HL Deb 23 February 1998 vol 586 cc402-4

3.1 p.m.

Earl Russell

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What financial support will be available to local authorities to discharge their responsibilities to asylum seekers under the National Assistance Act 1948 for the financial year 1998–99, and whether they believe the present system is working well.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, local authorities are discharging the duties imposed upon them as a result of court judgments as best they can. The Government recognise the financial and administrative burden placed on them as a result and do not believe that the National Assistance Act is a suitable vehicle for providing support to asylum seekers. The Government are reviewing the whole asylum process including the way in which welfare support is delivered. The review team will be reporting shortly. Meanwhile, the Government have listened to representations from local authorities and have considered the costs that they are facing in arranging accommodation and support. The Government have announced that funding for 1998–99 will be increased by almost 18 per cent. to £165 per accommodated single adult asylum seeker per week: obviously, subject to parliamentary approval. That restores the level to that paid in 1996–97.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I thank the Minister for small mercies. Is she aware that, according to the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, the cost of supporting asylum seekers in London alone last year was £109 million, whereas, according to Mr. Paul Boateng speaking in a committee of another place last Wednesday, the total government support for asylum seekers came only to £89.6 million? Does the Minister agree that that helps to quantify the extent to which the Government are passing the buck of a central responsibility to local authorities? Why does not the buck stop at 10 Downing Street?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I believe I indicated in my original Answer that the Government are extremely concerned about the plight of asylum seekers. I am sure the noble Earl realises that for some months a review has been in progress on the whole of both asylum and immigration policy. A review of the benefits connected with them is taking place and a report will be made. That has led to a high level of activity within the Government; the lead department being the Home Office. As regards costs, we have decided, as I said, to accept the suggestions made by a number of local authorities, particularly in central London, about the costs imposed on them through their responsibilities in this field. That is why we have restored the grant to £165 a week.

The noble Earl referred to my honourable friend Mr. Boateng. Officials in the Department of Health estimate that the cost related to adult asylum seekers, to which I referred, on the basis of estimates of increased numbers will be about £89.7 million for the coming year. That does not include specific grants addressed to unaccompanied children or children in families.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, is it not a euphemism to say that the Government have listened to local authorities when in fact the appeal to the House of Lords against the original decision was to be heard in February and that it was withdrawn because the Government agreed to increase the sum to £165 a week under that pressure?

Is not the Minister aware that the five inner London boroughs formed a consortium and are working together to try to resolve this problem? Does she agree that £165 a week is insufficient for caring for someone in the centre of London and that every effort to move people to where accommodation would be available more cheaply and of a better standard is thwarted or resisted very often by threats of judicial review? What can the Minister do to prevent these procedures stopping any innovative scheme coming forward? Will those matters be considered in her review? Is the Minister further aware that the need for space in central London is so desperate that thoughts are now being given to having floating accommodation in the form of a ship?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, as I said in my original Answer to the noble Earl, the present situation under the National Assistance Act is unsatisfactory. Unfortunately, we inherited that situation because of legislation introduced in 1996 under the previous government. I repeat that we have tried to address the problem on an across the board basis. I am aware that there is a particular issue in central London. That is why we have been concerned to raise the grant for 1998–99.

One of the problems that has occurred is that we hoped cheaper accommodation would become available, but because local authorities—and quite rightly, because the review is taking place—see this as a relatively short-term problem which they need to address, they have felt unable to undertake longer-term accommodation arrangements which might have reduced costs.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, does the noble Baroness recall the opposition which her side of the House undertook to the proposals on immigration put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and myself in the last Parliament? Why is it that 10 months later the Government still have not reversed the policy, as they said they were going to do? Is this another U-turn?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, it is certainly not a U-turn. The problem is that the complexities and difficulties which we have inherited have led to a proper, sensible and sustained inquiry into the whole issue. For example, we have heard my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn describe in some detail the situation on immigration appeals, where we have inherited many thousands of such appeals since 1993 that have not been heard. We are addressing this problem. As I indicated in my original Answer to the noble Earl, it will be a matter of weeks, not months or years, before we produce a solution.

Forward to