HL Deb 09 May 1996 vol 572 cc215-64

3.55 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Baroness Blotch.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Strabolgi) in the Chair.]

Clause 9 [Entitlement to housing accommodation and assistance]:

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

Before calling the first amendment, I must inform Members of the Committee that if Amendment No. 97 is agreed to I cannot call Amendments Nos. 99 or 100.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 97: Page 6, line 40, leave out subsection (1).

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment I shall, with the leave of the Committee, speak also to Amendments Nos. 112, 114, 117, 119 and 121. In Clause 9, we come to a most extraordinary clause and a quite extraordinary tactic of government in proposing legislation to Parliament. Members of the Committee will be aware that the Housing Bill which we are due to debate on Second Reading next week would, under Clauses 160 and 161, actually repeal Clause 9 of this Bill. In other words, Parliament is being asked to debate, deliberate, consider and, indeed, approve two different versions of government policy on the basis that whichever reaches the statute book first may be overturned by the second Bill. I find such a situation quite extraordinary, both in terms of public policy and in terms of the degree of respect which the Government appear to have for Parliament, its time and its processes.

In terms of public policy, the issue is not unimportant. We have two differing versions of what the Government wish to do with respect to the housing entitlements of those whom they offensively call "immigrants". I say "offensively" because that is what the Bill before us says, although I acknowledge with gratitude the undertaking by the Minister at a previous stage in Committee to bring forward amendments at a later stage which would remove that offensive word.

However, the result is that those who have to implement the legislation—and we are talking about local authority housing departments—have to prepare themselves for two alternative versions of the law. 'They have to prepare themselves in terms of briefing, in terms of understanding, government regulations, guidance and advice notes and as regards all of the procedures which they will have to observe in order to implement the law under the provisions of this Bill and under the provisions of the Housing Bill which is at present in this place. Therefore, there is a very considerable extra and totally unnecessary expense involved due to the fact that those two versions of proposed law are being put before Parliament at the same time.

In addition to the public policy aspect, I ask Members of the Committee to consider whether there is any precedent for two different versions of government policy being put forward as alternatives in two separate Bills before Parliament. If there are, of course we must examine those precedents and consider whether they justify the present situation, but my understanding is that there are not, and that Government are simply seeking to protect themselves against their own indecision and their own inability to pursue legislation with due diligence and speed, and they are doing so at the expense of this Chamber. Therefore when we consider Clause 9 as a whole, in a clause stand part debate, I propose to explain briefly—because I do not wish to rehearse at length the arguments I have just been putting—why it is improper for this clause to be in the Bill at all.

Having said that, I consider that it is our duty to look at Clause 9 in detail and to consider the extent to which the proposals made in the clause can be justified or ought to be amended. These amendments seek to remove one of the two principal elements in Clause 9. Clause 9 is designed to exclude those people who are called "immigrants" first of all from the provisions of what is called the "accommodation part" of the Bill and, secondly, from the provisions of the "homelessness part" of the Bill. However, I should not refer to the Bill in this regard but rather to the relevant legislation in England and Wales, in Scotland and in Northern Ireland. We are concerned in these amendments with the accommodation part, which is what in ordinary terms we would refer to as the allocation of houses and the waiting list. I remind the Committee that the term "immigrant" which is still in the Bill includes, under the definition in Clause 12, all of those who not only require leave to enter or remain in this country but also those who have leave to enter or remain in this country. That is qualified in Clause 9 which refers to those who also fall within, a class specified in an order made by the Secretary of State".

It is my understanding that the Government's intention in such an order is to exclude from the scope of this clause those who have leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom. I invite the Minister to confirm that when she responds to this debate. But even if she confirms that, it does not explain the extraordinarily roundabout way in which the Government reach a definition of who is to be covered by the clause. First of all, they define those people widely in Clause 12 and then that definition is restricted by order in Clause 9. Even if the Minister says that that is the intention of the Government, I am afraid that will not satisfy me that the Government's intention is adequately restricted and that there is not power for a future Secretary of State to take a different view of who should be covered by the order because the power is given in Clause 9 as drafted.

I must make it clear that in housing legislation we must be careful not to state that entitlement—that is, housing need—should allow the possibility of different treatment for different kinds of people. Those who have equal housing need ought to be treated equally as regards housing legislation. It should not be a matter of their immigrant status, the colour of their skin, or any other consideration. Yet the clause as drafted makes it possible for one group of people with equal housing need, who may be neighbours of another group of people with equal housing need, to be treated differently. That is simply not acceptable. Housing legislation should be about housing need and not about immigration policy.

It is not as if a significant sum of public funds were involved. As we know, over the years public subsidy for public housing has been diminished almost to the point of non-existence. Public housing is no longer heavily subsidised in this country. The argument of the protection of public funds is not a valid one with respect to this clause, or any part of it. The Conservative Party is supposed to be the party of the family. According to the definition in Clause 12, we are talking now about people who are legitimate, permanent, or long-term residents of this country. We are saying that their right to housing of a quality which is necessary for good family life will be inferior to that of other people with the same housing needs. I cannot think that that is the correct policy for a party which claims to be the party of the family. This is legislation which sets priorities not on the basis of housing need or of family need but on the basis of the colour of someone's skin or someone's immigration status.

Where does this legislation leave us? We are left in a situation where local authority staff do not know which Bill they should pay attention to. They are faced with costs not only in the provision of accommodation but also administration costs which are quite unnecessary. In addition to the indecision to which I have already referred, we are left with the possibility, when this legislative exercise is completed, of severe injustice and the distortion of housing need. I suggest to the Committee that we should not allow this part of the clause, or indeed any part of the clause, to pass into law. I beg to move.

4 p.m.

Earl Russell

Before I say anything else I wish to thank the noble Baroness for the concession she made on the use of the word "immigrant" in the Bill. That is a welcome concession, but to understand the significance of this clause we shall have to wait to see exactly what form of words is to be put in its place. That, I understand, we may hope to discover at the Report stage.

The next point that concerns me, if I want to discover who exactly will be covered by this exclusion from housing waiting lists, is the phrase to which the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, has referred; namely, someone, who is of a class specified in an order made by the Secretary of State". It is a little like the famous example of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, of the company promoted during the South Sea Bubble, for a purpose hereafter to be disclosed. It is of course also true that we do not know what will happen in the way of future Secretaries of State. We do not know how long this clause will be on the statute book, if indeed it gets there. Whatever the intentions of the present Secretary of State, we have to take into account that we are creating the vires to do something which may be far-reaching and which may affect people who pay tax and national insurance and work here and have been here a pretty long time.

I am sure that the Minister will have a great deal to say about the interests of the taxpayer. Before she does so, I remind her that I am a taxpayer myself. However, one should take into account the interests of actual taxpayers who may suffer under this clause.

We need to think also about the difficulty of turning local authorities into immigration officers. We have been over all this ground in the debate on the British Airways amendment as regards Clause 5, and in the debate on Clause 8. It does not make the points any less true that we have said them before. We have already had reports in the Department of the Environment's research on the application of the code of guidance, published quite recently, that the immigration checks required of local authorities under the 1993 Act are putting a pretty significant burden on local authorities. I do not think that we all appreciate quite how desperate the burdens on local authorities now are, nor how much worse they will be made by the Bill. The Minister, I am sure, in her reply will make reference to illegal entry. But that is entirely redundant because under a 1993 judgment, those who enter illegally, or who have overstayed their leave, are not entitled to any local authority housing under the existing law. The Minister looks puzzled. The 1993 judgment to which I refer is The Secretary of State v. Tower Hamlets. The new effect of the clause will only be in respect of those who have a perfectly legal right to be here, some of whom may be living here for the remainder of their lives.

In exercising the duty to conduct immigration checks, local authorities are under conflicting pressures. On the one hand, they must not infringe the clause. On the other, they have a duty under the Race Relations Act 1976 to promote harmonious relations between the communities in their local authority area. So either they must have a series of checks which are so officious that they cause considerable resentment, or they have to risk discriminating against specific racial groups, and putting themselves in danger of the lot. They are, if I may so put it, "damned if they do and damned if they don't". It is a burden from which I believe they will have some difficulty finding their way out.

I wish to cite a case about which I wrote to the Minister yesterday. It bears on Clause 8 rather than Clause 9, but the principle is the same. On Monday, I stood at a bus stop and looked at the window of my local Jobcentre. I observed an advertisement for waiters or waitresses, all of whom of any nationality were being required to produce ID and passports. Not every British subject possesses a British passport. It costs £20 to obtain one and not everyone on income support can afford £20 to get a passport. Shall we have a burden like that—proving your immigration status—under Clause 9? The noble Baroness shakes her head; I am glad to see that she does. However, if that shake is to be compelling, she must tell me exactly what local authorities are supposed to do to check immigration status under this clause. That would make the answer compelling; and I would find that interesting.

We are told that one of the reasons for the clause is to make seeking asylum in this country less attractive. I am not sure that seeking asylum is ever a particularly attractive prospect. Neither am I sure that the details of local authority housing eligibility in Brent are necessarily common knowledge in the back streets of Jaffna or in East Timor. I am not quite certain whether the proceedings of our House really receive that much attention. We risk flattering ourselves.

I also believe that we risk severely exaggerating the attractiveness of our welfare system. I once said that the Department of Social Security regards itself as a honey pot surrounded by benefit-seeking wasps. That attitude now seems to be spreading into the Home Office and indeed, as appears from this clause, into the Department of the Environment. The level of our welfare benefits is one of the lowest in the European Union. If people are being attracted to claim asylum by the generosity of the benefits and the social protection that they receive, they will be drawn to Norway, Sweden, France, Belgium and even Ireland long before they are drawn to this country. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, shakes his head. I shall look forward with a great deal of interest to hearing his reasons for saying that I am wrong.

Moreover, a great many such people were much better off in the countries from where they came than they are ever likely to be now. Some noble Lords may remember the evidence from Turkish doctors to which we listened in the debate on torture before the Division as regards Clause 1. Two of those doctors will go on trial in Turkey next Friday on the charge of running an illegal medical centre. Running an illegal medical centre means that they did not tell the security forces all about the medical details of the victims of torture whom they were treating—so they were being required to commit a breach of medical confidentiality. When those doctors escape ultimately from prison, as I hope they will do in due course, should they apply for asylum in this country I do not believe that they will be drawn to give up the life of a doctor in Turkey by the prospect of accommodation in the Chalk Hill estate in the London Borough of Brent. It really defies belief.

We need to remember that many of these people may be in this country for the rest of their natural lives. They may eventually become British. It is the way that many of our ancestors arrived here and the way that I hope many people will continue to arrive in future. It does not mean that they come to this country with the idea that it is a particularly generous place. Bearing in mind that all the English are immigrants within the British Isles, and that there is a great deal of feeling now about what happens to Englishmen with second homes in Wales, the Committee may understand what I am getting at when I say that this clause sounds as though it has been drafted by Meibion Glyndwr.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Hylton

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, made an important point when he told us that illegal arrivals and over-stayers in this country do not have a right to local authority housing. We should all be grateful to him for that.

I am sorry to say that I am driven to the conclusion that Her Majesty's Government have become completely hostile both to asylum seekers and to a variety of classes of immigrant. First, they will not allow such people to take work even if it were available to them during the first six months of their stay. Secondly, they deprive them of social security benefits. In this clause they now seek to deprive them of all access to local authority housing.

What are likely to be the consequences of these measures? It seems to me that there will be destitution, despair and suicide; and there is already some evidence for that in recent events. For example, an asylum seeker tried to throw himself into the Thames from, I believe, Tower Bridge.

The consequences in the case of asylum seekers and immigrants with children will be the breaking up of families and the taking into care of children. I support the amendments.

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

Perhaps I may start by reminding the Committee what council housing and housing association housing is for. It is a valuable asset. It is there for people who are here on a long-term basis, including people who have been here all their lives, and their fathers, grandfathers and so on before them. It is for their use and, if they are allocated such a house, it gives them a tenancy of a house gained for life. The person who gains tenancy can stay there for as long as he wants. He also acquires succession rights whereby he can pass the tenancy on to a close relative, and certain rights of assignment. He can exchange the property with another tenant elsewhere; and, thanks to this Government's legislation, he can acquire the right to buy that property.

So the Government are concerned that such housing should go to those with clearly established long-term needs—people who have the right to remain in this country indefinitely. I was slightly puzzled by what the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, said. He seemed to cast doubts on the last point that I made: that people who have a right to remain in this country indefinitely will be entitled to apply for and receive local authority housing and housing association housing. For example, people who have been granted asylum, who have exceptional leave to remain or who have leave to remain on a long-term basis will not be affected by the proposals before the Committee this afternoon. The classes of immigrants whom we propose to exclude from council housing are listed in the papers before the Committee. We state clearly—

Earl Russell

I am grateful to the Minister for the assurance about people with exceptional leave to remain. However, am I correct that the vires permit subsequent Secretaries of State to disentitle those people under future regulations?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I am used to the noble Earl showing extreme suspicion of future Secretaries of State. It is the normal line of argument that he takes whenever secondary legislation is considered. However, the issue is more complicated than he usually suggests. As he knows, governments cannot just use secondary legislation for any old thing. The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments is careful in ensuring that it is used in the way set out in the original legislation. In addition, people can look back at what Ministers said and are saying as regards the groups we have in mind for the regulation. I quote from the Background Notes by the Home Office: The main categories excluded from council housing would therefore be…illegal entrants". I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, asks us to believe that illegal entrants ought to have the right to be considered for council housing, the long-term tenancies which I mentioned at the beginning of my speech. The document continues: overstayers and persons given temporary admission; asylum seekers; visitors, students and all others given limited leave on the basis that they could support and accommodate themselves without recourse to public funds". Those are the classes of immigrant whom we propose to exclude from council housing. They are all generally here for a limited period only and if they have a need for housing it can only be on a temporary basis. We believe that that can properly be met in the private rented sector and not by them becoming long-term council tenants.

