HL Deb 28 July 1999 vol 604 cc1529-96

3.20 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

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

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 92 [Reception zones]:

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) moved Amendment No. 171A:

Page 60, line 1, leave out ("an area") insert ("as reception zones— (a) areas in England and Wales").

The noble and learned Lord said: Government Amendments Nos. 171C, 171D and 172A—in which I am surprised Members of this House do not appear to be interested—and Amendment No. 172 in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Cope, and the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, address the same point; namely, the recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee that the power to make regulations under Clause 92(8) as to the management of property that is subject to a direction should only be exercised following consultation with local authorities.

We accept the wisdom of the committee's recommendation. We hope never to have to use the power to direct; but if we do, there need to be proper safeguards for the interest of the landlord. Regulations under Clause 92(8) will provide for this. In making regulations generally we always aim to consult those affected in advance; certainly we would wish to do so in this case and I am happy to make this a requirement on the face of the Bill. I invite the Committee to endorse the government amendments rather than Amendment No. 172.

Amendment No. 171BA seeks to require the Home Secretary to consult voluntary organisations before designating a reception zone. We are very conscious of the importance of the voluntary sector in the development of our arrangements for the dispersal of asylum seekers to cluster areas. We are currently discussing with the voluntary sector the way in which it might provide support for asylum seekers through one-stop shops in the regions, and these one-stop shops would provide outreach support in any area that might be designated a reception zone.

The first consideration in deciding whether to designate a reception zone will clearly need to be the availability of suitable housing. But we shall also be taking account of the capacity of an area to absorb asylum seekers successfully, and this will include an assessment of the role that the voluntary sector might be able to play. So we shall indeed be consulting the voluntary sector about our plans should we need to use the power to designate reception zones. It is right and proper that there should be a statutory requirement to consult local authorities before designating a reception zone, since they are directly affected. But I suggest that, given the assurance that we will be taking account of the voluntary sector in our decisions on reception zones, we do not need a formal duty to consult them. I ask the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, not to press the amendment.

Amendments Nos. 171A and 171B pick up a lacuna in the current drafting of Clause 92. Generally, in Great Britain, if we need to use the power to direct a public body to make social housing available, it will be a local authority to whom we issue the direction. But in Northern Ireland such housing is held by the Housing Executive; so the power of direction must be capable of being exercised towards that body. As a result of the changes to Clause 92 it has been necessary to put forward Amendments Nos. 180D and 180E which alter references in Clause 101 from "an authority" to "a body" and thus cover the Housing Executive as well as local authorities. I should add that we have no plans to use the power in respect of the executive. Indeed, current thinking is that we shall not be locating asylum seekers in the Province other than those who arrive there of their own accord. However, to have powers capable of uniform exercise across the United Kingdom we need these provisions. I beg to move.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

I apologise to the Minister. I did not catch some of his earlier sentences because noble Lords were moving around the Chamber. Did he say—as I believe he did—that Amendment No. 172 was in accordance with the recommendations of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee and is therefore acceptable to the Government?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

It was the surprising lack of interest in these amendments which deafened the noble Lord to my remarks. I am proposing Amendments Nos. 171C, 171D and 172A to deal with the point made by the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee. I do so in preference to Amendment No. 172, which would require us to consult the authorities affected by direction each and every time we made a direction. That would be too time consuming and make it difficult for the power of direction—it is a power of last resort for use only where an authority declines to co-operate—to operate effectively. We are therefore trying to deal with it in our amendments rather than in the way proposed by the noble Lord.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

I shall study what the Minister said. My first reaction is that Amendments Nos. 171C arid 171D do not take up the point of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee. In paragraph 23 of its report it specifically suggests: The House may wish to consider whether the Bill should be amended to place a statutory obligation on the Secretary of State to consult local authorities before making regulations under clause 92(8), as is already the case with orders under Clause 92(1)".

As I understand it—though I may be wrong—the Government's amendments adjust the provisions for consultation on Clause 92(1) but do not insert a duty to consult on the regulations as to how the reception areas are to be managed. Consultation on how they are to be managed and the regulations in that regard, as the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee suggested, is also important, as well as consultation before designating zones.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

Before the Minister replies, so that we can deal with this whole matter together, perhaps I may say that I am satisfied that his amendment meets the point in Amendment No. 171BA. In fact, I believe our amendments were tabled almost at the same time. I would not have tabled mine had I known what the Government's amendment contained. However, I share the anxiety of the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, that what is proposed does not meet the point about the regulations made under the clause.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

The relevant amendment is Amendment No. 172A. It says, Before designating a reception zone in Great Britain, the Secretary of State must consult such local authorities, local authority associations and other persons as he thinks appropriate". That is in contradistinction to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, which states that, before designating a reception zone, the consultation must be with the local authority concerned. So there is a difference between the two.

