HL Deb 11 January 1996 vol 568 cc263-77

3.39 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Security. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about the regulations to reform benefit arrangements for asylum seekers, sponsored immigrants and others. I have today laid before the House the regulations together with the accompanying Command Paper.

"The aim of these reforms—together with the measures in the Asylum and Immigration Bill—are to ensure that the United Kingdom remains a safe haven for those genuinely fleeing persecution; to deal more speedily with their claims; and to discourage unfounded claims from those who are actually economic migrants.

"Of course, genuine refugees come to the United Kingdom to escape persecution, not to obtain our benefits. Their rights to asylum will not be altered in any way. And anyone who arrives here as a refugee and seeks asylum at the port of entry will continue to have access to benefits while their claim is considered by the Home Office.

"However, over 90 per cent. of those claiming asylum are eventually found not to be genuine refugees. The vast majority of asylum claimants are economic migrants. The number who come here is influenced by the ready availability of benefits. Relative to Britain, other European countries offer more limited benefits, less opportunity for work, and have tightened up the procedures applying to asylum seekers. As a result, since 1993 the number of asylum claims in western Europe as a whole hag fallen by over a third. Yet in Britain it has doubled. Consequently, the proportion of all asylum seekers in Europe who come to Britain has more than trebled over the last decade. The huge number of unfounded applications means the tiny proportion of claimants who are genuine face an unnecessarily long process. And the total cost of social security benefits alone for asylum seekers already exceeds £200 million a year. Yet more than 90 per cent. of this money goes to people who are not genuine refugees. No responsible government could ignore this growing misuse of taxpayers' money.

"One way to address the problem is to speed up the processing of asylum claims. The revised procedures in the Asylum and Immigration Bill will speed up the processing of claims. But it is crucial that the new procedures are not in turn overwhelmed by a rising tide of unfounded claims. So benefit changes are essential to discourage unfounded claims.

"Under the new benefit regulations, those who enter the country as refugees£declaring themselves to be asylum seekers at the port of entry£will still be entitled to claim benefit while the Home Office deals with their claim. So will people who claim after entering the country as visitors if there has been a significant upheaval in their homeland since their arrival. But at present some 70 per cent. of all asylum claims are made by people who entered the United Kingdom as tourists, students or businessmen. As such, they demonstrated that they have the means to support themselves while here. And they accepted that they would not be entitled to claim benefit. Yet when they subsequently apply for asylum, under current rules, they become entitled to benefit. We propose to end entitlement to benefit for those who entered the country saying they were not here to seek asylum but subsequently change their story. From now on there will be no benefits for those who misrepresent their case. British citizens do not receive a benefit while appealing against its refusal. Successive governments have upheld that policy. Otherwise, every unsuccessful British benefit claimant would have an incentive to appeal against refusal of benefit. However, under the present rules for asylum seekers, they are entitled to retain benefit during an appeal. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of asylum seekers do appeal against rejection. Yet 96 per cent. of their appeals turn out to he unfounded. I therefore propose that once an asylum seeker's claim has been considered and rejected, entitlement to benefit will cease. They will no longer be able to prolong entitlement to benefit by appealing against refusal of refugee status. In that respect, asylum seekers will in future be treated in the same way as United Kingdom citizens whose claims for benefit are refused.

"Particular concern has been expressed at the prospect of large numbers of asylum seekers losing entitlement on the day the new arrangements come into force. Of course, I understand those concerns. When the proposals were announced last October, there was an obvious danger of a surge of pre-emptive claims during the consultation period to get on to benefit before the new regulations came into effect. To discourage this we announced that those who made in-country claims or appeals after 11th October would lose benefit entitlement once the regulations took effect. This announcement does seem to have dampened the surge of pre-emptive claims. I have taken note of concerns about handling a large number of benefit terminations simultaneously and the transitional impact on local authority finances. I have therefore decided to amend the transitional arrangements significantly. No one will now lose benefit at the point when the new regulations come into effect on 5th February 1996.