Most of the groups whom we propose to exclude from entitlement to social housing are already excluded from other forms of social assistance. There is no reason they should be entitled to housing created with public assistance, particularly when there are people with settled residence seeking such housing. That applies equally to immigrants here on limited leave and asylum seekers. I remind the Committee, from speeches I have made on the subject before, that only a tiny proportion of asylum seekers—less than 8 per cent.—are granted full refugee status. Double that number are granted exceptional leave to remain. However, I underline the point that, if those two groups are granted leave to remain, they then acquire the same rights to council housing as people with settled residence. If I heard him correctly, I fear that that is something which the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, did not appreciate. I hope that I have been able to reassure him on the point.

We do not have a comprehensive picture of the distribution of people with limited leave across the country, but if we look at the most visible subset—asylum seekers—we find that the vast majority, probably 90 per cent., are in the London area. That is precisely the part of the country where housing pressures are greatest and waiting times for council housing longest. For established residents to see temporary immigrants—people who are here for only a short time and who have not been given asylum or exceptional leave to remain—being allocated permanent social housing is not fair.

We spend a great deal of money on housing. The Government have this year invested about £2 billion in the creation of new housing and the improvement of existing stock. The expenditure should go to help the housing position of the established population. That includes people from abroad who come here and have leave to remain. But it should not include those who do not have leave to remain in the longer term. That is the important point.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, drew the Committee's attention to the forthcoming Housing Bill and asked how this Bill's provisions relate to it. First, it is naturally an immigration issue rather than a housing issue. Secondly, the Housing Bill extends only to England and Wales, but we wish these provisions to operate on a UK-wide basis. Thirdly, we wish the provisions to take effect as soon as possible after Royal Assent in order to relieve the burden on local authorities following the change to housing benefit entitlement which came into force on 5th February. We expect that the Bill will reach the statute book earlier than the Housing Bill. Moreover, all the Housing Bill's homelessness provisions will need to be commenced together, which may take a few months longer than the Royal Assent to the Housing Bill. Also, the corresponding powers in the Housing Bill, which will he found in Clause 144 on housing allocations and Clause 165 on homelessness, are cast in broader terms. That is because we wish to use the powers to catch European Union benefit tourists as well as people who require leave under the Immigration Act 1971. The two different provisions will achieve the same effect. They will not involve two rounds of implementation. We shall issue guidance on implementation of the Asylum and Immigration Bill which will in most respects be valid when the Housing Bill comes into force.

I turn to the problem raised by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, on how local authorities screen. Anyone who knows local authorities realises that when councils accept someone on the council list, questions have to be asked. Applicants must be asked where they have lived for the past five years and other questions in order, if a points system is operated, to ascertain how many points a person may be able to accumulate. So local authorities must ask questions. That already happens and the Department of the Environment issued a revised homelessness—

Earl Russell

Is the Minister aware that a number of people have been asylum seekers for more than five years and their claims are still not determined?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I am not sure about the figure for those who have been here that long looking for asylum. I suggest that part of the reason their claims have not been determined is that they have managed to spin out the procedure, for example, by asking for adjournments and the like during the appeals procedure. In any case, on the more general point, the noble Earl underlines the argument that I have put before the Committee on other occasions. It is that if we try to reduce the number of people coming here looking for asylum with no justifiable reason, we will be able to treat genuine asylum seekers much more quickly and better than at the moment.

I turn now to the Department of the Environment's revised homelessness code of guidance for local authorities. In 1994 it was drawn up in consultation with the Commission for Racial Equality. It contains advice on the subject, and we have every reason to believe that the procedure works well and has not given rise to complaints.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, asked why people should come here when our benefits system is not all that good. He may recall what I said when we debated the general proposition of excluding asylum seekers who do not seek asylum at the port of entry from our benefits system. I explained what other countries do against the background that, until the Government's changes, someone seeking asylum here had immediate eligibility for benefit and sometimes had had that eligibility for a long time while they went through the first decision process, the appeal process and the tribunal process. All that could be spun out to some extent. In Belgium and France the benefit stops after a year. In Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Spain asylum seekers are not allowed to work, whereas after six months in Britain they are allowed to work. As the noble Earl knows, the rest of Europe has tightened up procedures and we have seen their figures for asylum seekers decrease while ours have increased considerably.

For all those reasons, this seems to me to be a fair and equitable way to proceed. People who come from abroad and have a settled right to live here should, along with the natives—if I may call them that—of this country, have the right to seek council housing. I do not think that those who are here with limited leave to remain, or whose leave to remain is still questioned because they are asylum seekers and no decision has yet been taken, should have access to long-term council housing. I hope that with that explanation the noble Lord will be able to withdraw his amendment. If he does not withdraw it, I trust that my noble friends will support me in the Division Lobby.

4.30 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

The Minister concludes where he started with an entirely specious argument about the long-term benefits of council housing. He rightly referred to the fact that people in council housing in this country have the right to stay there, have certain rights of nomination and succession, and certain rights to buy in certain circumstances. I hope that he is not suggesting that those rights, which have existed ever since public housing started in this country, are now at risk and that the Government think they are matters that could possibly be changed.

The suggestion he makes by his repeated reference to the phrase "long-term" is that, somehow, the rights of those in public housing are superior to the right to remain in this country. He appears to suggest that the long-term rights somebody has because he is in a council house are somehow more important than his right to remain in this country, and if he loses his right to remain in this country those rights would then disappear. That is clearly not the case and is not suggested in the amendment.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

There may be confusion here; perhaps I intervened a phrase too soon in the noble Lord's remarks. I make it clear that anyone with a settled right to remain here, from wherever in the world that person comes, has the right, along with any other British citizen, to apply for and receive a council house. It is people who do not yet have any settled right to remain here who we believe should not be eligible for council housing.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

At this stage of my speech, as the Minister said, all I have referred to is the quite specious use of the word "long-term" as applied to the rights of those in public housing. Clearly, there are no rights that are longer term than the right to remain in this country.

I turn to the separate issue of what is meant by the Bill and to whom the clause applies. The Minister has now given me, in terms, the assurance for which I asked; namely, that those who have the right to enter, or remain in, this country are not covered by the clause. He will recall that we debated earlier in Committee the extraordinary approach of the Government which means that Clause 12 contains a very wide definition of "immigrant". It includes those who have the right to enter or remain. The definition is half restricted in earlier clauses by the statement that the Secretary of State may by order restrict that right. I believe in the sincerity of the Minister's assurance that that is the Government's intention at the present time. However, that is not a protection against future Secretaries of State changing the provisions under Clause 9 and using the protection given to the Secretary of State by the definition in Clause 12. So we object as strongly as we did before to the process of having a wide definition in statute constrained only by ministerial statements about what will subsequently be contained in orders.

The Minister referred to the potentiality for conflict between the Housing Bill and the Asylum and Immigration Bill. He gave references to Clauses 144 and 165—although, I notice, not to Clauses 160 and 161—of the Housing Bill. He rightly pointed out that the Housing Bill refers only to England and Wales, and that there are other real differences.

The wording of the Housing Bill is entirely different from the wording in this Bill. It is very difficult for those working in local authorities to know to which they should pay attention. The Housing Bill refers to a person from abroad who is ineligible for social assistance. It refers to an asylum seeker or dependant of an asylum seeker if he has any accommodation in the United Kingdom, however temporary. These are words in housing legislation, and the Minister claims that the present Bill is not housing but immigration legislation.

We are entering the realms of absurdity. The Government must make up their mind what it is that they want to enact and must decide to put forward a coherent and consistent view before Parliament in one piece of legislation. It must not rely on ministerial explanation from any Front Bench, however conscientious and sincere, to tell us which piece of legislation should be prepared for by local authorities. I am not satisfied with the argument of the Minister that it depends on which piece of legislation is enacted first. It is up to the Government to get their legislation through in the order they think fit. It is not up to us to try to support it; and it is certainly not up to local authorities to prepare for any possible deficiencies in the Government's business management.

The Minister referred to the requirements on housing departments'to obtain information from applicants about where they have lived for the past five years. When it was pointed out to him by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that some asylum seekers had been in the queue for more than five years, he responded as though it were entirely their fault. In practice, people who applied for asylum before 1993 and who are on the waiting list have been kept in the backlog precisely by the timetable imposed by the 1993 Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act, which has given priority to subsequent applications. That is why some people have been in the queue for more than five years and why they would not necessarily appear to local authorities as asylum seekers.

I said that I should not be satisfied with the assurance as to what the Government mean to do with this legislation. We have to deal with the legislation as it is presented to us. As it is presented, it is both unfair and incompetent. I ask the opinion of the Committee on Amendment No. 97.

4.37 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 97) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 95; Not-Contents, 142.

Division No. 1
Acton, L. Hilton of Eggardon, B.
Addington, L. Hollis of Heigham, B.
Ashley of Stoke, L. Hooson, L.
Avebury, L. Howie of Troon, L.
Bath, M. Hughes, L.
Beaumont of Whitley, L. Hutchinson of Lullington, L
Berkeley, L. Hylton, L.
Blackstone, B. Jeger, B.
Borrie, L. Jenkins of Hillhead, L.
Bridge of Harwich, L. Jenkins of Putney, L.
Bruce of Donington, L. Kennet, L.
Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L. Kissin, L.
Chorley, L. Lockwood, B.
Clancarty, E. Longford, E.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L. McCarthy, L.
Clinton-Davis, L. McIntosh of Haringey, L.
Cocks of Hartcliffe, L. Mackie of Benshie, L.
Dahrendorf, L. McNally, L.
Dean of Beswick, L. Mayhew, L.
Diamond, L. Merlyn-Rees, L.
Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L. Methuen, L.
Donoughue, L. Molloy, L.
Dormand of Easington, L. Monkswell, L.
Dubs, L. Morris of Castle Morris, L.
Eatwell, L. Murray of Epping Forest, L.
Exeter, Bp. Nicol, B.
Ezra, L. Peston, L.
Farrington of Ribbleton, B. Plant of Highfield, L.
Feversham, L. Prys-Davies, L.
Flowers, L. Redesdale, L.
Gallacher, L. Richard, L.
Geraint, L. Ritchie of Dundee, L.
Gladwin of Clee, L. Robson of Kiddington, B.
Gould of Potternewton, B. Rodgers of Quarry Bank, L.
Graham of Edmonton, L. [Teller.] Russell, E. [Teller.]
Halsbury, E.
Haskel, L. Sainsbury, L.
Healey, L. Sandwich, E.
Henderson of Brompton, L. Seear, B.
Sefton of Garston, L. Tope, L.
Serota, B. Tordoff, L.
Sewel, L. Turner of Camden, B.
Shaughnessy, L. Wallace of Coslany, L.
Stallard, L. Wedderburn of Charlton, L.
Stoddart of Swindon, L. White, B.
Strabolgi, L. Williams of Elvel, L.
Taverne, L. Winchilsea and Nottingham, E
Thomson of Monifieth, L. Winston, L.
Aberdare, L. Harvington, L.
Abinger, L. Hemphill, L.
Addison, V. Henley, L.
Ailsa, M. HolmPatrick, L.
Alexander of Tunis, E. Howe, E.
Allenby of Megiddo, V. Hylton-Foster, B.
Ampthill, L. Inchcape, E.
Archer of Weston-Super-Mare, L. Inchyra, L.
Astor of Hever, L. Inglewood, L.
Balfour, E. Jenkin of Roding, L.
Barber of Tewkesbury, L. Kimball, L.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Kitchener, E.
Beloff, L. Lauderdale, E.
Berners, B. Liverpool, E.
Blake, L. Long, V.
Blaker, L. Lucas, L.
Blatch, B. Lucas of Chilworth, L.
Boardman, L. McColl of Dulwich, L.
Bowness, L. Mackay of Ardbrecknish, L.
Boyd-Carpenter, L. Mackay of Clashfern, L. [Lord Chancellor.]
Brabazon of Tara, L.
Brightman, L. Marlesford, L.
Burnham, L. Merrivale, L.
Butterworth, L. Mersey, V.
Cadman, L. Miller of Hendon, B.
Campbell of Alloway, L. Milverton, L.
Campbell of Cray, L. Monk Bretton, L.
Carlisle of Bucklow, L. Monson, L.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Mottistone, L.
Carnock, L. Mowbray and Stourton, L.
Chelmsford, V. Munster, E.
Chesham, L. [Teller.] Murton of Lindisfarne, L.
Clark of Kempston, L. Nelson, E.
Cockfield, L. Newall, L.
Coleridge, L. Noel-Buxton, L.
Cornwallis, L. Northesk, E.
Courtown, E. O'Cathain, B.
Cranborne, V. [Lord Privy Seal.] Oliver of Aylmerton, L.
Crathorne, L. Orr-Ewing, L.
Crickhowell, L. Oxfuird, V.
Cumberlege, B. Park of Monmouth, B.
Dacre of Glanton, L. Parkinson, L.
De Freyne, L. Pender, L.
Dean of Harptree, L. Pilkington of Oxenford, L.
Denham, L. Platt of Writtle, B.
Denton of Wakefield, B. Plummer of St Marylebone, L.
Digby, L. Prior, L.
Dilhorne, V. Rankeillour, L.
Dixon-Smith, L. Rawlings, B.
Eden of Winton, L. Rennell, L.
Ellenborough, L. Renton, L.
Elliott of Morpeth, L. Rippon of Hexham, L.
Elton, L. Rodney, L.
Erroll, E. Romney, E.
Finsberg, L. Saltoun of Abernethy, Ly.
Fraser of Kilmorack, L. Seccombe, B.
Gage, V. Shaw of Northstead, L.
Gainford, L. Shrewsbury, E.
Gardner of Parkes, B. Skelmersdale, L.
Goold, L. Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, L.
Goschen, V. Strange, B.
Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L. Strathcarron, L.
Harding of Petherton, L. Strathclyde, L.
Harmsworth, L. [Teller.]
Strathcona and Mount Royal, L. Westbury, L.
Sudeley, L. Wilcox, B.
Swansea, L. Willoughby de Broke, L
Teviot, L. Wise, L.
Thomas of Gwydir, L. Wyatt of Weeford, L.
Tollemache, L. Wynford, L.
Trumpington, B. Yarborough, E.
Wade of Chorlton, L. Young, B.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

4.46 p.m.