We sought to address the concerns of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee. We sought to do so in a slightly less prescriptive way than is proposed in Amendment No. 172 with a view to ensuring that we do not have to consult the local authority each and every time we make a direction. That would be too time-consuming and would make it difficult to use the power of direction effectively. That is the difference between us. I hope that makes it clear.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

I am grateful for that further explanation which we shall obviously study carefully.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton moved Amendment No. 171B:

Page 60, line 2, leave out ("as a reception zone") and insert— ("(b) areas in Scotland consisting of the areas of one or more local authorities; (c) Northern Ireland.").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 171BA not moved.]

Lord Falconer of Thoroton moved Amendments Nos. 171C and 171D:

Page 60, line 3, leave out subsection (2).

Page 60, line 9, leave out ("within a reception zone").

The noble and learned Lord said: With the leave of the Committee I shall move Amendments Nos. 171C and 171D en bloc. I beg to move.

On Question, amendments agreed to.

[Amendment No. 172 not moved.]

Lord Falconer of Thoroton moved Amendment No. 172A:

Page 60, line 41, at end insert— ("() Before designating a reception zone in Great Britain, the Secretary of State must consult such local authorities, local authority associations and other persons as he thinks appropriate. () Before designating Northern Ireland as a reception zone, the Secretary of State must consult the Executive and such other persons as he thinks appropriate. () Before making regulations under subsection (8) which extend only to Northern Ireland, the Secretary of State must consult the Executive and such other persons as he thinks appropriate. () Before making any other regulations under subsection (8), the Secretary of State must consult—

  1. (a) such local authorities, local authority associations and other persons as he thinks appropriate; and
  2. (b) if the regulations extend to Northern Ireland, the Executive.").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 92, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 93 agreed to.

Schedule 9 [Asylum Support Adjudicators]:

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendments Nos. 173 and 174:

Page 126, line 40, leave out sub-paragraph (3).

Page 127, line 5, leave out (", with the approval of the Treasury,").

The noble Lord said: With the leave of the Committee, I shall move Amendments Nos. 173 and 174 en bloc. I beg to move.

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Schedule 9, as amended, agreed to.

3.30 p.m.

Clause 94 [Appeals]:

Lord Alton of Liverpool moved Amendment No. 175:

Page 61, line 10, at end insert— ("() If the Secretary of State provides or offers to provide support which the applicant contends is not adequate or suitable for his needs or for the needs of his dependants, if any, or for both, the applicant may appeal to an adjudicator.").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 175 takes us back to the debates which we held in Committee last week on Amendment Nos. 161 and 164, which discussed the wording in the legislation dealing with housing issues, particularly concerning the position of the homeless and whether the word "suitable" or "adequate" should appear in the legislation.

It was the decision of the Committee to stand by the wording as printed in the Bill. That being so, it is even more important, therefore, to provide some opportunity for appellants who feel that they have not been provided with accommodation suitable for them as a family.

I gave illustrations last week of how a family might be placed on a sink estate on the outskirts of a city; how they might be in an area which is particularly hostile to immigrants, asylum seekers or refugees; and of how they might be placed in accommodation which in other circumstances would be difficult to let and not regarded as suitable for our own nationals. In those circumstances, I believe that it would be proper that if applicants feel aggrieved, they should have some opportunity to appeal. Therefore, this amendment provides for a right of appeal against the offer of inadequate or unsuitable support.

Having created a new tribunal and paid for administration by a new set of adjudicators, it seems to me difficult to understand why they have not been given the opportunity to adjudicate also on questions such as I have just described. There will be some opportunity of appeal in the Crown Office list through the hearing of judicial reviews. However, I wonder whether that is the most satisfactory way of dealing with these questions.

I took the opportunity to look at the debate in another place. In the Special Standing Committee on 11th May 1999, when considering Clause 84 dealing with appeals, the Minister of State in another place, Mr Mike O'Brien, said that he estimated that there might be as many as 20,000 such appeals rather than the 2,000 per year at present. He put that forward as one of the reasons why he would be against this sort of amendment.