"The 13,000 or more asylum seekers who have made in-country claims or appeals since 12th October 1995 and are receiving income support, housing benefit or council tax benefit will continue to get benefit unless or until their claim or appeal is subsequently rejected. This transitional protection will substantially reduce the potential impact on local authorities.

"However, the Government also propose to assist local authorities with any unavoidable additional costs arising under homelessness legislation or the Children Act. My right honourable friends the Secretaries of State for Health and Environment will be discussing the details with local authority associations shortly. I believe this fully meets the most pressing concerns put to the Government by the Social Security Advisory Committee and local authorities. Taken together with measures proposed in the Asylum and Immigration Bill, and further work between my department and the Home Office on improving asylum decision times and priority setting, these changes will make a significant contribution to addressing the problem of bogus asylum seekers.

"The Government further propose that people from abroad whose leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom is subject to some limit or condition, for example, that they should not have recourse to public funds, should be excluded from non-contributory benefits. This will bring these benefits into line with the exclusions which already apply under income support, housing benefit and council tax benefit. The arrangements whereby people are allowed into this country on the understanding that a sponsor has promised to support: them has been widely abused. Nearly half the sponsors renege on these agreements. The regulations will hold sponsors to their agreements. Benefit will only be payable if the sponsor dies or the sponsorship -agreement breaks down after five years. Finally the Government propose to amend the arrangements to remove the discretion of the Secretary of State to make interim payments in some circumstances.

"No responsible government could fail to tackle a situation where well over 90 per cent. of benefit is not going to genuine refugees. These reforms will ensure that the UK remains a safe haven for genuine refugees. They will help deal with their claims faster. And they will discourage bogus claimants who are bettering themselves at the taxpayers' expense. The changes I have made will end concerns over the transitional arrangements, alleviate burdens on local authorities and protect the British taxpayer. I believe the measures are both fair and necessary. I commend them to the House."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.49 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, first I wish to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. I wonder whether he begins to understand the concern, fear and anger the proposals have aroused. The revised regulations vary in only two ways from the original draft regulations. It is hard to be sure because we received such little notice of them. The new regulations vary in that they apply only to new arrivals and there will be some reimbursement of local authorities.

The original regulations were scrutinised in considerable detail by the Government's Social Security Advisory Committee, which sought the views of some 225 organisations and individuals: Churches, charities and local authorities. And what were the conclusions of that government committee? On page 12 of its report it stated: It is difficult to see how asylum seekers who are unable to work or find alternative sources of funding could survive through such long delays without support from the social security system. We are in agreement with the point made by the majority of our respondents that it is very likely that many would be forced to abandon the struggle and risk returning to their own country, possibly to imprisonment or worse. Arguably, the combination of the proposed benefit changes and Home Office delays would effectively deny such people the ability to pursue their rights under immigration law in the UK, also their rights according to the letter and spirit of international law. Almost without precedent in my experience, the Government's own Social Security Advisory Committee has called in paragraph 66, and it has not done so lightly, for the unconditional withdrawal of these regulations.

The concern, fear and outrage relayed to the Secretary of State by the advisory committee, which he has largely ignored, was compounded in this House, first, by the way the parliamentary timetable was handled. The regulations, affecting some of the most vulnerable, threatened, frightened, sick and inarticulate people, were laid 21 days before 8th January. Eighteen of those 21 days occurred during the parliamentary Recess. Noble Lords will understand if the only conclusion we can draw is that the Government were anxious to smuggle the regulations through with as little debate, parliamentary scrutiny and discussion as possible. I acknowledge that the Government Whips in this House helped to persuade the usual channels that this was not the right way to proceed, and we are grateful for that. But it is no way to treat regulations of such significance affecting so many vulnerable people.

