HL Deb 21 July 1999 vol 604 cc1026-46

(" . It shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to make arrangements with a view to ensuring that officials of hi;; department and all other providers of assistance to asylum seekers and their dependants operate the provisions of this Part of this Act and exercise their functions in such a way as shall best promote the welfare of asylum seekers and their dependants, if any, who requite assistance under this Part of this Act.").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I speak also to Amendment No. 153.

We turn now to Part VI of the Bill and the support to be made available to asylum seekers. Before doing so, it is worth reiterating the concerns that I and many other Members of this Chamber raised at Second Reading about the impracticality, the bureaucratic nature, and undesirability of the voucher system. We expressed anxieties about the inevitable creation of destitution, pitifully meagre levels of support, dispersal of vulnerable families, the forced co-option of church and voluntary organisations as arms of the state with requirements to fulfil tasks which are not and never have been hitherto their responsibility, and the duty that, as legislators, we have towards children who are caught up in these nightmare situations.

Amendments Nos. 152 and 153 go to the heart of those issues in setting out the duty of the Secretary of State towards asylum seekers. Amendment No. 153 deals with his specific duty towards children.

At Second Reading, the Minister graciously promised anyone who was a Member of this House or of representative organisations dealing with issues concerning asylum seekers that he would make himself available to discuss their concerns. My noble friend, Lord Sandwich, and I took him at his word, and he kindly made time available to us last week. We were accompanied by the indefatigable Mr Mike Kaye from the Refugee Council who has done so much during the proceedings of the Bill to keep the Committee alerted to the practical effects of many of the clauses we have been discussing.

Following that meeting, notwithstanding 'flu—his extraordinary power of recovery this week has been commented upon—the Minister found time to reply to some of those questions and to set out his reasons for questioning the desirability of placing a duty in the Bill. He has placed a copy of the full response in your Lordships' House. Perhaps I may be permitted to refer to the second paragraph of that letter. The Minister says: You asked why we had framed the provisions on the support for asylum seekers as a power rather than a duty. We feel that a power gives us rather more flexibility in the manner in which we set up the support arrangements. But this does not in any way lessen our commitment to ensuring that proper support arrangements for asylum seekers are developed. We have made clear commitments on our plans both in parliament and elsewhere. Indeed, it is inconceivable that with all the provisions we are building into this Bill, we would not be planning to establish proper support arrangements. While I understand your concern about the nature of the Government's commitment, I doubt that changing a power into a duty would significantly affect this. What you and others will quite properly want to look at is the way in which the support is delivered and the practical safeguards for asylum seekers within this".

The argument, therefore, revolves around whether it is desirable to give Ministers and the Home Office the flexibility to which the Minister refers in that response, or whether we should instead place a proper duty on the Minister. That is what Amendment No. 152 seeks to do.

It is not that anyone doubts the sincerity of this Minister of State, nor indeed the Home Secretary, Mr Jack Straw. But they will not always be in office. It is, therefore, important to place on the face of the Bill more than goodwill and more than just an expectation that because they are benign others in the future may not be malign in their interpretation of the legislation. Therefore duties do count. We place duties on Secretaries of State in other legislation. I know that the Minister is not keen to use legislation as a system of semaphore. Nevertheless, it sends signals that if Ministers do not accept a duty in this regard, it will be assumed that they are trying to avoid their commitments to the most vulnerable in our midst.

The purpose of Amendment No. 152 is to impose a duty on the Secretary of State to operate the system to the benefit of its recipients. The wording of the amendment derives from the former government's legislation underlying the supplementary benefits legislation which was in force from 1980 until 1988. The aim is to ensure that, notwithstanding the temporary nature of the support on offer and the fluctuating numbers of recipients and other practical difficulties likely to be encountered, those who operate the scheme do not lose sight of the fact that they have been entrusted with the welfare of vulnerable human beings.

In answer to the amendment that was tabled in the Special Standing Committee in the other place—on its 24th sitting on 18th May, columns 1588 and 1599—the Minister, Mr Mike O'Brien, stated that it was unacceptable because it did not make reference to the interests of the taxpayer and provide for them to be weighed in the balance. I shall return to that point. But when I examined further the Minister's comments, I was concerned by two statements. On the then Clause 76, he said: If we allow things to remain the way they are, all sorts of legal challenges may be mounted under the Children Act…to undermine the way in which the Asylum Support Directorate provides accommodation in particular areas, offers financial support and operates the dispersal policy".

On the then Clause 99, he said: Everything would be subject to judicial review. The state would have to be far more careful about decisions to offer accommodation and take much greater care in its analysis of circumstances".

The Committee will understand that comments such as those further make the case for reminding the support directorate, which it is intended will have responsibility for people who have been tortured, for children and for others who have fled persecution, that it has a duty and a responsibility to those people, all of whom are reliant upon it and a substantial proportion of whom will receive recognition as refugees or grants of exceptional leave to remain and hence the opportunity to remain in and contribute to this country.

The new clause makes reference to provision in Part VI and to the functions of the officials concerned, and thus it recognises that a duty exists within the statutory framework of the obligations on a government department to spend money wisely. Therefore the Minister's earlier comment about getting value for money does not apply. There is always a duty on the Government to obtain value for money, but refugees should not simply be viewed through the prism of expenditure. Treasury interests must be held in tension with our duty to care for the vulnerable.

The purpose of Amendment No. 153 is to require the Secretary of State to have regard to the standards of the general law in respect of children. The wording of this amendment derives from Section 1 (1) of the Children Act 1989. The onus should surely be on anyone who wishes to assert that the welfare of the children of asylum seekers merits a lower standard of consideration to justify that position. The onus therefore is not on those of us who support this amendment but on the Government to say why the safeguards that have always been in place have been removed. The status of the child should not be inferior because he or she is a refugee.