Incidentally, he said that he hoped that this could be dealt with by way of a formal internal mechanism rather than a system of appeal.

When the Minister replies, will he state the basis on which he estimates that there could be as many as 20,000 appeals and how that figure has been arrived at? It seems to me to have been plucked from thin air. Will he also say whether it has been possible to come up with the more informal, internal mechanism that was described to the Special Standing Committee? As an estimate has been put on the number of appeals that such an amendment may produce, has any estimate been put on the number of judicial reviews that may be triggered as a result of leaving the legislation as it currently stands?

I believe that there is a very good case for using this particular group of adjudicators, through the asylum support system, to look at such questions, not least because they will be dealing with refusal, which will give them the opportunity to look at asylum seekers in the round. Dealing only with refusals gives them a very narrow remit. If we are to go to the expense of setting up this system anyway, why not extend it to allow them to deal also with this range of questions? I believe, incidentally, that that will also ensure that the quality of the package with which they are dealing will also be improved. It will expose adjudicators to the whole picture.

In those circumstances, instead of having a rather disparate system, which is what we will otherwise be left with, I hope that the Government will accept that this amendment is a genuine attempt to try to improve the arrangements. It is at this stage a probing amendment. I hope that the Minister will be able to give a response to those points. I beg to move.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I support the amendment standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, and should like to raise a few additional points.

Our prime concern is the issue of the adequacy and suitability of accommodation for particular groups of people. I shall say a word about why our concerns arise. Our belief is that adjudicators would be more capable and more experienced in dealing with the kind of cases that may come before them than would probably be the case in the internal review mechanism, on which I understand that the Home Office is likely to rely.

Two examples spring to mind. One concerns people who have been tortured. According to the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, people who have been tortured often suffer from mental illness. This may take the form of sleeplessness, nightmares, attacks of sudden fear and apprehension. The type of accommodation which would be perfectly adequate for the great majority of asylum seekers simply would not be adequate for some members of that group. It seems to us that it is unlikely that an entirely internal procedure, which would not carry within it people with specific understanding and experience of dealing with victims of torture, would sufficiently weigh in the balance the particular concerns that arise in such cases. The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture has put forward the example of a woman who, after torture, came to this country. She was blind and largely deaf. She clearly could not easily be accommodated in private accommodation or in accommodation with other people from completely different backgrounds. It also gave the example of a woman who became epileptic in the grand mal phase as a result of the torture that she had undergone.

Therefore, the first group on whose behalf I wish to advance a claim has a very special need for accommodation which is not only adequate but also suitable. The claims put forward by this group would therefore best be served by experienced adjudicators who have dealt with many cases of asylum seekers.

The second group about whom we are particularly concerned comprises people who fall within the category of having suffered from sexual violence and rape. My noble friend will say something more about this. We are all very much aware that in Bosnia, and to some extent in Kosovo, rape became an instrument of warfare. Women, and a few men, who fall into this category are particularly prone to be very frightened at the presence around them of people whom they fear might sexually abuse them. Therefore, they comprise a group with a very special need for either accommodation shared with people who have been through a similar experience or, in certain instances, single accommodation.

We therefore believe that the normal process of simply going through an internal appeal to Home Office officers who have no special experience in these fields, and who do not in any event normally deal with appellants seeking accommodation, is inappropriate. We believe that such people would more appropriately be dealt with by adjudicators who might begin to build up some expertise in the area.

With regard to the issue raised by Mr Michael O'Brien in another place, it seems to us that any increase in the number of appeals will depend on how rapidly appeals are dealt with and what guidelines are set out, rather than on any rush of appeals to judicial review, which in any case would be likely if the cases do not go to an adjudicator.

On those three grounds—the special nature of some asylum seekers (with particular reference to those who are victims of torture or victims of sexual violence and rape); the suitability of those who consider the appeals that are made; and the issue of trying to avoid a flow of appeals to judicial review, which is a slow and lengthy process—we very strongly commend this amendment to the House.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, I support the amendment standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool. Simplicity is something which is owed to asylum seekers, wherever possible, in this Bill. It is clearly not rational or logical that the Crown Office should be responsible for deciding whether support will be given. The adjudicators should be responsible for the level of support. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, has made the point that adjudicators are much more likely to have more effective experience in this field.