Our concern and anger have been compounded by the assumption, very clear throughout the Minister's Statement, of fingering the victim. The reason for the problem is the delay at the Home: Office in the processing of applicants. Will the Minister confirm that the following figures were given by the Home Office in response to a parliamentary Question in the other place on 4th December? Will he confirm that 15 per cent. of the initial application decisions from 1991 have not yet been determined; 15 per cent. from 1992; 15 per cent. from 1993; 25 per cent. from 1994; let alone the more understandable 25 per cent. for 1995? The reason we have a problem is the backlog of undetermined initial decisions, which take on average eight months and may take two, three and in some cases even six years to resolve. Meanwhile under the new proposals, asylum seekers are supposed to linger on the streets without income or support. We ask how they will survive.

Will the Minister also accept that the distinction he draws between the 30 per cent. of refugee status seekers at the port of entry and the 70 per cent. who subsequently apply after entry, whose applications he calls bogus, is itself bogus? That is made clear in paragraph 38 of the report of the government advisory committee. The committee states that those who come to court are certainly not scroungers but will often have a lack of knowledge of our procedures, will be confused and frightened, will have genuine language difficulties, and may come with a well-founded fear of officials and police. They will have a reasonable need of advice and guidance. It is therefore sensible and safer for them to apply for asylum once they have entered this country.

So says the Government's Social Security Advisory Committee. The problem is due to Home Office delay in processing. It is unreasonable to penalise those who enter the country and apply for asylum once they have entered. As the committee states, that is a sensible and safer way for them to proceed.

Why, then, is it being done? It is being done in order to save £200 million in cash and to appeal yet again to the knee-jerk right-wing majority that is, unfortunately, increasingly making itself heard in the other place.

The Government estimates that they will save £200 million on the original proposals. Perhaps the Government will confirm that that figure still stands. The cost of keeping a family of four on reduced social security benefit (just income support) for a week is about £100. The cost of taking one child into care when that family no longer has an income is £870 a week. Yet the Government intend to withdraw income support, housing benefit and council tax benefit. The costs for children in care, and the damage to the health of those children-and their families, will be immense and immeasurable. The cost of homelessness will soar, as probably will the cost of detention in prison. I put it to the House in all good faith that the costs incurred will far outweigh the savings that the Government seek to make—all to assuage the far right, xenophobic wing of the Tory party.

I conclude with the words of the Social Security Advisory Committee on these proposals at paragraphs 61 and 62. I ask noble Lords to take these words very seriously: We do not see how these people would be able to support themselves. As they have qualified for income-related benefits they are by definition without adequate income or capital on which to live. They are unlikely to return home. For many it would be too dangerous and the majority will simply not have the means. Nor can it be assumed that they will be taken care of by the network of support services provided by local authorities, voluntary groups or charities". Local authorities have made that clear. Even if they had the resources, they do not have sufficient planning time". The report continues: The reality of the proposals is that thousands of men, women and children will be left with no means of providing themselves with food or shelter. Many will have no option but to live on the streets of our major cities and ports. Health professionals have warned that, given the vulnerability of many asylum seekers due to their already precarious physical or mental health, some may die". That is the advice, not from me, not from the welfare groups, not even from the Churches, but from the Government's own Social Security Advisory Committee. Can we make one last plea to the Government and endorse what its own committee called for; namely, that these regulations be withdrawn?

Earl Russell

My Lords, it is a convention of parliamentary life in this House that we express ourselves with as much decent moderation as we can manage. For that reason I begin by thanking the Government for the concession they made over the timetable for these regulations to allow them to be freely debated in both Houses. However, I hope it is understood on that side of the Chamber, as it is on this, that decent moderation is harder to achieve on some occasions than it is on others. For us, this is a very difficult occasion indeed on which to achieve it.

First, I join the noble Baroness in expressing my regret that the Government rejected the advice of the Social Security Advisory Committee—not, I regret to say, for the first time. That is an expert committee and it deserves attention. I also express my regret that the Government, having felt that they had to proceed with the regulations, did not embody them in the Bill as, with the concession on the timing, they could perfectly well have done. That would have made it easier for the opinion of this House to be expressed upon them.