[Amendment No. 98 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

[Amendment No. 99 not moved.]

Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 100: Page 6, line 43, at end insert ("and whose status has been notified to the housing authority by the Secretary of State").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment I shall speak also to Amendment No. 104. The two amendments are concerned respectively with the accommodation and the homelessness part of the housing legislation. They are concerned with one particular aspect of the difficulties that local authority housing departments will have with the legislation as it is drafted.

In London there are approximately 4,000—possibly even more—families in temporary accommodation. As the Committee knows, that usually means bed and breakfast accommodation. They are awaiting a Home Office decision on their refugee status. That could be a decision on the original application or on the appeal. The average time-scale for an original decision has been of the order of eight months and the average time-scale for an appeal has been of the order of 10 months, although, as we know from previous debates in Committee, the number of outstanding appeals is rising dramatically month by month and presumably that average 18-month figure will be surpassed very rapidly.

As drafted, the clause puts local authorities in a considerable dilemma. They have the duty of determining eligibility status in order to decide what to do to fulfil their statutory duties under the housing legislation. Without going over all the ground that we covered on the previous amendment, the nature of their statutory duties under housing legislation is subject to the possibility, even the probability, of change under the Housing Bill which will be debated at Second Reading next week.

In order to decide how to fulfil their statutory duty and, indeed, what that statutory duty is, local authorities depend on information from the Immigration and Nationality Department of the Home Office. With an average delay of 18 months between the time an asylum application is made and the time it is finally determined, it will be obvious that they are dealing with a considerable number of cases. Of course, some of those people are vulnerable for other reasons than being asylum seekers and therefore do not come into the consideration. Also, some of them have been accepted into this country and have then applied for asylum status on the basis that they have sufficient funds to cover themselves. I recognise that those people will not be applying immediately to local authorities for housing.

The dilemma which local authority housing departments face is that, if they accept the duty to house, and it turns out that the applicant is not entitled, then the council tax payers will have paid for something which is not in accordance with the statutory duty of the local authority and will therefore not be accounted for in the revenue support grant. If the local authority takes the decision to deny that it has such a duty, then it could be liable for failing to comply with its statutory duty.

In order to deal with that Catch 22 situation in which they find themselves, local authorities should be aware of the status of an applicant and therefore the Immigration and Nationality Department of the Home Office should give the information to the local authority housing department so that it can make a proper decision.

I am not suggesting that this amendment deals with anything other than a matter of administrative efficiency. It is not an issue of huge principle, but if there are two departments in public life, one being a local authority housing department acting under housing law and the other being the Home Office acting under immigration law, and the Home Office has the relevant information, it should be required to share it with the housing department so that statutory duties can be properly and efficiently fulfilled. I beg to move.

Earl Russell

This amendment is designed as a solution to the problem I raised on the previous amendment: how a local authority is expected to know whether the person concerned is of the class specified by the Secretary of State. I noticed that the noble Baroness shook her head when I said that it would create a burdensome procedure. I invited her to explain how else it should be done. She resisted that invitation. But if the Ministers are to resist this amendment, they will have to answer that question now.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

As was explained, the intention behind these amendments is to require the local authority to apply the housing provisions of the Bill only to those cases where the immigration status of the applicant has been notified to the authority by the Secretary of State, which means in practice by the Home Office Immigration and Nationality Department. I understand the arguments put forward, but do not believe that they provide a realistic solution.

We do not generally require immigrants here on limited leave to live in a particular area, nor do we tail them from place to place. They are free to come and go in just the same way as any British citizen. So there is no practical way that the immigration department could know that a particular immigrant was applying to a given authority for housing or assistance under the homelessness legislation.

The only way in which the immigration department could ensure that housing authorities are aware of the immigration status of anyone approaching them would be for the department to send details of all immigrants falling within a class specified by an order under this clause. Given the very large numbers of people who visit this country each year, the vast majority of whom are entirely self-supporting and not interested in seeking social housing, it would be an impossible task for the department to send out such details to around 400 housing authorities throughout the United Kingdom, for authorities to monitor them and for that list to be kept up-to-date.

We are aware of—and respect—the concerns that a number of authorities and welfare organisations have about the screening of applicants for housing for immigration status and its possible effects on race relations. Indeed, the noble Lord raised this issue and I answered him briefly during the last debate. But that concern can be overstated. In December 1994 the Department of the Environment issued a revised third edition of its Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities, which contained advice on how to screen persons making an application under the homelessness legislation for illegal entrants (who have no entitlement under the homelessness legislation), and for asylum seekers (who have a more limited entitlement). The guidance was prepared in consultation with housing practitioners and the Commission for Racial Equality, and has, we understand, been well received.

The Department of the Environment will build on that experience by issuing revised guidance on how to screen for people without an entitlement to housing when this legislation commences. That will cover both people seeking assistance under the homelessness legislation and those seeking council housing through the waiting list. It will also cover the procedures to be adopted in liaising with the immigration department to establish immigration status.

The Government are sensitive to the concerns expressed about intrusive inquiries and good race relations. But the only practical way of implementing this legislation is through the screening processes of the housing authorities, through which everybody who applies for council housing has to go. We will ensure that procedures are in place to that end before this part of the Bill is enacted.

I hope, with that assurance of how we propose to proceed and a remembrance of the guidance already issued to local authorities, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, will be able to withdraw the amendment.

Earl Russell

The Minister gave us a considered answer. He may possibly be right that this procedure will not work. But it is not incumbent on those of us on this side of the Chamber to put forward a procedure that will work. We do not want this clause working at all. However, it is incumbent on the Minister to put forward something that will work. He has not convinced us that the screening process can work without great labour and a risk of discrimination. Those answers are not enough. I hoped that he could say a little more about how the screening process would be used. I fear we are disappointed.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Though I listened carefully to what the Minister said and he knows that this was only a probing amendment concerning an administrative issue rather than an issue of principle, I was a little taken aback by one of his objections to the amendment.

The Minister said that asylum seekers are free to live anywhere they like and that they are not tracked from place to place. I understood the position to be that aliens settled in this country are required to register with the police in the areas where they settle and to notify any changes of address using the green card system. That appears to be in conflict with what the Minister said. I understand that in London aliens register with the Aliens Registration Office. Is it not easier, therefore, to keep track of aliens settled in this country than the Minister suggested in his original answer?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

Without going into detail, the point is this. Many people come to this country for a limited time and are allowed in by the immigration authorities—people from all parts of the world with every intention of going back. They create a formidable list of people. To send that list to every local authority would be impossible. It would be difficult to keep track of such people, although one could send a list to the local authority in which they are believed to be living on the offchance that they may apply for council housing.

I understand what the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, is saying. However, it is far better to provide a sensible screening process for local authorities who are used to dealing with these matters rather than, dare I say, implementing the impossible system suggested by the noble Lord.

5 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I do not think the Minister can brush away the problems I have raised by calling them details. I was responding to the precise statement that he made about the inability of the Home Office to track aliens living in this country. My understanding is that it is possible to track aliens living in this country. I think that the Minister's original answer was, of course unintentionally, misleading. I do not think it is wrong for me to press the matter when the noble Lord has responded to the problems I have raised as if they were details.

Of course there are difficulties in what is being proposed here. I am not suggesting otherwise and I was not proposing to press the amendment to a Division. But I wonder whether the Minister would not feel able to think about this matter a little more constructively than he has done so far. If it is not possible for the original notification to be made by the Home Office to all local authorities—I understand the difficulties—is it not possible for the Home Office to have a register that is available on request to local authorities which seek to use it? I can see that there could be civil liberties difficulties about that as well. But if the Minister is to approach the matter constructively, he ought to consider alternative ways of achieving the same objective as he appears to accept that local authorities will have legitimate concerns in dealing with these applications.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I accept the concerns that the noble Lord has raised but I have outlined the way to deal with them which has been in use since 1994 in certain cases where local authorities use the homelessness code of guidance. We have no indication that that has not worked in a perfectly reasonable and humane manner. I indicated that many people come to this country as visitors and so on. We are talking about more than 6 million people every year. It would be impossible to track them as it would be to send a list of more than 6 million names to every local authority in the country. Local authorities would be the first to complain if they had to monitor 6 million names to see whether someone who had applied for one of the council houses or had come to them under homelessness legislation was one of them. Even the power of the modern computer would still find that a fairly time-consuming operation.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I am beginning to suspect, reluctantly, that the Minister is not treating this amendment seriously. He cannot be serious in suggesting that the amendment deals with 6 million people. There are 6 million visitors to this country each year but we are talking here only about people who are aliens settled in this country. It is a very much smaller number of people. The figure of 6 million is simply a diversionary tactic.

I should like to think about what the Minister has said. I do not think he has been as helpful or constructive as he should be and I do not think he has been as receptive to the real concerns of local authority housing departments. Perhaps they should be expressed to the Home Office more clearly than they have been, in which case we can see to it that that is done. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 100A: Page 6, line 43, at end insert— ("(1A) This section shall not apply to students from overseas who have leave to enter for a limited period and who comply with their conditions of entry.").

The noble Earl said: Before saying anything else, I must declare an interest in this amendment as a university teacher. I should also like to thank the Minister's honourable friend Mr. Curry for a meeting this morning and for giving very careful consideration to the arguments behind the amendment.

This is a classic case of the law of unexpected consequences from legislation. One does not normally think of students in the category of local authority housing. Indeed the case to which this amendment refers is one about which I knew nothing myself as recently as Second Reading. But it transpires that a number of universities, a high proportion of them in Scotland, have leased accommodation from local authorities in areas where there is a very small housing demand. The Gorbals turns out to be one of the cases in point. There are areas where there is not a sufficient body of applicants to justify keeping accommodation for the waiting list and where universities are able to use it for students with families, some of whom are from overseas and some of whom are not. It is a perfectly constructive arrangement in the interests of all parties, a classic case of public/private sector partnership of the kind of which the Government usually approve. The overseas students, who are only a part of this, earn this country more than £1 billion a year for our balance of payments, something I for one would rather not do without.

The Government's concern in this is that these students should not have recourse to public funds. It seems to me that this is met in this case. Universities are not public bodies; they are not nationalised industries; they are private corporations. The university leases these properties and the students are the tenants of the university. Under existing legislation universities are not allowed to subsidise student rents. So it appears to me that this is not a case of public funds being involved. If we can find a suitable form of wording—I have no wish for the wording of the amendment to be set in stone—it ought to be possible to reach a perfectly satisfactory form of words to deal with this case. I should also be extremely grateful for an assurance that property leased to universities by housing associations would not be involved under this clause. I beg to move.

Lord Goold

I wish to support the amendment and add my name to the thanks to Mr. David Curry for meeting us this morning. I must also declare an interest as chairman of court of the University of Strathclyde.

This clause, in aiming to prevent access to local authority housing to oversees students, will have a very serious effect. My university rents 290 flats in and around Glasgow from local authorities. This is not a cost to the taxpayer. Generally, the flats are in poor condition, in poor areas and are often empty. They are flats people do not want. The university pays to improve them. They are then occupied by overseas students and often their families. When the university vacates them they revert to the local authority, and in better condition than we got them.

