to ("and") in line 42 and insert ("continue until, in the case of that person being refused refugee status or leave to remain in the United Kingdom, such time as he leaves the country;").

The noble Lord said: This is a simple and I hope relatively uncontroversial amendment, because I think there could be an error in the drafting of the Bill.

The way in which the Bill is drafted at present means that a local authority can evict an asylum seeker as soon as the housing authority has been notified by the Home Office that refugee status has been denied. However, there could be a gap between the time that that notification is given and the time when the former asylum seeker has to leave the country. When this matter was raised in another place I understand, although I do not have the column reference, that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of the Environment, Mr. Robin Squire, gave an assurance that families would not be thrown onto the streets. This amendment would secure that position, and I hope that the Government will find it acceptable. I beg to move.

Lord Renton

Before my noble friend replies I must in all conscience apologise to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, and to the Committee for my disagreement with him over the effect of the first two amendments that we discussed this afternoon. On further consideration of the matter I say that the noble Lord was right. I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Roskill, for correcting me. I shall try to do better on future occasions.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I should like to acknowledge the generosity of the noble Lord's most recent remarks. I have always been very much in awe of him as an expert on the drafting of legislation, and I was petrified at the thought that I had to cross swords with him on that matter. It was a great relief to me to learn, first from the noble and learned Lord and then from the noble Lord, Lord Renton, himself, that I was not in error. I am grateful for what he has just said.

Baroness Hamwee

I too am reassured by those words and I am grateful to the noble Lord. In view of my comments on a previous amendment, I should say that we support the amendment moved so beautifully and adequately by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh.

Lord Strathclyde

I do not wish to break into the happy atmosphere which has developed in the Committee. I fully understand the anxiety which Members of the Committee have expressed as regards this amendment. It is certainly not the Government's intention that, where an asylum seeker's application to remain is refused, he should at once be deprived of his accommodation. I assure the noble Lord that this is not what we expect to happen.

A person only ceases to be an asylum seeker as defined in the Bill when any appeal he may be making has been finally determined. Therefore, his entitlement to accommodation runs until the time at which he is finally asked to leave the country; as long as an appeal is under consideration he retains his rights under this legislation. Once he is refused leave to remain in this country, he will be expected to depart within a matter of a few weeks at the most. For the housing authority that will be the natural way of terminating the provision of accommodation.

Realistically, the housing authority is not going to be sitting on the doorstep waiting to eject the asylum seeker and his family the moment it hears the asylum decision. Even if it were to want to take positive action to ensure that the accommodation was vacated, it would commonly need to obtain an eviction order from the courts. It will take more time to obtain that than it will take an asylum seeker and his family to leave the country.

The Bill as drafted does not prevent an authority from continuing to offer temporary accommodation for a further period if it wishes, and I am sure it would apply a degree of flexibility in those circumstances. I hope that that reassures the noble Lord that the situation he has envisaged is already catered for.

Perhaps I should confirm that this area will be covered by the code to which I have already referred. Having said that, it would be perverse to give someone a continuing right to accommodation when it has just been decided that he has no entitlement to remain in this country. That is what the amendment would do, but I hope that I have reassured the Lord and that he will withdraw the amendment.

Lord Bonham-Carter

I do not believe that we should be asked to depend upon assurances when what we seek can be written on the face of the Bill. If what the noble Lord says is true—and it probably is true—that people will not be evicted, and the Government intend that they should not be evicted, why do they not accept the amendment, which would make that quite clear? It would inconvenience no one because it would not alter the situation which the noble Lord has described.

Lord Mishcon

Perhaps I may take up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter. We all know that, in order to obtain the court's assistance in obtaining an eviction order, court proceedings must be instituted. However, there is nothing to stop an official of the local council banging on someone's door and telling them that under a certain section of an Act, he and his family must leave that property. We are dealing with a person who is a guest of our country while his application is being considered. It may have been decided that his idea of persecution is not sufficient to warrant his being admitted to asylum status.

I share the disquiet about matters on which we have received assurances being put into a code. Here I look at the noble Lord, Lord Renton, who is a sturdy fighter for Bills saying simply what they mean. Codes are like subordinate legislation, although they do not even have the force of subordinate legislation.

How do I know, how does any Member of the Committee know that a code will not be altered in two minutes, as it can be, as it is purely a question of advice? We now have the opportunity and, indeed, the duty, to see that certain provisions are included in the Bill while others are excluded from it. That is why an amendment of this kind is tabled. We appreciate the Minister's assurances about a code. However, he is being rather simplistic. What he suggests will not ensure that proper consideration is given to those people whom we are trying to look after.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Renton

I was not proposing to enter into the discussion but the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, was kind enough to challenge me slightly.

One realises the difficulties which codes sometimes produce. However, a code has the advantage that it removes the necessity of writing a vast amount of detail into a Bill as to the way in which a public official has a responsibility to exercise a discretion. Provided that it is done within the terms of the statute, it is easier to give him some guidance. There is a fair amount of detail in Clause 4 and it has to be read in the light of other legislation dealing with homelessness. Therefore, there would be great advantage in dealing with the matter as the Minister suggests. This is an occasion on which we might hope that a code will give helpful guidance to officials rather than something which could trip people up on the law.

Lord Mishcon

I do not wish to conduct a debate across the Committee, much though that is always welcome when it is with the noble Lord, Lord Renton, who always treats one with such courtesy. However, that is not the answer to this amendment, which does not go into lengthy details. It merely secures the position that there shall not be a peremptory exit by somebody who has come to these shores in need of help. The amendment seeks only to carry that through.

Lord Pitt of Hampstead

I cannot understand why the Minister resists the amendment, because it spells out what should happen. A person is allowed to stay in the property until he is refused refugee status or leave to remain in the United Kingdom. The amendment spells that out and that is what the Minister said would happen. In that case, why will he not accept the amendment?

Lord Strathclyde

I do not wish to create disagreement between the Government and the noble Lords, Lord Mishcon and Lord McIntosh of Haringey. There are two points to be considered. First, much of what I have said is based on the code of guidance on homelessness which is given to local authorities. Dealing with homelessness is an extremely complicated matter. As my noble friend Lord Renton said, it is often inappropriate to make allowances for every possible case on the face of the Bill. It is unnecessarily rigid to write the provisions into the Bill. The code is altered only after extensive consultation with local authorities, because ultimately they have to apply it. Of course, authorities have a statutory duty to have regard to those codes.

The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, made a very good case for putting what we mean on the face of the Bill. However, I hope that he will accept that, in dealing with those issues, which can mean different things to different people because of the individuality of the case, sometimes it is neither possible nor desirable to do so.

On this specific issue, there is a question of practicalities. I suggested in my initial response that, even if the housing authority concerned wished to evict a post-asylum seeker who was waiting to go back to his original country—in any case the housing authority probably would not want to evict such a person—it would be extremely difficult for it to do so because it would have to get permission from the courts. That would take a substantial amount of time. To oblige the asylum seeker and his family to leave the accommodation would take a longer amount of time than the time required for the deportation process to be concluded.

I started off by saying I had some understanding of the case the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, put forward. However, I hope the Committee agrees that this area is best left to the code of guidance and to the discretion of housing authorities. It is not our intention to have people put out on the streets before it is time for them to leave the country.

Earl Russell

I accept the Minister's comments as regards it being difficult for a local authority to evict a post-asylum seeker before he is due to leave the country. But suppose by some chance a local authority were able to do so, the question arises of what happens to the former asylum seeker in the meantime. If the order for deportation is not yet served, where is he to go in the meantime? When the Government wish to deport such a person, will they find him?

Lord Strathclyde

The noble Earl makes a valid point. That will clearly be a difficulty. There is no guarantee that, if a person has been given the right to remain in a house awaiting deportation, he will stay there in any event. If he wished to disappear from sight, he would do so whether or not he was allowed to stay in that house.

Baroness Hamwee

I say with respect that I do not think the Minister has answered the first part of my noble friend's question. Perhaps he will do so and at the same time tell the Committee whether it is satisfactory that an asylum seeker's position depends on the inability of the courts to deal with matters as fast as they otherwise might. Much of this argument seems to hinge on the fact that the processes of law are likely to take 12 months or so.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

The Minister and I are well known in the Chamber for being emollient and conciliatory people. When the Minister said he was understanding in this matter I began to think things were not so serious and that I should withdraw the amendment. However, the more he spoke, the more I began to realise how serious this matter is and how wrong the Government are about it. The Government are wrong as regards their drafting of the legislation because they are deliberately refusing to place in the Bill a safeguard which should be in legislation. This matter should not be left to a code of guidance for local authorities.

It is well known that I am not one who seeks to place more and more specific duties on local authorities. However, local authorities are at crisis point all the time as regards homelessness legislation. They are constantly seeking vacancies for people who are in great need of housing. They will be tempted to take action to remove someone from a house as soon as they are notified that they can do so. The provision in the Bill is an unnecessary denial of the protection of homelessness legislation.

The Minister also said a local authority would have to obtain an eviction order to evict a former asylum seeker, and that that process might take longer than the process the Home Office has to follow to remove a former asylum seeker and his family from the country. That is not true. For example, if the former asylum seeker is in bed and breakfast accommodation —the Government have insisted the Bill refers to accommodation as being "temporary only"—all a local authority has to do is to stop paying the accommodation bill. The former asylum seeker will then be kicked out of the accommodation. That can happen within days.

It is not satisfactory for the Minister to express goodwill and to say this matter will be dealt with by a code of practice. His facts are wrong and his interpretation of the powers of local authorities is wrong. He is once again placing asylum seekers into an intolerable position. As my noble friend Lord Mishcon said, the asylum seekers are guests of this country.

I did not intend to seek the opinion of the Committee on this amendment but, having heard the arguments, which, in my view, are overwhelmingly in favour of this modest piece of protection, I wish to do so. This modest measure would not cost a significant amount of money but it could well avoid a considerable amount of human misery. I believe I ought to take the opinion of the Committee.

5.25 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 13) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 72; Not-Contents, 107.