The Minister relied very heavily on the Government's arguments about bogus refugees. I rather agree with my honourable friend Mr. Alton that we are dealing with bogus refusals. I sat through the whole of the debates on the 1993 Asylum and Immigration Appeals Bill. I shall never be able to bring myself to understand the idea that anyone who does not pass the tests of that Bill is a bogus refugee. In expressing that view I may be speaking for a considerable body of international and legal opinion.

I deeply regret the decision to withdraw benefits from people who do not declare themselves at the port of entry. It is rather like telling somebody who is in the water and on the point of drowning that he must explain how he got there before he is allowed to clamber into the boat. It is not in the real world. In particular, people who have been the victims of torture—too many of those with whom we are dealing—are often in an extremely confused state. Indeed, amnesia as a result of torture is perfectly possible. Such people may find it difficult to tell their stories.

It could also be difficult for reasons of language. How many in this Chamber know the word for asylum in Bulgarian? I for one certainly do not. It is also extremely difficult, even for those such as myself who have rather more experience of them than we would wish, to understand exactly what is meant in forms emanating from the Home Office or the Department of Social Security. A desire for expert help in filling in forms on which one's life may depend is a perfectly proper concern.

The refusal of benefits to those who do not apply at the port of entry is not only a danger to asylum seekers; it is also a slap in the face to the voluntary organisations which put a great deal of time, effort and conscience into attempts to assist those who are in need of help. Many people are entitled to take offence.

I hear what the Minister said about the withdrawal of benefit pending appeal and putting people in the same position as British citizens. I do not need to remind the Minister of what was said on that issue when we discussed it at considerable length and with very considerable heat during the Jobseekers Bill. The Minister thought that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, had expressed herself rather more freely than was proper. I entirely understood why the noble Baroness spoke in that way. By praying that in aid, the Minister invites the reply that two wrongs do not make a right.

There is also a considerable difference between the cases. A person in this country who is refused benefit may have relatives and friends. He may know all kinds of things, such as where to find the Salvation Army, which a Bulgarian asylum seeker does not know. He has a great many ways in which he can make shift, which somebody coming to this country for the first time without knowing the language does not have. So even though both cases are wrong, in my opinion the latter is a great deal more wrong than the other.

I am glad that there is help for local authorities. What is the cost of that help likely to be? I heard what the noble Baroness had to say about the cost of taking a child into care. Will the Minister confirm that there is no plan to repeal Sections 17 and 20 of the Children Act?

The Minister attempted to occupy the high moral ground. Let me reply by attempting to occupy the practical ground and ask what in fact will happen next. These people have been refused benefit. They have appealed. As the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, confirmed to me in a Written Answer just before Christmas, the Government cannot deport them. I am grateful for that answer. The Home Office has surely not yet forgotten the case of In Re M.

These people will not be in a position to make their way home at their own cost, even if they were able obtain entry when they got there. That is especially true when those people are the economic migrants about whom the Government express so much anxiety. They cannot go away. They cannot work in the first six months and will often find it extremely difficult to work thereafter, especially if they know no English. So they are trapped here. They cannot work; and they do not have any benefits.

What will happen to them? They may, of course, beg. They will, I am certain, become a call on private charity, but that is likely to be such a burden that all those who oppose these regulations should, in propriety, declare an interest. By an interest I mean a pecuniary interest. I do not believe that, by ourselves, we shall be able to support that burden. That raises the possibility, which I should be ashamed to see realised, of the UNHCR opening refugee camps on British soil. We may feel that that is fanciful. It would certainly raise the possibility of a very considerable health hazard. The rate of TB among the homeless on the London streets is 200 times the national average. So it would not only be inhuman but also expensive and against our own interest.

Once again, humanity is the best policy. If the Government cannot answer the question of what will happen to the asylum seekers from whom benefit is withdrawn, they should postpone the implementation of regulations until they can.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I must say that I have heard a few extravagant reactions to Statements in this House, but this afternoon takes the prize. I should like to go back and put the figures in the Secretary of State's Statement in a more simple form, which might help bring home to the Opposition the real facts.