Unfortunately, there are not sufficient private rented flats at prices students can afford. If access to council flats is denied, many overseas students will not be able to come to universities in Britain, with considerable consequent damage to the economy of the universities and of the country, to say nothing of the loss to research. I hope that my noble friend the Minister may be able to accept the amendment or produce a similar one at Report stage.

Lord Dainton

I wish to support the amendment. I was present yesterday and I heard the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, from the Government Front Bench commenting on the fact that there are 100,000 overseas students in this country. We have heard that each overseas student brings in around £10,000, which makes £1 billion, which I presume was how the noble Earl, Lord Russell, came to the figure of £1 billion. It seems to me that we are doing ourselves harm here. Overseas students in British universities are good for British students. They enlarge their horizons and they change their outlooks in a significant way, even though it is not a matter which is within the curriculum. More important than that, many of those overseas students return home and go on to have distinguished careers.

I have just come back from my almost annual visit to Singapore. Perhaps I may tell the Committee about Singapore's two major universities, which I had a hand in establishing some years ago. The chief executive of the National University of Singapore is a medical man who was trained in this country at Cambridge. The same is true of Nanyang Technological University. It is headed by an engineer who was trained at Cambridge. The man who runs that great endeavour, Jurong Town Development Corporation, was also head of that country's defence forces and was a student at Sheffield where he had a distinguished record in engineering. One cannot omit the senior minister, who is still a man of very great influence and power, Lee Kuan Yew. He received his education in this country and has never failed to acknowledge the debt that he owes to us in that respect.

We would be cutting off our nose to spite our face if we were to impose any impediment which made it impossible for able students from abroad to come to this country. They are now all self-financing and are not a charge on the taxpayer in this country. They often have different accommodation needs from our own students. Having left their own country, often many miles away, they do not return in the vacations and need to occupy accommodation for much longer periods of the year than home students. In addition, they are often older and married, sometimes with children. It is for that reason that many universities in this country have seen them as having a special problem for which they wish to cater by whatever means they can.

The rise in student numbers in this country over recent years has been so great that the universities have looked everywhere within their means to be able to provide accommodation for those much-valued students. The method by which they lease accommodation from local authorities or housing associations and sub-let it to the students is admirable. It brings into good use accommodation which, as has already been said, might not otherwise be used. Such accommodation is also useful for foreign students who come here for brief periods. I feel sure that the noble Lord, Lord Winston, who is at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School, will probably remind the Committee that most of the distinguished foreign medical people who go there are housed in housing association accommodation.

It would be a very great pity if, by this legislation, we were to deny foreign students the accommodation that they need. It would harm foreign students in the short term, but I beg the Minister and the Committee to consider carefully the long-term damage that it would do to the standing of this country overseas. This is not a trivial matter. It is an extremely serious matter. Therefore, I hope that an exception can be made by the Government in due course, perhaps along the lines of this amendment.

Lord Winston

I rise briefly to support all that has been said already. I have nothing much else to say except to point out that many overseas students are postgraduate students. As such, they are often here for a postgraduate degree of, say, three years or occasionally more. One of their most common questions to us is whether there is accommodation for their families. The usual university accommodation is simply not appropriate for them.

I am sure that it is not the Government's intention to exclude that important source of immediate wealth to us or to ignore the long-term investment implications for this country. I beg the Government to consider a way of making sure that students can continue to come here and to occupy such accommodation.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

The noble Lord, Lord Dainton, has already made, only very much better, the very points that I had wanted to make. Therefore, I strongly support the hope that some way may be found to solve this problem in favour of students.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

As I explained in our other two short debates, our general position on this subject is that persons from abroad who have entered this country on the understanding that they should have no recourse to public funds should not be entitled to assistance under the homelessness legislation; and that persons from abroad who are here only for a limited period should have no call on social housing created with public money to meet long-term needs. This is what Clause 9 of the Bill provides for generally, both for students and for others here on limited leave. I appreciate that noble Lords are not suggesting that overseas students are in some way a special category deserving a general exemption from those provisions.

I totally agree with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dainton, and echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Winston, and my noble friend Lady Park, that we have had a long and honourable tradition of providing education and training for people from a wide range of countries. We welcome overseas students, but we admit them on the same basis as anyone else who is granted limited leave; namely, that they should support themselves, including meeting all of their housing costs.

I understand that the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals is concerned that the provisions may bite on certain universities and colleges which have arrangements under which they lease accommodation from a local authority which they then let on to their students, some of whom may be from overseas. I know of the interest in this matter of my noble friend Lord Goold which relates to his position at Strathclyde University. There are number of houses in Glasgow which the local authority finds it hard to let; nobody particularly wants to live in them. A mutually beneficial deal has been struck between Strathclyde University and the local authority whereby those houses remain in occupation and, as my noble friend said, are improved. Students then make use of them. I understand the issue entirely.

We should be clear that that happens only when a local authority does not require the housing—either because its housing list is not long enough and no one demands the house or because of other factors, which I shall not go into. However, in the case of the Glasgow example which was mentioned by my noble friend, it is probably true to say that most people on the council waiting list would rather wait for a house in a different part of the city than be housed in the accommodation to which we are referring. There are circumstances where an authority may genuinely not have a use for all its housing stock and may find difficulty in letting it. If the authority is simply leasing out accommodation that would otherwise be standing empty, and there is little or no local demand for the accommodation, there may be scope for flexibility.

I discussed the matter a few hours ago with my honourable friend Mr. David Curry, the Minister responsible for housing and local government. Before I spoke to him, he met the noble Earl and my noble friends Lord Goold and Lord Jenkin. Perhaps I may assure the Committee that we shall consider the need to bring forward at Report stage an amendment to the order-making power in this clause to enable local authorities to continue to lease surplus accommodation to universities and colleges for use by overseas students who are here lawfully. I hope that with that assurance the noble Earl will be happy to withdraw his amendment.

Earl Russell

I am most grateful for that reply by which I am entirely satisfied. I look forward to seeing the draft of that amendment. It appears to meet absolutely fair and square the point that I was making. I accept the condition that the Minister makes about where there is little or no demand. After all, I too am aware that there are social needs to be considered. That is a fair condition.

I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken on this amendment and for the way in which the debate has been conducted entirely irrespective of party. I should like to thank again Mr. Curry and the Minister, and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

Before I call Amendment No. 101, I must inform the Committee that if that amendment is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments Nos. 103 to 106 inclusive.

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 101: Page 6, line 44, leave out subsection (2).

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 101, I should like to speak also to Amendments Nos. 113, 115, 116, 118 and 120.

I listened carefully to what the Minister said on the first amendment, Amendment No. 97. I assume that the Minister still stands by the three categories of individual to whom this part of the Bill refers; namely—I hope that I have got this right—overstayers, illegal entrants and asylum seekers. He also referred to people who came to this country and had recourse to public funds, having given an undertaking not to do so. I am puzzled by what the Minister has said because it does not quite stack up.

Before I go into the details, perhaps I may set the context. In the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 provision is made for the housing of asylum seekers and their dependants. The Act provides that nothing in the homelessness legislation shall require a housing authority to secure that accommodation is made available for occupation by asylum seekers or their dependants. That power gave local authorities the option not to provide homelessness accommodation for asylum seekers or their families. It did not make it mandatory. I suppose that the reason why the Government have introduced this much tougher provision in the Bill is that they have found to their dismay that too many local authorities have done the right and proper thing and provided homelessness accommodation to these priority categories in need. The Government are saying that the 1993 Act is not tough enough and they are introducing a tougher measure.

We are dealing with the right of a very limited number of persons to homelessness accommodation. As far as I am aware, neither overstayers nor illegal entrants are likely to be given homelessness accommodation by local authorities. There is already guidance from central government that they should not do so, and there is no evidence that it is happening. We are talking about the third category as identified by the Minister: asylum seekers. We are concerned with a very small proportion of asylum seekers, that is, those in priority need, broadly households with children or sick, disabled or elderly adults. Those priority groups account for a very small proportion of all asylum seekers.

What is to happen to such people who quite properly and legally come to this country because they have a well-founded fear of persecution? Where are they to live while the Home Office decides on their status? These are vulnerable people who may well have suffered intolerably in the countries from which they have fled. We are now saying that there is no accommodation or anything for them. They do not come with money so that they can buy their way into the private market.

The Minister has said that the United Kingdom is more generous than other European countries. I contend that in this particular instance that is certainly not the case. I ask the Minister to list European Union countries as regards what they do in the provision of accommodation for such priority groups. I believe the Minister will find that many European countries provide at least some kind of hostel accommodation through whatever local government structure is in place. That is the case in the Netherlands, Germany and, I believe, in Denmark. If this provision is agreed what will happen to these vulnerable people? Are they to sleep in the streets? I believe that the Government are making a mistake. Even if the broad premise underlying the Bill is accepted—I do not accept it—it may be said that there is absolutely no need to be so harsh and inhumane to the small number of highly vulnerable asylum seekers who will be caught by the provision. I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

The question that we must address in considering this amendment is whether people who have sought leave to enter this country on the understanding that they should have no recourse to public funds should be entitled to set aside that undertaking. The immigration rules state quite explicitly that the homelessness legislation falls within the definition of public funds. This extends to those people who sought asylum after entering this country, since to obtain leave to enter they would have had to satisfy the immigration officer that they had the resources to maintain themselves in this country.

The purpose of the homelessness legislation is to ensure that families and vulnerable individuals who lose their homes through no fault of their own are provided with a proper safety net. It is one component of a wider set of welfare provisions that we have in place to help people through a crisis and allow them to continue their normal lives. But it focuses naturally and rightly on those people who are settled in this country.

The principle behind the provisions in subsection (2) is by no means new. In 1993 the Court of Appeal held in the Tower Hamlets case that a person not lawfully in the country because he had entered it illegally or had overstayed his leave was not entitled to assistance under the homelessness legislation. The Home Office is entitled to cancel leave to remain granted to anyone who entered the country lawfully but subsequently breached an undertaking not to have recourse to public funds. To that extent what we are doing here is no more than translating a well established principle in the homelessness legislation.

Your Lordships will be aware that the purpose of this measure is to align entitlement under the homelessness legislation with entitlement to housing benefit, which was withdrawn from most groups of immigrants here on limited leave in 1994 and from asylum seekers earlier this year. Local authorities rely on housing benefit to support a substantial part of the costs they incur. As we have seen from their protests over the past few months, following the withdrawal of benefit entitlement from certain asylum seekers—in particular those who claim in country—it is not tenable to leave the homelessness duty with them in the absence of housing benefit support.

As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has pointed out, it is true that other countries have different kinds of provision. For example, Germany and Holland provide accommodation in camps and benefits are mainly in kind. We have decided not to go down that route. Those people who seek asylum at the port of entry are eligible for benefits while the Home Office is considering their applications for asylum. If they are turned down and appeal, in those circumstances they are not eligible for benefit. We contend that they should not be eligible to be considered under homelessness legislation either. Similarly, those who enter the country under the strict condition that they will not be a burden on public funds are not eligible if they decide after weeks or months in this country that they wish to apply for asylum.

We believe that we have an effective welfare system in this country which is geared to meet the needs of the most vulnerable members of society, but we must resist attempts to exploit it by people without a proven case and a permanent base in this country. I am afraid that I cannot accept the amendment of the noble Lord. If he decides not to withdraw it and to put it to the Vote, I trust that my noble friends will support me in the Lobby.

Lord Dubs

Having listened to what the Minister has said, I feel he is not his usual persuasive self. I notice that the Minister has dropped his argument about illegal entrants and overstayers as regards this group of people. (Perhaps he was persuaded by what I said earlier.) Let us confine ourselves to asylum seekers. What he seeks to do is to draw a distinction between those who claim asylum at the port of entry and those who claim asylum after they pass through immigration at Heathrow or Dover and, a few days later, make a claim. I understand why he does that. He seeks to bring it into line with some of the other measures which have been introduced by the Government and those in this Bill. One will still be left with people who are vulnerable and who are without accommodation. It is not clear to me from the wording of this particular clause that asylum seekers who claim asylum at the port of entry, and do it properly by the Government's book, will be entitled to homelessness provision. I find it hard to interpret the measure in that way. Perhaps the Minister can give further assurance on the point.

Nevertheless, the noble Lord has said that the Government do not intend to go down the route followed by countries such as Germany and the Netherlands. He made reference to camps. I think that they are more likely to be hostels than camps, but it may be both. Therefore, he is saying that nothing will be done for these people. It is my contention that when we are dealing with people who are so vulnerable, as a humane, civilised country, we are under an obligation to do something. We talk about those people who fail to claim asylum at the port of entry but do so later. We have all heard the arguments as to why, reasonably and understandably, some asylum seekers do not understand the importance of the distinction. Even if we say that people should apply for asylum at the port of entry, and because they have not done so they will be punished, what about their children? Should they be punished as well because one asylum seeker failed to make the right statement to immigration when coming into the country?

We are dealing with people who are vulnerable, who have not made themselves homeless intentionally, and who are clearly a priority group. They are people who, in most cases for reasons beyond their control, find themselves sleeping on the streets of London and other cities. Surely we do not want that to happen to the small number of vulnerable people who are victims of persecution in the country they left. We are going to make them the victims of the Bill when they get here. That is not the way we should go forward. Perhaps the Minister would be good enough to comment on my query about the two groups of asylum seekers.