Division No. 2
Acton, L. Jay, L.
Addington, L. Jeger, B.
Ardwick, L. Kilbracken, L.
Attlee, E. Listowel, E.
Aylestone, L. Liverpool, Bp.
Birk, B. Longford, E.
Blackstone, B. Lovell-Davis, L.
Bonham-Carter, L. McIntosh of Haringey, L.
Bottomley, L. McNair, L.
Broadbridge, L. Merlyn-Rees, L.
Bruce of Donington, L. Mishcon, L.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L. Morris of Castle Morris, L
Cocks of Hartcliffe, L. Nicol, B.
Craigavon, V. Ogmore, L.
David, B. Pitt of Hampstead, L.
Dean of Beswick, L. [Teller.] Plant of Highfield, L.
Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L. Prys-Davies, L.
Donoughue, L. Rennell, L.
Dormand of Easington, L. Richard, L.
Eatwell, L. Ripon, Bp.
Elis-Thomas, L. Ritchie of Dundee, L.
Ennals, L. Rochester, L.
Falkland, V. Russell, E. [Teller.]
Fitt, L. Seear, B.
Foot, L. Sefton of Garston, L.
Gladwyn, L. Shaughnessy, L.
Hampton, L. Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Hamwee, B. Strafford, E.
Harris of Greenwich, L. Tordoff, L.
Healey, L. Turner of Camden, B.
Henderson of Brompton, L. Underhill, L.
Holme of Cheltenham, L. Wallace of Coslany, L.
Hooson, L. White, B.
Howie of Troon, L. Williams of Elvel, L.
Hutchinson of Lullington, L. Williams of Mostyn, L.
Irvine of Lairg, L. Wilson of Rievaulx, L.
Ackner, L. Chilver, L.
Alexander of Tunis, E. Clanwilliam, E.
Alexander of Weedon, L. Cork and Orrery, E.
Archer of Weston-Super-Mare, L. Cranbrook, E.
Crathorne, L.
Arran, E. Crickhowell, L.
Astor, V. Cumberlege, B.
Astor of Hever, L. Dacre of Glanton, L.
Auckland, L. Davidson, V.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Denham, L.
Beloff, L. Denton of Wakefield, B.
Birdwood, L. Derwent, L.
Blatch, B. Downshire, M.
Blyth, L. Elles, B.
Boyd-Carpenter, L. Elton, L.
Braine of Wheatley, L. Faithfull, B.
Brentford, V. Ferrers, E.
Brigstocke, B. Finsberg, L.
Brougham and Vaux, L. Flather, B.
Butterworth, L. Fraser of Carmyllie, L.
Cadman, L. Fraser of Kilmorack, L.
Caithness, E. Gainsborough, E.
Campbell of Alloway, L. Geddes, L.
Campbell of Croy, L. Goschen, V.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Haddington, E.
Carnock, L. Henley, L.
Carr of Hadley, L. Hesketh, L. [Teller.]
Chalker of Wallasey, B. Hooper, B.
Howe, E. Rankeillour, L.
Hylton-Foster, B. Reay, L.
Jenkin of Roding, L. Renton, L.
Kitchener, E. Renwick, L.
Lane of Horsell, L. Rodger of Earlsferry, L.
Lauderdale, E. St. Davids, V.
Layton, L. Sandford, L.
Lindsey and Abingdon, E. Seccombe, B.
Liverpool, E. Selborne, E.
Long, V. Skelmersdale, L.
Mackay of Ardbrecknish, L. Stewartby, L.
Mackay of Clashfern, L. Strathclyde, L.
Marlesford, L. Strathmore and Kinghorne, E. [Teller.]
Merrivale, L.
Mersey, V. Swinfen, L.
Middleton, L. Teviot, L.
Mowbray and Stourton, L. Thomas of Gwydir, L.
Moyne, L. Trumpington, B.
Munster, E. Ullswater, V.
Nelson, E. Vaux of Harrowden, L.
O'Cathain, B. Vivian, L.
Orkney, E. Wakeham, L.
Orr-Ewing, L. Westbury, L.
Park of Monmouth, B. Westwood, L.
Pender, L. Wise, L.
Peyton of Yeovil, L. Wolfson, L.
Prentice, L.

Resolved in the native, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

5.32 P.m

Viscount Brentford moved Amendment No. 14: Page 4, line 4, leave out (", at that time").

The noble Viscount said: In moving Amendment No. 14 I shall speak also to Amendment No. 15. In contrast with the previous amendment this amendment relates to the successful asylum seeker whose position is confirmed in this country. I want to state my case in relation to what my noble friend Lord Renton said earlier about our desire to treat asylum seekers in the same way as other people in this country. A few minutes ago, speaking in the context of a previous amendment, my noble friend the Minister said that once an asylum seeker's position was accepted he started again on the housing ladder. It seems that the asylum seeker is playing a game of snakes and ladders. He goes up the ladder when his asylum application is granted, but the same day he goes down the snake when he is told that he has to go back to the bottom of the housing ladder.

I accept that the asylum seeker should only be entitled to temporary accommodation. However, I do not accept that once his status is granted he should have to start all over again. The effect of the amendment is simply to ensure that he can retain his place on the housing ladder and be treated in the same way as other homeless people in need of accommodation. The amendment merely requires the local authority, once asylum has been granted, to backdate any new application to the date on which the asylum seeker first applied so that he continues in the same position in the queue as before. I beg to move.

Lord Bonham-Carter

I support the amendment moved by the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford. The noble Viscount explained the position with great clarity. It is a pity that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, is not in his place because, as the noble Viscount said, in his earlier intervention the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said that he thought that everyone should be treated in the same way, whether asylum seekers or resident applicants for housing. The noble Lord may think that they are being treated equally but the clause as it stands demonstrates that they are not.

As the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, pointed out, asylum seekers climb to the top of the queue and then their application for accommodation is treated as applying from the moment when their application for asylum is granted. That seems to be unfair and unjust, but it is characteristic of the way in which the Bill treats these people. It appears that asylum seekers are thought to be trying to get the better of the system. In fact, no one seeks asylum for fun. People seek asylum because there is nothing else for them to do. They are in a desperate condition. They should not be punished. I do not say that they should be encouraged, but they must be treated fairly. That is the purpose of the amendment and I believe that it is a purpose which the Committee should support.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

There is a fundamental reason why the amendments of the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, should be supported by the Committee. By the time they reach the stage which the noble Viscount mentioned these people are no longer asylum seekers. They are legitimate inhabitants of this country. If they want to become citizens they may do so at a later date, but they are inhabitants of this country and their status is equal to that of any other inhabitant of the country.

Such people have suffered a period of persecution in their own country of such severity as to convince the Home Office that the person's application for asylum is justified under the immigration rules. Secondly, even in this country they have experienced a period of considerable uncertainty, probably involving mental distress. They are almost certainly living in temporary and unsatisfactory accommodation. It is now suggested that, having been through all that, they should go to the back of the queue again. I cannot see the justification for that. I cannot see on what basis the Government can plausibly oppose the amendments.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon

I should also like to support the amendment. There seems to be a logical flaw here. The argument that is being set before us is that asylum seekers are temporary residents and therefore are entitled only to temporary accommodation. However, asylum seekers fall into two categories. In the first are those whose cases are determined on the basis that they are not entitled to asylum. They have no right to accommodation and will leave the country. In the second category are those whose cases are determined as meriting asylum. From the beginning they have been permanent residents. That is made clear at the moment of determination, but their case has always been solid. To call them temporary residents for a while and then permanent residents does not fit the case. Their status as asylum seekers is temporary, but there are various other people whose status is temporary but who may be rehoused—for example, those who are out of work for a while—or who fall into a number of other categories.

The argument that temporary residents are entitled only to temporary status does not stand up. Not only is it contrary to logic but, as other noble Lords have said, it is contrary to justice. It does not seem to be fair that those who have had to wait for a while for the determination of their status should at that moment, as the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, made clear, go once again to the back of the queue. We ask the Government to consider the matter seriously.

Lord Strathclyde

The provisions of the Bill are designed to relieve the burden that falls on certain housing authorities as a result of pressure placed on them by asylum seekers making applications under the homelessness legislation. Asylum seekers are of course assured a satisfactory underpinning level of temporary accommodation, but the intention is that they should not acquire the right to permanent accommodation until such time as they have also been granted leave to remain in this country. Hence the provisions in subsection (4) of Clause 4 mean that an asylum seeker's application under the homelessness legislation is taken to be made at the time the person ceases to be an asylum seeker—in other words at the time he receives a positive decision on his application for leave to remain.

We believe that that is the proper way of doing things. It means that a local authority can offer an asylum seeker temporary accommodation at the time he first applies without necessarily having to ensure that he satisfies all the tests they would normally apply to an ordinary applicant under the homelessness legislation since they know that there will be this further opportunity for review.

There could be circumstances where, for instance, since the time the asylum seeker is granted leave to remain, his circumstances have so changed that he no longer qualifies under the homelessness legislation; for example, because his dependants are no longer with him. It would, I believe, be difficult in those circumstances for a hard pressed housing authority to justify granting him a secure tenancy in scarce housing stock when there is a whole queue—

Baroness Seear

Is the asylum seeker any different from any other homeless person? When a homeless person reaches the top of the queue and his children have quit the nest—or whatever the situation may be —he is in an exactly similar position. Is not the refugee who has now become a regular homeless person in exactly the same position? What is the difference?

Lord Strathclyde

The noble Baroness interrupted me in mid-flow. Perhaps I may reach the end of what I was going to say. She may still not like the answer that I give, but I shall seek to give it.

It is wrong for a local authority to justify granting a secure tenancy when there is a queue of bona fide homeless people waiting to be rehoused. A couple of points need to be explained.

Lord Tordoff

I apologise for again interrupting the noble Lord. He referred to a queue of bona fide people. The asylum seekers are bona fide too.

Lord Strathclyde

I shall take no more interruptions until I have finished, and then noble Lords may make as many speeches as they wish.

Such people do not have to start again or make a fresh application. As drafted, the Bill merely allows an authority to consider the asylum seeker's circumstances at the time that leave to stay is granted.

I remind the Committee that temporary accommodation is not bad accommodation. Although I have said that there is a queue of bona fide homeless people, "queue" is the wrong word to use. The allocation of permanent accommodation is entirely at the discretion of the local authority. It is ultimately the local authority which will decide who to put where, as it already does, under current legislation.

5.45 p.m.

Viscount Brentford

I am disappointed in the answer that my noble friend gives. With other speakers, I question the validity of some of his arguments. I question how a change in the order can increase the burden on local authorities, as my noble friend said in his opening sentence. That seems to be a non sequitur.

We are referring to a change in the order. If my noble friend is right when he argues that there is no queue because the local authority has a discretion about who receives what accommodation, I question the more the significance of the clause that my amendment seeks to change.

I am not convinced by my noble friend's statement that there is not a queue. I expect local authorities to treat housing applications largely in the statutory order in which they arise. I am not happy with my noble friend's answer; he has not convinced me. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, wishes to intervene.

Baroness Hamwee

It is kind of the noble Viscount to give way. I did not seek to interrupt him. However, fearing that he might withdraw the amendment, I wished to put a couple more points to the Minister.