A further point is the whole question of suitability of accommodation. We must face the fact that accommodation provided by local authorities varies extremely widely. Any protection possible in that respect must be given.

Lord Dholakia

I also support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton. The noble Lord and my noble friend have made the case on specific issues likely to affect asylum seekers, particularly victims of torture and rape victims. I want to bring in the factor of people who suffer mental illness, or cases where the pressure is such that they are affected by mental situations.

We are not discussing asylum seekers who are refused support, but the actual level of support. I do not want to prolong the argument as the case has been ably made by the noble Lord. I am bothered about the extent to which the Minister in the other place talked about 20,000 cases. How did he reach that figure? Is there any basis for coming to that conclusion? More important, if the Minister accepts that the only way to deal with the situation is not to create an appeal mechanism but to establish a formal internal mechanism of review, could we have some assurance that the workings of that review body will be published and that there will be guidelines available?

The last thing one expects is for people to appear before an appeal mechanism without necessarily having a clue about how the decisions are reached and which issues are likely to be taken into consideration, Therefore, I should like some assurance that guidelines of that nature will be available to those who apply for internal mechanism reviews.

Lord Avebury

I should like to say a few words about the Minister's response to a letter which I wrote to him sending representations from the Black Women's Rape Action Project and Women Against Rape. It seemed relevant to the points raised by my noble friend Lady Williams and the treatment of victims of rape and sexual violence. The Minister said that the Government are not conducting a general consultation exercise on the content of any gender guidelines to be issued but that they have agreed to discuss their proposals with the Refugee Women's Legal Group, which, he said, has taken the lead on that subject among non-governmental organisations.

The support of the BWRAP for drafting the Refugee Women's Legal Group guidelines was acknowledged by the group in its booklet Gender Guidelines for the Determination of Asylum Claims in the UK. I should like to ask the Minister whether, in the informal consultations being undertaken with the Refugee Women's Legal Group, the particular needs of that section of the asylum-seeking population for adequate accommodation will be discussed and that that matter will be specifically dealt with in the guidelines.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

I regret that I cannot accept the amendment although I accept the spirit in which it is proposed. From the outset, the Government's intention has been that appellants should have the right of appeal to an asylum support adjudicator where support is refused or withdrawn, but that objections about the quantum or nature of support should be resolved through an internal review procedure, which we are currently establishing.

There are a number of reasons why that is the case. First, it is clear that being deprived of support has a far more immediate and direct effect than simply being dissatisfied by what is provided. We wish to ensure that those who say that they are destitute and in need of immediate support, whether by way of accommodation or provision of essential living needs, should have priority where cases are being taken to appeal.

For that reason, when an appeal is made to the asylum support adjudicator, there will be an immediate internal review of the decision taken which will be carried out while the appellate process is under way. That provision deals with cases where support is not provided or is withdrawn. A similar review will take place where an applicant notifies the Home Office that what is offered is not, in his view, adequate or suitable for his needs and/or those of his dependants.

That review will be equally rigorous, but, as I have said, we do not believe that it should give rise to a right of appeal to an adjudicator. That is because we are satisfied that issues of quantum or nature of support can be properly dealt with by people who know what is and is not available and possible, rather than being remitted to an adjudicator who will hear the case distant from the circumstances and who will have difficulty keeping in touch with any degree of certainty with what flexibility can be operated on a day-to-day basis.

Furthermore, while destitution is something which an adjudicator should be able to assess on a relatively objective level, the myriad possibilities inherent in assessing whether something is adequate or acceptable are much better dealt with by a flexible approach.

Decisions in the review mechanism will be taken by a senior officer who will review each case on its merits. Such review procedures provide effective and flexible remedies in other situations and we feel that they can properly address the situation in this case.

I shall now deal with a number of points which have arisen. If one looks at the current legislation which provides support, the National Assistance Act 1948 and the Children Act 1989, one finds that there are very few judicial reviews. There are tens, rather than hundreds, in a year. That is in the context of legislation which was not designed in the first place to deal with those particular problems, whereas this legislation is. We would not expect to see a significant increase in those numbers, given the existence of the adjudicator and a formal internal review process once the legislation has settled down.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked why the figure of 20,000 was mentioned by my honourable friend Mr O'Brien in the other place. We are expecting to provide accommodation for up to 40,000 households per year. If every single one of those households is entitled to challenge any aspect of their support, we should expect to see large numbers of appeals to the adjudicator. We should have thought that that would be far better dealt with by an administrative procedure—that is where it is quantum, rather than principle—than by an adjudicator.

