§ (" . An asylum-seeker, and his dependants if any, shall be eligible for any social security benefits to which they would have been entitled if neither Part VI of this Act nor Schedule 1 to the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 had been in force, until such time as the Secretary of State has placed a report in the Library of the House of Commons giving details of the average process times in the determination of—
- (a) initial asylum decisions; and
- (b) appeals to adjudicators against initial asylum decisions,
§ The right reverend Prelate said: This amendment has an obvious and clear purpose. It proposes that the voucher system will not be triggered until the Government's target of six months for initial application and appeal is met and certified by the Secretary of State by means of a report placed in the Library of the House of Commons. We owe a debt to the parliamentary adviser to the Refugee Council, Mike Kaye—I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Alton—who has provided a good deal of explanation to many of us. However, this amendment is tabled with the support of the Immigration Law Practitioners Association and the Asylum Rights Campaign.
§ The Government have already indicated that they would trigger the voucher system for families with children only when the target is met. This amendment extends that trigger to all families and single people. In support of the amendment I put forward four arguments. First, under the Government's proposal that the trigger should extend only to families with children, there is a great danger that their applications will be processed quickly while all others will be left on the slower track. That has happened in similar circumstances in the past. For example, under the 1993 Act all new applicants were processed quickly but those already in the system were left to languish for an average of six and a half years for initial decision. Although I do not suggest for a moment that that will apply in the present case, there is necessarily a strong possibility of a slower track for those without children. Under present arrangements, they will be on the voucher system for the whole of the waiting period.1088
§ Secondly, there is a stigma attached to vouchers. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, has already spoken to this matter, to which we shall return later in Committee.
§ My third, and perhaps strongest, argument relates to cost. The cost of the asylum support directorate will be considerable. The additional cost of the voucher system is substantial. To what purpose? The Government may well argue that it is to keep out economic migrants who want to take advantage of our benefits system. There is no evidence that the changes which have already been made have affected the number of asylum seekers. The Government believe that the drop in asylum applications during 1996 was the consequence of the removal of benefits from in-country applicants, but the drop in asylum applicants began three months before the benefits were withdrawn. There was no last-minute rush to get in. The fact that 1995 saw the second highest number of asylum seekers ever received in the United Kingdom made it highly likely that the figure would drop in 1996.
§ Moreover, the pattern of applications has not changed. In-country applications still represented some 49 per cent of all applications made in 1997 and 1998, despite the fact that in-country applicants did not have access to benefits. If benefits in cash were an incentive, port applications would be expected to increase. There would also be an expectation of an increase in asylum applications in Scotland where cash benefits continue for all applicants, including in-country applicants.
§ Is it not likely that most asylum seekers are unaware of the complexities of the scheme which is hard enough for some of us to grasp even when we are not under pressure and have the benefit of considerable advice and support? For what purpose is the asylum support directorate being established? I realise that its purpose is wider than simply the administration of the voucher scheme. It will manage dispersal as well as support. But if it does not keep asylum seekers out, what does it do? Does it reassure the natives? That is us. If that is the purpose, the comment of the noble Earl, Lord Dartmouth, is relevant here. Do we wish to bear the cost of such reassurance? It seems to me that the interests of asylum seekers and taxpayers coincide at this point.
§ Is there not a much better use for many of the resources that are being put into the asylum support directorate? Could they be used by the asylum directorate? I find this language very confusing. I understand that the asylum directorate is that part of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate which deals with asylum applications. But it is confusing to have a term so similar to "asylum support directorate". I hope that I have indicated their responsibilities in the correct way.
§ The asylum directorate is concerned in the making of initial determinations. Surely support put towards it would meet the earlier point of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, that good initial determinations are a key to reducing the backlog, and to ensuring that the later stages of the process referred to by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, are not invoked.
§ The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents about 2,000 of the Home Office officials in the IND, has estimated that the switch of resources from 1089 the asylum support directorate to the asylum directorate would enable an additional 51,000 initial determinations a year to be made. That is a huge number and would begin to make credible the government claims that that will reduce the period of initial determination and appeal to six months in all cases; or at least to an average of six months. At the moment, it is difficult to believe that those targets will be achieved. The backlog of applications awaiting initial determination rose by 13,000 in 1998, and by a further 13,515 in the first five months of 1999. The backlog of initial determinations has risen every month from March 1998, when it was 50,590, to May 1999, when it was 78,285—an increase of almost 30,000.
§ In its evidence to the Special Standing Committee, the Public and Commercial Services Union has described the proposed targets of the Government as wholly unrealistic. It estimates that there will still be a backlog of nearly 50,000 initial applications by April 2001. That is the date by which the Government hope to clear the backlog. In the face of that evidence, on what further evidence do the Government claim that their figure is achievable?
The point is important because the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, argued that the new support system is fair if it is applied for only a short period. In Hansard of 29th June 1999 at col. 251 he said:
I do not pretend that that is a wealth untold, but it is not unreasonable … if we can deliver on the two-month and four-month targets".
Is not the corollary that it is unreasonable if the Government cannot deliver on those targets? I suggest that the evidence points to the possible, indeed probable, failure to do so.
I return to my original argument. The costs of the asylum support directorate could be very considerably used to enable the Government to deliver on these targets by reallocating at least some of the resources to the IND for use within the asylum directorate for making initial determinations. The case seems overwhelming, especially as it is likely to get the Government out of a very considerable difficulty. The Home Office Minister in the other place, Mr Mike O'Brien, recognised that,
increasing the speed at which decisions are taken is a key to resolving problems in the asylum system. That is the best deterrent and the best way of resolving the appalling shambles that is our current system".—[Official Report, Commons, 18/5/99; col. 1599.]
Provided that that is done with a proper attention to good initial decisions resulting in fewer appeals, we should all say "amen" to that.
§ The amendment would not do away with vouchers, but it would considerably reduce the responsibilities of the asylum support directorate, which the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, has already claimed will be greatly under-resourced for the responsibilities that it will have to undertake. Instead of the directorate being invited to perpetuate a system that is inefficient and that will do nothing to achieve the Government's objectives, the amendment will reduce its responsibilities and enable some of the resources to be used more efficiently 1090 and effectively to decrease the backlog. A smaller bureaucracy will be all that is necessary to deal with the situation that will then pertain.
§ I recognise that my argument builds largely on the claim that the resources directed to the asylum support directorate could be directed elsewhere and that that might be considered slightly wide of an argument for the amendment as it stands. I wish to end my remarks with an argument that is directed precisely to the amendment. Before doing so, I shall summarise my first three arguments, which are the dangers of the two-track system—one for families with children and one for families without—the stigma attached to vouchers and the cost of the asylum support directorate.
§ I suggest a fourth argument. If the Government are confident of meeting their targets, what is their difficulty in accepting the amendment? By doing so, they would be expressing their confidence in their judgment that the targets will be reached, so triggering the reduction of benefits. On the other hand, if the Government resist the amendment, they will clearly signal that they do not have confidence in their ability to reach the targets. Let the Government clearly send the opposite signal that they believe the targets will be met and the new support system will come into being. Let them avoid the situation that will pertain if they fail and, if this amendment is not accepted, the result that large numbers of asylum seekers will be left on a system that will provide them with support that—by implication from the words of the Minister in the other place—will be unreasonable for the long period that they will have to survive before their applications will be heard. I beg to move.
§ Earl Russell
Some weeks ago I was approached by members of the Rationalist Press Association. They asked me to subscribe to a press release arguing that a reformed House should not include any Bishops. To their utter dismay, I refused point blank to do any such thing. We have heard tonight some of the reasons why I did so. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon has brought to our debates on the subject not only a wealth of pastoral experience but a philosophical position that, because it is oblique to those normally held by politicians, has immeasurably enriched our debates on this subject. We are privileged to have him here and I was delighted to listen to him.
On the matter of the amendment, I am reminded of an occasion when I was new in my lecturing job. The college maintained that it could only manage to pay us once every two months, because it was far too difficult to do anything else. A senior professor who was expert in accountancy was allowed to examine the books. He came back rubbing his hands in glee, saying that he had heard that there was once such a system of accounting but he had never thought to be privileged to see it in operation.
That is very much the way I feel when I look at paragraph 8.19 of the White Paper. It indicates that the Government are committed to providing such a safety net, but they are determined to do so in a way which minimises the incentive for abuse by those who do not really need the support or who would make an 1091 unfounded asylum application in order to obtain the provision. That is the myth of our exceptionally generous benefits system. That myth is etched into our national consciousness, but it is about as out of date as the belief that Britannia rules the waves.
A little over 24 hours ago, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford was in the Chamber and spoke extremely powerfully in a debate on an amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, about the inadequacy of our benefit levels. He and I were among many speakers in every quarter of the Chamber who supported the proposition of the Acheson Report, itself a reputable enough source, that our benefit levels are now too low to sustain good health. If we look at them in a comparative dimension, they are on the low side of the EU benefits. I understand that Eurostat figures create technical problems with which I shall not detain the House, but whichever way we look at it we are somewhere in the bottom half of the EU as regards generosity of benefit levels. According to methods of calculation, we come probably somewhere between ninth and twelfth; either just above or just below Ireland, depending on the method of calculation chosen.
If benefits are acting as an incentive to draw people to one country in the West rather than another, one would expect the flow of applicants to this country to be rapidly diminishing because our levels of benefit are not among those which are particularly generous. I have previously given reasons for doubting how much they know in the back streets of Jaffna about British benefit levels. But if they do know, it is not working. If they do not know, it never will work. In any case, it gives me some apprehension to think of conducting a Dutch auction between the prosperous countries of the world as to which can lower their benefit levels fastest in order to make themselves least attractive to asylum seekers. If it is a Dutch auction, we are near enough to winning it not to need to put in a bid to undercut ourselves!
In the case of China, we have some interesting evidence about how far benefit levels attract or deter. Before the benefit changes, 71 per cent of Chinese asylum applications were at ports. In 1997–98, when only port applicants received benefits, those figures had dropped to 26 per cent and 25 per cent. Clearly, these people are not acting as a classic free-market economic man either because the need to live is more important than the level of benefits or, more likely, because they do not know the information.