First, the Minister spoke of relieving the pressure on housing authorities. He referred earlier, rightly, to the pressure from asylum seekers on particular local authorities. A small number of authorities is under specific pressure. Is his concern for those few authorities, or does he expect that, having been granted leave to stay, asylum seekers may then search more widely? It does not seem likely that they will sit back, heave a sigh of relief and say, "Now we can go and live in Havering or Croydon"—I pick authorities which may not be under such pressure—having been under an authority experiencing pressure such as Westminster. It is perhaps a rhetorical point because I do not believe that it is a likely situation.

Secondly, the Minister stated that when asylum seekers have been given leave to remain they will take their place in the queue, will be treated in the usual way and may be given a secure tenancy. However, during the past hour we debated Schedule 1(6) (1) which provides that they may not be given a secure tenancy before the expiry of 12 months.

Lord Strathclyde

I am not sure that I have entirely understood the noble Baroness's point. Perhaps I may express again the principle that we seek to achieve in the clauses.

Asylum seekers will acquire their full rights to a range of benefits, including full rights to housing, only from the time that they have been granted the leave to remain. If noble Lords disagree with that principle, it is up to them to make the point and to let the Committee decide. However, that is the fundamental principle that we seek to achieve within the clauses —that the full right to housing is not granted until the leave to remain is granted.

Although the noble Baroness stated that her first point was rhetorical, perhaps I may reply. Once a person has been given the right to remain, he is then treated as an applicant for homeless provision in the same way as anyone else, depending where he comes in terms of priority needs.

Lord Bonham-Carter

Before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may intervene. He argues that the asylum seeker is entitled to full rights only from the time that the courts decide that he is a genuine asylum seeker. However, the courts have decided that he is a genuine asylum seeker from the moment that he put in his application. Therefore the principle which underlines the Bill—the Minister said that it was a point of principle—is based upon a fallacy. I hope that he will prove me wrong, but I do not believe so.

Lord Pitt of Hampstead

That is the point. When the Home Office decides finally that a person is entitled to remain in the country because he is a refugee, it means that he was so entitled from the time that he arrived. That is what the noble Lord's amendment expresses. It is worth remembering that most local authorities have waiting lists. If we ask that the applicant should join the waiting list again when the decision is made about his status, we are handicapping him. We have already handicapped him enough by insisting that he can only have temporary accommodation. But at least when it is finally decided that he may stay and he is entitled to full and proper accommodation, it should be from the date when he applies. It is from that date that he was a refugee.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon

I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Bonham-Carter and Lord Pitt, for so clearly making the precise point that I was trying to make earlier of the status being determined at the point when the applicant was first present. It seems to me that the Minister is not putting the effect of the Bill clearly. Very few asylum applicants obtain permanent rehousing before their application is determined, even though the long delays in processing are well known. The vast majority will still be in temporary accommodation. We ask that they take their place in the queue from the moment of their original application for asylum.

Lord Strathclyde

I explained earlier that the Bill as drafted merely allows a local authority to look at the circumstances of asylum seekers at the time when leave to stay is granted. However, I do not wish to press the debate much further. I accept that there is confusion in what I am putting forward. I am happy to consider the debate that we have had, take the points away and reflect on what has been said. I understand the points Members of the Committee have made and perhaps I have not expressed myself well. However, I am happy to look at them again.

Viscount Brentford

On the basis of that assurance, some of us would be happy to meet the Minister next week, if he so wishes, to discuss the matter further. We look forward to his reflections which I hope will have a capital "R" and will be true and genuine reflections. I am sure that they will be because I could not accept many of his points as being factually right. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 15 and 16 not moved.]

On Question, Whether Clause 4 shall stand part of the Bill?

Baroness Hamwee

Grateful as we all are to the Minister for assuring us that he will consider the anxieties expressed on the last amendment and reflect on them, I hope that will not be necessary. I invite the Committee to consider whether the clause in its entirety should remain part of the Bill.

Housing provisions are included in the Bill to make provision for the treatment of persons who claim asylum in the United Kingdom. Why are the housing provisions included and why are they necessary? We have been given many assurances this afternoon that asylum seekers will not be treated differently from other applicants for housing. We have also been given assurances about matters—and if I describe them as "subsidiary" I do not mean that they are unimportant but perhaps they come second in the chain of events. We have been given assurances about such matters being dealt with by way of the code of guidance. That code, which is currently to be observed by housing authorities, will be amended to take account of the provisions of the Bill.

For the reasons which have been expressed throughout the afternoon, I believe that asylum seekers should be regarded as bona fide and proper people with rights. To the extent that there should be any separate provision, I do not accept that they should be treated differently. If there are minor ways in which local housing authorities should treat them, they should be dealt with by way of the code of guidance.

Asylum seekers or refugees—the term by which most of us know these people—are not given particular favours. However, they should be guaranteed equal treatment under the law. They should not be treated better but certainly no worse. Why is it necessary to restrict the homelessness legislation, which was introduced in 1977 with wide-ranging all-party support, and focus on a small and vulnerable group of people?

For the reasons which we have covered quite extensively this afternoon, I believe that both Clause 4 and Schedule 1 are unnecessary. They duplicate existing provisions. My notes say that they will serve to create confusion; and some of the debates we have had this afternoon entirely bear that out.

The provisions are also discriminatory. They require checks to be made on a small proportion of the total number of applicants for accommodation. They draw local authorities into immigration policy. I do not believe that those authorities should concern themselves with immigration policy.

If there is to be no difference in the treatment of asylum seekers, then there is no need for the clause. The housing legislation is clear.

Local authorities have a duty to assess applicants for accommodation where a person and any dependants have no accommodation, no access to accommodation, or where there are threats of violence or actual violence, there are provisions for giving priority to certain applicants. For example, in the case of pregnancy, mental illness or disability. Local authorities are required to conduct tests of intentionality. I apologise for that horrible word. They are required to assess whether an applicant is intentionally homeless within the provisions of the Housing Act.

There is a well-established principle that local authorities should treat everyone equally under the law. The code of guidance issued by the Department of the Environment requires equality of treatment; it requires local authorities to disregard immigration status. It advises that passports should not be checked as a matter of routine. Paragraph 4.8 comments on checks based on a person's appearance, accent or name which raise doubts and uncertainties about the fairness of the treatment they may receive and delay in processing housing applications. The paragraph then states: These are directly discriminatory and therefore unlawful". That law is our law on racial discrimination.

Clause 4 requires local authorities to check the asylum status of applicants. That can only be done if they ask people who might appear to be refugees to make a declaration as to whether they are asylum seekers. We are all worried that such inquiries might be prompted by a person's appearance or a person's difficulty with the English language.

I have already said that the provisions will draw local authority housing staff into the area of immigration. I do not believe that that is right and it will place a heavy demand on staff and an acute responsibility. That is not part of their role.

The Minister has already explained to the Committee that refugees account for a large burden on a small number of authorities. In fact, they account for less than I per cent. of all homelessness applicants, but it is a large burden on some authorities. What we have not heard is any suggestion that the allocation of accommodation is misused, abused by refugees or local authorities. We have had telling debates about the reference to accommodation being "however temporary", to its availability. We all, I am sure, share an anxiety that guests to our country—as the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, rightly described them—should be met with a humanitarian response.

Members of the Committee have explained their worry that voluntary organisations—the Churches and others—who care for asylum seekers may, because they are anxious that they will prejudice the status of the asylum seekers, find themselves in an impossible position. Are they to assist on a humanitarian basis, or are they to hang back and refuse assistance because that might jeopardise the prospects of a refugee? The refugee arrivals project uses Home Office funds to provide emergency hotel accommodation. Are local authorities now to say that that accommodation is satisfactory? There will certainly be a temptation to do so. That is a very expensive way of providing accommodation and it will be for the Home Office to provide the expenditure to deal with it.

The Government must recognise the reality of the position faced by most, if not all, asylum seekers. There are very few local authorities that can offer an asylum seeker a permanent tenancy. The reality—the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, referred to it—is bed-and-breakfast. It may be a short-life unit of unsatisfactory accommodation. It may be a temporary place in a leased unit of accommodation.

There is guidance to which local authorities must have regard. That guidance should be sufficient. There are very clear provisions in the 1985 Housing Act. There are very clear safeguards against abuse.

The clause will have the consequences that I referred to: the effect on voluntary agencies and an increase in costs, in that authorities will be encouraged to offer only temporary shelter. And asylum seekers in temporary accommodation will find themselves in additional difficulties in pursuing their legal rights. They will have problems in receiving notices about appeals and about determinations of their position. There is a provision in the schedule that notice will be given if it is "available … for collection". The schedule does not even go so far as to say that it would be reasonable to expect that it might be collected.

I referred to the matter of racial discrimination, and I must come back to it. The Campaign for Racial Equality is one of a number of organisations that have expressed concern that the clause is racially discriminatory. They express the fears that I have already described. Not only do I believe that the clause is unnecessary; it is an objectionable clause. The civil liberties implications are such as to make us pause and reflect. I hope it is decided that this clause should not remain in the Bill. Members of the Committee are very fair-minded and have a particular understanding of the problems of immigrants to our country. I hope that that will be shown in the consideration of the clause.

6 p.m.

Lord Pitt of Hampstead

I support the noble Baroness on this point. The clause occasions me a great deal of worry. In principle it is discriminatory —deliberately discriminatory. The Minister admitted that. It deliberately allows asylum seekers to have only temporary accommodation. I may not agree with that principle—I think it is wrong—but another point worries me much more; namely, that it will be discriminatory in practice. At the moment, when somebody applies for accommodation nobody asks whether he is an asylum seeker. Let us be frank with each other. Unless the authority is worried about, for instance, a particular person's speech, he will not ask a white person whether he is an asylum seeker. But the moment somebody black—

Lord Strathclyde

Perhaps I may interrupt. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, also mentioned this point; namely, the idea that questions will be asked and that it is a terrible affront. Already dozens of questions are asked by housing authorities of people applying for accommodation. There are checks on their financial status; checks on their marital status and on whether there has been marital breakdown; on whether they have families, and so on. Another check on asylum status is made from the Home Office. The authorities will discover whether those people are asylum seekers generally by asking where the applicant lived before and why he left. There is nothing racially discriminatory in all of that.

Lord Pitt of Hampstead

I am sorry. The Minister may be living in a different world to the one I live in. But in the world in which I live, when the question arises of one's immigration status, the moment some black person is seen he is questioned about it.

Let me digress slightly. One of the reasons why we are all so worried is this. There is no racial discrimination legislation European-wise, and many people who go to Europe from this country—I am not talking now just of "plebs" but of people who go from here representing the Government —are asked all sorts of questions over there that are never asked of any noble Lords. That is the real world. I am saying straight that whatever view the Government may have, in practice Clause 4 will be racially discriminatory. What will happen is that any black person who is homeless, whatever other questions he is asked, will also be asked about his status migration-wise. It is in that sense that the clause is racially discriminatory.