As regards the adjudicator, I cannot recall whether the figure of 20,000 of my honourable friend Mr O'Brien to which the noble Lord referred was a figure of 20,000 if the amendment was accepted rather than if the adjudication process proceeded. If the adjudication process continues as at present, the estimated figure is 2,000. It will be far more than that if quantum were involved—that is where the figure of 20,000 comes from.

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, referred to victims of torture. The Home Office will be building up experience of dealing with such cases very quickly. We plan to take particular account of the needs of victims of torture where that is clearly demonstrated. Is an internal review adequate? We believe that internal review procedures can be effective if properly managed. I do not have the figures available to me, but I believe that the internal review procedures introduced to the legislation covering homelessness in the Housing Act 1996 has proved effective in dealing with problems of a like kind.

In relation to the review procedure, it is our intention that reasons will be notified to the parties as to the result of the review. Experience of decisions of the internal review procedure will be taken into account in keeping under review the guidelines for case workers. There will be guidelines which will be published so far as it is appropriate. I hope that that deals with all the questions raised and that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, the noble Lords, Lord Dholakia and Lord Avebury and, indeed, the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, for the support that they have given to the amendment which is before the Committee this afternoon.

The Minister said that he would like a flexible approach; indeed, Ministers invariably like flexible approaches. However, people who are on the receiving end of decisions often like to see it written down in black and white, so that they know precisely what their rights and opportunities are likely to be. I do not doubt the good faith of the Minister, but I am not entirely convinced by his arithmetic. I suspect that the system being introduced is also likely to generate many appeals. I do not honestly understand how he can arrive at the differential between 2,000 and 20,000. Only experience will tell whether the Minister's calculations are right or whether the calculations of those who supported the amendment are right.

Therefore, when the new system is introduced, I hope that the Minister will keep this open and that the approach will not become too hard and fast as regards saying that the adjudicators will not have this as part of their remit. In due course, and on the basis of experience, it may perhaps be possible to give this proposal further consideration. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 94 agreed to.

Clause 95 agreed to.

Clause 96 [False representations]:

Lord Falconer of Thoroton moved Amendment No. 175A:

Page 61. line 42, leave out ("under section 85").

The noble and learned Lord said: The government amendments in this group, Amendments Nos. 175A, 175B and 180C, make slight drafting changes in relation to offences under Clauses 96 and 99. They ensure that the offences apply to the interim arrangements in Schedule 8, and to the temporary support provisions in Clause 89, as well as to the main support scheme in Clause 85.

It may be convenient if I turn now to the other amendments in this group; namely, Amendments Nos. 176 to 180B. The purpose of the offence established under Clause 98 is to prevent the work of administering and operating the asylum seekers' support scheme from being hampered by obstruction and delay on the part of other people.

The first amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, Amendment No. 176, would place on the face of the Bill a requirement that, before any conviction could be obtained under this clause, the prosecution would have to prove that the person concerned knew that he was refusing or neglecting to provide the information requested of him. It is difficult to see how someone could refuse to provide information without being aware of the fact that he is refusing to provide information.

As far as concerns negligence, I refer the noble Lord to the words which appear at the beginning of Clause 98(1) at line 38 in the Bill: for there to be an offence, the act complained of must have been committed "without reasonable excuse". Someone who did not know, for example, that a particular piece of information was required of him might well be able to show, on the balance of probabilities, that he had a reasonable excuse for neglecting to provide the information. Thus, while reasonable excuse clearly goes beyond mere lack of knowledge, to encompass other possibilities, in many circumstances it is likely to cover that which the noble Lord seeks to protect. In the circumstances, I hope that the noble Lord, will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

I turn now to the noble Lord's second amendment, Amendment No. 177. Perhaps I may, once again, refer the noble Lord to the opening words of the clause, and to the requirement that offences charged under this provision must have been committed "without reasonable excuse". Perhaps I may also refer to the fact that the phraseology of the clause has been taken from Section 111 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992, which deals with a like offence in the context of the social welfare benefits system.

The offence in question is committed where a person, without reasonable excuse, neglects to answer a question, give information or produce a document when required to do so. This is clearly somewhat broader than refusing to do these acts, but not greatly so. The intention behind this offence is to put the onus on a person who is required to provide information under Part VI to turn his mind to the matter, not simply set it to one side and forget it. We consider that this is valid, given that the information in question is required in connection with the support of destitute asylum seekers and their families.