Taking 1994, of every 100 applicants for asylum, four were successful, 17 were given exceptional leave to remain and 79 had their applications refused. Needless to say, almost all appealed—sensibly, in their own interest, because it keeps them on benefit. Three appeals were granted, 61 were dismissed and 15 were withdrawn. So, at the end of the day, seven out of 100 were accepted as genuine refugees, 17 were given exceptional leave to remain and 76 were refused asylum. Members of this House and other people who comment on the issue should try to hold in their heads those simple figures when they come to judge what will happen as a result of the Government's actions.

Of course, the Social Security Advisory Committee took the views of various bodies. I looked at them but I did not notice that the British taxpayer was among them. One of the problems of government is the need to take the interests of the whole country into consideration.

We listened to and read carefully what the Social Security Advisory Committee said. The noble Baroness breathlessly quoted parts of it. That was largely directed at the transitional arrangements and, as I explained, we have considerably altered the transitional arrangements from those we originally envisaged for the reasons I mentioned. I believe therefore that many of the problems posed by the committee which relate to the transitional arrangements have now been removed. Those people currently on benefit will continue to receive that benefit—13,000, as I mentioned in the Statement—until the next stage of their appeal or application is heard.

The noble Baroness described asylum seekers collectively as being "vulnerable" and "frightened", and said that it was too dangerous for them to return to their own countries. But my original figure of 100 must be borne in mind. Out of 100 only seven were considered to be genuine refugees; indeed, 76 were refused. What the noble Baroness says therefore is not: the case.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Baroness discussed the question of port of entry. In future, if somebody comes to claim asylum in this country and applies at the port of entry, he will be allowed benefit until the first decision is made by the Home Office. That is the new arrangement that we are putting in place. It relates only to those people who apply from "in-country".

To listen to the noble Baroness, it would not surprise me if most of your Lordships thought that hardly anyone applied at the port of entry. But that is not true. More than one-third apply at the port of entry. Therefore that rather sets aside the suggestion that the immigrants are so scared when they come to Heathrow that they are too frightened to ask a British immigration officer for asylum. Indeed, during the transitional period of November and December the numbers applying at port of entry actually increased. The noble Earl and the noble Baroness should at least try to obtain some mathematical basis for their extravagant statements.

The noble Earl would like everyone, both British citizens and asylum seekers, to be allowed to keep their benefit during the appeal process. That may be all very well for the Liberal Democrats, but the rest of us have to work out how much that will cost the taxpayer. Just as we experience it with asylum seekers, people would appeal simply in order to stay in benefit. That is exactly what happens.

Remarks were made about the regulations; that we are trying to smuggle them through. The regulations were laid today and that will allow debate before they come into effect on 5th February. One of the problems we encounter in the whole business of judging asylum seekers is the weight of numbers. As we have attempted to put more resources and people into helping to make decisions quickly, the actual numbers coming to this country have increased even further. The whole system has become overwhelmed. One of the reasons why it takes time to process applications is that so many are bogus.

Beyond that, when we reach the appeal stage, the number of appeals which are interrupted, asking for adjournments while they are on-going—the reason is often simply to spin out the process in order to continue to receive benefit—is also increasing. We must remember that three-quarters of those applying are not actually granted permission to stay in this country as refugees or exceptional leave to appeal.

The system I am outlining this afternoon is a perfectly fair and reasonable one. It deals with the problems that we are facing and that other countries face and are dealing with in a similar and related manner. We hope that it will reduce the incentive for people to come here and live on benefit. It will reduce the incentive especially for those who come here telling our immigration officers that they are coming for a holiday or a visit and, after a few weeks or months here—perhaps when it is time to go home—they promptly decide that they would like to claim asylum.