The world can be a hard and bitter place for a child. We have only to consider the situation of children in countries such as Colombia or the Philippines to know the truth of that. As I said on Second Reading, a few weeks ago I was privileged to be part of an Anglo-Israel Association visit to Jerusalem. While we were there, we visited Yad Vashem. That memorial contains a special sanctuary to the memory of the 1.5 million Jewish children who died during the Second World War which brings home to one the need in every generation to renew our sense of duty and commitment. Recorded at Yad Vashem is the story of how the British people through the Government of the day turned back a boat carrying children which was fleeing from Vichy France. As a consequence of our actions, the children were eventually deported to Auschwitz. In every generation, we have a duty to safeguard the welfare of children above all other interests.

In the past 10 years we have seen a fascinating shift in perceptions about rights and duties, not least because of the work of men such as David Selbourne in his excellent book The Principle of Duty. That much-needed shift should also be recognised in the sense of duty and responsibility that governments must have as we try to displace some of the flaccid language of rights.

Among the groups supporting Amendment No. 153 are some of the most respected organisations that deal with children's issues in this country. The Children's Society states: The Children's Consortium … supports this amendment which would place a duty on the Secretary of State to take the welfare of any child involved in asylum proceedings into active consideration when exercising his powers under Part VI of the Bill. The amendment would do much to assuage many of the Consortium's concerns in relation to part VI of the Bill, as it would ensure that the Asylum Support Directorate was obliged to actively consider and act in the best interests of children at all stages of its proceedings".

It continues: This amendment would bridge this gap between promoting children's welfare and preserving the integrity of the asylum support system, by ensuring that the Secretary of State has a duty to actively consider and safeguard children's welfare in providing support for families. As such, it would ensure that the Secretary of State has a duty to consider compassionate circumstances when determining support arrangements for children and families".

The amendment is also supported by the Medical Foundation, which helps the victims of torture. It states: The Medical Foundation considers that this amendment should in no way be regarded as controversial. It echoes the Children Act 1989, and the government has claimed that provision under the Support Directorate will place children in a position no less favourable than they would be under the Children Act".

If that is so, why can we not incorporate this as a duty in the legislation?

The Medical Foundation states that in its evidence to the Special Standing Committee it expressed its concern that the impact of the UK reservation to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child—which was criticised by the Committee on the Rights of the Child as apparently incompatible with the convention and which allows us to legislate on immigration without regard to the convention—could be extended to the detriment of asylum-seeking children by the inclusion of welfare matters within the province of the Home Office and of immigration control. The foundation states that it continues to call for the UK to remove the reservation which puts both children and this country's international reputation at risk.

UNICEF states: The United Kingdom ratified the Convention in 1991, simultaneously entering several reservations including one pertaining to nationality, immigration and asylum. In effect, the reservation has severely limited the operation of the Convention in several areas, with the effect of impeding the three theoretically inalienable guiding principles of the Convention: those of non-discrimination … the primacy of the best interests of the child"—

a point that the amendment tries to draw out— and the importance of the child's wishes in matters that concern him/her".

It continues: British law has in these ways had the effect of depriving many children of the fundamental rights set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, both directly through discriminatory or inappropriate legislation and indirectly through insufficient provision of protection for vulnerable children in difficult situations".

The opportunity exists in Amendments Nos. 152 and 153 to put that situation right and I commend them to the committee.

Lord Clinton-Davis

I have much sympathy especially with Amendment No. 153. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, makes a powerful case and I find it difficult to understand why the issue should not be the paramount consideration in the exercise of the Secretary of State's powers. The case is reinforced by several respectable organisations that deal with the rights of children.

I am not sure whether the provision in Amendment No. 152 should be a duty or a power. One must ask, what is the difference? I ask my noble friend what are the sanctions for an unreasonable failure to exercise a power on the part of the Secretary of State. Is there a major practical difference between the two consequences? Of course, there is a failure to exercise the duty, but, in practice, would a failure on the part of the Secretary of State to exercise a power amount to something similar? What rights would be conferred on the persons who would be prejudiced by that failure?

That is the major criterion here. Perhaps in practice we are not talking about two distinct issues. Perhaps the situation will be unnecessarily complex, but it is for my noble friend to answer that point.

In my view, the position in relation to Amendment No. 153 is different. The compelling arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, deserve careful consideration by the Committee and my noble friend.

6.30 p.m.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

I shall be brief in my support for Amendment No. 153, which relates to a duty to ensure the welfare of children. I should like to bring a particular instance to the attention of the Committee. When people see Kosovar refugees begging, many become annoyed and say, "They are receiving fair benefits, so why should they be begging?". However, on numerous occasions I have seen such people dragging tiny, barefooted children who can hardly walk. They are in dense traffic, stopping at cars and certainly putting the children at considerable risk. They do so not only for a couple of hours but for the full length of the day. I cannot: imagine that anything less than a duty on the part of those responsible would be acceptable.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

I am grateful for what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes. I, too, should like to turn to the argument advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. Perhaps we may go back into the history of the Home Office. The Minister and those associated with the Home Office will recall that at one time it was responsible for children's officers. They were an impressive part of the Home Office's responsibility at that time.

As a result of decisions made about the allocation of duties between that department and the Department of Health and Social Services, the children's officers were moved into the DHSS with a serious loss to the Home Office in terms of a balancing professional concern unconnected to services related to law and order. Many of the amendments are rightly concerned with how the asylum support directorate will carry out its duties and obligations, not least because for a generation that department has had no direct experience of running such a directorate. Many of us are concerned that the new directorate will not have the experience or awareness of how to deal with asylum seekers and refugees in the position in which they will find themselves as a result of the legislation.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Alton, I was concerned about the remarks made by the Secretary of State in another place. He was right and fair to say that the concerns of taxpayers must be borne in mind. It would also be fair to say that a good deal of Part VI is about that. But that is not the whole story. I was particularly concerned with the statement he made in the Special Standing Committee, which examined Clause 99. He stated: If this kind of provision was passed, the state would have to be far more careful about decisions to offer accommodation and take much greater care in its analysis of circumstances". I fully accept that phrase; it is a good argument for passing the amendment before us.