Whether it is really a good idea to deter and make less attractive when we are already in the bottom half and people do not know what is happening anyway is a difficult issue. The level of benefits is low enough already, but it appears to me that what is being offered here, whatever the Government may say against it, is lower than the benefit level that is available to other people.
The Government make several points about utensils and so forth, but there is a vital principle involved in the possession of cash; namely, choice. If you are supplied with all your own equipment, as I am sure all 1092 those who have rented holiday villas have discovered occasionally the hard way, what is provided is not actually what you need.
Let us take the case of the Chinese asylum seekers to whom I referred just now. How many of them will move into social housing in Newcastle or Salford and find that they have been provided with a wok? I would guess not very many. That sort of problem will be repeated over and over again. Utility costs are quoted, but the percentage of a budget which goes on utility costs varies quite sharply from household to household. The calculation of a standard amount will be wrong in a great many cases.
It is argued that we can have a lower level of benefit because there will be no need to replace items. As the right reverend Prelate touched on, that is true only if the Government genuinely achieve their targets and people are on benefit vouchers in the short term. But in fact, even in the short term, it will not be true anyway. We know that many people who came out of Kosovo came carrying only what they could grab in a few seconds as they turned to run. For those people, replacement costs will be an extremely high proportion of their budget. There is no allowance in the vouchers for any equivalent of access to the Social Fund. That alone would make the figures very far from reliable.
On the first amendment on this part, the Minister said that we must take account of costs. I agree with him. I have often said so in this Chamber. But one of the objections to the Government's proposals is that, considering the cost of administration, the costs of the Government's proposals are actually higher than those of using an existing benefits system which has a well-established administration to run it. The Government are spending more in order to give less. In my book, that is not good value for money. When one considers cost, I believe that that is an argument for deferring what the Government are doing.
The Minister also said that we should take equal account of those who are destitute in our own country, and that we should not attempt a higher standard of provision than we give to them. I believe that that was roughly the purport of his argument. If he said anything like that—it is my recollection that he did so—
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
I said quite clearly that when discussing the level of different sorts of benefits to be given to those who come from other countries, it must be in the general context of what we provide for our own. I am happy to repeat that.
§ Earl Russell
I entirely accept that proposition. It is to that proposition that I was arguing yesterday. I believe that that provision is itself inadequate. Our provision for asylum seekers should not be more inadequate than that. However, I believe that the Government's current proposals are indeed thus. I take the point already made by the Minister that in this case we are dealing with single people, not with families with children. The concession made on children today is one which I welcome very warmly indeed.
1093 But single people have rights too. The tendency to assume that single people cannot be in hardship is one that I increasingly deplore. Of course one must care for children. But if you are single and your stomach is empty, it hurts just as much.
§ Lord Clinton-Davis
I put my name down to the amendment, but with all my characteristic ingenuity, I can think of nothing to add to the speech made by the right reverend Prelate or to that of the noble Earl opposite. Therefore, I do not wish to say anything more.
§ Lord Alton of Liverpool
I fear that clapping will break out sharply throughout the Chamber. I should like to add a few words in support of the right reverend Prelate's amendment. I echo the remarks by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, in paying tribute to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon. Many of us know that he will shortly be retiring from the House and indeed will not be here for the Report stage of the Bill.
I believe that we shall be the poorer as a result of that. I also believe that asylum seekers and refugees, who have benefited so much over the years from contributions made on their behalf, will be the poorer as well. We hope that there will be many more platforms on which to advance their cause in the future.
In opening the debate the right reverend Prelate referred to the stigmatising effect of vouchers. I was struck by some remarks made to me by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, hardly a radical organisation trying to drag down the Government. That organisation took a long look at the voucher system.
§ 10.30 p.m.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
I am not sure why the noble Lord is talking about the merits or demerits of vouchers rather than the merits or demerits of the amendment.
§ Lord Alton of Liverpool
I shall refer to their relevance to the amendment in due course, if the Minister will forbear. The right reverend Prelate, in introducing the amendment, referred to vouchers. That was not commented on by the Minister. As this amendment deals with eligibility for social security benefits while awaiting asylum decisions, and the new system will incorporate vouchers into that limited system, it seems perfectly relevant and in order to refer to them. A few moments ago, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, described at some length the disadvantageous effects of the voucher system. I shall simply add a few remarks of my own.
The CAB has stated:the voucher system will inevitably lead to social exclusion and discrimination … A system which requires asylum seekers to identify themselves as such whenever they visit the supermarket can only foster these regrettable features of our society".That may make for unpalatable listening; nevertheless, it is a fact that if people have to produce vouchers in supermarkets when living—if other parts of this legislation are enacted—in dispersed areas, sometimes on sink estates or in areas where there may be 1094 considerable deprivation already, they can easily become targets for racism and vicious assaults by people who would resent their presence. Therefore, they will be stigmatised and singled out.
The issue of value for money was raised by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. I agree with him. I want to draw the attention of the Committee to the evidence given to the Special Standing Committee by Kent Social Services that the voucher system was,the difference between 4p and 14p in the pound".That means that the voucher system is three and a half times more expensive than benefits. So where is the value for money? Where is the benefit to the taxpayers about which we have heard so much this evening?
I also want to support the remarks made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, about the level of these entitlements that will be made available to people in the United Kingdom in future. In a comparison with our European neighbours, we do not appear very high in the league table. Although Germany receives twice as many asylum applications as we do, it provides £38.63p a week compared with our £27.90p a week, of which only £10 a week is paid in cash. Switzerland and the Netherlands, which take about the same number of asylum seekers as we do, provide £41.07p and £46.58p respectively. Therefore, it is clear that we are not over-generous in our provision for asylum seekers, as the amendment standing in the name of the right reverend Prelate recognises.
The voucher system has been tried and found wanting in other countries. In the early 1990s, Switzerland, for example, operated a system that allowed refugees to be given vouchers, but it was found to be administratively cumbersome. The agency that co-ordinates the work of refugees in Switzerland, the OSAR, was not aware, when asked, of any district still using the voucher system. The system has been abandoned because it was demeaning for asylum seekers and impractical to operate.
For all those reasons, I feel that the system that the Bill introduces will fail, that it is ineffective, and that it will stigmatise. For the reasons advanced by the right reverend Prelate, I hope that noble Lords will support the alternative that he has offered.
§ Lord Warner
This amendment contains a major flaw. The speeches seemed to be an attempt to re-open the whole issue as to whether or not the asylum support directorate should be established to run a more comprehensive and integrated system of providing support, including accommodation, to asylum seekers. This does not seem to me to be the place to conduct that debate.
The fundamental problem with Amendment No. 156 is that, if passed, it would effectively require the Government, and the Home Secretary in particular, to organise two systems of support for asylum seekers alongside each other. It would not change the requirement to continue with establishing and putting in place the asylum support directorate and all that goes with it. But it would require the Government to put in place, through the Benefits Agency, arrangements for 1095 social security benefits to be paid to asylum seekers in this narrow group of circumstances. That puts further costs on the Government and a further set of arrangements which are unnecessary. I suggest therefore that we do not support the amendment.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
I shall limit myself, as was agreed earlier, to the amendment.
This clause is trying to focus on the commitment to reduce the time taken to reach an initial decision. I repeat what my right honourable friend Jack Straw said on Report in the other place. He confirmed that asylum seeker families with minor children would not be taken into the new support system at 1st April 2000 unless he was satisfied that the target of two months for a decision time in those cases could be achieved.
I recognise that that may mean, at the outset of the new support arrangements, that the average waiting time and hence the average time spent on the new support scheme may be a little longer. But continuing with the current support arrangements, as my noble friend Lord Warner indicated a moment ago, is unsustainable. Asylum seekers will receive a fairer deal under the new support arrangements, which is why we want to give effect to them as soon as possible. I cannot agree therefore that it is appropriate to delay the commencement of Part VI in the way suggested.
I am sorry that the right reverend Prelate is to leave us soon. He and I had helpful discussions which we both found productive, in particular on the Human Rights Act. I had not realised that he was to leave until the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said so and I share his personal regret.
Earlier this evening we spent a great deal of time with various Members of the Committee urging that we ought to have a two-track system for those, in particular, with children; that is what it came to. Now the two-track system, as it is alleged to be, is said to be utterly wrong in principle. It is said that vouchers are a stigma. But all this amendment does is put off for a time the intermediate period up to the time when asylum seekers would all be on a voucher system. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, mentioned cost and the level of benefit across Europe was spoken of. I find those comparisons of limited use. Many countries provide more generous benefits to their own citizens, but do not give the same level to asylum seekers. Many countries have quite separate arrangements.
I was asked about delay by the right reverend Prelate. We are putting in an additional £120 million over three years to achieve our targets. We are recruiting 2,000 additional caseworkers. Decisions at the moment, in terms of case resolution, have been running at an average of about 900 decisions a week. We have to invest money in casework. We have to provide funding for support in any event. If we look at the overall arrangements in the Bill, they will be more cost effective.
It is said that benefits are not a magnet. I have to disagree. It is difficult otherwise to explain rationally the large number of applicants from Eastern Europe— 1096 I am not talking about the noble Earl's knowledge of those who live in the back streets of Jaffna. A large number of applicants are from Eastern Europe. They have a very low success rate; they make every effort to apply for asylum at port of entry and therefore receive benefits. They generally congregate in the south-east.
If I inadvertently said an additional 2,000 case workers, I am very sorry. I thought I had said 200. If it was heard correctly or misheard as 2,000 I correct myself immediately. I am obliged to my noble friend Lord Burlison for jogging my arm on that.
It is said that changes in application rates in 1996 were not as a result of benefit changes. I believe that they were. It is very difficult to resist the conclusion that the withdrawal of benefits, draconian though it was, did not have an effect.