5.30 p.m.

Baroness Seear

Before the Minister replies perhaps I, too, may ask a question. I understood the Minister to say that people who said that they could maintain themselves and came into the country on that undertaking, and who subsequently claimed assistance, were not to be supported. They might have come in with a well-founded, genuine belief that they would be able to support themselves. They might have work in prospect or a generous relation who was going to fork out. Both of those optimistic futures might be denied them. They might start in a job and lose it. The relation who is going to help might help for a while and then abandon them. They would then be penniless and homeless. Are we going to do nothing about those people even if they were genuine when they first arrived?

Lord Avebury

Perhaps I may ask the Minister a question before he replies to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, asked about the children. I should like to know whether local authorities, under legislation relating to children, would be obliged to take the children into care. If that is so, has the cost of doing so been taken into account in the Financial and Explanatory Memorandum, because I cannot find it anywhere there? The assumption is that anyone who has applied too late, after going through immigration control procedures—whether he has three, five or eight children—will be denied the housing to which he would otherwise have been entitled under the homelessness legislation.

In those circumstances will the local authority have to pick up the pieces by offering the children places in a local authority home or by fostering them? If so, has the Minister any idea what that will cost this country's ratepayers and taxpayers?

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

As we all seem to be raising points for my noble friend to reply to, I should like to follow up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear. As I understand it, a common pattern that local authorities find is that people arrive with a letter from someone guaranteeing to support them and that they will be no burden on the state. As I understand it, we take that on face value in this country.

A few minutes ago I met a woman who works in the House. She told me that she was very pleased because the Australian immigration authorities had just agreed to allow her to go there. It has been quite a battle, and I have been involved in it. She said that her daughter was paying the money. I asked her what she meant. She said, "Oh well, I have to put up"—I wrote it down on my hand because I was called out of the Chamber to have a word with her—"3,500 dollars plus 1,500 dollars for my husband and 1,500 dollars for my mother. That is 6,500 dollars to ensure that we do not claim state benefits for a period of two years. We have to pay a further 800 dollars per person to be sure that we do not call on the health service".

This country does not demand that people put up a guarantee in the form of a bond or money. We take people's word when the letters say that they will be supported. It is a great breach of trust if that is not true. It is happening all the time: people arrive, and a few days later they claim all these benefits. The noble Baroness, Lady Seear, said that it could go on a long time and that people could run out of money. That is different. If it goes on a long time, they might qualify for some entitlement from the local authority. People arrive deliberately with documents assuring everyone that they will be no burden on the state when they have every intention of being such a burden. We cannot accept that.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I shall respond to the questions that I have been asked. My noble friend Lady Gardner made a good point. We should look at what other countries do. We accept what people say abroad when seeking a visa to enter this country, or what they tell the immigration officer at the port of entry when they say why they are here. If they say that they are here for this reason or that reason and will not be a burden on public funds, I like to think that we can continue to live in a world where we take them at their word, and do not have to go down the road of asking them, so to speak, to put down deposits as a mark of their good faith.

But it is a problem when people turn round a few days, weeks, or months later and say, "Oh, by the way, all that I said about not being a burden on public funds and coming here for a holiday, to see my relatives, or whatever it is, was not true. I am coming here because I want to seek asylum". That is not right. The provision that we have made is clear.

Baroness Seear

Perhaps I may interrupt the Minister. That is not the question that I was asking. I hope that my question will not be confused in the reply that he is giving. I was talking about people who came here genuinely, who may have obtained a job, and who months later, as so easily happens, lost it and became in need. They may be genuine people. I agree with the Minister that if they are trying to fool the authorities, and two or three days later turn round and say that the offer is not valid, their request should not be considered. But if they are genuine, and have been here for months, and then fall on bad times, are we saying that we cannot do anything for them?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

If the noble Baroness had been patient for a moment or two she would have saved herself a second speech; I was coming to that issue. I was addressing a point made by my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes. I shall turn to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, in a few moments. First, perhaps I may turn to her noble friend Lord Avebury who asked about the duties of local authorities under the Children Act. Local authorities have a general duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need within their area. That involves a general duty to promote the upbringing of such children by their families.

It is for individual local authorities to decide what form that assistance will take. They can make cash payments in exceptional circumstances, but those can be for a limited period only. They may decide not only to take a child into care, but also to help the parents and the family to house themselves and the children. Under the Children Act we cater for children who enter in those circumstances. We will come later to the question of the costs.

In previous debates on income support and housing benefit we made it clear that we would be in discussion, as we are, with the local authorities, to quantify the additional costs, and that we are prepared to pay them up to 80 per cent. of what we identify jointly as the additional costs arising from their obligations.

Lord Avebury

Which does the Minister think will be more expensive: for the local authority to offer the parents of the asylum application family accommodation so that they can look after their own children, to take the children into care in a local authority home, or to foster them? Which will be more expensive?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I believe that I covered almost all those eventualities. I said that it was a matter for local authorities to decide. As regards a child who has come to this country alone, fostering or care might be the only option. However, if a child has come as part of the family the most sensible course of action for a local authority might be to help the family with housing. Those costs are being discussed between ourselves and the local authorities with a view to arriving at a sensible arrangement.

I thought that the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, made my case for me. The people to whom she referred came to this country and said why they were coming. They were not intent on seeking asylum. They came here to visit relatives or to find work. Many people who come here cannot obtain a visa in order to find work; they must go through more hoops than that. However, many people, for whatever reason, come to this country, go about their business and fall on hard times. They cannot just turn around and say—or can they?—"Wait a minute! I know how to get out of this dilemma. I will claim asylum". We are not talking about people who come here to claim asylum. The noble Baroness, Lady Seear, made my case for me in relation to people who make in-country applications. When many of them enter the country, making a claim for asylum at the port is the furthest thing from their minds. They come here to do all kinds of other things. But for a variety of reasons, when many of them are here they decide to claim asylum.

I turn to the main point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. I hoped that I had made this clear. The categories of immigrants which will be specified in regulations under this subsection will make it clear that the orders will not apply to asylum seekers who claimed asylum on arrival during the period when their claim was under consideration by the Home Office. That provision is entirely consistent with the availability of income support and housing benefit to asylum seekers at the port of entry and for the duration of the time during which the Home Office is considering their application. I hope that that explanation clarifies the position.

However, I know that, although the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, may be pleased to hear that clarification, he would prefer to retain the position which existed before we made any changes; that is the position in which all one had to do was to come here and either at the port of entry or after having lived here for some time claim asylum and then be able to claim income support, housing benefit and the protection of the homelessness legislation. We are proposing to remove most of those concessions to people from abroad but we intend to keep available income support, housing benefit and the application of the homelessness legislation to those people who claim asylum at the port of entry.

Lord Dubs

I thank the Minister for that clarification but I take issue with the fundamental argument that he is putting forward. Perhaps I may try to clear up some confusion. It is clear that the clause applies to asylum seekers, but it appears to apply also to people who seek properly to come to this country as migrants on the condition that they do not have recourse to public funds. An intermediate group of asylum seekers does not claim asylum at the port of entry. They are, therefore, in the Minister's eyes, by implication, arriving on the condition that they do not have recourse to public funds and they then make a claim. There are three groups of people and perhaps I may disentangle the arguments relating to them.

I shall deal first with people who come to this country on a planned basis in the way in which the Minister would wish. Those people have the resources to look after themselves but may find themselves in changed circumstances before their immigration status has been confirmed. They will not be eligible for the homelessness provisions, even though the change of circumstance, such as a house being burned down, is beyond their control. That is one group of people.

In relation to them and in reply to a comment made by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, I understand that when people arrive in this country we do not take sponsorship letters or such undertakings at face value. Before giving entry clearance, the Home Office scrutinises the financial support that is available. Therefore, the issue is not quite as simple as the noble Baroness maintained—

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

Perhaps I may ask the noble Lord for clarification. If the Home Office makes a check and discovers that the financial support exists, why do so many of those people appear on the doorstep of the council to claim housing benefit or other support?

Lord Dubs

I am not aware that many such people do, but there may be some. The noble Baroness may be talking about asylum seekers who are faced with difficulties. There may be a dispute between us about the figures, but I have seen no indication that that happens other than on a very small scale.

I turn now to the two groups of asylum seekers. The Minister will be aware that, of the asylum seekers who do not claim asylum at the port of entry, the vast majority, some 80 per cent., make their asylum claim within a week of being in the country. As a result of that gap of one week they are to be penalised in the way proposed. I contend that that is unjust. We tried—and we may try again on Report—to put into the Bill a safeguard that they will be covered provided that asylum is claimed within a short period. As yet that provision is not on the face of the Bill. I believe that to punish people in such a way is very harsh. It may also result in local authorities having to bear heavy costs of caring for children who must be taken into care because there is no accommodation for them.

Surely a clear principle is involved. We are talking about people who are vulnerable, who represent only a small minority of asylum seekers and for whom a little decency in terms of the way in which we treat them will not be a magnet for asylum seekers, or those purporting to be, the world over. I am talking about the way we treat people who have a well-founded fear of persecution.

Another group will fall through the net because, even on the Minister's own statement, if asylum seekers claim asylum at the port of entry and are then refused asylum by the Home Office and wish to exercise their right of appeal, they will lose all benefits between the date of the Home Office refusal and the date of the appeal hearing. That may be many months, if not years. I can interpret what the Minister said only as meaning that if during that period the local authority has provided them with accommodation for homeless people, they will be thrown out of it because they will no longer be eligible under the terms of the Bill. This is a miserable measure and I wish to test the opinion of the Committee.

5.48 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 101) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 79; Not-Contents, 144.

Division No. 2
Acton, L. Gladwin of Clee, L.
Addington, L. Graham of Edmonton, L. [Teller.]
Ashley of Stoke, L. Halsbury, E.
Avebury, L. Harris of Greenwich, L.
Beaumont of Whitley, L. Haskel, L. [Teller.]
Blackstone, B. Hayman, B.
Broadbridge, L. Healey, L.
Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L. Henderson of Brompton, L.
Castle of Blackburn, B. Hilton of Eggardon, B.
Chichester, Bp. Hollis of Heigham, B.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L. Hooson, L.
Clinton-Davis, L. Hutchinson of Lullington, L.
Cocks of Hartcliffe, L. Hylton, L.
Dahrendorf, L. Jay of Paddington, B.
Diamond, L. Jeger, B.
Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L. Jenkins of Hillhead, L.
Donoughue, L. Jenkins of Putney, L.
Dormand of Easington, L. Kennet, L.
Dubs, L. Kissin, L.
Eatwell, L. Liverpool, Bp.
Exeter, Bp. Longford, E.
Ezra, L. McIntosh of Haringey, L.
Gallacher, L. McNair, L.
Mallalieu, B. Sandwich, E.
Mayhew, L. Seear, B.
Merlyn-Rees, L. Sefton of Garston, L
Methuen, L. Serota, B.
Mishcon, L. Smith of Gilmorehill, B.
Molloy, L. Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Monkswell, L. Strabolgi, L.
Morris of Castle Morris, L. Taverne, L.
Phillips of Ellesmere, L. Thomson of Monifieth, L.
Tope, L.
Plant of Highfield, L. Turner of Camden, B.
Prys-Davies, L. Wallace of Coslany, L.
Redesdale, L. Wedderburn of Charlton, L.
Richard, L. White, B.
Ritchie of Dundee, L. Williams of Elvel, L.
Robson of Kiddington, B. Winchilsea and Nottingham, E
Russell, E Winston, L.
Abinger, L. Henley, L.
Addison, V. Holderness, L.
Alexander of Tunis, E. HolmPatrick, L.
Allenby of Megiddo, V. Howe, E.
Archer of Weston-Super-Mare, L. Hylton-Foster, B.
Ashbourne, L. Inchcape, E.
Astor of Hever, L. Inchyra, L.
Balfour, E Inglewood, L.
Barber of Tewkesbury, L. Jenkin of Roding, L.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Kimball, L.
Berners, B. Kingsland, L.
Biddulph, L. Kinnoull, E.
Blaker, L. Lauderdale, E
Blatch, B. Lawson of Blaby, L.
Boardman, L. Leigh, L.
Bowness, L. Lindsey and Abingdon, E.
Boyd-Carpenter, L. Liverpool, E.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Long, V.
Brougham and Vaux, L. Lucas, L.
Burnham, L. Lucas of Chilworth, L.
Butterworth, L. Lyell, L.
Cadman, L. McColl of Dulwich, L.
Campbell of Alloway, L. Mackay of Ardbrecknish, L.
Campbell of Croy, L. Mackay of Clashfern, L. [Lord Chancellor]
Carlisle of Bucklow, L.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Massereene and Ferrard, V.
Camock, L. Merrivale, L.
Chelmsford, V. Mersey, V.
Chesham, L. [Teller.] Miller of Hendon, B.
Clark of Kempston, L Milverton, L.
Cockfield, L. MonkBretton, L.
Coleraine, L. Monson, L.
Coleridge, L. Mottistone, L.
Courtown, E. Mowbray and Stourton, L.
Cranbome, V. [Lord Privy Seal] Munster, E.
Crickhowell, L Murton of Lindisfarne, L.
Cross, V. Nelson, E.
Cumberlege, B. Newall, L.
Dacre of Glanton, L. Norfolk, D.
Denham, L. Northesk, E.
Denton of Wakefield, B. O'Cathain, B.
Digby, L. Orkney, E
Dilhorne, V. Orr-Ewing, L.
Dixon-Smith, L. Oxfuird, V.
Eden of Winton, L. Park of Monmouth, B.
Ellenborough, L. Parkinson, L.
Elliott of Morpeth, L. Peel, E.
Elton, L. Pender, L.
Gardner of Parkes, B. Pilkington of Oxenford, L.
Goold, L. Platt of Writtle, B.
Goschen, V. Prior, L
Greenway, L. Quinton, L.
Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L. Rankeillour, L.
Harding of Petherton, L. Rawlings, B.
Harmsworth, L Rennell, L.
Hemphill, L. Renwick, L
Rodney, L. Swansea, L.
Romney, E. Swinfen, L.
Saltoun of Abernethy, Ly. Tebbit, L.
Seccombe, B. Thomas of Gwydir, L.
Selsdon, L. Thurlow, L.
Shannon, E Tollemache, L.
Shaw of Northstead, L. Trefgarne, L.
Shrewsbury, E. Trumpington, B.
Skelmersdale, L. Vivian, L.
Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, L. Westbury, L.
Stockton, E. Wilcox, B.
Strange, B. Willoughby de Broke, L.
Stratncarron, L. Windlesham, L.
Strathclyde, L. [Teller.] Wise, L.
Strathcona and Mount Royal, L. Wynford, L.
Sudeley, L. Zouche of Haryngworth, L

[*The Tellers for the Not Contents reported 144 names. the Clerks recorded 143 names.]