Amendment No. 152 balances the directorate's responsibilities in terms of administration and saving public money with a recognition that it also has a duty towards the welfare of asylum seekers. I understand that a power is enabling and that a duty is an obligation which cannot be left to discretion. It is a duty which must be carried out by the department in all circumstances. That is what we are seeking: that the asylum directorate will balance the welfare of asylum seekers against the other considerations that it takes into account relating to administrative convenience and taxpayers' concerns.

With regard to Amendment No. 153, I want strongly to underline what the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said. In the White Paper, the Government stated that they wanted to ensure that, the needs of children are fully respected and their welfare and rights respected.". That is a useful and powerful commitment. Many of us believe that it could properly be borne on the face of the Bill and that is what Amendment No. 153 would do. I hope that the Government will give careful consideration to these two amendments, which set a framework within which the asylum directorate would be working. As a form of guidance, it would be useful to it in its work.

Finally, I strongly support what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, about the position of children today. One of the problems about our world is that increasingly children are used as weapons of war. The Minister will be familiar with the terrifyingly changed ratio on the loss of life of civilians and of soldiers in today's battles. We now know, for example, that in the Yemen children are regularly seriously mutilated as part of a political purpose.

In such a situation, we, as a civilised country, must put at the forefront our concern for the next generation. I believe that Amendment No. 153 would be in the best traditions of this country and would stand to the credit of the Government if they accepted it.

Lord Judd

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on tabling the amendment. It goes to the kernel of the legislation. In some ways, this is a Second Reading debate.

I am not a lawyer and in the detail of the Bill legal minds are most important. However, I chair the refugee sub-committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and I have spent most of my life working in humanitarian agencies. For those of us who are carrying out such tasks, the amendment is highly relevant. Perhaps I may underline why.

First, the noble Baroness made the point that there is a growing and deep concern among all of us in humanitarian agencies about the effect of conflict and repression on children. It leaves psychological scars for the rest of their lives. There is a need for counselling and psychological support, which do not exist. In that context and in the administration of this part of national policy, we should wholeheartedly fulfil our responsibilities by ensuring that the humanitarian dimensions of what we are trying to do are second to none and that our commitment to children is self-evident.

As regards Amendment No. 152—and as we discussed a great deal in the Council of Europe sub-committee—we must examine legislation in the context of the culture in which it is being applied. We all know that the number of refugees and asylum seekers with whom governments are grappling is out of all proportion to anything imagined in the immediate post-war period. We also know that there is abuse. There is no argument about that. We also know that there is a responsibility to the taxpayers. There is no argument about that. But we also know that everything that the political leadership of post-war Europe was about was the humanitarian responsibility for refugees and asylum seekers. That is why we introduced human rights provisions and legislation in this area.

Because of the preoccupations with the other elements to which I have referred, when a Bill such as this is being debated it is very important to reassert the primary commitment to genuine refugees and asylum seekers. We should be sending that message strongly as a message of support to those in the front line who are administering the policy. They should understand that that is what Parliament wants: to see the issue dealt with generously and openly, while the other points are taken into account. My fear, which is shared by my fellow members of that sub-committee of the Council of Europe, is that in one country after another the more negative aspects which I have described are becoming so preoccupying that the primary purpose is overlooked. That is why anything that my good and noble friend the Minister can say tonight to help to strengthen and reassure us all, and to set the tone for what is being done in the name of the Bill, will be tremendously important.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

As the noble Lord has just said, this debate has turned into something of a Second Reading on Part VI of the Bill. I am not complaining about that. It has happened in a general sense. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to some general points relating to this part of the Bill at the start of his remarks. I shall not follow him into that matter. We have made clear our general position, which is that we want to see genuine asylum seekers properly looked after, particularly the children, but at the same time we recognise the Government's duty to deal with the problem of bogus asylum seekers which is, as the noble Lord said, generally accepted.

The only general point which I would make, as I do not believe that it is raised under any of the following amendments, is that I am not persuaded that the 300 proposed staff of the new support directorate will prove anything like sufficient to carry out the duties which the Committee seeks to place on them in this part of the Bill. I shall not develop that point.

I am sympathetic to the arguments advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and by the others in the debate, particularly on Amendment No. 153. Looking at the next few pages of the Marshalled List, I note that a number of other groups of amendments touch on the same point in specific ways, but it is made in a general way in Amendment No. 153. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, was quite right to say that, were Amendment No. 153 or a similar amendment to be tabled at the start of Part VI of the Bill, there would be far less need for the other, more specific amendments at later stages. I am not very qualified to judge whether the precise wording is correct or could be legally improved. However, I support the sentiment behind inserting a general provision to put the consideration of the child's welfare in the minds of everyone concerned with those matters.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

The noble Lord, Lord Cope, is right. The debate is in the nature of a Second Reading revisit to Part VI. I have no complaint about that at all. I should like to take slightly more time than is usual at this stage in dealing with the general questions, but shall not then return to the general questions on every specific subsequent amendment, if that is acceptable to the Committee.

Amendment No. 152 would place on the Secretary of State a duty.

to make arrangements … and exercise … functions in such a way as shall best promote the welfare of asylum seekers and their dependants". I hope that I am not being harsh in saying that that would give primacy to the welfare of asylum seekers, however that is defined—it is not defined in the amendment, but that is not an essential part of my argument—at the expense of all other considerations, such as cost and competing legitimate aspirations that others who live in this country may well have. I believe that it is important to set the issue in that context.