It probably is discriminatory in a technical sense too. I have been reading the Race Relations Act and I believe that technically it probably is racially discriminatory. But I leave that aside. It is the practical side that worries me. When people seek accommodation—being homeless is a terrible position to be in—they will find themselves asked the sort of questions that they no longer expect people to ask them because they may well have been living here for 20 or 30 years.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

I do not see the clause as in any sense racially discriminatory. I think that the noble Lord opposite must have completely misapprehended the position. In any event, asylum seekers, or refugees—I prefer the word "refugees" —come from all parts of the world. Probably the biggest generator of refugees at the moment is central Europe. There are perhaps more people there in physical danger from the various things that are happening than anywhere else. I look on the clause simply as being necessary to protect the interests of those people who live near the airports. The refugees come in mainly by air and are normally placed in temporary accommodation near the airport; near, in particular, to Heathrow or Gatwick, both of which are places I have had some occasion in the past to study and of which I have some experience.

It is necessary, in fairness to applicants for accommodation who normally live near those airports, that some limitation, and some control, is exercised on the taking up of accommodation by refugees. Otherwise, homeless people—people in need of accommodation—simply because they live near to the airports will find themselves penalised and unable to obtain accommodation.

As I understand the clause—I speak subject to correction —it is designed to regulate the granting of accommodation to refugees and to secure that a fair balance is maintained between the interests of those local inhabitants who have been kept on housing waiting-lists for years and the refugees coming in. Both classes of person excite one's sympathy; both are in real need of accommodation. But if the demand of the refugees in those limited areas is to be fully met, it will swamp the accommodation that can be provided.

If the noble Lord opposite wants a way to raise racial feeling, that is the way to do it. If people think that, because they live near an airport and refugees are coming in in large numbers to that airport, they will have less chance of obtaining accommodation than those who live in other parts of the country, that is exactly the way to generate feelings which he and I, and I am sure other Members of the Committee, deplore.

I hope that my noble friend will stand firmly behind the clause, which I see as a necessary part of the Bill.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon

I support the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Pitt, in opposing the Motion that Clause 4 stand part of the Bill. Is it not the case that this is the first example since 1977 of a substantive amendment to homelessness legislation which deprives applicants of their rights?

I listened carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, said a moment ago and heard the points that he made regarding those seeking asylum status coming from many parts of the world and being of many races. But the truth is that they are a vulnerable group of both black and ethnic minority people—"ethnic minority" being a much wider term. Regardless of what part of the world they come from they will be excluded from welfare provision.

The provisions of the Bill will create enormous difficulties for local authorities, specifically in two regards. First, it will create a difficulty in regard to the amount of work which will be necessary. Reading the schedule in the Bill it seems to me that local authorities will have to be involved in a series of notifications and checks. That surely will involve more bureaucratic work and will be an additional burden on local authorities. In addition, I take entirely the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Pitt, regarding the way in which that will be perceived by ethnic minority groups, and the feelings that are generated will be projected on to the local authority. It is the local authority which, for the first time, is being given a requirement to check on immigration status.

The Minister said that all sorts of questions are asked, and indeed they are. But at the moment questions are not asked about immigration status. Indeed, the current guidance from the Department of the Environment is that local authorities should not be concerned with that status. It seems to me inevitable that with the kind of questions that will be asked feelings will be projected on to the local authority. If that is the case it will put a strain on the relationships between black and ethnic minority communities as a whole and on local authorities.

I listened carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, said in regard to the danger of local people feeling that they are deprived because the needs of asylum seekers are being put above their own needs. I take that point extremely seriously and I take seriously also the possible consequence of a decrease in good relations. But is not the answer to that the provision of proper resources to such authorities to deal with the situation? We shall be considering amendments later in Committee concerning addition-al resources and it seems to me that that is the way to deal with the matter.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

Perhaps the right reverend Prelate will allow me to intervene. It is easy to say that, but most of the areas adjoining airports have limited space and little room for building. Whatever financial resources are made available, in many cases it will not be possible to provide sufficient accommodation on the land concerned. The right reverend Prelate really must face facts.

6.15 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon

I accept the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter. The fact remains that, like it or not, there is a problem and we must find ways of facing it. I do not believe that the way the Bill proposes to tackle it in any way meets the point made by the noble Lord. The necessity will still be there for temporary accommodation. Therefore, it seems to me that the clause will create considerable difficulties and I oppose it.

Lord Bonham-Carter

Perhaps I may say a word in response to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter. He said that the largest source of refugees was from central Europe and specifically the former Yugoslavia. That is not the case. By far the largest number of people seeking asylum status in the world at large is within Africa. They are actually saturating Africa and one of the ironies of the situation is that the poorest countries have the biggest numbers of refugees to look after. But looking at the total number of refugees accepted in London from 1991 to 1992, 31 per cent. came from Somalia, 17 per cent. from Zaire, 6.2 per cent. from Sri Lanka, 5.6 per cent. from Iraq, and only 3.9 per cent. from Yugoslavia. That may reflect our rather ungenerous policy towards Bosnians and others who are trying to get away from there, most of whom—over 400,000 —are settled in Germany, Austria and other countries on their borders.

If the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, is anxious about the fortunes of boroughs near the airports, such as Ealing and the prime case of Hillingdon—and he has every right to be because Hillingdon has terrible stresses placed upon its administrative structure by the need to tackle the problem of refugees with no additional resources—we shall later be discussing whether or not the Government should contribute extra resources to boroughs of that sort. It will be interesting to see whether the noble Lord opposite, who feels that those boroughs are put under pressure by their responsibilities, supports that amendment. I hope that he will.

If the Government want to help the people in Hillingdon or Ealing they will give them more resources. Costs are substantial. In Hillingdon it is reckoned that on housing the cost is £180,000, for education it is £73,000 and for social services £1 million. Those are large sums for boroughs that are strapped for money which do not receive assistance from central government.

I fully share the views of the right reverend Prelate and of my noble friend Lady Hamwee in saying that one of the most objectionable parts of the Bill is the involvement of other people to check on immigration policy. That is what is wrong with the Immigration (Carriers' Liability) Act. That is what is wrong with this Bill. We are involving local authorities in immigration matters. Those matters are governed by central government and it is wrong that local authorities should be involved.

Whatever anybody may say, by asking that specific question of a specific group of people—and I bet that that group of people will be primarily people who are black—the fear of discrimination on those grounds will be aroused, whether or not it is justified. It will of course be justified because we know that discrimina-tion occurs. It is therefore doing a real disservice, not an imaginary disservice, to race relations in this country if those sensitivities, those realities, those facts of life are not taken into account.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

I shall intervene briefly in the debate and reserve my main comments for the new clauses standing in my name and those of my noble friends who support them. I am prompted to intervene by the remarks of the right reverend Prelate who devoted part of his speech to what he saw as the considerable difficulties and problems which the clause will impose on local authorities.

The local authorities affected by the arrival of asylum seekers are, overwhelmingly, within the area of Greater London. I happen to be, for the moment, president of the London Boroughs Association. All I wish to say is that the London Boroughs Association welcomes the Bill and in particular it welcomes the clarification Clause 4 gives to authorities on their duties under the homelessness legislation. The London Boroughs Association would scarcely say that, I am bound to say to the right reverend Prelate, if its members were feeling overwhelmed by the difficulties and problems that they would be facing in having to administer it. The association has looked at the matter extremely carefully. It has consulted its local authorities which have to administer the homelessness legislation. It very much welcomes what the Government have put forward here. It has, of course, a gripe about resources, but to that I shall return later.

Lord Ackner

I wonder whether the provisions of the homelessness legislation have not been somewhat overlooked. They are now to be found incorporated in the Housing Act. They are designed to give a very substantial advantage to those who are shown to be homeless—not intentionally homeless—and fall within one of the categories of priority need. When they do that they jump the entire queue on the housing list and are entitled to what is looked upon as being permanent accommodation.

I would respectfully submit that this obligation to provide permanent accommodation is not really directed at those whose status is still undecided. As and when the applicant succeeds in obtaining asylum, having qualified under the fairly stringent categories, he falls, assuming that he complies with the obligations (he must do) under the legislation to be permanently housed—but permanently to house someone whose stay in this country may be very limited? Although one has every sympathy with the asylum seeker, there are bound to be many who will fail to achieve this status. To expect local authorities, with the enormous burdens on them, to find permanent accommodation for someone who may be impermanent seems not to be what this legislation was designed to do vis-á-vis the housing authorities.

Viscount Brentford

As one who has spoken from behind my noble friend the Minister in opposition to him, perhaps I may make my position clear. On this occasion I am supporting him and believe that the clause should remain in the Bill. I endorse what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, has said. As I have already made clear, my view is that the accommodation for an applicant should be temporary.

As I understand the Bill, the local authority is responsible for ensuring that there is reasonable accommodation available for every asylum applicant. That is important. There is no question that a church hall floor offered by a charity will be treated as reasonable accommodation. I therefore believe that the clause should remain in the Bill.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I cannot resist starting by referring to the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner. He said that what happens at the moment is that those who have impermanent residence obtain permanent accommodation. If their residence is impermanent they lose it as soon as they lose their presence in the country. Their accommodation can hardly be more permanent than their physical presence in this country.

We have treated this clause with respect and with care and we have tried to amend it in detail. That is our duty as a revising Chamber. On two occasions when we have put matters before the Committee we have failed to persuade the Government, and only on one—if the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, will forgive me—secondary issue have we achieved even the promise that the Minister will reflect on these matters between now and a later stage. It is our duty to do what the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has invited us to do—think about the clause as a whole and think about the effect that it has both on asylum and on housing legislation in this country.

I go so far as to say that Clause 4, Clause 5 and Schedule 1 are improper. All that the Long Title of the Bill refers to is making provision for persons who claim asylum in the United Kingdom. It makes no reference to the housing provision that is made for them. It makes no suggestion that these people, while they are here, will be treated differently from those in comparable need who do not have that status. But that is what the Bill does even though the Long Title makes no reference to it. I suggest to your Lordships that this is wrong in asylum terms because it imposes, in effect, a punishment on those who seek asylum in this country, a punishment which is entirely unconcerned with the validity of their claim. It applies to those who will be accepted as well as those who will be rejected. It is also wrong because it introduces totally new concepts into our housing legislation.

Homelessness legislation is one of the most difficult things to swallow because what it does is to put certain people at the front of the queue. That has always been done. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, spelt it out in proper detail. It has always been done on the basis of need. It has always been done on the basis of being physically homeless in the sense of being on the doorstep, or virtually on the doorstep. It has been done in terms of the quality of accommodation, in terms of family needs, in terms of threats of violence and so on. What is now proposed is that in addition to that there should be questions of status.