As I said at the beginning, the noble Earl and the noble Baroness failed to take the figures on board. Their extravagant language would be much more appropriate if three-quarters of applicants were found to be asylum seekers rather than the other way around.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many of us are glad that the Government have had the courage to tackle this matter? For a considerable time it has been an obvious and growing scandal that people come to this country largely drawn by the attractiveness of our social security system. They claim to be refugees whereas, as the Minister said, only a comparatively small proportion of them in fact are genuine refugees; most of them come to this country because they believe it to be a nice country in which to live with a generous social security system on which they can live quite happily. I am glad that the Government have had the courage to try to tackle the problem, conscious as they must be of the fact that a great deal of emotion will be raised on the subject. We heard a little of it earlier this afternoon.

Will my noble friend the Minister spell out in a little more detail what the financial savings resulting from the new arrangements will be for the British taxpayer? He mentioned £200 million. Either the noble Baroness or the noble Earl said that, because of other charges that will arise, the reduction in costs to the British taxpayer will be much less. I shall be grateful if my noble friend will put clearly before the House what the Government anticipate will be the financial saving as a result of the regulations.

It must be clear that at the moment we are spending a good deal of British taxpayers' money on cases for which there is little justification. It will be interesting and important for your Lordships to have in mind when we consider the regulations exactly what the Government contemplate the saving will be. My view is that it will be substantial. I believe that the British taxpayer resents being taxed to provide support on a general scale for a large number of people in respect of whom it is not justified.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend who has had considerable experience in days past of the problems of the benefit system and how to control it.

We envisage that, once the system is up and running, we shall be making savings of the order of £200 million a year—the figure quoted by the noble Baroness. Those savings will not be made in the next financial year because of the generous transitional arrangements I outlined. The savings will be greater if we can reduce the number of migrants who come here; if we can reduce the number of bogus asylum seekers. They put costs onto local government; for example, through the education system and so forth. Therefore, while my £200 million saving relates to the benefit system alone—I am sure people will approve of that—there will be other savings. Fewer people will come here and further costs will not be imposed on local government services.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon

My Lords, does the Minister realise that within the Churches there are many who share the anger and dismay expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell? Does he realise that we, too, object to the word "bogus" in relation to those applications that are rejected? It is not that the applications are bogus, but rather that those applicants have not been able to jump through specific hoops. That is the language that we would choose to use.

Furthermore, does the Minister realise that a considerable problem is being raised through the regulations? Voluntary agencies, the Churches among them, are attempting to respond. Does he realise, for instance, that the diocese of Southwark is attempting to respond to the situation? Are the Government prepared to put any resources towards the voluntary agencies that are attempting to meet the need?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I cannot agree with the right reverend Prelate that just because the applications have been refused I am somehow not allowed to come to the conclusion that the applications were not ill-founded in the beginning. If the right reverend Prelate takes a look at the countries from which many of those applicants come he will be hard put to explain how people could come from those countries, which most of us consider stable and democratic, and find themselves within the rules of being refugees.

We give money to various organisations. We give £1.4 million to the Refugee Council, we give £500,000 to Refugee Action and we give a number of other more regional bodies about £30,000 each in order to do the work they do. We are always happy to discuss with them the kind of problems which arise on this difficult question. I hope that the right reverend Prelate will look at the figures and also look at the rising trend which has led to an almost ten-fold increase in the number of people applying in this country over the past decade.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, I should declare an interest in that until last June I was Director of the Refugee Council, to which the Minister has just referred. I put it to the Minister that if people are feeling emotional it is because there is genuine anger and dismay at what the Government have announced today. On the Minister's own figures, 24 per cent. of asylum seekers are allowed to stay in this country. Will he confirm that roughly the same proportion of in-country applicants as of port applicants are allowed to stay in this country? Twenty-four per cent. is a fairly large figure.

Secondly, as regards denying asylum seekers who are appealing against a refusal any income support while they are awaiting a decision, is that not tantamount to saying that there is no effective appeal system for such people? If they cannot afford to sustain themselves, they either have to beg or possibly go back to the dangers from which they have fled.