I shall cover Amendments Nos. 152 and 153 in rather more detail in a moment. The scope of Amendment No. 153, which has had the general approval of a number of noble Lords who have spoken, is very wide. It states: When any question arises with respect to a child, or with respect to any household which includes a child, the child's welfare shall be the Secretary of State's paramount consideration in the exercise of his powers under this Part of the Act". That means that all other considerations, whether of cost or more widely, would have to be subordinated to that single test. I appreciate that that is a reflection, of a sort, of considerations in the Children Act, but that consideration in the Children Act is utterly and completely different from the context with which we are dealing, as I hope to demonstrate in a moment.

The approach of my noble friend Lord Judd is a correct one. We have no doubt at all of our obligations under the 1951 Convention on Refugees. I agree with him that the scale of recent, almost volcanic, movements is perhaps one which we had not anticipated. By "we", I mean all governments in different countries who are faced with those problems. We need and want to ensure that a person seeking asylum is not prevented pursuing the claim by virtue of destitution. Hence our commitment to provide support in terms of accommodation and essential living needs for destitute asylum seekers. We want to do that efficiently and humanely. We have not succeeded in that in the past. I repeat what I have said on a number of earlier occasions: delay and uncertainty are no friends to those who will, in the end, be successful; nor are they helpful daily companions to those who are going to fail.

I do not believe that anyone can dispute that we currently have ramshackle, incoherent, unstructured and unsatisfactory arrangements which have been developed over the years, significantly, on an ad hoc basis. The question of whose fault that is is utterly beside the point. The fact is that that is an accurate description of the present situation.

I return to the point made by my noble friend Lord Judd. He is quite right in saying that we want to promote the welfare of asylum seekers. We shall ensure that desk instructions to our own staff will make that perfectly plain. The obligations imposed on our contractors will lay emphasis on the need—I am happy to re-affirm that again to my noble friend—to have full regard for the welfare of asylum seekers. That means that they have sufficient support; proper access to medical and other facilities so that they are able to cope in a strange society; and that they are protected from harassment or other threats. We shall have a budget of £300 million to provide that support during the first full year.

I take the point made by the noble Baroness about people who claim to be from Kosovo—whether they are or not, I do not know in every case—who beg with small children in the street. When the point was last raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, I pointed out that most of us have had that experience. That point does not derive from whether or not the arrangements will put the interest of children paramount. Social services departments have a proper role to play in cases where children are at risk as a result of behaviour, some of which, without being uncharitable, is certainly questionable to many of us as to whether it is based on true need as opposed to organised begging, which sometimes comes close to intimidatory behaviour for some people. I do not believe that the noble Baroness and I disagree on that point.

Whether or not we reach conclusions agreeable to all Members of the Committee, we have been prepared to listen. I invite noble Lords to look at the letter to which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, was kind enough to refer. It is quite extensive and deals with concerns raised by him, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and Mr Kaye. We have replied to it in some detail. I hope we have been able to give some detailed replies to the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams.

I know that a good deal of concern was expressed at Second Reading and in conversations with colleagues on all sides of the House about the level of support. We shall consider support levels in more detail. Perhaps I should tell the Committee one or two of our developed thoughts.

We have decided, after listening carefully over a period of weeks, that the provision of spending power in respect of children under the age of 18 should be set at a level that is the current equivalent of income support personal allowance for children. At present values that would increase the spending power of a family of four—two adults and two children—from about £90 a week to £106 a week. Some of that will be paid in cash and the remainder in vouchers.

We propose that the provision for adults should be on the basis that there will be a combination of cash— I mentioned the increase a second ago—and vouchers. However, we should not overlook the "in-kind" provision: accommodation that is furnished, fuel and power paid for; the full range of domestic utensils, linen, pots and pans and so forth. I can fairly say that that will broadly represent what those adults would receive on income support. Following what I have said, I do not think it will be easy to say that we are offering something less than comparable with what would be available on other support systems.

I repeat that we have listened carefully to what has been said in another place, here and in discussions with officials and colleagues. I do not want to be unkind or to be seen to be harsh. We cannot discharge any governmental duty—I hope that does not sound too pompous a phrase—to one section of those who are worthy, without considering the interests of all. We see others in our society begging in the streets, sleeping rough and close to destitution. Others in the community are near destitution and we have to consider fairly the cost of providing support. We need to ensure that the arrangements provided support those in genuine need.

Therefore, we are trying to secure that the asylum seeker will broadly be in the same situation as a local person who is similarly destitute and who is receiving income support and other social security benefits. I do not believe that that is an unreasonable or ignoble stance.

The different way of providing benefit to asylum seekers reflects our concern. To have a separate system of support for asylum seekers we have to cater—to take up the point made by my noble friend—for the particular needs of people who arrive in this country often with no possessions, and without the normal means of coping independently in a strange environment. I believe that to accommodate sensitively people from a particular linguistic, ethnic or cultural group in an area where there are others of the same linguistic, ethnic, cultural or national group is a generous step, rather than dumping them in anonymity, as has often happened, in a place where there is no local, friendly hand to be stretched out to them.

I cannot accept either of the amendments, but I am spending a little time—as I promised—giving the reasons. I do not think that Amendment No. 152 achieves the necessary balance between the welfare of asylum seekers, on the one hand, and proper alternative considerations which we need to have—I have mentioned them briefly—on the other.

In relation to Amendment No. 153, I respect the concerns, as always, of the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Dholakia, who tabled the amendment. The welfare of children should never be treated lightly. Of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, this is a reflection of what is found in the well known words of the Children Act. The paramount description in the Children Act is used in a specific limited context and refers to the considerations that the court must have in mind in making an order in respect of a child. That is the context and that is the derivation. That is quite different from the wide context which is proposed in Amendment No. 153.

I understand perfectly well why it is introduced in Amendment No. 153. However, if that is to be construed, as it must be, in the ordinary meaning of words, the child's welfare, irrespective of all others, must be the paramount consideration. We could not deliver that. We have to have sensible regard to cost; we have to have sensitive regard to the legitimate, sometimes competing, often distinct demands of others, who are not necessarily all well off and who have financial deprivation to deal with as part of their every day existence.