In summary, therefore, we have come to a policy decision. We have given the undertaking which I have repeated and which Jack Straw made about families with dependent children. Being realistic, as I say, there may be a slightly longer time than average spent when the new support scheme starts. We are intent on starting it. I am not going to re-traverse the dispute about vouchers, whether families with children should be treated differently and whether the cost is going to be affected. I believe that we shall deliver something which is efficient, effective and humane. Therefore, I ask the Committee not to agree to this amendment.
§ Earl Russell
Before the Minister again speaks in that slightly dismissive way about the low rate of successful applications from eastern Europe, I ask him to look at the Refugee Legal Centre's hearings on the claims of the Roma who landed at Dover. I believe he will find that it is not quite as simple as he suggested.
§ The Lord Bishop of Ripon
I am greatly warmed by the gracious words of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool. I particularly liked the way in which the noble Earl phrased his impression of the distinctive contribution which came from these Benches and which we hope that we shall be permitted to continue. I also very much enjoyed the humour with which he made his points about benefit levels. I know the back streets of Jaffna having lived on the island of Sri Lanka for some years. Indeed, it was my perception of the mismatch between what was happening there and the perception in this country of what was occurring there which first drew me to be concerned with these issues. I am glad to support the remarks the noble Lord made about the inadequacy of the support proposed.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, made points about the exclusion which will be induced by having to produce vouchers and the way in which it will be easy for asylum seekers to become targets for the resentful. As regards the major flaw which the noble Lord, Lord Warner, mentioned, it seems that there will have to be two systems because of the concession which has been made 1097 for families with children. 'Therefore, regardless of whether this amendment is accepted, or something like it, we shall be operating with two systems.
The Minister did not address the issue of the Government's confidence in their own ability, even with the additional resources he mentioned, to meet their own targets. It seems to me that in refusing this amendment the Government effectively are having to admit that they are covering themselves in the event of their targets not being realised. I do not believe that it was a satisfactory answer. I hope that we shall return to this matter at Report stage. As has already been mentioned, I shall not myself be present in the House then as a Member. I shall sadly miss not only these debates but those which I have shared in your Lordships' House over the years concerning many matters.
I was encouraged yesterday to train young Bishops in the issues of immigration and asylum. I mentioned to my colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, that I had received some encouragement to do that. I believe that he was flattered to be considered a young Bishop. In any case, he will be the lead Bishop on the issues of asylum and immigration in your Lordships' House in the future. I know that he will perform that role with great confidence and success. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 157 not moved.]
§ Clause 85 [Persons for whom support may be provided]:
§ Lord Alton of Liverpool moved Amendment No. 158:
§ Page 55, line 23, leave out ("may") and insert ("shall").
§ The noble Lord said: This amendment is grouped with Amendment No. 159 which stands in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley. The purpose of this amendment is to give the Secretary of State not only the power but also the duty to provide support under the scheme in Part VI.
I would draw the attention of Members of the Committee to the debate which took place in the Special Standing Committee in another place on 4th May of this year. I cannot really better the words of Mr James Clappison, the Member of Parliament for Hertsmere, who spoke on behalf of the official Opposition during those proceedings, when he said:
I was curious because the choice of the word "may" rather than the word "shall" seems to envisage asylum seekers or their dependants possibly being destitute according to the conditions described in subsection (1). They could have become destitute, but the Government might choose to withhold support because they are under no duty to provide it. The subsection seems to contemplate a situation where support is withheld. The Minister needs to clear up that curious feature of this Bill".—[Official Report, Commons, Special Standing Committee, 4/5/99; col. 1272.]
This amendment gives the Government the opportunity to do just that. By definition, the support scheme is a final safety net whose recipients would otherwise be destitute, with nowhere else to turn for food or shelter.
It is therefore necessary that the provision of support under the scheme be a matter of duty imposed on the face of the primary legislation. That is why the amendment seeks to leave out the word "may" and to insert "shall".
§ Nothing short of that will do, not even assurances from the present government of an intention that the power will always be exercised. To rely on that would be to take the risk that some future Secretary of State will withhold support from the destitute. This is a theme that we have returned to time and again during Committee. It is not the good faith of the present Government or of the Ministers who sit on the Government Benches which is in doubt; it is the possibility that others who follow them, in some future incarnation, may not be prepared to act in the same way. It also ought to be said that if it is unthinkable that any Secretary of State would ever decline to exercise the power, there can be no reason not to make it a duty. That seems to me to be the most powerful argument of all. If it is unthinkable that all this will not be exercised as a duty, why not put it on the face of the Bill?
§ In addition to the humanitarian consideration which destitution should always inspire, it should be remembered that some asylum seekers will, in due course, be recognised as refugees to whom the UK owes international duties (not favours) under the 1951 convention. The reason given in another place for rejecting this amendment was that there was a need to retain "flexibility"—again, that word has mentioned a great deal in our debates. I understand the reason why Ministers would want to leave themselves some room for manoeuvre, but it was stated that there would be less flexibility if support were, "an entitlement in the formal sense". Those arguments were not fleshed out and they do not stand as either principled or practical objections to denying recognition of a duty on the Secretary of State to make provision for asylum seekers to receive food and shelter. They are matters of acknowledging responsibility for meeting the basic human rights that anyone is entitled to and should be placed on the face of the legislation.
§ The Minister may well say that it is his aim to prevent destitution, rather than waiting for it to happen. However, the issue here is not about "Waiting for Godot", and it is not about flexibility; it is about what duty we ought to impose. It would cost the Government little to put it on the face of the Bill. Not to do so will, conversely, raise serious questions about the Government's reasons for not acting in that way. With those words, I commend the amendment to the Committee. I beg to move.
§ Lord Cope of Berkeley
Amendment. No. 159, which has been grouped with Amendment No. 158, stands in my name, that of my noble friend and that of the noble Earl, Lord Russell. It seems to me that both of them go together, in the sense that Amendment No. 159 seeks to question subsection (2) of Clause 85, which allows the Government in "prescribed circumstances" to exclude people from this support. If anyone is to be excluded 1099 under this subsection, subsection (1) has to say "may" rather than "shall"; otherwise, the exclusion would have no effect and there would be an obligation on the Secretary of State to provide the support. Therefore, I do not think that Amendment No. 158 necessarily has the sort of apocalyptic connotations which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, seemed to suggest in part of his remarks.
However, on the other hand, as will be apparent from the fact that I have tabled Amendment No. 159, I have some interest in who will be excluded from this provision. We obtained some guidance on this matter from the Explanatory Notes that were issued with the Bill. We are all grateful for them. Paragraph 241 states:Regulations can be made under subsection (2) to exclude people from entitlement under prescribed circumstances; for example, a person who had previously caused serious damage to property provided under the support arrangements might be excluded".I understand the wish to penalise someone who has caused serious damage to property, but to exclude him entirely from support in those circumstances may or may not be appropriate to the damage which has been caused. The details of that provision would need to be carefully spelt out.
The paragraph continues:or an asylum seeker who was entitled to benefits".It seems to me that under the normal rule a person should not receive two lots of support from the state. Therefore, I am not sure how the final provision in that paragraph would apply. If one assumes that there are asylum seekers who are entitled to benefit, I do not think that they should receive support under the arrangements we are discussing on top of that benefit. I tabled Amendment No. 159 to probe who will be excluded from support under the prescriptions which will be laid down.
§ Earl Russell
In supporting both these amendments, I should like to say a few words in support of Amendment No. 159 to which I have added my name. The amendment seeks to delete the words,In prescribed circumstances, a person who would otherwise fall within subsection (1) is excluded".This is a Henry VIII clause of a fairly far-reaching kind. It authorises the Secretary of State to remove a right to benefits from such people as he sees fit. I quote only the comments on this clause from the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, which states,We question the need for clause 85(2), which would enable the Secretary of State to remove this lynchpin of support from those who, in the words of clause 85(1) are 'destitute or … likely to become destitute', and recommend its deletion from the bill, or at the very least that the circumstances under which the power may be exercised are set out on the face of the bill".I shall not try to say it better.
§ Lord Hylton
When we covered this ground previously, the relevant legislation was in many ways draconian and it appeared likely that many people— 1100 many of them with genuine cases—would be left destitute. On that occasion we were rescued by the Court of Appeal which found an earlier statute which could be helpful. There seems to me a strong case for making new legislation certain in the first place. On those grounds, I support Amendment No. 158.
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
As regards Amendment No. 158, we have in this Bill a clear commitment to establish a proper scheme for the support of asylum seekers. As the Committee will know from the extensive consultations we have already engaged in, we are well on the way to achieving this. There is a clear policy on how we propose to operate the power set out in Clause 85 which will be fleshed out further in regulations covering the operation of the scheme, drawing on the various regulation-making powers that are contained within this part of the Bill.
Amendments Nos. 158 and 159 are, in effect, two sides of the same coin. They seek to raise the following question; namely, in what circumstances could someone appear to be destitute—because that is the test under the Bill—and yet not receive support under the scheme?
There is plainly merit in keeping the powers in this area fairly open and flexible. Legislation such as this will be on the statute book for a good number of years and may well have to address scenarios that we do not currently envisage. I would remind the Committee that the number of asylum seekers has grown tenfold over the past 10 years. We do not know what we will need to cope with in the future or how. I doubt that future governments would thank us for tying their hands with a specific duty rather than a flexible power.
We are committed to ensuring the proper support for people pending the outcome of their asylum applications. The noble Lords cannot be unaware that we are investing considerable resources in establishing comprehensive new support arrangements to be effective from 1st April 2000. We are committed to making these work.
In relation to the kinds of cases we would wish to take out of support, perhaps I may mention three. First, as the Explanatory Notes indicate, there is a small number of people claiming asylum who may be eligible for social security benefits; for example, those already here on indefinite leave or members of countries that are signatories to the European Social Charter or the European Convention on Medical and Social Assistance. They do not need access to this support. They will be removed from the exclusions from benefit contained in Clause 106 by virtue of regulations under Clause 106(3). The power in Clause 85(2) is complementary to that one.