Thirdly, the Minister referred to other European Union countries. Can he mention any European Union country which neither provides an adequate financial basis of support for asylum seekers nor provides accommodation and other subsistence for them? It seems to me that we are going to do neither one nor the other. That leaves asylum seekers begging on the streets.

Finally, there is an answer to the difficulties that he has been describing. The problem is, as my noble friend Lady Hollis said very clearly a few moments ago, that asylum seekers are having to wait sometimes years before a decision is made about their asylum claims. That is unfair to them and it is costly for the country. What we need is not systems for determining asylum claims which are unfair and unjust but enough staff in the Home Office so that decisions can be made fairly, properly and speedily. In that way, the Government would save the money that they are talking about. But it should not be done by forcing the victims of persecution the world over, a small number of whom seek safety in this country, from having any means to exist while they are waiting for a decision about their futures.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I shall not repeat the figures I mentioned earlier but I do think that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, whose interest in this subject I know well, should bear them in mind. As I said earlier, one of the problems which leads to delay for genuine asylum seekers—the 7 per cent.—is that so many come without a genuine reason for seeking asylum in this country. They simply clog up the system. We have put in more resources. We have put in £37 million more just recently. We have attempted to improve the system but it has simply been overwhelmed by more people deciding to come here. We are currently trying a fast-track system and as a result of the Asylum and Immigration Bill we will be making further improvements in trying to make the procedure very much quicker.

But there is the other problem which I mentioned when it comes to appeals. Almost everyone appeals. Few of them have real grounds for appeal, but almost everyone appeals because that keeps them in this country and on benefit for very many months. Many of them adjourn, adjourn and adjourn in order to draw out the process. That is part of the problem, which I fully accept is a serious one, when it comes to genuine asylum seekers.

With regard to denying support during the appeal, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State makes it clear in the Statement that it puts asylum seekers on all fours with United Kingdom citizens, who are not allowed benefit while they appeal. That is proper and right. What we want to able to do—should like to think that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, would agree with us on this—is deal with the genuine asylum seeker quickly and expeditiously. The genuine asylum seeker will be able to apply at the port. He will get all the benefits while the Home Office officials decide on his case. I would hope that if we can somehow slim down the process so that the officials are not being overwhelmed by numbers they will be able to improve, if I may so call it, their decision at the first instance.

In regard to other countries, many of our European colleagues have strengthened their asylum measures since 1993. They have taken steps along the same lines as our own. That has led to a fall in the number of asylum seekers in most of the countries of the European Union.

Baroness Elles

My Lords, with regard to what my noble friend has just said about asylum seekers in other European Union countries, can my noble friend confirm that the numbers have decreased dramatically and that the numbers in the United Kingdom applying for asylum are somewhere equal to the total number of asylum seekers in all other European Union countries? Can he further confirm that the measures taken by those countries both as to the treatment of asylum seekers at the port of entry and the kind of benefits that they are receiving show that we have been way ahead of any other European Union country in the way in which we have been treating asylum seekers up to now?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her support on this matter. As she has perhaps picked up in one of my previous answers, most of our European friends have taken steps in quite recent legislation to strengthen their asylum measures. It is difficult—the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, mentioned this—to make direct comparisons because Denmark, Germany and The Netherlands generally use reception centres and hostels. The French give benefit but only for 12 months. At the end of 12 months it stops. What is interesting is that all the steps they have taken mean that they have seen a decline in the number of applicants in the past year or two while we have seen an increase. A decade ago we were running at 3 or 4 per cent. of the total number of asylum seekers in the whole of Europe. In 1994 we were up to 13.2 per cent. A look at the figures will show that in most European countries over the past year or two, as a result of their tightening their legislation against economic migrants, the graph has turned down. Ours has gone into a steeper and steeper increase.