I repeat that assistance to children of asylum seeker families will continue to be available under the Children Act. I do not believe that any government could deliver on Amendment No. 153.

I turn to a specific point, which I hope has not been overlooked. Clause 113 places a clear duty on the Secretary of State. I turn to some of the themes developed by my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis. Subsection (3) of Clause 113, on page 70 of the Bill, states: If it appears to the Secretary of State that adequate accommodation is not being provided for the child, he must exercise his powers … and if his offer is accepted by providing or arranging for the provision of, adequate accommodation for the child as part of the eligible person's household". So the duty is in Clause 113(3). There is a further duty in Clause 113(4) which states: he must exercise his powers … by offering … essential living needs for the child as part of the eligible person's household". I believe my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis is quite right. We are looking at different concepts. We say that we have the power and we have the obligations under Clause 113, but we cannot have a duty which is as widely put as this because that would mean there would be enforceable sanctions on the Secretary of State irrespective of other considerations. I repeat, I hope not harshly or with any hard feeling, that no government could operate on that basis.

Again my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis is quite right in respect of the difference between a duty and a power. The exercise of the power, or non-exercise, would be subject to judicial review on the usual basis of rationality or irrationality. We want to exercise our powers in a decent and sensitive way. I hope that some of the things that we have done, even the announcement that I have been able to make to the Committee this evening about the difference in support, reflect that we have been listening.

I cannot accept any amendment that would require the Secretary of State to give primacy to one consideration, even the welfare of a child, above all others. I repeat that I am not aware of any government that can deliver on that.

We are making the provision because we want to make sure that children and families are properly and decently cared for. I repeat the commitment—I hope at not too great a length—that if the average time for processing the initial application for asylum by a family is not down to an average of two months by 1st April 2000—that is not far away—we shall not bring families into the new support arrangements at that time.

In future, families will rely and will need to rely on the new support arrangements for a fairly short period of time. Within that time period we shall make arrangements to ensure that families with children will be entitled to the full range of support and assistance, including education, free school meals, milk vouchers, healthcare, free prescriptions and access to social services. In other words, we shall take full account of the welfare needs of the child.

I go back to my noble friend Lord Judd. We shall want to reflect those matters in the guidance that we give to case workers and those providing services on the ground. I can go no further than that. It is a reasonable point to have arrived at. I am perfectly happy, as always, to consider detail, but I repeat, I hope without discourtesy, that we cannot go further than that.

7 p.m.

Lord Judd

Before my noble friend sits down, perhaps I can say that some of his remarks go a long way to meeting my point. I thank him for that, though we shall want to see the guidance and the spirit in which he spoke put into words. However, I hope my noble friend will forgive me if I pick up on two points.

The first is a specific point dealing with what the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said. The complaint is not whether in the aggregate vouchers and money reach the same level as would be available to destitute people in this country, though that is a pretty minimalist approach. My noble friend talks genuinely about the "real" refugees and the "real" asylum seekers. We have to recognise that people who have been through that situation are looking for security. They are desperately affected by the stigma of vouchers. They do not have the cash in their hands to the same extent as an English person would to give them even that degree of confidence. Their vulnerability and insecurity are accentuated. That is why there is concern on that issue.

The second point is more about presentation. My noble friend is someone I greatly respect and I am glad he is in the work he is in. But I wonder whether he will read some of the comments he made tonight. He is inclined to say, "Yes, we will do this. Yes, we have this commitment. But we must remember that we have other responsibilities". Some of us would say that that is exactly what is wrong. We should be saying, "Of course we have responsibilities to the taxpayer. Of course we have responsibility for dealing with people who are abusing the system. But we must remember that we have our commitment to the refugees and asylum seekers and that must be the guiding principle".

It is a balance of language and I ask the Minister, as a friend, to look at some of the things he said tonight to see whether in the future the balance of language can be changed.

Lord Clinton-Davis

I wonder whether my noble friend would agree with this. It is not so much a question of a balance of language; it is a balance of commitment and attitude. The way in which certain Ministers in the Home Office in the past dealt with their responsibilities, in my view, fell short of what is desirable or even acceptable. I do not know how we legislate for that situation.

I have every confidence that, as a Minister, my noble friend shows every indication of sympathy for the arguments adduced on these issues. I am sure that in so far as it falls to him to administer these matters, they will be dealt with sympathetically. I would feel aggrieved, in fact, if any Minister in this Government adopted any position other than that. The difficulty arises in being able to formulate this commitment in a statutory form acceptable to the community at large. It is important that we generate within the community a respect for and understanding of the way in which refugees arrive in this country. We must not do anything to create a rift or lack of understanding— there is enough misunderstanding already. It is the job of government to try to deal with that situation, but not necessarily by statute.

That is the appeal I make to my noble and good friend Lord Judd. I share his sentiments, though I am not sure I arrive at the same conclusions in relation to whether or not the statutory form giving rise to those sentiments can be set out. There is considerable difficulty in imposing that duty. My noble friend dealt adequately with that point and I accept his reasoning in relation to it. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, will accept that I agree with much of what he expressed but do not feel that he necessarily chose to go down the right route.

Lord Dholakia

Perhaps I can add a further question to that asked by the noble Lord, Lord Judd. Will the Minister accept that we are dealing with an unusual situation? We have a backlog of between 70,000 and 80,000 asylum applications. Many of them, on his own estimate, are people who may be economic migrants to this country. However, the present Bill locks all doors through which asylum seekers can come to this country. At some stage, before long, we shall be dealing with only a handful of refugees and asylum seekers. Why therefore do we need a voucher system which has not worked in other parts of the country? Why do we need effectively to create a bureaucracy on the basis of the inability of the previous and present governments to clear the backlog and one that will cost more to run than the system presently available to asylum seekers?

