HL Deb 08 July 1997 vol 581 cc535-7

3.12 p.m.

Earl Russell

asked Her Majesty's Government:

How they intend to ensure that asylum seekers enjoy visible means of support pending a decision on their claims.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Social Security (Baroness Hollis of Heigham)

My Lords, we have made clear our concerns about the arrangements for asylum seekers made by the previous Government. Following a significant court ruling last October, support for destitute adult asylum seekers now rests with local authorities, in addition to responsibilities they already had under the Children Act. We will be working across Government to review the whole asylum seeker issue.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that Answer, especially for the last sentence. Does she agree that while the present arrangement under the National Assistance Act is a small mercy for which we must be thankful, it is nevertheless ineffective in the relief of hardship, unfair in its incidence on local authorities and of an administrative coherence it would be generous to describe as makeshift? Does she agree that it is urgent to come up with a rather better system?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, like the noble Earl, I too believe that no one should be left destitute in this country in ways that they cannot remedy by any act of their own. Therefore, I was personally delighted when I learnt what the previous Government apparently did not comprehend at the time that, as a result of the National Assistance Act 1948 and the court ruling of last October, no one in this country need be left destitute when they cannot remedy their plight. But I agree with the noble Earl that the present situation of churning responsibility onto other bodies and the effectiveness of these arrangements needs to be reviewed. It is for that purpose that the Home Office is leading a cross-government review of all the departments affected by asylum seekers, including the Home Office, the Department of the Environment, the DSS and the Department of Health. The DSS is already preparing its preliminary work for that purpose.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, can the Minister give an indication of the size of the problem as regards the number of asylum seekers and economic migrants coming into this country? What percentage is proving to be genuine or otherwise?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, we know the raw statistics of admissions and refusals for the past few years. We know that last year (1996) about 28,000 people came into this country seeking asylum. Of that number 6 per cent. were granted refugee status; 13 per cent. were granted exceptional leave to remain and 81 per cent. were refused. But when the previous administration introduced their social security changes last year, they saw fit neither to conduct research before implementing their policy nor to set in place research to monitor its effects. Therefore my noble friend will understand why I cannot answer him as fully as I would wish.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the great difficulty that some local authorities are in? Although the responsibility has now fallen on them, they are not being given any special funding to meet the situation. From previous debates in which I have participated, the Minister will be aware that the asylum seeker and refugee problem varies very much, but is largely concentrated in London with particular boroughs being affected at different times. In those circumstances, what provision have the Government in mind to help financially the local authorities who are shouldering this great additional burden at the present time?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, so far the Department of Health has been reimbursing local authorities to the extent of a maximum of £140 per adult asylum seeker, or £280 a week for a couple, together with additional funds for children. That should represent a grant of £85 million for this year—a Department of Health reimbursement to local authority expenditure of some £85 million. In addition, local authorities may expect to spend in the course of a year anything between £5 million and £25 million. Therefore, of the original estimated savings of the department by the previous government, which were calculated at £175 million gross or thereabouts, nearly £100 million of that may have to go back to pick up the bill at local level.

Baroness Anelay of St. Johns

My Lords, I can promise the House that I shall be shorter than many of the noble Baroness's answers today. Does the Minister recall a debate which took place in this House on 30th January 1996 when, in describing the regulations which govern asylum seekers and benefits, she described them as "shocking, chilling and indefensible"? Therefore, can the Minister tell us why she is now waiting for a review to tell her what she told us she knew then and how to deal with the problem?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, with pleasure. I am so pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, saw fit to ask that question. The reason is that at the time the government introduced those regulations they were knowingly and deliberately— although they had obviously not consulted their lawyers—refusing any means of support to adult asylum seekers without dependent children. The courts subsequently saw fit to rectify that government decision by explaining to them that the National Assistance Act 1948 applied to individuals in this country who should not remain destitute through no fault of their own. That is why we are now able to take the situation forward and not look back to where the government of the noble Baroness left us.