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

5.57 p.m.

[Amendment No. 102 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

[Amendments Nos. 103 and 104 not moved.]

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 105: Page 6, line 46, leave out ("or assistance").

The noble Lord said: This is a very simple amendment. It is intended to probe the Government on the meaning of one specific phrase in Clause 9. As it stands, the clause states that the person: shall not be eligible for accommodation or assistance".

I should like to know what the words "or assistance" mean.

The fear is that it may prevent local authorities from giving any advice at all to an asylum seeker of whom they have knowledge and who is in housing difficulties. That is the interpretation of the present drafting of Clause 9. And yet it is difficult to believe that that could be the intention because we have referred already today to the Housing Bill. In Clause 154 of that Bill, which I understand will supersede this provision when the Bill receives Royal Assent, local authorities will be under a duty to provide such advice. Therefore, I am rather puzzled as to why, for the period between now and the time at which the Housing Bill receives Royal Assent. assistance or advice cannot be given by local authorities. It can be given in the present situation and it will be possible to give it again when the Housing Bill becomes law. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that point. I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

The Government fully recognise the importance of housing advice in preventing homelessness and helping people to find suitable accommodation. In that respect, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and I are fairly well in agreement. The provisions in the Housing Bill, shortly to come before this House, give local authorities a new general duty to provide advisory services for the prevention of homelessness which will be available to everyone in the authority's area, including immigrants who have no substantive rights under the homelessness legislation.

The provisions of this Bill amend the existing homelessness provisions in Part III of the Housing Act 1985. Broadly, these place a duty on local authorities to secure accommodation for applicants who are homeless and who have, or appear to have, a "priority need" for accommodation. Where homelessness is established but there is not a priority need for accommodation, the authority owes a lesser duty to provide advice and assistance.

The effect of the amendment would be inequitable. It would mean that homeless immigrants who had a priority need for accommodation would be owed no duty at all, while those who did not have a priority need would he owed a duty of advice and assistance. I know that that is not the noble Lord's intention. As I said earlier, I have some sympathy with what I believe to be the noble Lord's intention; namely, that everyone should have access to housing advisory services, regardless of their immigration status or whether they are entitled to substantive housing assistance.

As I said, the provisions in the Housing Bill will place a general duty on housing authorities to provide advice for everyone in their district. We would expect to see those authorities which are not already providing advice services to begin doing so in the autumn, when that legislation takes effect. It would not make sense to require them to establish services at an earlier date solely for persons subject to immigration control.

Therefore, I should like to assure Members of the Committee, and especially the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that when the new duty to provide advice takes effect it will extend to people with limited leave to remain here and to asylum seekers. On the basis of that assurance, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment and that he will also be able to support me when I come forward with a proposition under the Housing Bill.

Lord Dubs

I thank the Minister for his response; it is indeed most welcome. I shall certainly support him when he brings forward that proposition under the Housing Bill. In the circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

6 p.m.

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 106: Page 6, line 47, leave out from ("Part") to end of line 4 on page 7.

The noble Earl said: The above amendment would remove from the Bill the part dealing with homelessness. Therefore, it would restore to asylum seekers what they had before under the Private Member's Bill moved by my late noble friend Lord Ross of Newport, who is sadly missed. It would give them back the same entitlement to help with homelessness as enjoyed by the rest of the population. The Government will undoubtedly produce a strong series of moral arguments on the issue. However, when the Government start being moral, I cannot help wishing that they were capable of being a little more practical at the same time. We really must consider exactly what will happen when homelessness help is withdrawn from people who are affected by the clause. It means that, if their houses are burned down, no one will give them anywhere else to live.

Sadly there has recently been a great rash of arson cases around the country; indeed, there has been a considerable number in my own area. If we think of the reaction of those unpleasant people to whom the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, referred on Second Reading, it seems to me that they may think that this is a temptation to indulge in arson. They do it often enough already. Therefore, to argue that people in that situation should be left on the streets without any help as regards homelessness seems to be a little perverse. It will shift burdens, not remove them, within local authorities from the housing departments to the social services. The burden on local authority social services is already pretty severe. Moreover, the operation of social services is necessarily a great deal more complex than that of a housing department merely because of the degree of individual assessment involved. Therefore, it will create more pressure, more expense and more work while not necessarily saving very much money in the end.

Under the homelessness powers we have a situation with which we shall deal under a later amendment, but which is also relevant to this issue—where help with homelessness is withdrawn from those British subjects who are married to a person deemed to be homeless under the legislation because they fall to be treated under the Bill as if they were single. That will bear most heavily on those Asian families who have a habit of arranged marriages with people from, say, Pakistan, and so on. Apart from the hardship, it is a disincentive to marriage. We have heard a great many times in this Chamber about the need to support marriage. Imposing so strong a penalty on marriage is not quite the sort of consequence one believes that the Government intended. I wonder whether they thought it through. That situation would occur under subsection (2)(b).

What will happen to those people who are made homeless and who receive no help? One presumes that they will sleep on the street. However, obviously there comes a point when even the streets are liable to become overcrowded. It is not particularly good for any country to have a large proportion of its population sleeping rough. Quite apart from any argument about inhumanity, it tends to spread illness. I must remind the Government—I have said this before, but it bears repeating—that the rate of TB among the homeless on the streets of London is 200-times the national average. Leaving aside any issue of humanity, I do not believe that spreading that sort of danger is a good idea. Therefore, even from sheer, crude and practical self-interest, once people are here and homeless it is better to give them help than not to do so.

The fact that I tackle the matter on a practical front does not necessarily mean that I accept the moral arguments put forward by the Government. The people to whom we owe help are the people who are actually there and to whom hardship is happening. One cannot limit it by nationality in the way intended by the legislation. That is an abnegation of a responsibility which, because it is in front of us, I do not think we can give up. The late George Brown sometimes reminded me of the girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead. It is true to say that when he was good he could be very, very good. I shall never forget him speaking at the eve of poll rally at the Layton by-election in 1965. He was facing 200 National Front hecklers and said to them, "Now then, if you want to have go, you can have a go; but you must come one at a time". One of the hecklers happened to be sitting next to me. George Brown baited him until the whole audience was watching. He then turned round and asked: "How far back can you trace your English ancestry before you find something else?" The man turned white as a sheet and was silent for the rest of the evening. However, when he left at the end of the meeting, he murmured to me that he was "most impressed".

As it happens, the very first nationalist agitation against immigrants in British politics was started by Simon de Montfort who was himself a Gascon. I wonder what people who start that sort of agitation about our own people are really trying to prove. All of us come from somewhere else at some stage. If one looks at a pool by the seaside, if the tide does not flow back into it it will become stagnant and the water will become bad; nothing will live in it. If one studies The History of the World by my former tutor Professor John Roberts, one will see that he considered the question of what made certain areas flourish, succeed, grow prosperous and intellectually adventurous. He concluded that the one great force for development was the mixing of populations by migration. Therefore, if we adopt the philosophy involved in the Bill, I believe that we stand to lose a great deal more than we realise. I beg to move.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

Under the homelessness legislation, a local housing authority has an obligation to secure accommodation for applicants who have become homeless unintentionally and who fall within a priority need group. Such applicants may have a priority need in their own right—perhaps because of vulnerability through old age or disability—or because priority need is conferred by a vulnerable member of their household, such as a pregnant wife or a dependent child.

The provisions in Clause 9(2)(a) will exclude immigrants who are in this country on limited leave or are here unlawfully from entitlement to assistance under the homelessness legislation. I have already explained that in some detail. This will ensure that no duty is owed to such immigrants who make a homeless application. The underlying principle is that people admitted to this country on the basis that they will make their own arrangements to support and accommodate themselves should not have access to public funds.

The same principle underpins the provisions in Clause 9(2)(b). These will ensure that no duty is owed where entitlement under the homelessness legislation depends solely on the presence of someone in the applicant's household who is an immigrant on limited leave or who is here unlawfully. It cannot be right that someone who entered this country on the basis that he would have no recourse to public funds should then rely on public funds when he wants to make a claim.

The noble Earl, in his usual way, gave a number of examples. I shall consider one of the examples and perhaps confirm his worst fears. However, at least I shall make the position clear. Let us consider the position of a British citizen who contracts a marriage overseas and starts a family there. He decides to return to this country and his wife and child subsequently decide to join him. Typically they will be granted visas on the understanding that they should have no recourse to public funds. It cannot be right that the presence of that child should then be used as the basis for claiming that the household is in priority need. This is no different from the position which the Court of Appeal held (in the 1993 Tower Hamlets judgment) as regards a situation which already exists where a homelessness application relies on the presence of an illegal entrant to confer priority need.

Let me make clear that the provisions of Clause 9(2)(b) will not prevent a duty being owed to any homeless applicant where there is an entitlement to assistance which does not depend upon an immigrant on limited leave. Nor will they prevent an authority from taking account of such an immigrant in assessing whether accommodation provided as a discharge of a homelessness duty was suitable for the whole household, for example, by reference to its size.

I shall take a hypothetical example of a family comprising two adults and a dependent child. The family is originally from overseas but all have indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom. The family is visited by a cousin who lives overseas and enters the UK on limited leave. While the household is host to the cousin it becomes unintentionally homeless. The local authority is satisfied that homelessness and priority need are established, disregarding of course the presence of the visiting cousin. In such a case the authority would owe a duty to secure accommodation for the whole household. I hope that explanation helps to explain how authorities will deal with certain cases, although I doubt whether they will be many in number.

As usual, the noble Earl paints a vision of the streets being full of people sleeping on them. He overpaints that. Indeed at the present time, under present circumstances, single people and those without children have no entitlement to accommodation under homelessness legislation. They do not generally sleep on the streets. The previous count in November 1995 showed that only 272 people were sleeping rough on the streets of central London. The rough sleepers initiative has been extremely successful in helping and encouraging people to get off the streets and finding them somewhere to stay.

This amendment would remove the provisions in Clause 9(2)(b), leaving housing authorities with a commitment to secure accommodation where homelessness or priority need was established as a direct result of the presence of someone on limited leave. The amendment would, therefore, undermine the whole purpose of Clause 9(2) and I am afraid I must ask the Committee to reject it.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Avebury

Will the Minister deal with the case that was mentioned at the end of the previous debate where someone has entered the country as an asylum seeker and has validly made an application at the port of entry; therefore he is not included among those to whom the noble Lord referred who assure the immigration authorities that they will not have recourse to public funds during their stay here? They brought everything out into the open at the point of entry. They were admitted as asylum seekers but their applications were later refused. According to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs—the Minister did not correct him—such people would then lose the entitlements under this clause at the point when the Minister refused the application for asylum.