The Lord Bishop of Ripon

As we seem to be putting a number of questions to the Minister at this stage, perhaps I can press him on one further matter in relation to the figures with which he provided the Committee on the levels of benefit. He claimed that with additional resources being made available the benefits payable were largely comparable to those being paid to people on income support in this country. He will be aware that those figures are contested.

I believe I am right in saying that with the additional provision, the Minister said that around 90 per cent of the true benefit is being paid. The claim is being made elsewhere, on good grounds, that that figure should be 80 per cent. Furthermore, that is a level of income benefit which is widely recognised as being inadequate for the proper and reasonable support of people in this country. The Minister is therefore taking a figure which is widely regarded as low and reducing it further. Under those circumstances, is it not going to be difficult for people to maintain, with any dignity and reasonableness, the kind of life to which they ought to be entitled in this country?

The Earl of Sandwich

My noble friend is itching to get back on his feet once the Minister has sat down. I shall try not to anticipate what he is going to say.

What is not in dispute is the courtesy of the Minister; a courtesy which, as my noble friend said, was shown when we came to see him in his office. But he did not use the big guns that he has just brought out; he was using more moderate tones and, in particular, as my noble friend said, the word "flexibility". But it was the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, who suddenly brought me back from the idea of flexibility to the principle that we are facing when we are thinking of the universality of children and the best interests of the children. Those phrases lead me back to the Children Act; they do not lead me to the asylum support directorate.

We are talking about a different kingdom when we go along that route. I recall the words of the noble Lord, Lord Judd. He asked what signal the Government were sending. I refer briefly to one small signal in Written Answers this week in reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger. On the question of free school meals for children of asylum seekers, the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, said If the Asylum Bill currently before Parliament is enacted, it will remove the right of asylum seekers to claim these benefits". The Minister continued, However, their children and unaccompanied children seeking asylum will be eligible for free school meals".—[Official Report, 19/7/99; col. WA 86.] Children have the same basic living needs whether they are asylum seekers or resident. This kind of signal to the Committee and society at large seems to me to be in contradiction of the principles agreed under the Children Act.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

Before the noble Lord, Lord Alton, considers his final remarks in response to the Minister perhaps I may raise another issue. The Minister has quite fairly pleaded with us to limit ourselves very much to particular points in further amendments. Therefore, in a sense he has invited us to talk more widely on these two amendments and to limit ourselves thereafter. I shall abide by that.

There is one other issue which is very close to the one raised by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, which relates again to children. We welcome what the Minister has said so far. But one of the assumptions made in the provisions for support within Part VI of the Bill is that there will not need to be replacement of the possessions of asylum seekers in this country.

My noble friend Lord Dholakia has pointed out that in the much more stringent system which this Bill will introduce those who are likely to arrive in this country will probably be the most extreme cases of desperation among refugees. This country responded relatively generously to the refugees from Kosovo. They were literally run out of their homes, some with 10 minutes notice, and took nothing with them. Evidence has attested to the fact that they did not even bring another set of clothes, a pair of shoes, a handbag or anything of that kind.

More than anyone else, children require the replacement of essential articles. Children grow out of their shoes. They need replacement nappies. They need new clothes as they grow. They need to attend school without being stigmatised as the kid that comes wearing nothing but a pair of old gym shoes with holes. That is another aspect of our concern about children. The replacement of goods for children is particularly acute. Alas, the singling out of children by their peer group is often an act of common child cruelty with which most of us are familiar.

The right reverend Prelate pointed to the way in which vouchers stigmatise children and so they do. Yet, if the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, is correct, they will have no access to school meals and there will be problems in receiving the kind of support they need. In his response perhaps the Minister can address this aspect of a problem which concerns many of us.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I shall. I hope that I shall not be accused of bringing up the big guns. I am saying that we have to bear in mind that there are competing demands that need to be attended to. A great number of the questions which have been raised I addressed in a quite lengthy letter to the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I shall come back to them because it may be that some Members of the Committee have not seen them.

In the second paragraph of the letter I set out the nature of the accommodation that will be provided. It states, Some asylum seekers will be given hostel accommodation with full board and lodging, and will need cash only for incidentals. Where they are given self-catering accommodation, this will come with the utilities paid for, and with full equipment (which a normal tenant might be required to provide for himself) provided by the Home Office. Taking these factors into account we are clear that our support would generally be equivalent to around 90% of what is available to people on income support. But we are thinking carefully about whether the present package will meet all the needs of asylum seeker families". That is dated 15th July and today I have given an indication of what we are going to do about increasing the cash.

Questions have been raised about the accommodation of asylum seekers in unsuitable areas. I said in that reply, we are genuinely concerned about the pressures that current arrangements are placing on housing in London;". If anyone suggests that that is not true they are living in a different world. I did not put that in the letter. That is my observation and it is true. these are unsustainable in anything but the short term. We therefore feel it would be better to re-house the asylum seekers in areas of the country where there is less pressure on housing. We envisage that the areas we select will build on the experience that the Local Government Association and local authorities are now developing…. As we indicated some months ago, our criteria for areas suitable for receiving asylum seekers will be, firstly, that there is a reasonable supply of suitable accommodation; secondly, that there is a viable multi-ethnic community or at least a history of racial tolerance in the area; thirdly, that there is a potential for developing viable support arrangements for asylum seekers. Certainly we do not wish to see asylum seekers left isolated or at risk of threat or attack". All those points depend entirely on the points that the noble Lord, Lord Judd, raised. I did not read them all partly because I sent the letter so recently. I do not believe that one can say that one is bullying, intimidatory or using the big guns. I am simply saying that we are approaching this matter in a humane way.

I turn to one or two other points that were made. There are other questions discussed in our meetings with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, about access to medical attention and care. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, also raised them. I hope to be able to give some positive news about some of their queries.