We need both limbs of the offence because, whereas to "refuse" is an active step, "neglect" is a passive step. We do not want to create a position where an asylum seeker escapes sanction or other consequences where he merely "neglects" to tell us that, for example. he has won a massive prize in a lottery, or has had some other change of circumstances which radically alters his need for support under the scheme.

Further, this offence extends to corporate bodies by virtue of Clause 100. In the context of a corporate structure, it may be difficult to prove a refusal to provide the information but much easier to show that, for no good reason, officers of the corporate body neglected to provide the information requested. It is the view of the Government that both limbs of the offence are necessary for it to be an effective disincentive. Therefore, I am unable to commend the amendment to the Committee.

The noble Lord has also proposed three amendments—Amendments Nos. 178, 179 and 180—which would have the effect of adding an additional requirement to the offence created by this clause: namely, that the information being sought is "material". With deep respect to the noble Lord, I would suggest that there is little or no need for these amendments. While a person is applying for or receiving support under the support scheme, which the Bill seeks to establish, it is difficult to think of any information about his or her circumstances which might not be "material". Certainly, on the advice which I have taken, the sorts of information which we propose to seek, whether from asylum seekers themselves or perhaps from their advisers or helpers, about the circumstances in which the asylum seekers and their families and dependants find themselves, will all be material to the assessments which will have to be made for the proper administration of the scheme.

I certainly do not anticipate that a refusal to supply irrelevant information, or to answer a question that proved utterly immaterial, would be pursued under this paragraph. Prosecutors would have far better things to do. Nevertheless, we do not wish to dilute the force of the provision by establishing additional criteria before a prosecution can be mounted. To do so would risk sending out a signal that the Government were willing to overlook the withholding of information unless it could be shown that it made a material difference. We wish to be able to learn of all the issues which affect asylum seekers supported by the Bill, so that we can continue to support them effectively. For those reasons, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw these amendments.

I should now like to address the amendment proposed by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. Amendment No. 180A would affect a clause of the Bill which, as I have already said, has been drafted to maintain consistency with the provisions of the Social Security Administration Act 1992, where a like offence exists. The offence involved is one of obstruction or delay. The offence is committed when an individual—or, under Clause 100, a body corporate—intentionally delays or obstructs someone exercising functions under this part of the Bill, or refuses or neglects to give information when required to do so by virtue of provisions under this part. For example, this could happen when a supported person declines or refuses to give details of his assets in an attempt to retain access to support to which he is not entitled.

We wish the asylum support scheme to be firm, fair and fast. For this reason we require an offence and a sanction to deter and protect against the instance where the administration of the scheme is being impeded. The penalty which the noble Earl would delete is a fine not exceeding Level 3 on the standard scale, which equates to a maximum fine of £1,000. We are providing for summary trial, and for only a monetary penalty. Members of the Committee may wish to know that, for the offence of obstructing a police officer, Parliament has provided for a like maximum penalty of a fine of up to £1,000.

However, under the Police Act 1996, there is an alternative penalty of up to one month's imprisonment, which we do not propose to replicate in this instance. The existence of an offence implies a penalty. I consider that the maximum we have set is a proper quantum, not least because it is a maximum, not a tariff. Magistrates hearing cases will fit the penalty to the circumstances—we are merely setting down a ceiling within which they must exercise their judicial discretion. Again, I ask the noble Earl not to press his amendment when the time comes.

Finally, I should like to turn to Amendment No. 180B, which has been proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby. I fully understand and sympathise with the reasons why she has tabled this amendment. However, I wish to give the noble Baroness my assurance that it is not the intention of Clause 99(1)(a) to catch those who, despite their best efforts, have found themselves unable to maintain and accommodate someone for whom they had previously provided a written undertaking of support. There would be no question of prosecuting an individual who, for example, found himself or herself unemployed and therefore genuinely unable to continue maintaining and accommodating someone.

Clause 99(1)(a) catches those who wilfully refuse to fulfil written undertakings of support which they had previously provided and thereby cheat the system. To go back to the example I have just given, someone who is unemployed and is unable to fulfil his obligations could hardly be said to be "refusing or neglecting" to maintain a sponsorship agreement. He would just not be able to do it. This is similar to the offence of "failure to maintain" which exists under Section 105 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992. I understand that proceedings would not be taken against someone under this legislation who, through no fault of his or her own, found themselves unable to fulfil a sponsorship agreement. I hope that that allays the concerns of the noble Baroness which gave rise to the proposed amendment. In the light of my reassurances I hope that she will be minded not to press her amendment when we reach it. I beg to move.