§ Lord Avebury
Such people must be deemed to be destitute because, if they are not deemed to be destitute, they do not come under subsection (1).
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
They would if they appear to the Secretary of State to be destitute. Let us look at the definition of "destitute" in Clause 85(3):For the purposes of this section, a person is destitute if—(a) he does not have adequate accommodation or any means of obtaining it … or … he has adequate accommodation or the means of obtaining it, but cannot meet his other essential living needs".On the test, he would appear to be destitute, yet he has the means to get benefit and therefore the asylum support scheme should not apply.
§ Earl Russell
That is a bigger admission of the inadequacy of benefits than I have heard from any Minister. The noble and learned Lord might like to reconsider his words.
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
If a person is here on indefinite leave and has no means of support except access to benefit, he would appear to be destitute under the meaning of Clause 85(1). It seems to me a matter of common sense that he would not there fore be entitled to support both under the benefits system and under the provision of the support scheme under Clause 85. That is all I am saying. It seems to me a short and rather straightforward point. I do not see why he should be supported twice. That would be the effect of the removal of Clause 85(2) and the change of the 'word from "may" to "shall'.
Let me take a second example. There are those who in some way abuse or seek to exploit the new arrangements. Someone who arrives with £50 in his pocket will very shortly become destitute; there is no suggestion that he should not be covered. But what about someone who arrives with £5000 in cash and who, three days later, turns up claiming to be penniless, with no explanation of where the money went? Would the Committee wish that the full range of assistance be automatically available to that person, even where he presents himself as prima facie destitute? That is a case where he could appear to the Secretary of State otherwise to be destitute.
§ Baroness Williams of Crosby
Before the Minister proceeds with his remarks, may I press him a little further. We have already recognised in Clause 85(1) that the person concerned is or is likely to be destitute. We secondly find that the Bill, under Clause 85(2), states:In prescribed circumstances, a person who would otherwise fall within subsection (1) is excluded".It does not explain in any detail who that person might be. It is a very wide power. The Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee made clear that such a power is inappropriate in a Bill of this kind. I quote the words of the committee:We question the need for clause 85(2), which would enable the Secretary of State to remove this lynchpin of support from those who, in the words of clause 85(1) are 'destitute or … likely to become destitute', and recommend its deletion from the bill, or at very least that the circumstances under which the power may be exercised are set out on the face of the bill".1102 This is a matter of great seriousness. The Government have been responsive to many of the points that we have made. However, it is fair to say that we know of no case where a recommendation expressed in such powerful terms by the Select Committee has been rejected by a government. I think that those Members of the Opposition who represent the Conservative Party will be able to confirm that that is their experience with regard to the government who were in power until 1997.
We beg Ministers to think again about this provision. It would set a very dangerous precedent, one that would enable Henry VIII powers to be widely introduced. Certainly, to disregard the advice of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation without the most powerful arguments being adduced— and with great respect to the Minister they have not so far been adduced—seems to us extremely unwise.
§ 11 p.m.
§ Lord Cope of Berkeley
I confirm that it is my understanding that the previous government did accept the recommendations of the Select Committee.
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
First, I accept that this is a very important issue. I accept that it is sufficiently important for the noble Baroness to repeat the ipsissima verba of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, who quoted precisely the same part of the report of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee. That was a perfectly legitimate response.
With the greatest respect to the noble Baroness, she asked for the circumstances to be explained in which there will be cases where a person might appear to be destitute but would not receive support under the asylum support scheme. I have indicated the first occasion, which is where a person might be eligible for benefit; the person would fall within the provisions in Clause 85(1) but it would not be appropriate to obtain support under the scheme. The second example I gave was where a person may appear to be destitute but the circumstances in which that person has become destitute are so suspicious that the Secretary of State should be entitled, without necessarily having to go behind the appearance of destitution, to say that benefit is not appropriate in this case. The third case is the one referred to in the Explanatory Notes; namely, where a person has previously caused serious damage to property provided under the support arrangements.
One of the two circumstances in which a person is to be treated as destitute under the terms of the Bill is where that person does not have adequate accommodation or a means of obtaining it, whether or not other essential living needs are met. What is the state to do where someone who has been provided with adequate accommodation severely damages that property and does so on a number of occasions? Is the state obliged in those circumstances to go on providing property?
The examples that I give cannot be exhaustive. However, they indicate three perfectly sensible cases where it would not be appropriate to provide support under the benefit scheme provided under Clause 85. If 1103 that is correct, it is right that Clause 85 should not be in terms of duty but in terms of power. Secondly, it is right, as a reinforcement or reverse of that, that there should be circumstances in which the Secretary of State can prescribe circumstances in which someone who would otherwise appear to be destitute could be excluded from the support scheme under Clause 85.
Having said that, I should make it clear that we have given undertakings that we will provide a comprehensive new support arrangement, which we are determined should be effective from 1st April 2000. I should also make clear that these arrangements would take the form of regulations governing the operation of the scheme which will obviously come before Parliament again. In those circumstances, there is not much between us. Once it is established that there are circumstances in which it would not be appropriate to provide someone with support under the scheme who otherwise appeared to be destitute, the form of drafting appears to me appropriate. This is about drafting and nothing else.
§ Baroness Williams of Crosby
Perhaps I may take it one stage further. As the Minister argues that there are clear circumstances where the continuation of any form of support would be inappropriate—and one can think of examples—would he be willing to accede to the Committee's proposal that this be set out on the face of the Bill? Can the noble and learned Lord tell the Committee why he believes that, so far at least, that has not proved to be possible?
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
Because it would be inappropriate in a case such as this exhaustively to set out the circumstances in which someone would not be entitled to support under the scheme. This scheme will last for a considerable time. It must be sufficiently flexible for the benefit of both the asylum seeker and the taxpayer in the sense of what is available and what is not. In determining a whole system of support, it does not seem to me that the details should be on the face of primary legislation.
§ Lord Alton of Liverpool
The Minister responded in terms that many of us assumed he would as regards this debate. It is very much in line with the remarks made by the Minister of State in another place. The noble and learned Lord will not be surprised that some of us found them a little disappointing, although we recognise that he has also expressed his determination to ensure that this does not militate against the most disadvantaged.
The basic proposition in our argument does not question the good faith of the Minister or the Home Office but how it might be interpreted by others if it is not written on to the face of the Bill. The only flexibility that is available by not incorporating the word "shall" instead of "may" in Clause 85 is the flexibility not to provide destitute asylum seekers with food and shelter. I find that extraordinary.
I do not believe a great deal separates us on the need to address the problem. As the Minster has marginally left the door ajar for him to think about the wording of 1104 the amendment, I hope that between now and Report stage we will have a chance to see whether there is a form of words which would meet the arguments. I suspect that otherwise Members of the Committee will wish to return to the subject. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 159 not moved.]
§ Lord Cope of Berkeley moved Amendment No. 160:
§ Page 56, line 5, at end insert ("except insofar as that fact may affect adversely the welfare of a child").
§ The noble Lord said: In view of the extensive debate earlier on Amendment No. 156, I take the view that children and those with children should be given an element of special consideration in the arrangements that we make under this part of the Bill. It is one narrow and special point. The idea of the amendment is to prevent children being put at risk by virtue of the explicit exclusion of having regard to the fact of accommodation being shared. It is an extremely narrow point, but nevertheless it has an importance of its own.
§ It is suggested that we should discuss it with other amendments listed in the groupings which include Amendments Nos. 165 and 166 standing in my name and the names of my noble friends. By taking out the word "not", Amendment No. 165 would permit the Secretary of State to have regard, in deciding where an asylum seeker and his dependants were to be sent to live for the time being, to a preference as to the locality in which the accommodation was to be provided. That does not mean that the asylum seeker would be able to make the decision, but the Secretary of State could take into account and either ignore or agree to the preference expressed by the supported person. That seems more reasonable than the provision in the Bill that expressly forbids the Secretary of State to take any account of preferences.
Amendment No. 166 would delete subsection (3) of Clause 87. It follows the recommendation in the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee's report on the Bill. Paragraph 22 begins by saying:
The Committee does not consider the Henry VIII power in Clause 87(3) justified".
The report goes on to express the Committee's reasons. I am sure that your Lordships have seen it and I do not need to expand on the reasons. We should pay careful attention to the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, which is a senior and important committee of the House that does a great service to us all by examining the small print of matters within its remit. It has been the habit of governments of both parties to take the committee's recommendations very seriously. I believe that they have all so far been agreed to. I beg to move.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
I wonder if I could help the Committee by dealing discretely with the point about the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee's 1105 recommendation in case others had similar concerns. We are reflecting on the best way of addressing the issue and we intend to return to the matter on Report.
§ Lord Alton of Liverpool
I am sure that the whole Committee is grateful for the Minister's pre-emptive strike. I wish to speak to Amendments Nos. 161 and 164 and I support the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, on his amendments.
The two amendments in my name concentrate on the housing needs and the basic requirements of asylum seekers in the neighbourhoods where they are settled. My noble friend Lord Sandwich and I raised our concerns last week during the meeting with the Minister of State and his officials to which I referred earlier.
Twenty years ago I was the chairman of one of the country's largest housing committees in Liverpool. The committee was well intentioned in wanting to help some of the boat people from Vietnam who were seeking refuge in this country. Along with the other Merseyside boroughs, we put together a plan to assist those asylum seekers and more than 1,000 came to Merseyside. Our experience leads me to question the assumptions on which some of the Government's policies are based, particularly the issue of adequate housing needs rather than suitable housing needs, which is the subject of Amendment No. 161.
We were well intentioned, but hard-to-let accommodation on sink estates was inevitably used. In dispersed areas, mainly around the periphery of the city, people were left without common or familial support systems. They had no access to language facilities to help them. In one way the council was being relieved of the embarrassment of empty properties from which it was drawing no rent.