Perhaps I may deal with one or two questions and phrases used. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, asked about school meals. I intend to bring forward at Report stage an amendment to allow asylum-seeker children free meals. I am not claiming that as a virtue; I am simply saying that we have genuinely listened to the kinds of questions, including the general spectrum, raised recently by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams.

When I was replying at some length earlier I said that we would be looking to provide a full range of support and assistance, education, free school meals, milk vouchers, healthcare, free prescriptions and access to the social services. Both my noble friend Lord Judd and the right reverend Prelate said that some of the figures were in dispute. I do not believe that an up-to-date calculation has been made on the figures that I gave this evening because it was not possible to do it. Both the right reverend Prelate and my noble friend Lord Judd said that I was comparing something that I was offering with something which is fairly minimalist anyway. That underlines my point.

In this country we have a system of support for those who would otherwise be destitute. I am saying—I hope not in a disagreeable way—that what we are trying to offer people who come to these shores in need is something roughly comparable in terms of support to what we give our own citizens who are also destitute and who can sometimes be seen sleeping rough in London or begging at railway stations.

When I say that no government can deliver what Amendments Nos. 152 and 153 demand, I am simply telling the truth. It may be a disagreeable truth, but I am not prepared to say things which are hopelessly unrealistic and which raise and then cruelly shatter people's hopes. I appreciate that we are discussing amendments, although by general consent we have gone off into a wider review on a Second Reading basis.

As regards Amendment No. 153, the child's welfare should be the paramount consideration. But it is not unkind or threatening to say that no government that I know of can deliver that. There is no point in putting matters in Bills which become Acts of Parliament to make us all feel better. That helps no one.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. The amendment does not say '"In any question". It states, the child's welfare shall be the Secretary of State's paramount consideration". In other words, it is part of a hierarchy of considerations that the Secretary of State will take into account, but above all others his paramount concern will be the welfare of the child.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I may have misread the amendment. It states, When any question arises with respect to a child, or with respect to any household which includes a child, the child's welfare shall be the Secretary of State's paramount consideration". I do not believe that I have a wrong copy of the amendment. I am simply saying as gently as I can that no government will be able to deliver that provision. I repeat as kindly as I can that putting things in Acts of Parliament to make us all feel better and all the more humane is not to the point. What is to the point is achieving a regime which is fair and decent, which does not make people destitute, but which has to be looked at in the context of a country in which other people live.

Members of the Committee may find these truths to be disagreeable. Perhaps I may, for example, turn to the remarks made by the noble Baroness. I should point out that I am trying to answer a number of different questions, and I know that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has the infinite benefit of the last word. The noble Baroness said that no one wants children to be stigmatised and no one wants to see them going to school with raggedy clothes. Of course they do not. I am putting forward the generally comparable nature of what we are offering to asylum seekers as being truly generally comparable with what we offer our own citizens. That is not a perfect answer. Indeed, the noble Baroness might say, although she is too generous, that that is an ignoble answer. I am simply saying that what we provide for people in the difficult circumstances described by noble Lords has to have an appropriate measure in the context of what we offer others.

The noble Baroness said, as we all know, that when children grow up their feet grow at an alarming rate and they need new shoes every five minutes. Indeed, they also need changes of clothing, as do working parents in this country and those who have no employment. People who sleep along the Embankment feel the cold and the rain in the same way as we do. Therefore, in every instance I do not think that the responses have been proportionate to what we are doing, as opposed to what people say we are doing.

I return to Amendment No. 152. What we have here are really declarations of desired objectives. I do not believe that there is any sentient being who would not regard these objectives as being desirable. I am simply saying that if one puts such provisions in the Bill, they are not capable of being delivered. I personally think that the best way forward is to listen carefully to what noble Lords say in this Chamber and elsewhere to see what we can manage to achieve. If the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, will not mind, perhaps I may take just one example. They were particularly concerned about access to specialist medical attention—I know that the noble Earl has also raised this matter—for those who are victims of torture. We shall deal with that issue later this evening, but I believe that we have been able to think carefully and constructively in that respect. That is the way to get a better outcome.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

Does the Minister concede that some of us on this side of the Committee have pressed very hard for what we regard as a somewhat better deal for those wearing raggedy clothes among our own citizens?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

Of course I do. I have always recognised that fact. I am simply pointing out that as we have to deal, by and large, with the world we recognise rather than the world which we wish to inhabit—though the two may not always be enormously different—any government have to consider how such provision will fit into the general social context. My noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis is absolutely right. Anyone we assist from foreign countries is not coming here to live in a bubble or a balloon; he or she will live in a community.

My noble friend is also right to say that one wants to be as constructive and moderate in language as possible. I did not regard my language as at all incendiary or disagreeable, although my noble friend Lord Judd chided me about it. If one is poor and one's life is pretty disagreeable, someone will have to answer the perfectly fair question: "Who's paying for all this?" Everyone in this Chamber has a duty to answer that, and pretending that the question is not there does no one any service.

Earl Russell

Perhaps I may ask the Minister whether I could possibly be dispensed from his request to make general remarks on this amendment. I would prefer to make my remarks on Amendment No. 156 for two reasons. First, they are germane to that argument and wide of this one; and, secondly, I missed the beginning of the debate on this amendment and, therefore, have remained silent. I hope that that is agreeable to the Minister and the Committee.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I am here to serve the Committee. I shall do my best to reply to amendments. However, I think that I serve the Committee best by replying to specifics rather than generalities. The debate has ranged widely, and that is perfectly reasonable. Indeed, I do not criticise noble Lords for doing so. I have been longer in my response than I normally hope to be. However, I cannot be expected to deal with every general review of the wider panorama when dealing with each specific amendment in Committee. I believe that that is fair.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

We have had a wide-ranging debate. I am sure that we look forward to hearing the noble Earl, Lord Russell, on subsequent amendments. I am sure that he will, as always, ensure that his remarks are in order and that they will be pertinent enough to require relevant replies from Ministers. The noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, said that this had been akin to a Second Reading debate. I think that it has almost been a pre-emptive clause stand part debate. There is perhaps something to commend the idea of looking at the sections of this Bill, or Bills like it, in the way that we have done. In that way, we would look at Part VI in some thorough detail, thereby setting the scene, and could then contextualise the amendments which follow. There is merit in that approach.