If the asylum seeker—and his family—was duly accommodated for the period during which the application was considered by the Secretary of State, at the point when a refusal was issued he would suddenly become ineligible and the local authority would have to evict him from the accommodation which it had previously offered him as a legitimate person who had become unintentionally homeless. Can it really be the purpose of the Government that the asylum applicant, having been here legitimately according to the Government and having made an application in the form which the Minister has said is required, is then denied the provision we are discussing during the period of his appeal hearing? That may be a long process, as we all know. It has been conceded that some asylum applicants can be here for as long as five years. Is it the case that during the whole of this four-and-a-half years—or whatever the time is between the refusal notice being given by the Secretary of State and the appeal being finally heard—this family which had become unintentionally homeless is not entitled to the benefits of the homeless accommodation which would be available to anyone else? I hope that the Minister will deal with that point before we decide whether we wish to vote on this amendment.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I do not think anything I shall say will convince the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, not to vote in favour of this amendment. I thought I had made the position clear over and over again, not only today but on previous occasions when we have debated the interaction of asylum seekers and social security. The position is simple. When someone applies for asylum at the point of entry, he is entitled to income support, housing benefit and, if this is needed, he is entitled to be considered under the homelessness legislation. If, however, a person enters this country and makes his application after entry, he is not entitled to income support, housing benefit or consideration under the homelessness legislation. I return to the person who has made an "at port" application. It is worth reminding the Committee that in 1995, out of every 100 applications to the Home Office only five were granted refugee status. A further 16 were granted exceptional leave to remain and 79 out of every 100 were refused. At that stage people can appeal, as indeed United Kingdom citizens can make an appeal against any other decision as regards social security.

I must tell the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that citizens of the United Kingdom who make an appeal in those circumstances against decisions of the social security system do not receive benefits while they are awaiting the results of that appeal. We believe that a negative decision by the Home Office to withdraw the income support and housing benefit from a person stands four square with the way the system deals with appeals from people in the United Kingdom against other parts of the social security system and other decisions of adjudicating officers and the like. The noble Lord is quite right that after the Home Office has turned down an application the person is no longer eligible to receive income support and housing benefit—which is what we decided at the end of January when that was voted upon in this Chamber—and he is not eligible for consideration under the homelessness legislation.

Lord Avebury

I hope that the Minister will answer the other point that I raised, which is whether a local authority, having granted the asylum applicant and his family emergency housing under the homelessness provisions during the time when his application was pending before the Secretary of State, would be obliged to evict him on the day when the Secretary of State issued his refusal.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

It would be up to both the local authority and the family themselves to decide what they would do in those circumstances.

It is well worth saying that in 1995 only 3 per cent. of those appeals were successful. It cannot be right that we should continue to pay benefit, which, quite frankly, encourages people to remain here and appeal, when only 3 per cent. at the end of the day are found to have a legitimate right to be here and to be successful in the refugee status.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

Perhaps I may seek clarification from the Minister. Let us consider a family who receive benefit because they applied for asylum status at the port of entry and as a result were in accommodation, receiving housing benefit which covered it. Subsequently they lost the decision to be considered as asylum seekers, or to be granted exceptional leave to remain. At that point, housing benefit would stop. They would not be able to pay the rent, so they would become homeless.

Under the Children Act 1989, do social services immediately take over the responsibility of rent payment in lieu of the housing benefit they would otherwise have received on the ground that in that way they ensure the continued health and development of the child, as they are required to do and as the Minister in another place, John Bowis, insisted that they would do under the legislation? That would be a cheaper way of ensuring that aim rather than taking those children into care.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

The noble Baroness heard me explain at length the benefit changes that came about on 5th February. The position is, as I again make clear, if the Home Office decides that the person should not have either refugee status or be granted exceptional leave to remain, that person ceases to be eligible for income support and housing benefit. If the local authority was housing the family under the homelessness Act—not all families will be housed under the homelessness Act—at that stage it would be up to the local authority to decide what it should do. Indeed the people themselves have some responsibility. They have come to this country; they must have worked out what they were going to do. They have made the application and it has been found wanting. They are given the right to appeal.

I made it clear earlier that if there are children, it is indeed the case that the Children Act can then trigger in and the local authority can come to their aid under the Children Act. If that is what the local authority decided to do, it could pay the rent. I made that perfectly clear in a previous answer. That is the position.

In case anyone asks the next question, I repeat the answer that I have already given: we are discussing with local authorities the costs which will arise. We have made it perfectly clear that we will be prepared to reimburse them on agreed costs up to 80 per cent.

Earl Russell

Before I reply to the Minister, I have, first, to make a Statement on behalf of the party. I hope that it will not take long, but it is, I think, of some importance.

We have decided that this Bill contains so much that is offensive to the freedoms of genuine asylum seekers that we cannot support any part of it. We would repeal it and replace it with such legislation as is necessary to reform and improve the system for processing asylum applications—a system which the present Government have grossly mismanaged and allowed to deteriorate into a state of crisis. We do not believe that any clause, or any line of the Bill, goes any distance towards meeting those objectives.

The Minister tempted me with his statistics to repeat myself. I heard his noble friend Lord Lucas on the last day in Committee. I shall not do so. He knows what my answer to that point is. I do not think that he needs to hear it again.

As regards his counts of rough sleepers, he ought to remember the sad case of the Irishman's pigs. The Irishman could not count them because they never stayed still. But if you are sleeping on a stone surface, you sometimes want to move in the middle of the night. Those counts of rough sleepers are notoriously unreliable, especially since some individuals tend to move as soon as they see anyone coming.

The Minister made a point about rough sleepers which tends more to illustrate our arguments than his. The rough sleepers' initiative was set up because so many people appeared on the streets. The Department of the Environment identified the significant factor in street homelessness as the removal of benefit from 16 and 17 year-olds and the fact that most people, being single, were not able to gain help from their local authorities. That is what we expect to happen again. In the light of that precedent, I believe that it is a realistic fear.

I understand that Ministers are allowed to have imagination only when they are off duty. I do not blame them for that. But I cannot help regretting it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 107 and 108 not moved.]

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 109: Page 7, line 7, at end insert— ("( ) No order under this section shall be made unless the Secretary of State is satisfied that no racial discrimination contrary to the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Local Government Act 1985 will result from the order. ( ) Before making any order under this section, the Secretary of State shall consult organisations appearing to him to be representative of the authorities concerned and other relevant organisations.").

The noble Lord said: The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that local authorities accept their responsibilities to promote good race relations when making orders under Clause 9 and to make sure that they consult with the relevant organisations first.

The fear is that this provision will lead to discrimination against our ethnic minorities and that a local authority will have to vet the immigration status of an individual to see whether he or she, or the family, qualifies for homelessness accommodation or whether the local authority has to reject the application under the terms of the Bill.

The likelihood is that a local authority will be far more concerned to vet and possibly refuse the applications of people whose skins are black because it will say, "It's much more likely that a person with a black face is not eligible under the terms of this Bill". The result is that people who may have lived in this country, who may have been born in this country and who happen to have black skins will be faced with a discriminatory process when they apply to a local authority for housing. That is surely an outcome which no one in this Chamber wants because it would lead to the most blatant forms of discrimination.

The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that before an order is made under this section, the Secretary of State shall consult with organisations appearing to him to be representative of the authorities concerned and other relevant organisations",

having an interest. The Secretary of State must ensure that he does not make an order unless he is satisfied that no racial discrimination will result from such an order. It is a simple proposition. I beg to move.

Baroness Seear

I strongly support the amendment. It is not that racial discrimination will necessarily take place. But there is no doubt whatsoever that the ethnic minority community will believe that it is taking place. On the basis of my experience up to now, there are good grounds for it to expect that that will be the case. We need to take every conceivable step to ensure that there is no justification for those fears.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I begin by saying, as I did in an earlier debate although in different words, that we are alive to the need to ensure that the application of the housing provisions does not damage race relations. But while I appreciate the concerns behind Amendment No. 109, outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, I doubt that we need the provision envisaged in the amendment.

As the Committee may be aware, there are already restrictions in place on access to the homelessness legislation by certain persons from abroad. Twice today I have mentioned that the Department of the Environment issued a revised Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities in 1994. It was drawn up in consultation with the Commission for Racial Equality and contains advice on the subject of concern to the noble Lord and the noble Baroness.

The code suggests a screening procedure applicable to everyone applying for assistance under the homelessness legislation that allows a housing authority to filter down to people who have spent a significant amount of time abroad in the past few years. Only those people are asked further questions about their immigration status. That avoids the need for housing officers to make a preliminary judgment on whether to probe an applicant's immigration status solely on the basis of his ethnic origins, accent or the style of his name.

So far as we are aware, the procedure has worked well and given rise to no complaints. It is the kind of procedure that the Department of the Environment proposes to commend to local authorities in applying the new legislation. In preparing its guidance, the department consults, as a matter of course, the local authority associations and other interested parties.

The experience we have had of the Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities and the way it has worked over the past two years, as well as the consultation we shall have with interested parties and local authorities, give us confidence that we will be able to bring forward procedures for local authorities to follow. Those procedures will not give rise to the problems which the noble Lord and the noble Baroness fear. We have a good record of race relations in this country which we wish to preserve. We believe that we have the means of doing so in this case, with the code of guidance which has already been in operation for the related subject of homelessness. I hope that with that assurance and explanation the noble Lord can withdraw his amendment.

Lord Dubs

I thank the Minister. I am still apprehensive about the way in which the clause will work in practice, but I wish to consider what the Minister said in more detail. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

6.30 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 110: Page 7, line 7, at end insert— ("( ) No order under this section shall be made unless the Secretary of State is satisfied that no disproportionate extra costs will be incurred by local authorities fulfilling their social services responsibilities under the Children Act 1989 or providing services as community care services within the meaning of section 46 of the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990 as a result of the order. ( ) Before making any order under this section, the Secretary of State shall consult organisations appearing to him to be representative of the authorities concerned and other relevant organisations.").

The noble Lord said: This is a probing amendment because it is concerned with an issue which the Minister has already mentioned this evening: the reimbursement of the additional costs which local authorities will incur. In principle, we believe that transfers of responsibility from central to local government are good, but in this case, with geographical distribution, the responsibilities fall largely on a few London boroughs and a few other local authorities. That makes implementation impossible unless there is reimbursement. I emphasise the limited scope of the amendment. We are only concerned with the Children Act 1989 which deals with children at risk in terms of their health and development, and with the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990, in particular Section 67.

I recognise that the word "disproportionate" is not suitable to be put into the statute because it could mean anything according to one's wish. On 11th January, the Secretary of State, Mr. Lilley, said that unavoidable additional costs involved because of the homelessness legislation and the Children Act would be reimbursed. The Minister has confirmed that the reimbursement would be, he now says, up to 80 per cent., rather than 80 per cent.

The local authority associations, particularly the Association of London Government, already know that they must provide income sufficient to meet the rent and living expenses for families who find themselves in a difficult position. The figures from 5th February, when the regulations came into force, to 30th April are pretty low. I understand that in London there have been of the order of 300 claims. However, the trap which was set on 5th February has not yet been fully sprung because it needs the legislation to be complete. The Association of London Government expects there to be 7,000 claims in the current financial year. The costs could be of the order of £50 million, so it is important that, even though we shall not press the amendment to a vote, the Minister should agree with the second part of the amendment to consult with the local authority associations or, organizations…representative of the authorities concerned and other relevant organisations".

I beg to move.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

I shall not comment on the wording of the amendment; I intend to speak on the principle raised by the noble Lord. On many occasions when Bills have been discussed in this House I have spoken on the issue of how the burden falls by chance on one authority or another. It is sometimes related to whichever ethnic minority has friends or relatives living in a certain place. As the Committee knows, Earls Court was originally "Little Poland" and then "Kangaroo Valley" and so on. It seems that when the first person arrives, everyone else follows. I remember the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, supporting me when I said that it was almost a national responsibility.

As I understand it, at present unaccompanied children are the greatest expense for local authorities. The education and social service costs and special counselling are quite a worry. I support the point made by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, that it is important to discuss the issue with local authorities and agree on a basis which is fair. It is impossible for people to set a council tax rate without knowing what new burden might fall on them.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

I wish to express my thanks and those of other noble Lords to my honourable friend Mr. Curry who met some of us this morning to discuss the issue. My noble friend Lady Gardner mentioned Kangaroo Valley. It reminds me of another more historical migration. People often ask why so many Irishmen are to be found in the London area of Kentish Town round to Kilburn. The answer is that it was as far as they could carry a suitcase from Euston or Paddington. That is where they stopped.

There are concentrations of people in areas and the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, is right that costs fall on relatively few local authorities quite disproportionately. A number of consequences flow from that and Mr. Curry was helpful in explaining and discussing the problems. The matter cannot be dealt with by one-off payments. The collective memory of Whitehall remains hung up on the jumbo jet full of refugees from Skopje in the former Yugoslavia. It arrived at Stansted Airport some years ago and the leader of the Uttlesford District Council said firmly to Her Majesty's Government that his council could do absolutely nothing. It is a small rural district and it could not look after the people without help. That was an extremely effective tactic and the council received a substantial one-off special grant for that purpose.

In London we are dealing with a regular process which has gone on year after year and the result of the legislation will be to impose additional costs on the local authority. The first point I make to my noble friend is that special grants are not the right way to deal with the problem. They must be specific grants which form a regular part of the system whereby central government support the expenses of local government. Happily, my noble and right honourable friends have recognised that in relation to the Children Act. The announcement by my right honourable friend Mr. Lilley in January has already recognised that there is to be a specific grant to local authorities which incur costs under the Children Act.

The trouble is that, as so far drawn up, that proposal does not give a great deal of help. The grant is cash-limited to £3 million, while the local authorities believe that their expenditure (I do not differ from the figure given by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh) may well amount to £50 million or more. Secondly, the grant is subject to a very substantial threshold.