Lord Shaw of Northstead

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that our embassies abroad do a very good but difficult job in examining the applications that arc made to them and that they give full warning to all applicants for visas as to the consequences, if those applicants are successful, of seeking to change at a later date their reason for coming to this country? If the consequences are not borne out in fact, will it not make the job of our embassies that much more difficult in the future?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, my noble friend is right in saying that our embassies abroad, especially those in countries from which a great number of asylum seekers come, do look very carefully at applications for visas, for example. They ask people, "Why are you going to the United Kingdom?" They may say, "We are going to visit", or "for education" or "business". If the embassy is satisfied that the application appears to be genuine a visa is given. The fact is that many of the applicants do genuinely visit on business and then return. However, having told one story to the embassy, a lot of them get to this country and a few weeks or months later they decide to change their story.

When I look at some of the countries from which a significant number of these people come I find India, Pakistan and Ghana included among them. I really wonder whether there is justification for suggesting that people from these countries, which I believe we all consider to be reasonably stable democratic countries, are genuine asylum seekers.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, can the Minister tell us what provision has been made for hostel accommodation with feeding arrangements? If benefits are going to be withdrawn while appeals are taking place, can additional provision be made so that these people will not be sleeping and starving on the streets and begging from voluntary organisations?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes an accusation which has been made a number of times. I pose this question to her and to the House and get back to the figures I have mentioned. At the end of the procedure—which sometimes takes months; sometimes 18 months—and they are on benefit, many are eventually refused and they cease to have benefit. I suggest to the noble Baroness that the people who will be refused and put off benefit rather earlier than 18 months will do the same as those people who come off benefit after 18 months currently do; that is, go back to their own country or find some other way of looking after themselves.

Lord Elton

My Lords, as one who is not a xenophobe and who does not come from the right of the party and whose doctor has repeatedly failed to get a knee-jerk reaction from either leg, may I first say that I am connected with, or a member of, two organisations which are interested in refugees, but I do not speak on behalf of either and I have not consulted them. These are my own private views and they need to be said for my noble friend's comfort.

It is impossible to look at the disproportionate flow of refugees into this country and the disproportionate number of those who do not qualify as rating refugee status without concluding that something is now wrong with the system and that the Government have a duty to do something about it. It is quite understandable that the subject develops great heat and passion because anyone who has seen cases of genuine immigrant hardship, whether political or economic, cannot help being stirred to compassion.

But this piece of legislation is not directed at dealing with economic migrants, but with political refugees. There must be a hoop through which they must pass, as the right reverend Prelate put it, in order that they can he identified. Having got through all that, there remains a concern that the system will not achieve what is intended effectively in the initial stages. I was relieved to hear of the 13,000 who will continue to receive the existing treatment because they are already applicants.

One cannot help thinking that there will be some cases of confusion at the point of entry. Is my noble friend saying that that can never be taken into account as a result of the removal of the Secretary of State's discretion? I imagine that the total volume of immigration under this head will diminish as word gets round what the new circumstances are. That will accelerate the appeals procedure, but it will still take some time, particularly in the initial stages.

I have not floated this idea anywhere, but it seems to me that the voluntary agencies have a great deal of knowledge of the system and many of them have a pretty accurate idea of what the result of an appeal is going to be. If those agencies had the courage of their convictions and provided from their own resources—and, I agree, at great expense—support for those applicants whom they thought had a good chance of succeeding, will the Government consider refunding that money to the supporting agency in the event of a successful appeal?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his remarks and especially for his drawing attention to the changes that we made between the initial decisions that we took and these final regulations about the transitional arrangements. I say to him that as regards the future—and perhaps I should have answered the noble Earl, Lord Russell, on this—my right honourable friends the Secretary of State for Health and the Secretary of State for the Environment will be discussing in detail with the local authority associations how we might judge what extra impact may fall on their resources in the future. For every bit of extra impact that may fall on their resources they will have savings, as my noble friend rightly points out, as the number of applicants coming to this country actually diminishes. As he rightly said, that should mean an acceleration of the appeals procedure.

I believe that it is properly compassionate to make sure that the rules we operate are such that the genuine do get in. The current system makes it very difficult to winnow out the genuine from the bogus. I believe that the changes we have made will very much help that process, which will be to the benefit of those who actually do need our protection.