I suggest to the Committee that if this matter had been put forward with the first Bill in 1991 we might have treated it slightly differently from the way we should treat it now. A lot of the pressure that exists because of asylum seekers is in fact being dealt with by administrative means. First, because of the very welcome recruitment of additional immigration officers, the time spent waiting for a decision is gradually falling and therefore the number of people awaiting a decision in accommodation for homeless is falling. That in itself should make us think about the necessity for the Bill. Secondly, on the specific question of housing for asylum seekers, the new standard application letter with a photograph is avoiding many of the difficulties which we would otherwise experience through the inability of housing authorities or anyone else to identify adequately those who come in as asylum seekers.

The Bill should not have been brought forward at all, but as it has been brought forward, it should not have been brought forward with these housing provisions. They are damaging to our housing legislation, they are damaging to the integrity of the way in which local authorities are able to deal with housing those most in need and they discriminate between one group of people on the basis of their status rather than of their need. I support the proposal from the noble Baroness that we should not allow this clause to stand part of the Bill.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

I support the clause. The points that have been brought out, such as the enormous cost of social services in Hillingdon, are very interesting. I should like to point out that Westminster Council is having to face exactly the same costs on asylum seekers. They are costing more than £1 million a year. The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, said that there is a problem near the airports. That is true. A recent television programme showed how the total housing allocation of a small council near one of the airports would be used up by the arrival of a small group of asylum seekers. That was an interesting case which drew the problem to the attention of all of us.

The problem with legislation for the homeless is now great; all council housing officers are now burdened with the enormous problem of sorting out every case which comes to them. They would look on this provision as a protection. It would at least enable them to work out which cases should have priority. There is an industry developing in some parts of this country where people already have accommodation provided, supposedly for the homeless, at a cost of about £300 per week per person. That accommodation is already lined up for friends who are picked up at the airport. We have to be very careful about that situation. It has changed from that which used to affect the railways and the airports.

The problem is now much more widespread. People want to go to the most desirable areas; and arrangements will he made for them to be picked up at the airport and taken there. There is quite an industry involved which is causing great anxiety to councils. When legislation for the homeless was brought in, it was intended to cover genuine cases of homelessness. It was never envisaged that it would grow to its present size where it has taken away waiting list opportunities almost entirely in many parts of London. This provision is very important. I have known of people waiting 25 years on a housing list and I do not believe that they will ever get accommodation because they are always leap-frogged by someone else. I support the retention of the clause.

6.30 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

That is a very dangerous line of argument put forward by the noble Baroness. Asylum seekers account for only 1 per cent. of the number of homeless in this country. The increase in homelessness which the noble Baroness accurately described is not caused by any change in homelessness legislation or by asylum seekers. It is caused by the failure of the housing policies of this Government.

Lord Strathclyde

I have listened with very great interest to the exchanges which have taken place on this clause stand part debate. One of the things which surprises me is that I have not heard a case put as to why asylum seekers should continue to have a right to permanent accommodation. I believe that the Opposition have completely failed to put that case. I shall seek to put the case as to why they should lose that right, but gain a new one to temporary accommodation.

I start by setting the record straight and explaining a number of things that this clause does not do. It does not deprive asylum seekers whose situation qualifies them for re-housing under the homelessness pro-visions in the Housing Act 1985, of access to accommodation. From the moment a housing authority accepts the applicant as homeless, it has a duty to ensure that he has reasonable accommodation available to him. If he does not, then the authority has the duty to provide temporary accommodation until the asylum seeker is granted leave to remain in this country. Thereafter, he enjoys the same rights as anyone else under the homelessness legislation.

And the Bill does not consign the asylum seeker and his family to indefinite periods sleeping in church halls, or on the floor of a friend's house. That would not be regarded as satisfactory temporary accommodation. Nor does the Bill prevent an authority from offering an asylum seeker the secure tenancy of a council-owned property from the day on which that asylum seeker approaches the authority. Indeed, the authority may do this regardless of whether or not the applicant meets the normal criteria under the homelessness legislation.

What the clause does do is limit the duty of a local authority towards an asylum seeker to the provision of temporary accommodation until such time as the applicant has been granted leave to remain in this country. Although the number of asylum seekers accepted for re-housing is quite small, they concentrate in a few areas. In a number of areas— chiefly but not exclusively in London as my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes said—the proportion of homelessness acceptances accounted for by refugees is running at 8 per cent. or more.

Under present legislation, when an authority accepts a household as homeless, it has to assume it will be required to provide permanent accommodation for that family even if, on an interim basis, it puts the family in temporary accommodation. And it would be wrong of the authority, under existing legislation, to treat one class of homelessness applicants, such as asylum seekers, any differently from the rest. They could not reasonably leave all their asylum seekers in temporary accommodation until their asylum applications are resolved, while moving other types of homeless households on to permanent accommodation.

However, authorities will be aware that a proportion of these applications for asylum will be rejected by the Home Office. So there will be an extent to which they will find themselves planning to provide permanent accommodation for people who will have no continuing right to it. That means that permanent accommodation will be misused and withheld from those with a genuine entitlement to it, be they other homeless families or those from the waiting list. Given that the boroughs who receive the most asylum seekers are among those facing the greatest housing pressures overall, this is not a sensible state of affairs.

The Bill overcomes the problem by limiting an authority's duty to the provision of temporary accommodation until such time as the applicant's right to remain in the country has been determined. And it does this as part of a package of measures that are designed to reduce the time taken to resolve applications for asylum to a few months only. So no one need expect an extended period in temporary accommodation.

This country has a long and honourable record of giving shelter to those fleeing persecution, which the Government are fully committed to continuing. The housing provisions in the Bill ensure that scarce housing resources are properly used, and are not wasted by being allocated to people who are subsequently shown to have no right to remain in this country.

It is already accepted practice in many areas for homeless applicants to be given temporary accommodation until their eligibility for permanent accommodation under the 1985 Act has been established. These provisions extend this proposition by allowing local authorities to provide only temporary accommodation until a further criterion of eligibility has been established for asylum seekers; namely, their right to remain in the country.

This clause is not racially discriminatory, and it is not unfair. It obliges local authorities to provide good quality but temporary accommodation to those who are seeking asylum in this country. I believe that that is right and correct.

Baroness Hamwee

Again, the Minister makes one welcome comment. He said that it is wrong to treat one class of homeless people differently from others. That is precisely the point. He asked why we have not argued for a right to permanent accommodation. My argument is not that asylum seekers should be treated better, it is that they should be treated no worse and that, in the words which have been used so often this afternoon, they should not be treated differently. They should not go to the back of the queue and be disentitled to a secure tenancy for 12 months after determination of their status.

Mention has been made of permanent accommodation. The reality is that in many local authorities the only accommodation that can be offered is bed and breakfast. In any event, most asylum seekers are single men; and under the Housing Act such people do not have priority in terms of accommodation. The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, believes that the clause will be welcomed by the local authorities because, if I understand her correctly, it will enable them not to have to apply the further test to particular applicants. That is precisely the kind of different treatment that I fear.

As regards the location point—namely, the airports —as two noble Lords have said, it is the City of Westminster which, in London, has the most difficulty. That is not a borough which is immediately served by an airport. The Refugee Arrivals Project and the Refugee Council, both of which are funded by the Home Office, meet refugees at airports near London. Their arrangements are to find housing across as broad an area as they can and not to swamp local authorities near airports. They disperse people who come to our country and who "need"—if I may use that word —to be housed.

With regard to the point about racial discrimination, the Commission for Racial Equality has received a large number of complaints in recent years from people who have been asked to produce a passport to prove their entitlement to a service across a wide range of services and who are offended at being singled out for such treatment apparently on the basis of their skin colour. We have mentioned the code of guidance and, as identified in the code, that practice is racially discriminatory. The noble Lord, Lord Pitt, rightly referred to the practical implications of what has been proposed and to the fact that individuals will inevitably be caught up in a checking process.

If there is to be no difference in the treatment of asylum seekers compared with that afforded to other applicants for housing (as we have heard so often in the past few hours), there would be no need for the clause. If there is a need for the clause, it must be because there is to be a difference, and my fears would be justified. I should like to test the opinion of the Committee.

6.41 p.m.

On Question, Whether Clause 4 shall stand part of the Bill?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 75; Not-Contents, 50.

Division No. 3
Ackner, L. Geddes, L.
Alexander of Weedon, L. Goschen, V.
Archer of Weston-Super-Mare, L. Halsbury, E.
Henley, L.
Arran, E. Hesketh, L. [Teller.]
Astor, V. Howe, E.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Hylton-Foster, B.
Belstead, L. Jeffreys, L.
Blatch, B. Jenkin of Roding, L.
Blyth, L. Lane of Horsell, L.
Boyd-Carpenter, L. Long, V.
Braine of Wheatley, L. Lyell, L.
Brentford, V. Mackay of Ardbrecknish, L.
Broadbridge, L. Mancroft, L.
Brougham and Vaux, L. Marlesford, L.
Butterworth, L. Merrivale, L.
Cadman, L. Mowbray and Stourton, L.
Caithness, E. Moyne, L.
Campbell of Alloway, L. Orkney, E.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Park of Monmouth, B.
Carnock, L. Pearson of Rannoch, L.
Carr of Hadley, L. Prentice, L.
Chalker of Wallasey, B. Rankeillour, L.
Chilver, L. Reay, L.
Clanwilliam, E. Renton, L.
Colwyn, L. Rodger of Earlsferry, L.
Cork and Orrery, E. St. Davids, V.
Crickhowell, L. Skelmersdale, L.
Cumberlege, B. Stewartby, L.
Dacre of Glanton, L. Strathclyde, L.
Davidson, V. Strathmore and Kinghorne, E [Teller.]
Denton of Wakefield, B.
Elton, L. Thomas of Gwydir, L.
Ferrers, E. Trumpington, B.
Finsberg, L. Ullswater, V.
Fraser of Carmyllie, L. Vaux of Harrowden, L.
Fraser of Kilmorack, L. Wakeham, L.
Gainsborough, E. Wharton, B.
Gardner of Parkes, B.
Addington, L. Jay, L.
Airedale, L. Jeger, B.
Ardwick, L. Jenkins of Putney, L.
Attlee, E. Kilbracken, L.
Beaumont of Whitley, L. Longford, E.
Birk, B. McIntosh of Haringey, L.
Blackstone, B. McNair, L.
Bonham-Carter, L. Monkswell, L.
Bottomley, L. Nicol, B.
Cocks of Hartcliffe, L. Ogmore, L.
David, B. Pitt of Hampstead, L.
Desai, L. [Teller.] Plant of Highfield, L.
Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L. Richard, L.
Donoughue, L. Ripon, Bp.
Dormand of Easington, L. Rochester, L.
Downshire, M. Russell, E.
Eatwell, L. Seear, B.
Ennals, L. Sefton of Garston, L.
Foot, L. Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Graham of Edmonton, L. Tordoff, L. [Teller.]
Guildford, Bp. Turner of Camden, B.
Hamwee, B. Underhill, L.
Harris of Greenwich, L. White, B.
Healey, L. Williams of Elvel, L.
Houghton of Sowerby, L. Williams of Mostyn, L.