I should perhaps declare an interest, along with the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. We are joint presidents of the Association of London Government. That body has estimated that for the local authorities in London that are specifically affected, that may mean a threshold of £1 million of expenditure before the specific grant comes in. As was said, only 80 per cent. of the expenditure above that threshold will be reimbursed. So, while one must not be ungrateful for small mercies, it is perfectly fair to point out to my noble friends that this a very small mercy indeed.

The central point, made quite forcefully by my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes, is that this is a matter of national policy. I spoke at Second Reading, and I support the major provisions of the Bill. I was very interested in the remarks made a moment ago by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, in relation to his party's view on the matter; we shall no doubt see that carefully spelt out in the party's manifesto when it comes to fight the election, and I wish it good luck. As I said, I support the Bill. But as a result of national policy, additional expenditure will be faced by local authorities. It will be incurred as a result of the Children Act, the Housing Act and the National Health Service and Community Care Act; and other provisions may also be relevant. That being the case, it is up to national government to use part of the savings that they are making under the change in social security legislation to see that disproportionate costs—to use the words of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, whose misgivings I share—do not fall onto the shoulders of local council taxpayers in relatively few local authority areas.

It is important to have some of these points on the record. Mr. Curry told us this morning that the Government are now ready to come forward with specific proposals, but they wish to discuss them with the local authorities first. I am advised that appointments are being sought for next week so that the local authority associations can meet Ministers. We must understand the difficulties that Ministers have had in this respect. After all, this is a policy being promoted, perfectly properly, by the Home Office and the Department of Social Security. The additional costs will fall on the Department of the Environment in relation to housing, and on the Department of Health under the National Health Service and Community Care Bill which will be a consideration in relation to its public expenditure allocation. So I can well understand that my right honourable friend the Chief Secretary has had quite a difficult job to try to juggle, as it were, all the different departmental budgets. It may well mean switching some costs from one department to another.

If the figure of £50 million is anywhere near right—and it may well be of that sort of order; indeed, the first few months of the effect of the social security regulations suggest that that is not in any way an exaggeration—and the Department of Social Security is saving £200 million (the figure given to us), the Government ought to be pretty pleased with their £150 million and not leave any part of the balance to fall on the shoulders of local council taxpayers in those relatively few London authorities and possibly one or two outside London, in Kent and so on, to bear the burden.

The thresholds should therefore be purely nominal. The figure of 80 per cent. should in fact be 100 per cent.; or if insisted that some amount should fall, it should be a very small percentage indeed. I hope that when my noble friends discuss these issues with the local authorities next week, they will listen very carefully to what the local authorities have to say. Those who are in full support of the policy would find it very difficult to defend higher council tax payments in a few boroughs such as Hammersmith and Fulham, Hounslow, Camden, and, I am told, Croydon. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, mentions Haringey. I am told that that is not one of the "big ones" at the moment, but it could well be. It would be difficult to defend the idea that they should pay extra as a result of what is essentially a piece of national policy brought to bear through this legislation.

My noble friend will not he free to respond very fully this evening. However, I hope that the concerns expressed in all parts of the Committee will impress upon my noble friends and their right honourable friends the need to meet this requirement fully and in that way to win the support of people in local authority areas for the overall policy of the Bill.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Avebury

The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, underlined how ill considered this legislation is. He remarked on the figure of £50 million, which is not even in the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum. He talked of discussions to be held with the local authority associations next week to try to resolve the question as to what is to be done as between the Government and the local authorities. It is extraordinary that we are three-quarters of the way through the Committee stage and we still do not know the answers to those questions. Nor can the Minister, who replied to the previous amendment but one, tell us exactly what happened at every stage in the process. He says these are choices that have to made on the spot. The particular example we were then discussing was of an asylum applicant family that had been successful in gaining emergency housing under the homeless provisions but was to be deprived of entitlement on the day when the Secretary of State made the decision that the application was not well founded. From that point onwards until the date of the appeal, the applicant was not entitled to any benefit.

The Minister said that this question would be dependent on the choice of the parties. First, he said that the asylum applicant himself had a role to play in the decision—as if someone with absolutely no resources was in a position to make any choice whatsoever. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, just underlined, the local authority will have to make some very important choices. As I understand it, it has an option of allowing the family to remain in the accommodation, notwithstanding the fact that they would be disentitled under the homeless provisions; in some way, extra-statutorily, the local authority may allow the family to remain in the accommodation and to continue to pay for the cost of the accommodation so as not to have to incur the additional, or larger, costs of taking the children into care or fostering them with another family. The Minister assured the Committee that, if it is decided to take the children into care, the local authority will be reimbursed as to 80 per cent. of the cost (not of the additional cost, but the total cost) that will be incurred thereby.

That raises a further question; namely, local authorities then have an incentive to have such children taken into care or have them fostered, since they will then receive 80 per cent. of the money back from the Government; whereas, if they continue to leave such families in homeless accommodation, they will not receive the 80 per cent. Perhaps the Minister will correct me if I am wrong. It is important to have this spelt out. As I say, the fact that so many of these matters have to be dealt with across the Floor of the House by means of assurances from the Minister indicates that the Bill should not have come before us in this form. These points should have been properly spelt out and we should have been able to know exactly what the financial effects were before we agreed to this clause.

Earl Russell

I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, for the trouble that he has taken over this amendment. I do not think he would believe me if I were to say that I agree with everything that he said. But I agree with practically everything he said that related specifically to local authorities. This is, after all, a matter of all-party concern. It is something which we all have to make work and we all experience common difficulties.

The noble Lord made the point that the burden fell on a small number of local authorities, mostly in London. It is a point of considerable substance. For some local authorities that burden can be very heavy. My own local borough of Brent is one of those affected, as are Westminster, Lambeth and Southwark. What may be quite a small burden for the Exchequer when spread over the whole of national resources, may be very heavy indeed if it is all concentrated on one point in Southwark or Lambeth.

On 4th March I asked a Question on this subject which was sympathetically answered by the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege. She came up with the formula that the Government would meet 80 per cent. of the costs above a certain threshold. I appreciate that the Minister may not be able to tell me tonight, but I should be interested to know the threshold and the reasoning by which it was settled. No matter how much practical help a local authority receives, it will depend very heavily on the level of that threshold.

I also want to know why it has been decided that it is necessary to have a threshold. One would imagine that the theory was that the local authority had a certain amount of spare fat. But that is not true of most local authorities now. Most of them, faced with an additional financial burden, will have to do things like sacking teachers. One would have thought that in an election year the Government might possibly wish to avoid such a consequence. Indeed, we might all wish to avoid it.

I should like to have answers to two specific points. First, I should like to know whether obligations under the National Health Service and Community Care Act will be recognised as well as obligations under the Children Act. Secondly—this is a question on which I have received representations from the London Borough of Sutton—what exactly will be the position in relation to school meals? There has recently been a Written Answer to my noble friend Lord Tope which, on the whole, was reassuring. But we have all had Answers which were, on the whole, reassuring. Government Answers need to be looked in the mouth. We need something specific because in the diet of those people, and therefore in the capacity of the children to learn and keep the school running, the school meal will be very important indeed.

It has been quite a long time since 4th March. I am very glad that it seems that an announcement will not now be long delayed. I hope that it is genuinely imminent. I should be grateful for an assurance that, when it comes, it will be retroactive to 5th February when that burden took effect, because quite a lot of money has been spent already.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I shall try to respond to the various points made in relation to the amendment. My noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding looked ahead to the amendment in the name of himself and some of his noble friends; namely, Amendment No. 123.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

Perhaps I may intervene for a moment. That amendment will be separately debated. It raises a separate point about the procedures. I hope that I shall be allowed to move that amendment later.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I suspected that my noble friend would move the amendment. However, there is quite a considerable overlap between the two amendments. I expect that I shall address some of the same points again later tonight.

We recognise that our reforms to social security benefits for asylum seekers result in some additional costs falling on local authorities and, indeed, on certain local authorities. We recognise that aligning the scope of the homelessness legislation with the benefit rules will result in a further shift of some of those costs to social services authorities. That is why we have announced our intention to make special grants available to local authorities for 1995–96 and 1996–97.

I hope that that answers—I suspect perhaps indirectly—one of the points about 1995–96 put to me by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. Clearly, I should only say that if it were going to cover the time between the coming into force on 5th February of the social security provisions and the end of the financial year.

The special grant for housing authorities will end when we use the order-making power in Clause 9 to align the scope of the homelessness legislation with the rules on housing benefit. However, in recognition of the fact that social services authorities will still have to bear costs, the special grant for social services authorities will continue for the remainder of the year. We shall also consider how we should support any such expenditure by social services authorities in the future.

Officials from the Department of the Environment and the Department of Health have been discussing details of the grant with local authority associations. As my noble friend Lord Jenkin said, they plan to hold a further meeting on 20th May to consider the draft grant report and hence the full details of the grant. We expect to see that report approved before the Summer Recess.

On a number of occasions I have mentioned that reimbursement will be at 80 per cent. of the additional unavoidable costs. I say again to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that local authorities will he expected to act in the most cost-effective manner when deciding what to do with children who come within the ambit of the Children Act. I believe he is asking whether it will be cheaper for the local authority to put the children into care or keep them where they are. That will be for the local authorities. Part of the reason for their having to fund the 20 per cent. is to concentrate their mind on the matter. It will be for the local authorities to find the most cost-effective manner in which to fulfil their obligations under the Children Act.

Lord Avebury

Will the local authorities be obliged to act in the most cost-effective manner irrespective of the needs of the children?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I did not say that they would be obliged. I said that we would expect them to act in the most cost-effective manner, taking other factors into account. They will take them into account. I hope that that answers the noble Lord. They will act sensibly as one would expect them to do. But, obviously, one hopes they will not opt for the most expensive solution if there are no great merits in it. That is the point that I am trying to make to the noble Lord.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, raised a point about school meals. I should prefer to write to him rather than give him an answer this evening in order to make sure that I am correct in my reply. He also asked about community care. That is not covered because there is no evidence of any need of community care legislation by asylum seekers. The cases put to us largely seem to have involved families of young children who would fall within the Children Act and not within the community care Acts.

As with so much of this debate, painting of a black nature has been placed on the canvas about what will happen when people find that their application to the Home Office has been turned down and they are no longer eligible for benefits and the cover of homelessness legislation. But, as I said when we last discussed this matter, currently more than three-quarters of those who apply for asylum end up at the end of some road or other being refused. So, three-quarters of all those who apply already have to face the kind of problem—if it is a problem—that noble Lords predict will happen as a result of this legislation. I ask rather rhetorically: what does happen to them? They seem to manage. There is no great evidence that the people turned down after appeal form a huge pool of people sleeping on the streets or whatever the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, thinks they do. They appear to be able to look after themselves. It is to be hoped that most of them return to their countries of origin. They do not seem to cause the problems that noble Lords have conjured up in their imagination about these issues.

Therefore, we can reasonably assume that the arrangements that those people make at the end of their appeal they will also make at the end of the Home Office decision if they receive a negative answer. They will be able to do whatever it is they do now to look after themselves.

7 p.m.

Earl Russell

The Minister has a great deal of confidence in those counts of rough sleepers, but his evidence does not accord with what many others involved find. Does he expect everybody who is afraid of proceedings under various immigration legislation to hoist a notice saying, "I am an asylum-seeker"?

The Minister talks about the National Health Service and Community Care Act. I was disappointed by that answer. He has considerable experience of mental health problems among those who have escaped from great hardship, which is common among victims of torture but can occur with other forms of hardship such as where family members have been killed in their presence and situations of that sort.

This is not something that should be dismissed out of hand. I beg the Minister to allow it to be at least considered in the negotiations with local authorities. In regard to the 80 per cent. threshold, the Minister talks about concentrating the minds of local authorities. If they are any more concentrated than they are, they will be invisible.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I had understood that the Minister would respond in particular to the powerful speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, and would discuss consultation with local authorities.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

I thought I had responded to my noble friend. I will be responding to him again later on, but I confirmed, as my noble friend was told by Mr. David Curry this morning, that the next meeting between the Department of the Environment, the Department of Health and local authorities is scheduled for 20th May. We hope to make progress towards seeing a result by the Summer Recess. Those consultations are going on and that is the assurance that my noble friend was asking me to put on record, establishing what the costs are for the various local authorities.

I feel that I responded to my noble friend, and perhaps the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, will accept that. But as I am on my feet, perhaps I can say that my figures in relation to rough sleepers have been questioned twice by the noble Earl, who obviously suspects that government apparatchiks have gone out at night and made this count. Of course, they do not quite see double; they only see in halves because they do not want the count to be very high. However, the rough sleepers count that I mentioned was made by the voluntary organisations which support rough sleepers. If the noble Earl does not believe the figures, he should take the matter up with those organisations and not accuse the Government of being unable to quantify the numbers.

Earl Russell

I have discussed the counts with them. They do not have the confidence in them that the Minister does.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I am grateful to the Minister for his repeated assurance. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 111 to 121 not moved.]

The Earl of Courtown

I beg to move that the House do now resume. In moving this Motion, I suggest that the Committee stage of this Bill be resumed not before five minutes past eight.

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

House resumed.