4 p.m.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Murton of Lindisfarne)

The Question is that the amendment be agreed to. As many as are of that opinion will say "Content"—

Earl Russell

Is this not grouped with other amendments?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

Before the Question is put everyone should be able to address the other amendments in the group.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

The Minister has performed an intriguing pre-emptive strike by having the good fortune to place his Amendment No. 175A at the head of this group of amendments and therefore, even before debate, he has given us the opportunity of hearing his reply to them. However, he has done that in an adept manner and has certainly dealt with a number of the misgivings that I had when I tabled Amendments Nos. 176 to 180. It will be for the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, to comment on his remarks concerning their amendments.

I have tabled these amendments because of the way that the cards all appear to me to be stacked against the asylum seeker. Where there are concerns about the way in which bureaucracy or the administration operates, or the way in which officials can behave sometimes in an antagonistic or even vindictive manner, it will be difficult indeed for the asylum seeker to establish his or her position. I was concerned to hear the Minister talk of—when he made his pre-emptive attack on these amendments—the dilution of the force of provision. He seemed to imply that everyone who attempts to come here under our asylum arrangements is someone who is trying to cheat the system. Once again the argument of withholding information has been placed before the Committee as though this was a deliberate act and that every asylum seeker would be involved in some deliberate attempt at subterfuge in order to gain admission to the United Kingdom.

As we all know and have discussed many times already in Committee—I shall not therefore labour the arguments—many people come here with documents that by definition are bound to be falsified or information has become obscured because that is the nature of trying to flee and escape from countries and regimes where there is persecution. Ironically, if there is not some kind of subterfuge, it is unlikely that the person concerned is a serious applicant. Where there is some form of subterfuge the person concerned is more likely to be a genuine asylum seeker. Yet every part of the system that we are creating will be stacked against anyone who appears in any way to have massaged the facts to try to disguise some of the reality.

Earl Russell

Like the noble Lord, Lord Alton, I found it an intriguing experience to hear the answer to my amendment before it was spoken to. The Minister said in effect that he did not know what I was going to say but that he disagreed with it anyway! I heard here Whitehall at its finest—the internal referencing system entirely without any reference to the outside world.

I take the Minister's point about the Social Security Administration Act 1992. I am familiar with provisions of this kind; a great deal more familiar than I would like. I am also already familiar with trying to amend it in the way the noble Lord, Lord Alton, suggests. Before we come back to this matter at Report stage—as I am almost sure we will—may I suggest that the Minister takes advice from the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux? That body is particularly concerned about the impact of provisions of this kind for it says that most people do not understand the detail of social security law. That is clearly the case even if one talks to a Minister outside the Chamber; he certainly does not remember all of it and I would not expect him to, nor would I. Therefore many people make errors unknowingly.

In the wording of Clause 98(2) there is no restriction to relevant information. Clause 98(1)(b) states, refuses or neglects to answer a question, give any information or produce a document". Let us suppose, for example, that a man was asked to produce his wife's love letters. He might possibly imagine that the question was ultra vires. I observe the Minister shake his head. I am glad to do so. However, we must be used to the fact now that when you give power to—

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

Will the noble Earl indicate which provision of this part of the Bill would permit a relevant person to ask for the production of love letters?

Earl Russell

Clause 98(1)(b) which states, refuses or neglects to answer a question, give any information or produce a document when required to do so".

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

The paragraph continues, when required to do so in accordance with any provision made by or under this Part". Can the noble Earl identify which provision, made by or under this Part", of the Bill would permit the production of love letters?

Earl Russell

If a question arose whether the person was genuinely married or whether he was obtaining entry by deception. Such questions arise. It is also well known that when you give power to a minor official he will almost always exercise it in ways which are sometimes beyond the scope of his authority. Our records are full of such things as far back as they go. The requiring of information can be used as a form of intrusive power. I think that something rather dangerous here is being opened up, as indeed our experience in social security already proves. If people in this country, dealing in their native language, frequently misunderstand the social security system, which is complex, I would expect people from other countries not speaking our language and dealing with the asylum system, which is equally complicated, to be even more often in a fog.