Resolved in the affirmative, and Clause 4 agreed to accordingly.

6.48 p.m.

Schedule 1 [Housing of asylum-seekers and their dependants: supplementary]:

Viscount Brentford moved Amendment No. 87: Page 11, line 8, leave out ("have reason to believe that the applicant") and insert ("are informed by the applicant that he").

The noble Viscount said: In speaking to this amendment, I should like to speak also to Amendment No. 88 which follows on from it. I touch now, among other things, on the nasty question of racism. The effect of Schedule 1(2) is to ease a problem for the local authorities. As the Bill stands, local authorities are required to contact the Home Office if they have reason to believe that an applicant may be an asylum seeker. But what is going to make an official aware of the fact that he has to ask such questions? Presumably he will not ask such questions of somebody who looks like any other member of this Committee. He will ask them of someone of a different colour.

That is what worries me. It puts a great, and possibly illegal, burden onto the housing authority which has to consider, "Have we reason to believe that the applicant is a qualifying person?". That is not something that we should ask the housing authority to consider. I understand that the Commission for Racial Equality and other bodies have expressed alarm at the provision because of the race relations implications for local authorities affecting certain applicants for housing. In practice, most asylum seekers and refugees tell the local authority what their status is because they have to show why they left any previous accommodation, whether in this country or in another country, in order to deal with the possibility that they might be deemed intentionally homeless.

With this amendment, the Bill would leave it up to the applicant himself to inform the local authority about his asylum seeker status, as would normally happen anyway. If he chooses to tell the authority, the provisions about temporary accommodation would apply only then, but the housing authority would not have to make further enquiries to check up on his previous housing history. The local authority will then check the information with the Home Office. However, if he does not choose to tell the authority, it could ask why he had left the previous accommodation and form its own view on his application. No contact with the Home Office would be necessary.

The second amendment consequentially removes the paragraph relating to offences as that is otherwise adequately covered by other statutes. The amendment thus removes one aspect of the Bill which has been condemned by various bodies as most oppressive and is seen as burdensome by many local authorities. I beg to move.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I shall not repeat the arguments ably put forward by the noble Viscount, but I want to point out one curious effect of the schedule. I have been told by ministers on a number of occasions this afternoon that the provision for treating asylum seekers differently under the homelessness legislation is not mandatory on local authorities. If they do not want to implement it, they do not need to. Yet the schedule puts an absolute duty on local authorities to make these enquiries of people whom they have reasonable grounds to think are asylum seekers or qualifying persons, as the schedule puts it in a snooty way, whether or not they intend to implement the provisions of Clauses 4 and 5.

There is a conflict here between the claim that this is only an opportunity for local authorities to treat the applicants differently and the absolute duty which is placed on them in the schedule. That absolute duty, which would be removed by the noble Viscount's amendment, is wrong and he is right to seek to take it out.

Baroness Hamwee

I support wholeheartedly the comments of the noble Viscount and the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. I was delighted to see that the amendment had been put down. When I first read the Bill I went back and re-read those words with a sense of bemusement. I wondered whether, in 1993, in a Britain that holds itself to be open-minded and not discriminatory, I had correctly read those words. I hope that the Committee will accept the amendment.

Lord Pitt of Hampstead

I too should like to support the amendment. It is definitely an improvement on the Bill and I hope that it will be accepted.

Lord Bonham-Carter

The provision is frankly absurd. The Government often inveigh against bureaucracy, yet, under this amendment, an authority that has no asylum seekers of any kind will have to change all its forms and ask everyone who seeks housing whether they are an asylum seeker, knowing perfectly well that the chances are about a thousand to one against. They will have to train their staff as to how to treat asylum seekers that do not exist and will not come. I do not know what benefit this gives anyone. The dangers that it can give rise to are obvious and have been mentioned and should be taken into account by the Minister.

Lord Strathclyde

There is no difference between the Government and the noble Lords who have spoken about the need for housing authorities to preserve proper confidentiality about asylum seekers. We recognise that in some cases they may fear that the persecution that leads them to leave their own country is following them to the United Kingdom. They would not want their status and personal details widely bandied about. They need to be assured of the discretion of housing authorities.

However, I feel these amendments are not the best way of assuring that proper level of privacy. The first amendment, No. 87, would transfer the responsibility of establishing whether an applicant under the homelessness legislation is an asylum seeker from the local authority to the applicant. So the amendment is in effect saying that the applicant must go to the authority and say, "I am applying for accommodation under the homelessness legislation and, by the way, I am also an asylum seeker."

I very much doubt that an asylum seeker, who will be coming from another country with another culture and a different legal system, will be sufficiently aware of the requirements of this legislation to understand his precise duties in this matter. It is very unlikely that he will be familiar with the terms of what will then, I hope, be the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993.

The second amendment, No. 88, seeks to delete any offence of non-disclosure of asylum-seeking status from the provisions of the Bill. So, even though the asylum seeker is under a duty to inform an authority of his status, there would be no penalty for failing to do so. That should give the asylum seeker special status over other homelessness applicants. It is an offence under existing legislation to make false statements, withhold information or fail to disclose a change of circumstances while a homelessness application is under consideration.

Overall, these amendments would make the application of the housing provisions of the Bill optional and at the discretion of the asylum seeker. They give the housing authority no opportunity to check the position. I am sure that most asylum seekers will co-operate fully in making their position clear when they make an application under the homelessness legislation. But as the purpose of the Bill is to limit an asylum seeker's rights under the homelessness legislation until such time as his status is determined, I do not think that we should rely solely on the asylum seeker to provide the information required to make the provision effective.

The question of confidentiality and the advisability of an authority checking on the status of asylum applicants is a matter of sensitivity. As I remarked earlier, housing authorities habitually handle sensitive information about homelessness applicants, such as victims of domestic violence or pregnant women. They are fully able to ensure the proper safeguards in such cases and I see no reason why they should not do so here.

As I said earlier, we shall be revising the homelessness code of guidance to take account of this legislation and we shall remind authorities of the need for confidentiality in dealing with asylum seekers.

It is not that we are entirely without heart or against my noble friend's proposal. It is, as I have explained, that it is quite unnecessary.

Lord Pitt of Hampstead

I should like the Minister to give some thought to this point. If we accepted Amendment No. 87 and rejected Amendment No. 88, we would certainly have removed some of the fears that I mentioned because there would be no need for the questions. That was the point that I was raising when I said that it would be racially discriminatory. The obligation would then be on the applicant to inform the council that he was an asylum seeker. There is nothing wrong then in saying that if he does not do that he has committed an offence. That would remove the necessity for the council to ask applicants about their status. I am sorry, but I know that that is what will happen.

7 p.m.

Viscount Brentford

My noble friend the Minister seemed to speak largely about the fact that confidentiality would not be breached. I may have missed it, but I did not hear anyone talk about a fear of confidentiality being breached. That was not my anxiety. I have two worries, one of which I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, for pointing out and to which I had meant to refer. It is the obligation being put on local authorities which worries me. Secondly, a question that my noble friend did not answer was: what are the factors which will lead a housing authority official to make inquiries about an asylum seeker's status? I am worried that that will lead to problems with the Commission for Racial Equality. What are the factors that will lead him to make those inquiries? He does not have to make inquiries of every applicant on the housing list but just those whom he believes could be asylum seekers. What is that but racism? That is what worries me, and I do not think my noble friend answered that question. He might like to do so.

Lord Strathclyde

Perhaps I may help my noble friend. He is right to say that local authorities will not inquire about everyone because in most cases it will be obvious whether someone is an asylum seeker. One of the ways of finding out will be from the answers to the questions about where the person last resided and why he or she left. If it is another country, I suspect that that will be a clear indication that other inquiries should be undertaken.

Viscount Brentford

I am grateful to my noble friend for that answer. I see that, but I am still not fully at ease over the issue. I do not intend to divide the Committee a second time so quickly. This time, I shall reflect upon what my noble friend said, and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Skelmersdale)

Is it your Lordships' pleasure that the amendment be withdrawn?

Lord Pitt of Hampstead


7.2 p.m.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Hayter)

The Question is, Whether the said Amendment (No. 87) shall be agreed to?

As many are of the opinion will say, "Content?" To the contrary, "Not-Content". Clear the Bar.

Division called.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

Tellers for the Contents have not been appointed pursuant to Standing Order No. 51. The Division therefore cannot take place, and I declare that the Not-Contents have it.

[Amendments Nos. 88 and 89 not moved.]

Schedule 1 agreed to.

7.5 p.m.

Lord Jenkin of Roding moved Amendment No. 17: After Clause 4, insert the following new clause:

("Grants to housing authorities

.—(1) The Secretary of State shall make a specific grant to any housing authority which in any year incurs significant expenditure in making housing provision for asylum-seekers or their dependants.

(2) Expenditure under subsection (1) above shall be treated as "significant" if it increases an authority's housing expenditure by more than ten percentage points above the level it would have been but for such expenditure.").

The noble Lord said: It will be for the convenience of the Committee if we take also Amendments Nos. 18, 19 and 19A. On a previous amendment I mentioned that I am president of the London Boroughs Association. The burdens of looking after asylum seekers and bearing the costs of dealing with asylum seekers fall overwhelmingly upon members of that association and other boroughs in London. The estimate is that in any year that may be costing them and their community charge payers £40 million or perhaps more.

Amendment No. 17 deals with housing expenditure and provides that there should be a specific grant. Amendment No. 18 sets up a reporting procedure to cover not just housing but education and social services expenditure. The order of magnitude of expenditure that falls upon authorities is staggering. In an earlier debate it was said that the London Borough of Hillingdon, which bears the brunt of unaccompanied children, spends about £1 million a year on social services for asylum seekers in that category. It spends nearly £120,000 on housing and £73,000 on education. That does not relate to Hillingdon alone. Kensington and Chelsea spends £850,000 on social services, £120,000 on education and £207,000 on housing.

My noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes has already pointed out that in any one year Westminster spends nearly £1 million on housing asylum seekers and their dependants and some £320,000 on social services. The London Borough of Lambeth spends a staggering £1.25 million on social services for asylum seekers. The figures are not insubstantial. They fall disproportionately upon a relatively few authorities.