However, as we have moved from the generalities to the specifics of the two amendments, it has been difficult. Therefore, in my short reply I shall deal with the two amendments under consideration and the actual words which appear in the Marshalled List. The Minister is far from being "disagreeable"—the word that he used in response to his noble friend Lord Judd. The problem with the noble Lord is not that he is disagreeable but that he is an eminent lawyer and knows his way around statutes probably far better than anyone else in this Chamber. I am sure that people in the past have paid him substantial sums of money for presenting the argument in the very eloquent way he has done tonight. I am sure that we get him very much on the cheap. No doubt the Committee will agree that we are privileged to be able to listen to him dealing with these questions from the Dispatch Box.

I should like to take the noble Lord back to the remarks he made about Amendment No. 153.1 pointed out to him that the amendment does not say, "When any question arises with respect to the child … this will be the paramount consideration", in the sense that anything at all that is raised concerning a child will outweigh any other consideration. I felt that the noble Lord used his eloquence as a lawyer to put forward his argument. In fact, he persisted throughout the debate in suggesting that in some way this provision would place an unspeakable duty on all of us which was undeliverable. Indeed, he said that this was something which could not be delivered. He also said that no government could operate on that basis.

However, that is not what we are asking for in Amendment No. 153. It refers to, any question [which] arises … in the exercise of his powers under this Part of this Act". It is specific to the issues that affect children arising under this Act. The amendment does refer to "paramount consideration"; in other words, we would not ignore every other consideration, not least those which are imposed on the Secretary of State to get value for money. As regards the Minister's slightly wider comments when talking about vouchers, I should point out that the Secretary of State also has a duty to get value for money.

As the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and others suggested, we are left high and dry as regards knowing what the costs involved will be of the voucher system. For example, in a Written Answer to me early last week, the Minister said: It is not certain at present how many personnel will be required solely to administer the voucher system. It is intended that the administration of the voucher scheme will be contracted out and contractual negotiations will take place during the Autumn. A small number of staff in the Asylum Support Directorate will be responsible for administering that contract".—[Official Report, 15/7/99; col. WA 59.] All of us would like to know what this will cost; and what the opportunity costs involved will be which could be used on processing applications. That, too, is a value for money argument. However, although it is an important consideration, it is not the only one.

The Minister also referred us to Clause 113 and pointed out that there it is in statute. He said that there are obligations placed on the Secretary of State in subsection (3). If it is not possible for us to impose a duty in the way suggested during the debate, why it is possible for this subsection to state, If it appears to the Secretary of State that adequate accommodation is not being provided for the child, he must exercise his powers under section 85"; in other words, there is real duty and obligation expressed there in terms?

Although I am open to the argument that, of course, the suggested provision could be rephrased in words that would be more acceptable to the Government, all that I am seeking to do in this amendment is to ask the Minister to accept the arguments put forward by the noble Lords, Lord Judd and Lord Clinton-Davis, and others from this side of the Committee. Here is a duty that ought to be written on the face of the Bill. I give way.

Lord Clinton-Davis

In one case that the noble Lord cited there is a discretionary element, whereas the other issue is mandatory. I do not think that the noble Lord is drawing a distinction between the two.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

The distinction that I am drawing is that there ought to be a mandatory requirement on the Government to have a duty towards the paramount interests of the child. This is not something that we should just leave to the discretion of Ministers. Elsewhere in the legislation mandatory obligations are laid down. I have just mentioned the one—to which the Minister referred—in Clause 113 as a model for dealing with this matter. It states that we should require the Secretary of State to exercise his powers under this part of the Bill in a way that puts the interests of a child at the top of the hierarchy of considerations.

The same kind of words are used in Amendment No. 152 which states, exercise their functions in such a way as shall best promote the welfare of asylum seekers and their dependants, if any, who require assistance under this Part of this Act". That does not, of course, mean that that provision will exclude all other considerations. However, the amendment seeks to place a provision on the face of the Bill that simply to take into account all the other factors that appear in these 148 pages of legislation will not be the sole preoccupation of the Home Office but there will also be a clear duty to take into consideration the way in which this legislation will affect the interests of the asylum seeker and the refugee.

We have had a useful debate. Many good points have been made, not least by the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, who talked about the sight of tiny children in their mothers' arms. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, reminded us of the bench-mark in the Government's own White Paper. A series of other points were made, including that made by my noble friend Lord Sandwich on the question of school meals, to which the Minister responded. I was grateful for that response. I know that my noble friend will also be grateful for it. These are questions that go to the heart of the support that is given to one of the most vulnerable groups of people. Every one of the children's organisations that I mentioned in introducing the amendments said that they supported the terms of these amendments and that they would wish to see them incorporated in this legislation.

With the passage of this Bill we should not leave the situation any less favourable than that which applied under the terms of the 1989 Children Act. My fear is that we have taken away the safeguards of that legislation and we have put nothing else in its place. The words I have suggested may not be the best words, but I hope that between now and Report stage the Government will give further consideration to these issues. They have already said that they will meet the children's organisations to discuss related questions. I hope that they will discuss these matters with them too and perhaps when we reach Report stage the Government will bring forward their own amendments. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 153 not moved.]

Lord Burlison

I beg to move that the House be now resumed. In moving this Motion I suggest that the Committee stage begins again not before 8.35 p.m.

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

House resumed.