I was concerned to learn during the recent Kosovo crisis that the same local authority was suggesting that properties that have been vacant for some years might be made available to refugees. I know that that would draw in resources to a local authority that often finds itself short of funds, but the properties were not suitable for our tenants, who had been moved out of them some years before, and would certainly not be suitable for Kosovan refugees any more than the properties that we made available 20 years ago were suitable for the Vietnamese refugees.
Based on that hard experience, I commend Amendment No. 161, which would specify that the accommodation provided must be suitable for the needs of the individual even though it is temporary. The asylum support information document states an intention to make "acceptable" provision for asylum seekers. This amendment in a sense probes the good faith of that statement.
Accommodation, however temporary, which is not suitable to the needs of the individual asylum seeker, and his dependants, if any, is not capable of taking them out of destitution and is thus not capable of fulfilling the basic purpose of the scheme. For example, accommodation that is perfectly adequate in itself may be unsuitable for a wheelchair user if the sleeping and 1106 toilet facilities are not on the same level, or someone with a phobia about heights may find that the accommodation he is offered is on the 14th floor.
The point about location suitable for resettlement is crucial to making good the Government's stated intention that new arrangements should not penalise refugees. The particular accommodation offered under the scheme will be temporary, but every effort should be made to locate asylum seekers in areas where they can start to put down roots as soon as possible. It is accepted that those whose claims ultimately fail will then be uprooted. But for those who are recognised as refugees, there should be a realistic possibility of staying on in the area where they first settled, along with all the support systems that surely have to go with the policy of dispersal.
The Home Office itself has emphasised that it wishes to see those asylum seekers who are recognised as refugees, or are otherwise granted leave to remain in the United Kingdom, settle in the areas to which they are dispersed. It would prefer not to see secondary migration, particularly not back to the capital. The cases of the Ugandan Asians and the Vietnamese are examples of the way in which previous dispersal schemes have lasted for only a short time before secondary migration has taken over. If the Government are to achieve their stated objectives, then the factors set out in Amendment No. 161 must be taken to heart.
I would also commend to the Minister a first-hand experience of recent months. I commend to him a report which appeared on Thursday, 8th July, in the Harrow Times, which described how a man set fire to himself after facing eviction from a property. The report states:An Iranian asylum seeker who was due to be moved from a Harrow Weald hostel to Devon tried to set himself on fire because he was so upset by the news, a Harrow court heard last week".The report goes on to say:The court was told that the 32-year-old barricaded himself in his room when he was told to leave temporary accommodation … and wrapped himself in a sheet and set light to it while holding a knife to his throat until police broke down the door".It is cases like that which illustrate my point. What we may regard as being perfectly adequate may not be suitable. Therefore, we should look carefully at these definitions, which have been used in housing legislation over the years. "Suitable" has particular connotations in the context of legislation dealing with homeless people.
I wish also to commend Amendment No. 164. The amendment provides a duty to assist destitute asylum seekers. It would be a way to fulfil the covenant set out in the White Paper. However, as the provision is drafted, the Home Office would be able to refuse assistance, leaving people homeless and without the means of subsistence. I wish to draw to the attention of the Committee the views of Shelter, one of the most highly respected agencies in this country. It states:There are complex reasons why such housing is empty including the physical condition of properties; isolation of housing from transport, leisure and shopping facilities and employment; crime and the fear of crime and harassment".1107 It goes on to state:The factors which must be disregarded in deciding whether accommodation is adequate are precisely the factors that describe the inadequacy of the accommodation".
Without labouring the point—I recognise that the hour is late—I commend the two amendments to the Committee.
§ The Lord Bishop of Ripon
I thank the Minister for his earlier intervention in dealing with a discrete issue. I apologise to him for failing to respond to remarks made at the end of the debate on Amendment No. 156. He commented on the work that he and I did in the context of human rights. I thank him for his very careful consideration of our concern. My memory is that the concern had been expressed originally by the Conservative Party, but I was also able to express it on behalf of this Bench. That matter gave rise to considerable confusion among the Liberal Democrats at the time. We were extremely grateful for the concession, which was perhaps somewhat unexpected, in relation to that particular Bill. I am grateful to the Minister for his willingness to listen on so many occasions and assist this House in every possible way, and also for his kind remarks about myself.
§ The Earl of Sandwich
My noble friend Lord Alton needs absolutely no support from me. Therefore I follow the example of the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, and sit down, having said that the reasons given by the Minister when we went to see him appeared to be rather technical. I hope that he will be able to expand on those reasons, particularly in view of what I am sure will be his general sympathy for the observations that have been made.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
I dealt with Amendment No. 166 in an earlier intervention. Therefore, in this debate we are concerned with Amendments Nos. 160, 161, 164, 164A and 165. I respect the concern expressed for the welfare of children in Amendment No. 160. There is no inherent reason why shared accommodation should not be adequate to meet an asylum seeker's living needs, bearing in mind that his stay in this country as an asylum seeker will be for a relatively limited period when we have new support arrangements in place and faster asylum decisions are delivered. Sharing is not the same as overcrowding. Shared facilities may be acceptable, for example where they are shared by only two or three adults. That is by no means uncommon in houses in multiple occupation in the country generally.
I agree that as for families we may need to consider different criteria in respect of such matters as access to bathroom and kitchen facilities. I confirm that the Government would not regard arrangements that prejudiced the health and welfare of a child as adequate for the purposes of Clause 85. To respond to one point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in my view first-floor accommodation without a lift is not adequate for a person in a wheelchair.
1108 We have not formulated the details of the scheme by which we shall assess people for destitution and then provide the appropriate support. I assure the Committee that we are alive to the questions that have been raised relating to regulations to be made under Clause 85(8). I do not believe that we need to reflect that by way of amendment to the primary legislation. I hope that I am being helpful in acknowledging that within the secondary legislation we may well wish to reflect the need for the welfare of families to be properly taken into account in making judgments about accommodation.
I hope that I have dealt with the spirit of the concerns about "suitable" raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. One of the problems is that, as he knows better than I, in the context of housing legislation there is a mass of judicial adjudication. We need to be careful not to confuse the two. Housing legislation is essentially concerned with people who are established in this country. Many of them have extensive possessions and settled lifestyles, and, therefore, their needs are different.
We want to provide asylum seekers with accommodation that is adequate for their needs: shelter and facilities for the proper preparation of food, sleeping and personal hygiene. But that accommodation must also reflect their circumstances. I do not believe that we need another definition that may be inappropriate for the reason that I mentioned. I undertake to consider carefully whether there is a need to use the regulations under Clause 87 to give a more precise meaning to the new concept of "adequate".
I turn to Amendment No. 164. I have already indicated our general approach. I doubt that we need to detail matters in primary legislation. Some of the points may well need to be covered in regulations to be made under Clause 87(1)(c); others will be a matter for the Secretary of State's scheme and the desk instructions that go with it. I undertake that we shall consult on the content of the regulations later this year. We shall also publish a revised version of the process manual which sets out the way in which an asylum seeker's case for support will be processed. We shall be asking asylum seekers whether they have any special needs at the time we consider the initial application. If there are special needs—such as physical disability; to take one illustration further—we should want to take those into account in deciding what sort of support to offer and in what location.
§ Lord Alton of Liverpool
I appreciate the tone of the Minister's reply on these points. Can the noble Lord give us any indication of when the regulations to which he refers might be published? Shall we have sight of even a draft version before Report stage?
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
I am not sure about the time-scale. I shall write to the noble Lord before we break for the Summer Recess, even if it is to say that my uncertainty remains the same and I cannot give more than an indication. However, I shall do the best that I can by next Thursday.
I said that we should be looking to considerations of safety and welfare; locations where there are others from the same ethnic background or with similar experiences; 1109 putting individuals where they will not be subject to racial harassment; and taking full account of the general need for decent, habitable accommodation.
The Home Office has surpassed itself. I now have the intelligence that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, wanted. We shall consult in October, and the regulations should be available in the new year (February). At the end of February, I know that the noble Lord will be asking me where they are, but that is the information I have.
It is important to reiterate what my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer and I have said on many occasions: children of asylum seekers will continue to enjoy the full protection of the Children Act in all essential respects, and their accommodation and essential living needs will be provided under the Part VI arrangements. In particular—I am going further than the point raised this evening—if there is a particular need to protect children—for example, if they are likely to be victims of abuse—I am happy to confirm that they will be able to continue to rely on the good offices of local authority social services departments.
On public health, those seeking asylum at port of entry would normally be subject to a health screening for infectious or similar diseases. We shall consider what other steps need to be taken in the cluster areas (as believe that I can call them) to maintain good public health given the influx of asylum seekers. We expect—it is the point of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia—that legal services suitable to the needs of asylum seekers will develop in the areas where we are relocating. That is part of the continuing discussions with the Lord. Chancellor's Department which my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer mentioned earlier.
I shall revert in more detail to this point on a later amendment, but touch on it now. A small number of asylum seekers require specialist services to address conditions which result from torture. I pay tribute to the very fine work of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. Where it is clear that someone needs specialised services which cannot be delivered other than through a body of that sort, and the location of that body does not fit in with our normal cluster arrangements, we shall consider the possibility of finding accommodation adjacent to those services. It is a limited number of cases, but that does not make the point any less important. I shall retain for the next amendment the further good news arising out of our conversations so that we can all go to bed content, if not happy.
We have to look to landlords who can provide quality accommodation on a suitable basis and who will be willing and able to rehouse those who have been granted asylum. I stress that we are talking from our experience. The Bosnian resettlements exercise about five years ago showed that if you put enough effort into it, and people are settled alongside others from a similar background, it can be effective.
Amendments Nos. 164A and 165 involve an extremely neat piece of drafting. They turn the point of the Bill utterly on its head. For that reason, if for no other, I am unable to accept them. One of the problems at the moment is that some London authorities and their 1110 social services departments just cannot cope. In some London boroughs, half of the temporary accommodation that the boroughs use is now occupied by asylum seekers. That is a great difficulty and we should not close our minds to it.