It is not so much a question of where the burden of this falls—it falls on the charge payers of this country —but of how it is shared out between the different groups of charge payers. It is most unfair that for this very specific burden of dealing with asylum seekers the whole of the cost should fall on the relatively few authorities, most of them in London, who have to cope with the problem. It is one which should be shared much more widely. I make it clear that I am not looking for additional expenditure. I am looking for the way in which it should be shared and at what the mechanisms should be to ensure that that happens.

The Government have recognised the principle that it should be shared more fairly. There was the case last year, already referred to in the debate, of the Yugoslav refugees who arrived in Stansted Airport, where they immediately became the responsibility of the Uttlesford District Council —a council dear to my heart, and one to which I pay the community charge. It is a small council with a modest housing programme, but it was completely overwhelmed when it suddenly had to cope with a flood of refugees from former Yugoslavia. As another noble Lord has already said, 100 asylum seeking families absorbed the entire house building programme of that small local authority. The leader of that council created a considerable stir in a very short period of time, and the Government responded. A special grant was allowed. Unfortunately, the terms of the grant were so tightly drawn that only three districts qualified and the total amount for that came to less than £80,000.

The distribution is to be based on what has been called the Bellwin formula—a scheme introduced by my noble friend Lord Bellwin back in the early 1980s. It means that authorities are reimbursed 85 per cent. of their costs above a threshold. In the case of the Yugoslavs, the threshold was 29.4 pence per relevant head of population.

However, the grant is restricted to those who come from the former Yugoslavia only. One must ask what is the logic of that? They comprise a very small proportion of the total refugees, as has already been pointed out. But if it is for Yugoslavians, why not for Somalians, Zaireans and the others who come to this country? Is not the principle equally applicable? Happily, the Government have recognised that there is some justice in that case. Last week there was the announcement by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment in another place that there is to be a new special grant. Perhaps I may quote from his speech in the debate on 3rd February on local government finance, at col. 343 of Hansard: I am pleased to announce today … a related scheme to apply for the coming year in respect of another small group who place a disproportionate burden of costs on a small number of authorities… I refer to the unaccompanied refugee children who arrive from time to time at the major ports of entry into this country and who become an immediate burden, usually on the authority in whose area they arrive". He went on: Over time, the presence of these children in an area is reflected in the SSAs, but those assessments rely on data collected nationally and are therefore subject to inevitable time lags, whereas the costs imposed by these children are at the highest immediately after their arrival". I shall want to come back to that sentence, because I think it may contain a misapprehension. He went on: We therefore think it right to introduce a special grant scheme, also along the lines of the Bellwin scheme, to assist authorities in these circumstances". I should like to say straight away to my noble friend on the Front Bench that this special grant for refugee children is most welcome. It is particularly welcome to boroughs in London such as I have mentioned—Hillingdon and Kensington and Chelsea—which have significant numbers; but my right honourable friend said that they were small numbers compared with the totality. Indeed, there was a reference to this in the speech of my noble friend Lord Ferrers in the debate on the Select Committee report on migration on 8th February when, at col. 475 of Hansard, he too said: The numbers are relatively small". But that is not all. There is no guarantee that this is going to be extended beyond next year, 1993–94, and it does nothing to help those authorities—I have already mentioned Westminster, and Ealing is another one—where the costs are not related to unaccompanied children but to housing whole refugee families.

It is very difficult for anyone to estimate how that new special grant will benefit London authorities and how much they will get. The London Boroughs Association does not have the figures for all authorities. But there is another point here, which will bring me in due course to the main thrust of what I want to say.

The Bellwin formula referred to by my right honourable friend was originally devised to compensate authorities for extra expenditure as a result of the severe winter of 1981–82, a kind of one-off occurrence which it would have been unreasonable for them to have made provision for or to ensure against. It was used to compensate authorities for the great storm of 1987, and those authorities dealing with the influx of Kurdish refugees in 1988–89. Eighty-five per cent. of additional expenditure over a threshold is reimbursed by the grant.

We come to the problem of the threshold. There is a specific question which I should like to put to my noble friend on the Front Bench. Originally, the threshold was a product of a 1.15p rate. When we moved to the community charge, the threshold for London authorities was set at £2.01 per head of relevant population—that is to say, of community charge payers. I have already said that Uttlesford was on the basis of 29.4p per head of relevant population. But is that right? Should we be basing it on population, or is there some suggestion that it should be based, as we move to the council tax, on a council tax base, as it were going back to the revenue?

Perhaps I may quote one or two more figures. Taking Kensington and Chelsea's costs of unaccompanied refugee children for next year budgeted at £850,000, if one bases the grant on resident population, as has been done in the past, the grant would come to £540,000, but if the Government are really thinking of basing it on the council tax base the grant would come to only £390,000. One could quote similar figures for other authorities.

My first question therefore is to ask whether my noble friend can tell us which is going to be the basis for establishing the threshold for the unaccompanied children's special grant.

There is a wider issue: that of whether these costs should be the subject of a special grant or what is technically called a specific grant. As I said, this was a special grant, and in the passage I quoted from my right honourable friend's speech on 3rd February he said that the grant was introduced because SSAs, rely on data collected nationally and are therefore subject to inevitable time lags, whereas the costs imposed by these children are at their highest immediately after their arrival. This implies that the special grant will cover the initial period prior to the data being incorporated on the SSAs. I say to my noble friend that this is misleading. The indicators in SSA methodology are incapable of separately identifying refugees' needs and cannot target authorities with refugees and asylum seekers. They can simply reflect the number of children in a particular category who are present in the authority in question. Therefore, any question of the time lapse is largely irrelevant. The children at risk index, which forms part of the personal social services SSA, does not contain a factor for ethnic origin or any other factor sensitive to the needs of refugee children.

Therefore, the case which I wish to put to the Minister is that this is not a case for a special grant because it is not a one-off situation. We need what is technically called a specific grant. A specific grant is a grant which is available to particular authorities with specifically identifiable needs. In general, it is top sliced off the totality of the grant sum agreed each year between the Department of the Environment and the Treasury. It is then available to pay to the authorities concerned. Thus, the burden is spread among the totality of authorities in that the specific grant has come off the top and the rest is available for distribution by use of the SSA formula.

Are there precedents for that? Indeed, there are. Specific grants cover a range of services and client groups, many of which are directly comparable with the service needs of refugees and asylum seekers. Under the Local Government Act 1966 there are Section 11 grants for the personal social services of Commonwealth immigrants. Under the same section there are grants for the education of those Commonwealth immigrants. There is a specific grant for the education of travellers' children.

Those grants represent a long-term funding commitment to cover the service provision of a specific nature. Special grants are ad hoc one-off grants. Specific grants represent the fact that there is a long term continuing obligation. There could hardly be a clearer case of a long term continuing obligation which falls on relatively few authorities grouped almost exclusively around the main airports, and in particular Heathrow. Almost all of them are to be found in London.

My amendment deals only with housing because I was advised that housing is within the remit of the Bill but that it would not be in order to make the same provision for social services and education. Authorities need specific grants. That does not add to public expenditure but merely redistributes it to reflect those needs.

Amendment No. 18 provides for an annual report to Parliament. I believe that we should have that. The costs fall on local authorities and the costs of local authorities fall on local charge payers. It seems to me that where specific additional costs fall on charge payers Parliament should be informed of that.

It is a question of how the money is distributed. Among the London boroughs there is a strong feeling that at present it is not shared fairly. I hope that my noble friend can give them some comfort on that point. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee

I wish to speak briefly on this group of amendments and in particular to Amendment No. 19 standing in my name and that of the noble Lords, Lord McIntosh of Haringey and Lord Hylton. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, covered the ground fully and has explained the problems. I support all that he said about the costs falling on a small number of local authorities through no more than an accident of geography.

I do not believe that one can argue that it is not a national responsibility. The principle has been accepted by the Government in making the special grants to which the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, referred. However, I agree with him that special grants are not the way to tackle this problem. Specific grants are the right approach.

I do not exactly part company with the noble Lord's arguments. Perhaps I did not pause long enough to consider that I might be going too far in view of the scope of the Bill. The noble Lord's amendment deals only with housing and not with the other services. It also has a threshold of 10 per cent. I understand the noble Lord's discretion and modesty in limiting himself in that way, although I should not have exercised those qualities. The Committee needs to cover the other areas of service; in particular, education and social services. As the noble Lord explained, those services are extremely costly and the costs should be borne by the whole community and not where, by a mere accident of geography, they happen to fall.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

This is undoubtedly a complex matter, although I hope that it is not as complex as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, has made it appear to be. I share the doubts of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, as regards the 10 per cent. threshold. It would be helpful if the noble Lord could tell the Committee exactly how many authorities would benefit from that concession. I suspect that it may be Uttlesford and nowhere else.

My second doubt about the noble Lord's amendment is that it refers only to housing costs.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I should have wished the amendment to cover housing education and social services but, as I said, I was advised that if I included education and social services in the new clause I may have been out of order. In Clauses 4 and 5 the Bill deals with housing which is why my amendment deals only with housing. I may have been wrongly advised but that was the advice that I was given.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

The effect of the amendment must still be taken into account. The estimated expenditure on asylum seekers in 1992–93 for Hillingdon, to which the noble Lord referred, is £118,000 on housing, £73,000 on education; but £1 million is spent on social services provision. Therefore, as the noble Lord recognised, it is clear that the amendment would not meet the point.

I find it a curious argument that only housing can be dealt with in this Bill because the Long Title of the Bill makes no reference to housing. I should be interested to hear from the Minister what is the advice on the legitimacy of adding education or social services which are no less and no more in the Long Title than housing.

I wish to advocate Amendment No. 19 standing in my name, which is another attempt to secure from the Government recognition of the problem already referred to. It seeks to secure that the Secretary of State satisfies himself that a housing authority has sufficient resources available to perform its duties under the homelessness legislation.

I recognise that the amendment is defective in the same way as regards social services and education expenditure and it is not an amendment that I wish to press. We seek recognition of the problem by the Government and an indication of movement.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

I support Amendments Nos. 17 and 18. I should like to comment briefly on Amendments Nos. 19 and 19A. The noble Lord has dealt with Amendment No. 17 extremely thoroughly. It is a serious matter for Westminster City Council to have to spend £1 million on housing which, I believe, is comparable to Hillingdon's social services expenditure. Those are not small sums.

As regards Amendment No.18, I believe that an annual report to Parliament would have great merit in many ways. It would show which local authorities were suffering from a financial burden from having to support asylum seekers. That problem appears to be concentrated in certain areas. It would benefit both the asylum seekers coming to this country and the receiving local authorities if fewer asylum seekers came at one time as they tend to head for certain areas. An annual report would reveal the movements of asylum seekers in this country and it would show if any trend or pattern were developing.

Amendment No. 19 standing in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and others is an interesting one and I certainly do not object to it. We shall have to wait to hear what my noble friend the Minister says about social services. As regards the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, I could not understand why Sections 4 and 5 were referred to. I do not understand why the amendment did not refer to Clauses 4 and 5.

7.30 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

When a Bill is in progress through Parliament sections are known as clauses. They become known as sections when the Bill becomes an Act.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

I am most grateful for that explanation. I thought the amendment might have been referring to sections of Clause 5. However, I still cannot support the noble Lord even though he has now clarified the amendment.

His Amendment No. 19A is in effect asking for an open cheque. We would all love to be told that every local authority could be given enough money all the time to fulfil every demand that is placed upon it whether that concerns housing, health, social services or any other area. However, things do not work like that in the real world. Resources have to be rationed so that local government manages to survive in one way or another. Amendment No. 19A, as it stands, is rather sweeping in that respect. Consequently I find it rather an odd bedfellow to be grouped with Amendments Nos. 17, 18 and 19. I support Amendments Nos. 17, 18 and 19.

Lord Finsberg

I have only a few comments to make after the excellent analysis of my noble friend Lord Jenkin. However, one would expect an excellent analysis from one of the few people who understand the basis of local government finance. That subject is a mystery to most people. It is not quite as complex as the Schleswig-Holstein affair but it is pretty close to it.

For many years I represented part of the London Borough of Camden and I was the leader of Camden Council when Camden experienced a large influx of homeless people, many of whom were refugees. That situation arose because the three railway stations in the area made it easy for people to reach.

I wish to support the amendment we are discussing because it widens the scope for action. It would not just be a case of assisting Uttlesford, for example. Over the past couple of decades there has been an influx of Iranian refugees and Ethiopian refugees and one cannot expect to receive special grants, as it were, each time there is an influx of asylum seekers. Sadly, flocks of asylum seekers will arrive from other countries in the future because the world is that sort of place at the moment. It would be a pity if on each occasion such asylum seekers arrived one had to ask the Government to use the Bellwin formula in relation to a particular country.

I commend the concept of these amendments to the Committee. I am sure my noble friend the Minister will recount the words all Ministers are told to say in their briefs; that is, he will have been told either to resist the amendment or to say he will reconsider it. Certainly the drafting of the amendment will never satisfy the parliamentary draftsmen as they are never satisfied with drafting unless it is their own work. However, I hope the amendment will receive a sympathetic wind from the Minister.

Lord Strathclyde

It is always difficult to disagree with a case that has been so eloquently put by my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding. As a former Secretary of State for the Environment he brought a unique breadth of experience into his opening remarks. As my noble friend well knows, the local government finance settlement takes into account all new and existing pressures on local authorities, together with the opportunities for savings and efficiency measures. It provides all authorities with the necessary resources to discharge their responsibilities effectively. It may not represent the level of resources that authorities would like but it reflects what the country can afford.

Authorities should therefore generally have sufficient resources to cope with costs to which refugees and asylum seekers give rise. However, I should stress that we accept that there can be exceptions to this principle. My noble friend has mentioned some. In 1989 we made available a special grant towards the extra costs to certain London boroughs that resulted from the sudden influx of a large number of Turkish Kurd refugees. As has been said, last November the Minister for Housing and Planning announced that we would be making a grant available to those authorities who faced exceptional burdens as a result of the sudden influx of displaced persons from the former Yugoslav republic. When the 1992–93 allocations of that grant were debated in another place last week my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment announced that the grant would also be available for 1993–94. He also mentioned that for 1993–94 a special grant would be made available to cover the immediate costs associated with the arrival of unaccompanied refugee children.

In making available these grants the Government have responded to concern that there may be unusually severe problems with which local authorities cannot be expected to cope. But we must recognise that these were exceptional circumstances. The annual local government finance settlement provides sufficient resources to allow a prudent authority to discharge all its responsibilities effectively; this includes a reasonable allowance for meeting the costs of homelessness. Authorities cannot predict in advance the precise number of homeless families for whom they will be required to provide services, but a well-managed authority will have made a sensible provision for fluctuations in the predicted level of homelessness acceptances, including acceptances of applications of those who happen to be asylum seekers.

Amendments Nos. 17 and 18 suggest that we should be making a special grant for the costs to which asylum seekers give rise. My noble friend suggested a 10 per cent. threshold. As I explained earlier, we have recognised that where exceptional costs arise, additional aid should be made available; but such circumstances are limited. Merely to trigger grant by passing an arbitrary threshold is unnecessary, bearing in mind that both SSAs and HIP allocations will be higher precisely because the presence of asylum seekers will already be reflected in the indicators used to decide those allocations.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, asked how many authorities fall within the 10 per cent. threshold. The costs to which asylum seekers give rise are only part of a subset of costs for special needs which all authorities face. We do not collect separate data on costs that arise specifically from asylum seekers. In other words, the question the noble Lord asked is unanswerable.

It is difficult to see what the merit of making a special grant would be, as the second amendment suggests. Where special grants are made, the costs they meet may of course be set out in the special grant reports which require approval by resolution in another place. To suggest that the reports could show the effects of additional costs on the council tax is to misunderstand the workings of local government finance. Because SSAs distribute resources according to spending needs—and these include meeting the needs of asylum seekers—all authorities who budget prudently should be able to provide a full range of services while setting their Band D council tax at around the level of the council tax for standard spending at Band D.

My noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes suggested there was a need for statistics to be collected. I entirely agree with her. We have started to collect information on the proportion of refugees who comprise homelessness acceptances. That was begun in 1991. Over time useful data will be built up and we can use that as part of the statistics on homelessness.

Amendment No. 19 also proposes a specific grant for the costs of asylum seekers. We are not in favour of establishing a large number of ad hoc specific grants from within a fixed total of resources; this simply detracts from the general pool of unhypothecated resources for local authorities to spend at their discretion. I am not sure that I can accept the distinction made by my noble friend Lord Jenkin between special and specific grants. He will be aware that that is a technical matter. Substantively we do not accept that there are necessarily costs which cannot be picked up by the main mechanisms for distributing resources to authorities through SSAs.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Before the Minister leaves that point perhaps I may say that it is my understanding that in the past SSAs have been set with particular reference to the numbers in the population from the new Commonwealth and the Indian subcontinent. Asylum seekers tend not to come from those areas. Can the noble Lord assure the Committee that there is no discrimination against those boroughs which have large numbers of people arriving from areas other than the new Commonwealth and the Indian subcontinent?

Lord Strathclyde

I am not aware that that has been a problem in the past. It is not one that I have heard raised by local authorities. As the noble Lord knows, the lines of communication between local authorities and my department on SSAs are wide open and any individual local authority which believes that it has that problem is welcome to come forward and state it.

The noble Lord's amendment, Amendment No. 19A, is of a similar character in seeking to require the Secretary of State to satisfy himself about the adequacy of resources for meeting the housing needs of asylum seekers. The level of resources made available to local authorities reflects a balance between our assessment of their overall spending needs and what the country can afford.

The provision of temporary accommodation is an important responsibility, but it can be discharged in a number of ways and there are substantial variations in the costs incurred by different authorities. Making a specific assessment of resources authority by authority would be fraught with difficulty.

Moreover, provision of housing is only one of a number of responsibilities which call on an authority's resources. There is always a temptation to identify specific services which could merit preferential consideration and then to call on Ministers to specify resources for that service. However, that would remove a significant measure of discretion from local authorities, which is bad for accountability and local democracy. Were we to go down that path in regard to the costs of asylum seekers, what other costs might we be also asked to consider? I suspect that the result would be even further government involvement in the management of local authority affairs. I cannot believe that local authorities would welcome that.

I know that many authorities are unhappy with the level of central government support for local government, but the appropriate level of support for the coming year was decided in another place last week. Dissatisfaction on that score is not a reason to overplay the costs that refugees impose. Refugees and asylum seekers can be an expense to authorities, but they are an expense which is already provided for within the generality of local government finance and the amount that Parliament believes local government ought to spend. It is always tempting to identify a specific area of expenditure for which there is no budget line locally and which is not separately identified in the amounts provided from central government and to seek special provision for it. But for the reasons I have given—and I am sorry that I have done so at length —I feel it is not necessary. I know that my noble friend will be disappointed by what I have said, but I hope that he will withdraw the amendment.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

I am naturally disappointed that my noble friend is not able to accept the substance of the case. I accept that the drafting of the amendment may well leave much to be desired, but one is not a parliamentary draftsman.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said that in my opening address—which I concede was probably too long—I made the case unnecessarily complex. Having grappled with the subject I can only say that it is complex. The whole area of special and specific grants was a very arcane part of the rate support grant settlement which one had to deal with. That is precisely what we are dealing with here. As a long-term solution I am seeking a specific grant which is top-sliced off the main body and then distributed specifically to the authorities which bear the brunt of this problem.

My noble friend has made a number of important points. Before I withdraw the amendment perhaps I may ask him one question. I wonder whether I may have my noble friend's attention? He has raised a number of important points, some of which I have not discussed with those who have briefed me for the debate. Will he agree that between now and Report stage representatives of the London Boroughs Association may come to see him so that, in the light of what my noble friend said and of their very real concern, some way forward may perhaps be found which would be acceptable to both parties? If my noble friend were to agree to that suggestion I believe that we might make some progress.

Lord Strathclyde

I apologise to my noble friend for my momentary lapse of concentration. I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, that the lines of communication between local authorities and my department are always open. It would therefore be wrong of me to refuse my noble friend's suggestion that there should be a meeting between myself or my department and himself and the London Boroughs Association. I appreciate that the matter is extremely complicated, and I believe that it is one which is better solved in discussion round a table rather than on the Floor of the Chamber.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

I am grateful to my noble friend. We shall certainly follow up that invitation. It is interesting that this matter was not aired in another place and that it has been left to this Chamber to raise the problem. It is a very good example of what the House of Lords can do.

In my noble friend's speech I recognised many of the phrases which were put into speeches which I delivered in not altogether dissimilar debates in another place, and I recognise that it is a complex matter and that he has done his best to help.

Baroness Hamwee

Before the noble Lord withdraws the amendment perhaps I may ask whether any discussions might extend to the other London boroughs. I do not have a brief to speak for the other local authority association in London since my own borough is a member of the London Boroughs Association. However, I am sure that the noble Lord will accept that the problems he described are common to all the London boroughs to some extent and are not dependent on party political colour.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

I can say to the noble Baroness, as President of the LBA, that the more common ground that we can find between that association and the Association of London Authorities the better pleased I shall be. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 18 not moved.]

Clause 5 agreed to.

Viscount Goschen

I beg to move that the House do now resume. In moving this Motion I suggest that the Committee stage resumes at 8.45 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.