Other parts of the United Kingdom have a surplus of spare housing. I take the point made by the noble Lord. Lord Alton of Liverpool, that some of it is not good, but some of it is perfectly suitable. In fact, there were more than 75,000 vacancies in local authority housing outside the London area.
We want to try to house people from the same background in the same areas wherever possible and we shall do our best to do so. At the risk of being rebuked for being Mr Scrooge yet again, I may say that the homelessness legislation, which is the nearest parallel in this context, does not envisage any choice of accommodation for the person being assisted. Most asylum seekers being accommodated at the moment by virtue of judicial intervention—as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said—under the National Assistance Act 1948 are not given any choice about location of accommodation. If we succeed in our aim of having a relatively short period of accommodation, anyone who is granted leave to remain in this country will have the ability to make whatever arrangements they wish.
I think that I have covered most of the questions that have been raised. I hope that the Committee accepts that I have been reasonably helpful. I stress, as my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton said earlier, that we are having a meeting with interested parties tomorrow. We are willing to approach questions in an open-minded way as long as they are consistent with the general spirit of the Bill. I hope that I have demonstrated that with this clutch of amendments.
§ 11.30 p.m.
§ Lord Cope of Berkeley
I am grateful to the Minister for his reaction to Amendment No. 166 and for his pre-emptive strike. I remain puzzled by the fact that the Government, as the Minister reiterated, propose to ask the supported people what their special needs may be but will include a statutory ban on the Secretary of State taking any notice of any preference they might express about where they wish to live. That is an odd provision.
Amendment No. 160 was the main amendment in this group, and I have been reassured by what the Minister said and by the provisions of Clause 113(3) and (4), to which the Minister, had he wished to extend the debate, could also have referred.
§ The Earl of Sandwich
I wonder whether the Minister has said his last word on clusters. Has he responded to the concerns of the Medical Foundation and others about specialised medical and legal services?
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
Yes, at some length. Indeed, I said that I had one more point to make about the victims of torture. Otherwise, I think that I have dealt with the matter quite fully.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 85 agreed to.
§ Schedule 8 agreed to.
§ Clause 86[Ways in which support may be provided]:
§ [Amendment No. 161 not moved.]
§ Baroness Williams of Crosby moved Amendment No. 162:
Page 56, line 32, at end insert ("and obtaining specialist medical care and treatment for himself and his dependants (if any).
() Costs of travel to appointments with legal representatives acting for the supported person in his claim for asylum, and appointments for specialist medical care and treatment for himself and his dependants, where such services are not available locally, shall be paid under section 85.").
§ The noble Baroness said: I note that the lights are slowly going out on us, so I shall make my remarks reasonably short before they disappear completely. It seems an appropriate conclusion to the third day in Committee.
§ The Minister was extremely gracious in the way that he received my noble friend Lord Dholakia and myself to discuss, among other things, victims of torture. He listened carefully and sympathised with the concept that victims of torture are among those who are highly likely to be genuine refugees. Indeed, some of those who have undergone torture have done so for the highest possible motives. Only tonight, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, introduced my noble friend to a victim of torture who happened to be a British citizen. He had been tortured in his efforts to try to support the refugees on the borders of Burma and Thailand. Therefore, being a victim of torture is not exclusively the characteristic of those seeking asylum in this country, but sometimes has pertained to British citizens fighting for something in which they profoundly believe.
§ On 26th April in another place, the Minister of State told the special committee of the House of Commons that he recognised that victims of torture were a particular group who deserved to be addressed sensitively. He also went on to say clearly that the present provision for victims of torture was inadequate and that we have not sufficient capacity in place to deliver for victims of torture. He made it plain that he recognised that in many parts of the country no adequate provision was available.
§ The reason why in Amendment No. 162 we have pressed for there to be special treatment for victims of torture over and above the provision for special treatment already made in the Bill is precisely because those facilities are not available in many parts of the country. The Minister has implied that special consideration will therefore be given to the dispersal of such asylum seekers. I am most grateful for that and hope that he will have more to say in his response to this last group of amendments.
§ I wish strongly to underline that, while the British Medical Association has responded generously in attempting to draw up lists of medical practitioners willing to meet victims who claim to be tortured and to see them rapidly, busy doctors will not be free to travel 1112 all over the country and will not be able to hold such sessions a long way away from their own centres. Therefore, I shall be grateful to hear more from the Minister about the provisions he intends to make in order to ensure that these particular asylum seekers are given the proper opportunity professionally to establish their claims to have been tortured.
§ In that context, I hope that the Minister will bear in mind Amendment No. 169. One of the aspects of the Bill which troubles me is that Clause 88(3)(b) implies that provision made for asylum seekers by, for example, voluntary organisations and others may be taken into account in considering their needs. In the case of that marvellous body, the Medical Foundation for the Victims of Torture, the Minister will be aware that the expenses it bears in order to assist asylum seekers claiming torture to have adequate tests made of their claims amounted in the past year to some £22,000. It expects that in the next year the amount will be about £100 each working day. Most of us are aware that every week or two we receive innumerable requests for charitable assistance to voluntary organisations; to the Refugee Council, the Medical Foundation and many other bodies involved in the work. It may be that one should not look to them to provide the elements which are necessary to establish a claim.
§ In Amendment No. 169, we specifically mention the faith communities as not being included within the provisions expected by the Bill to add up to additional assets and support for asylum seekers. In that context, I, too, pay tribute to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon. He is not in his place but I expect that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark will pass on the remarks to him. We shall deeply miss his wisdom, example and enlightenment during many debates in this House. I hope and believe that he will pass on the torch to the young Bishop, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, to whose presence on these occasions we shall look forward.
§ I wish to make only a passing remark about Amendment No. 167, to which I suspect others may wish to speak in this group. The amendment affects Clause 87(6) of the Bill on page 57. That rather troubles me because it indicates that for the purposes of subsection (5)—namely, the power which deals with essential living needs—as I read the Bill, any additional support for exceptional circumstances given under Clause 86(1)(c) would simply be set off against the provision of essential living needs.
§ While I recognise that the Minister has graciously agreed to some increase in the amount provided for essential living needs, it troubles us that if the provision is simply to be reduced to exceptional needs, in the case of victims of torture we should not be a great deal further forward. I thank the Minister for the clues which he has provided, but we also express our concerns about some aspects of the Bill, in particular, the tension between adopting the cluster method of dealing with refugees and the special problems referred to by his colleague in another place with regard to the provision for victims of torture.1113
§ That is the group of all asylum seekers about which we feel most concerned, indeed, even anguished. They are the people who have sometimes fought for the very things in which we believe at a terrible price to their health and which often involve great risks for their families.
§ Lord Avebury
My amendment deals with a completely different point to that raised by my noble friend. The only common feature of the amendments is that they are both attached to Clause 86. I should like to preface my remarks with a comment on subsection (1)(b) of Clause 86. The Minister will observe that the Bill states:Support may be provided under Section 85—by providing what appears to the Secretary of State to be essential living needs of the supported person".As a matter of English construction, If do not believe that the Secretary of State can provide for the living needs of a person. He can provide resources to meet the living needs of a person. The wording of that subsection needs to be considered. I should perhaps have tabled an amendment to that effect, but it came to my notice in the course of considering where to put my own amendment, which deals with the question of vouchers.
The amendment attempts to address the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, when moving his amendment a few minutes ago. He emphasised that the use of the vouchers causes a stigma to be attached to the recipient; that he may be subject to racist harassment or abuse as the result of being picked out as different from the rest of the people in the supermarket. My amendment suggests that vouchers should be made transferable to address that problem. I must say as a preface that it is difficult to draft an amendment of this kind when we do not have the voucher scheme before us. We are working blind, as it were. It would certainly have been, and still would be, useful if the Minister could table the regulations which contain the scheme for the vouchers before Report stage so that we can more easily see where such a provision should go.
My suggestion is that the vouchers should be made transferable so that the asylum seeker himself or herself does not need to go into Tesco's or Sainsbury's, as the case may be, to cash them. He can give them to someone else; that person can do the shopping for him; and therefore he does not need to be singled out in front of the whole crowd of shoppers as a person who is distinct from the settled population.
A provision of this kind is essential because some of the recipients may not be able to get to a supermarket. They may be disabled; they may be ill; they may be bedridden, and if they cannot pass the vouchers on to another person, it is difficult to imagine how they will provide for their essential needs.
A situation can be imagined where a number of asylum seekers live together. In response to the previous amendment, the Minister said that it was by no means inadequate for people to live in shared accommodation. If two or more families live in shared accommodation, it would be natural for them to share the burden of the 1114 weekly shop by transferring all the vouchers to one person to do the shopping for everyone in the shared accommodation.
I do not need to say much more about the amendment as it is such a common sense provision that I am sure that the Minister will have no difficulty in accepting it.
§ 11.45 p.m.
§ Lord Alton of Liverpool
I speak to the amendments standing in my name on the Marshalled List: Amendments Nos. 167, 168 and 169 which have been grouped in what the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has rightly described as a disparate group of amendments. In many ways, they have little in common with each other apart from the fact that they fall within the same part of the Bill. It would have been better if they had been separated. However, I want to refer to one or two remarks already made and to add some comments about Amendment No. 167.
The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, when speaking to Amendment No. 169, reminded me why 16 or 17 years ago I gave up several weeks of my life happily campaigning for her in the Crosby area. It has been a pleasure to listen to her putting the case on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers. Although we sit on different Benches, I concur with everything that she has said throughout our proceedings on the Bill. On Amendment No. 169, she was right to raise the issue of the role of voluntary organisations, charities, churches and religious groups to which I referred earlier. Those arguments still stand, without me having to repeat them.
The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on Amendment No. 163, referred to an earlier debate initiated by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon when several noble Lords mentioned the question of vouchers. I support his comments and refer to some remarks of Oona King, a Member of another place, who gave a good example of how vouchers will reduce purchasing power, and therefore why the value of a package will be worth less. In Commons Hansard of 16th June at cols. 446–447 she referred to the fact that in Sainsburys in Whitechapel, where vouchers are accepted, a pair of new children's socks cost £1.50 while on Whitechapel market, 20 yards away, a pair of children's socks cost only 40p. The same is true of food. Of course, change will not be given for vouchers. I can imagine people becoming involved in arguments in the supermarket as they try, with poor comprehension of English, to sort out all the issues that will arise at the supermarket counter when trying to deal with the vouchers.
For the reasons that I described earlier, this is an ill-thought-out scheme and no doubt one which in future legislation we shall have to rescind. It would be better if we addressed the matter properly now, rather than incorporating it into legislation only to have to revisit it, as we have done with some of the misplaced ideas that have emerged in the previous two pieces of legislation dealing with such issues.
I now turn to the substantive amendment standing in my name. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, for his support, to the noble Lord. Lord Clinton-Davis, and to the right reverend Prelate the 1115 Bishop of Southwark, who have also put their names to the amendment. Although many of us dislike the voucher system, I recognise that at the moment that is the policy with which the Government are working. Amendment No. 167 tries, in the spirit of that policy, to address the Government's contention with regard to the value of the package that they have laid out in the terms of the Bill. That was a point that my noble friend Lord Sandwich, along with Mr. Michael Kaye of the Refugee Council, took to the Minister and his officials in the helpful meeting that we had with him last week.
There are four reasons the Government advance against accepting the arguments contained in the amendment. Let me try and deal with them quickly. The first is that the scheme is a short-term basic safety net. Asylum seekers' entitlement to income support has already been reduced to 90 per cent on the basis that they are only supposed to be waiting a short period of time for their decisions. But asylum seekers should not have to survive on less because they are only here on a temporary basis. That is not a plausible argument. Income support is only intended to meet an individual's basic needs, and those needs must be met regardless of whether it is for a period of two months or two years.
Secondly, the argument is put forward that the package is not intended to cover utility costs. But a family of four in receipt of income support, including family premium, would pay 8.8 per cent of their benefit on utility costs. That is calculated from standard, flat-rate fuel deductions for a family at £12.35 which are used when individual fuel costs are not easily identifiable. That calculation was confirmed by the Official Report, Commons, 10/6/99; col. 455, when it was said that it would be no more than 10 per cent. So the payment of utility costs by the accommodation provider will increase to the value of the package by approximately 9 per cent of the asylum seeker's income support.
The third argument is that asylum seekers will not need to purchase replacement items. That assertion also needs to be challenged. Asylum seekers will certainly have to replace items within a six-month period. It is not credible to argue that they will arrive in Britain with clothes and possessions which will last them for six months. Furthermore, when fleeing their homes asylum seekers will have left behind many basic items which they will have to purchase again once they reach the United Kingdom. They may also arrive here without appropriate items, such as the appropriate clothes for the British climate. That was recognised by Mr O'Brien in another place when he accepted that,Asylum seekers often arrive with few or no possessions and little concept of how they will cope in this country".Those remarks were made in the special standing committee on 4th May.
The fourth and final point, dealing with some of the arguments put to us during our meeting at the Home Office, was that basic living utensils would be supplied by the accommodation provider and that must be seen to be part of the package. But currently the vast majority of private rented accommodation is furnished and many also provide basic utensils. However, British people 1116 living in furnished accommodation do not have their income support reduced as a consequence. To suggest, therefore, that asylum seekers should have a lower level of support because accommodation is furnished is not acceptable. The Government said that accommodation would include kettles, bed linen, light bulbs and other items which are not normally provided in housing. That is true. But the value that that would add to the package would be more than offset by the fact that the voucher system will effectively prohibit asylum seekers from getting the best value for money, as described by Oona King in another place. They will not be able to buy cheap food and clothing in markets or discount stores, which is where most people on low incomes do their shopping. Furthermore, even if the vouchers are issued in small denominations of 50p or 25p, asylum seekers will not be able to obtain change and will therefore lose some of the package. That is another reason for looking again at the overall value of the package that the Bill outlines.
No allowance has been made for the fact that many asylum seekers have to purchase essential items on arrival, replace items during the six months that they are here or may be in poor health when they reach the United Kingdom. That was certainly the case with many of the Kosovars who arrived here recently.
Based on that assessment the package of support offered is approximately 10 per cent short of the 90 per cent of income support, and therefore 20 per cent below what is normally considered to be the poverty line. After all, we are not talking of vast sums of money. None of us would wish to try to survive and eke out subsistence on the sums of money that we are dealing with. Asylum seekers will clearly be forced to try to survive well below the breadline and that will lead to more begging, which is an issue raised during our debates tonight. It will lead to illegal working, petty crime and the negative impact on race and community relations which will follow in its wake. Those are the consequences. We should go into this situation with our eyes wide open. Unless we are as generous as we can afford to be—to use the language that has been used consistently throughout this debate—those will be the social consequences. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, was right when he warned us earlier on of the consequences of social breakdown if we deliberately create those circumstances.
The Government state that the value of the package should be 90 per cent of income support. Therefore, Amendment No. 167, which increases the package of vouchers and cash to 80 per cent, is consistent with their policy and I therefore commend this amendment to the Committee.
§ Lord Cope of Berkeley
As the Committee will have noticed, I have added my name to Amendment No. 167. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about it particularly in view of what he trailed a little earlier on this point and on assistance where children are involved. He also led us to believe that he has a few more favourable things to say. We look forward to that.
1117 I did not take part at the appropriate place in earlier debates so perhaps I may use this moment to associate this Bench with the compliments that were paid to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and express our regret at his pending departure from our debates. However, I note in passing that, although he will be retired from this House, he will still be able to use some of its facilities. We look forward to seeing him from time to time on that basis at any rate.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
Amendment No. 162 give me the opportunity to clarify our position. I repeat that asylum seekers and dependants will be entitled to the full range of medical and dental services which the general public receive. If they are destitute they can get the appropriate form entitling them to free prescriptions, free spectacles, free dental treatment and free travel to hospitals in the same way as anyone else on income support
Generally, the provision of medical services is good across the whole country. We would expect that medical facilities in the cluster areas will be, with very few exceptions, fully equal to meeting the need for specialist medical treatment. That would be under normal National Health Service arrangements. We would not expect there to be a need for the asylum seeker to receive additional assistance in getting such treatment.
As I said earlier, where there is a clear case for special medical treatment which is only available in a limited number of locations, we shall consider that in deciding on location.
I can deal with legal representation quite briefly because I believe my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer made the position plain in response to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, on a number of occasions. I repeat what my noble and learned friend said. If the power is required to pay for travel expenses to arrange an interview with a legal representative, that is to be found already in Clause 86(1)(c).
The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, had a most helpful discussion a few days ago. I said that I would think carefully about what was urged on me. It seemed to me to be well founded. I hope that the noble Baroness will be as pleased as the rest of the Committee to hear that, in circumstances where a general practitioner concludes that an asylum seeker has been the victim of torture and local medical services do not fully deal with the particular nature of the case, so access to the specialised services provided by the medical foundation would be in the patient's best interests, we would arrange to pay the costs of travel by the asylum seeker to appointments with representatives of the medical foundation. I believe that is really what the noble Baroness and the noble Lord wanted. I believe that that is fair reflection of their concerns. I hope that they find that helpful.
Amendment No. 163 concerns matters arising from the anxieties of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. He and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, are quite right. We have come to a policy conclusion which is different from theirs. We have decided on a part-voucher system. The 1118 noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked in particular about vouchers and when we might have more detail. I take his point. We shall be looking to issue a consultation paper in October on the regulations to be made under these powers. The fine tuning of the exact form of the scheme will be later because it depends on the outcome of the contract to be awarded.
The noble Lord also raised the question of "essential living needs" under Clause 86(1)(b). The provision is drafted in that way because it is intended to encompass the idea of support in kind—food, pots and pans and utilities— as well as cash or vouchers. I take note of the noble Lord's concerns about user-specific vouchers. The benefit of them is quite clear: they provide asylum seekers with security of ownership. If they can only be redeemed by the asylum seeker to whom they are issued, they are of no value to a thief; indeed, they are useless. Similarly, they are of no value if someone attempts to bully or, as it were, blackmail the asylum seeker to sell the voucher in return for cash at a discount. Therefore, a new, discounted, black market is prevented. Those are important considerations.
However, I take the noble Lord's point that there may be occasions when, for example, the principal recipient is ill and where it may perhaps be necessary for another member of the family to use the vouchers. In specific response to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, I can tell the Committee that we are looking now at a means of introducing desirable flexibility into the scheme. I do not think that that will go as far as the noble Lord wants, but at least we will be looking for a degree of flexibility. Therefore, in exceptional circumstances, we could perhaps have a proviso that vouchers could be redeemed by a nominated person on the asylum seeker's behalf.
I turn now to Amendment No. 167—
§ The Lord Bishop of Southwark
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but as I have attached my name to this amendment perhaps I may have the opportunity to say a few brief words. As I mentioned earlier, I believe that much of the Government's proposal assumes that there will be co-operation from the voluntary sector. As we have drop-in centres for refugees in half of the London boroughs at present, we have a certain experience to feed in the debate on this amendment.
I should like to say a few words about the argument that the level of support for asylum seekers needs to be less because they will not need to replace items during the limited time in which they will be covered by these support provisions. We had the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury for three weeks last year. During that time, I had to return home twice in order to provide more sweaters and coats for Bishops and their wives from Africa, India and other parts of the world who were battling with the rigours of an English summer.
Our drop-in centres for refugees are constantly supplying clothing and household items all the year round. If noble Lords wish to see a voucher system working, we could perhaps visit a drop-in centre such as the one in Croydon. Each person who goes there is 1119 supplied with a colour-coded ticket, or several such tickets. One ticket is for food, one is for household utensils and one is for clothing. If the volunteers running that centre were asked whether or not asylum seekers, especially those with children, need to return for further items within a six-month period, they would witness to the fact that such people in a strange land, with a variable climate, need to return constantly for appropriate items of clothing and support.
In an earlier intervention, I asked the noble and learned Lord whether the voluntary sector had been consulted about being involved in hard cases of support and whether it had given its consent. The Minister answered "yes" to the first part of the question but I did not hear him say "yes" to the second part.
I believe that the voluntary sector is willing and wants to play its part in helping to bridge the gap between the support package on offer and the provisions that we feel are necessary for a civilised society. It is generally felt by those who are most closely involved with helping asylum seekers that the gap that is being created is just too wide.
Amendment No. 167 would in no way conflict with the Government's stated aims and I believe that it would make the support gap a little more manageable. It would enable those of us who are involved in the voluntary sector better to enter into the partnership which the Government desire.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
I believe that I have dealt with the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on vouchers.
I turn to Amendment No. 167. I shall try not to repeat what I said earlier. We are looking to provide a package of support that is appropriate to the needs of particular people. As I said, most asylum seekers have few possessions and limited knowledge of the requirements of daily life in this country. However, they will be in need of support for a few months only. We are trying to provide a focused package that addresses particular needs.
As I said earlier, for some single people that will comprise full board and lodging in a hostel with a cash allowance. In other cases, it will comprise fully equipped self-catering accommodation. We recognise that in the overwhelming majority of cases these people will not have brought with them domestic equipment such as bedding and pots and pans which we provide—we also provide gas, water and electricity—partly because they will be in the accommodation for a relatively short time and partly because they will not be familiar with the minutiae of arrangements in this country.
Single adults in receipt of income support currently receive about £45 a week. Under our support proposals, the intention is that they will receive spending power in vouchers and cash of about £35 a week. We are looking to be more flexible as regards the number and nature of retail outlets—to take up a specific point made by the right reverend Prelate—which are willing to accept vouchers. As I say, income support for a single adult is 1120 about £45 a week. We believe that with spending power in vouchers and cash of about £35 a week, it is not unreasonable to say that the difference of £10 is accounted for by utilities and the provision of domestic equipment which a person in receipt of social security benefits would normally need to provide and pay for himself.
I repeat what I said earlier this evening: we have listened carefully to the concerns about children. I said quite plainly earlier tonight that we have now indicated that children under the age of 18 will have a support level set at a level equivalent to income support personal allowances. We propose that the provision for adults should remain unchanged for the reasons I set out earlier; namely, the in-kind provisions.
Amendment No. 167 seeks to increase the value of the new support arrangements to at least 80 per cent of income support levels for adults, and to 100 per cent for children. I shall say no more about children. As regards adults, the provision is designed to provide a short-term safety net, whereas income support is designed to provide support on a long-term basis with all the costs that that implies. Some Members of the Committee take a contrary view, but having looked at all the arguments I think that that is a perfectly legitimate conclusion. A short-term safety net regime is different, and ought to be different, from a long-term basis of support. One has to bear in mind that we are developing a better position than exists at the moment as we shall provide a degree of advice and assistance provided by voluntary sector bodies working in the "cluster" areas. The asylum seeker will be relieved of the responsibility, which must be quite considerable in a strange land, of finding his own accommodation.
We want to work in close partnership with voluntary associations. Normally the criticism that I have to meet on these occasions suggests that we do not work closely enough with the voluntary sector or provide it with sufficient grants. Here I am wanting to work more closely with it and am talking about government funding for it—and the reception that I receive is not perhaps entirely overwhelming.
Amendment No. 168 seeks to delete subsection (6) of Clause 87 which would prevent support given under Clause 86(1)(c) from being taken into account in comparing support given under Part VI with income support levels. Clause 86(1)(c) is a supplement by allowing support to be provided for specific costs which an asylum seeker may incur in connection with his claim for asylum, such as paying for postage stamps, telephone calls and possibly travelling. We do not envisage a separate allowance for such expenses but we wish to retain the option to pay travelling costs in individual cases to enable asylum seekers to attend interviews at IND. We are still considering the basis on which to fix the level at which support is to be given.
We should look at all the heads of assistance that we give to an asylum seeker and we should consider the possibility of taking into account Clause 86(1)(c) support. By virtue of subsection (6) of Clause 87, such expenses are to be taken into account when comparing expenditure on essential living needs with income support levels, as is permitted by subsection (5).
1121 I shall be as brief as I can because I realise that the hour is now very late. Amendment No. 169 would prevent the Secretary of State taking account of support available from faith groups in the voluntary sector. I have already said a word or two about that. We are looking to continue and build up the excellent work in this field, to which I pay ready tribute. We do not expect charities to deplete their resources assisting asylum seekers. However, where there is assistance and expertise it is sensible to take them into account.
There are many specialist groups set up precisely to assist the refugee community. They attract charitable donations for that specific purpose. It would be wrong to ignore what asylum seekers may receive from these sources. It is not necessary for an asylum seeker to be able to reject support offered by a third party and then look to the Home Office instead. We will not treat a charitable source as though it was available in its totality to every asylum seeker. We shall take it into account, as is proper, but it will be simply one factor among many; it will not be a determinative factor.
There is no intention of assuming or presuming that asylum seekers can avail themselves of particular sources of assistance where this could be in doubt. The drafting is quite clear; it is support which is or might reasonably be expected to be available. If there is a dispute, the asylum seeker can put his point of view to the asylum support directorate or appeal to an asylum support adjudicator where he has been refused support.
I see a developing, continuing partnership between the Home Office and the voluntary sector in providing support. We respect and value the charitable sector—not least because it brings a degree of independence and a degree perhaps of wider responsiveness than those who are engaged on a daily professional basis. So the daily professional basis has its virtues and value, as does the assistance we get—which we regard as complementary assistance—and with which we hope to work.
§ Lord Alton of Liverpool
Perhaps the Minister will deal a little further with his final point about the independence of the charities. One of the points made very powerfully to us last week by the groups which came here is that they feel that if they were increasingly dependent on income from the Home Office—and I understand that this is a rehearsal of a point that is often made to the Minister—and given that often they have an advocacy role on behalf of asylum seekers and refugees, that independence may be compromised and their ability to speak on behalf of these vulnerable groups of people may be neutered if they are effectively co-opted as an arm of the state to administer services.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
I take that point. I think that the independence of the voluntary sector is, and remains, intact. I do not think that it is impossible. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and I recently spent a very interesting half day, if not more, at NACRO headquarters. It is my present belief that the Home Office provides some funding to NACRO. I never detected in my dealings with it any lack of independent professionalism. Indeed, quite the opposite was the case. 1122 I single out that organisation merely as an illustration Its benefit is that, first, it knows what it is talking about: and secondly, despite the fact that it receives some funding from the Government, it still feels it right—and I agree with that—to criticise us when we have different views. That has been the experience of the past few years; NACRO is not alone in that respect.
§ 12.15 a.m.
§ Baroness Williams of Crosby
It being the witching hour, the Minister has suddenly turned part of the pumpkin into a fairy coach. It would be ungracious not to recognise that final miraculous moment of this long Committee stage. We thank him very much. There is a quotation from Max Weber that politics is the boring of hard boards. That seems to be an excellent description of the Committee stage of this Bill. We are most grateful to the Ministers for sticking it out and for showing such unending patience during what must have been a very hard day for them, and for the concessions that they have made, particularly with regard to victims of torture. They listened closely to what the Committee had to say. We are grateful and we should like to thank them. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 163 not moved.]
§ Clause 86 agreed to.
§ Clause 87 [Supplemental]:
§ [Amendments Nos. 164 to 168 not moved.]
§ Clause 87 agreed to.
§ Clause 88 [Secretary of State's scheme]:
§ [Amendment No. 169 not moved.]
§ Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 169A:
§ Page 58, leave out line 35.
§ The noble Earl said: To have to move the final amendment of the night is to draw the short straw. The only appropriate response to the short straw is the short speech. I shall try to oblige.
§ The words that I seek to delete appear in Clause 88(7) dealing with regulations relating to applications for support. The subsection gives a power for the regulations to prescribe the circumstances in which an application may not be entertained—in fact, to cut people out of the claim to support with no indication as to how those powers will be used, no limit on the vires. It seems to me a rather draconian power, to be exercised by regulations, which are very difficult to challenge in this place. I beg to move.
§ Lord Falconer of Thoroton
The noble Earl's amendment seeks to probe the circumstances in which regulations will be made that permit the body not to entertain an application. Perhaps I may give some examples. One example is where a person has made a previous application, it has been rejected by the asylum support directorate, and possibly by the support adjudicator, and there has been no material change in the applicant's circumstances. Processing an application, even when it is without merit, takes time. All the details have to be gone into. Where there is no reason for 1123 collecting that information and going through it again, the asylum support directorate should not be required to go through it. One does occasionally receive reports of someone who vexatiously continues to reapply for some benefit in the hope of succeeding not on the basis of the merits of his case, but simply on the basis of wearing down the awarding body.
In making the regulations governing the support scheme, we may also want to rely on this power in stipulating that applications from people who are plainly not eligible for support should not be entertained; for example, because the applicant is not an asylum seeker.
In either of the instances that I have given, it would be open to the applicant to demonstrate that he is entitled to make an application, maintaining, for example, either that there has been a material change in circumstances, or that he is a genuine asylum seeker. If he made out that case, the application would have to be entertained. But it is perfectly sensible in a body of rules such as this that there are certain circumstances where a person should not be allowed to make either an application or another application. If he is allowed to do so, the system becomes clogged and those people who should be allowed to make applications will have to wait longer than they otherwise should.
§ Earl Russell
The noble and learned Lord's answers, like the fortunes of the fictional Bishop of Ipswich, could have been worse. I shall not argue with any of the circumstances that he took up, but he would be a little 1124 optimistic to assume that the amendment is necessarily probing. I have considerable misgivings about the conferring of vires quite as sweeping as those entertained here. But, at this time of night, the amendment is probing. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw it.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 88 agreed to.
§ Lord Cope of Berkeley had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 170:
§ After Clause 88, insert the following new clause—