I come to Amendment No. 180A which is in my name. It proposes to delete provision for a fine. I understand the point about a crime requiring a punishment but here we are dealing with an almost cashless economy. The Minister mentioned a fine of up to £1,000. Will this fine be payable in vouchers, and how many weeks' vouchers would be required to pay it?

Baroness Williams of Crosby

I wish to speak to Amendment No. 180B. I was grateful for what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, had to say about it. I accept that he spoke with sincerity and with understanding of why I raised the point in my amendment.

The two issues which underlie the amendment are, first, that it is not totally unreasonable for people to ask that there should be on the face of a Bill the assurances that the Minister gave. I appreciate the good faith of the Minister, and indeed of his noble friend, and I do not question them in any way. However, a Bill of this kind when it becomes an Act will be interpreted long after both of them have moved onto higher things—one hopes—and it will continue from government to government. The problem that one always encounters as regards assurances given in good faith which then appear in Hansard is that the extent to which they can have the force of law is somewhat limited. I think that many of us therefore have sought to give these restraints and constrictions on the clause something of the force of law.

My first point relates to why the Minister takes exception to the wording of phrases such as "without good cause" when he has agreed that the true meaning of the clause as read would include a recognition of words such as "knowingly", "reasonably" and "with good cause." Many of us would feel happier and more content if such words were on the face of the Bill.

My second reason for raising the matter concerns those who are required to advise asylum seekers and refugees of where they stand. My noble friend Lord Russell has pointed out that there is a great deal of misunderstanding of these complex legal points. From the advisers' point of view, and from the point of view of other bona fide advisers of people who come to seek their help, the more that can be clearly stated the better it will be for everybody. It is unlikely that advisers in CABs in, say, Sheffield or Liverpool will look up the report of this debate in Hansard and he able to quote back the Minister's assurances.

I take the Minister's point. However, the gravamen of what I have to say is that I do not see why there should be an objection to these words. I know the Minister says that they are not necessary. But if we on this side of the Committee believe that they are necessary—perhaps because we have less faith in the mechanisms of government; the Minister is, after all, a member of the Government—it is not unreasonable to ask what is the objection to these words appearing, given the additional safeguards they provide for the individual applicant.

As the Minister rightly surmised, yes, I did have in mind the possibility of someone who, in good faith, had agreed to sponsor an asylum seeker or a refugee family and had then lost his job—or perhaps the owner of a small business which had gone bankrupt—and, therefore, for reasons beyond his control, was simply unable to maintain that sponsorship. Again, the phrase "without good cause" seems, to us at least, to cover such contingencies. While we accept the Minister's good faith when he says that he cannot imagine a situation where such contingencies would not be taken into account, many of us who have been engaged over many years in making laws would feel a great deal happier if he was willing to say that such wording would appear on the face of the Bill.

Lord Avebury

Perhaps I may ask the Minister a question. He put to my noble friend Lord Russell that there was no provision in this part of the Bill to require a person to produce love letters. But it is not merely information or documents in accordance with any provisions made "under this Part" of the Bill; it is "made by or under this Part." Therefore the requirement to produce that information would not necessarily be on the face of the Bill. Does the Minister accept that under the rules made by the Secretary of State in pursuance of the powers given to him under Clause 95, there may well be a requirement on a person to produce information of a particular kind, the nature of which is not ascertainable until the rules have been published?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

Let me deal with the points raised during the course of the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, seemed to suggest—I hope it is not an unfair paraphrase—that my pre-emptive strike was based upon the implication that we suggested that all asylum seekers are attempting to cheat the system. Let me make it absolutely clear that that is not the position at all. If anything I said suggested that, I unreservedly withdraw it; I certainly did not intend that. The fact that we have a Theft Act in this country does not imply that we think everyone in the country to be thieves. We simply recognise that we must have provisions to deal with circumstances which may arise.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, supported by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said that we should insert the word "material." The noble Earl, Lord Russell, then referred to love letters. With the greatest of diffidence I asked him what part of the Bill permitted one to ask for love letters. He referred to the fact that love letters may be required to show that someone was genuinely married. That would be relevant to the question of whether or not they were in the country lawfully in the first place, but of course that has nothing to do with this part of the Bill, which is about support for people pending the process of asylum hearings.

I do not accept that I was wrong in relation to that. But let us suppose that the example the noble Earl gave demonstrates the point that that kind of question, in order to be askable, must be material. That is the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I do not accept that the example is accurate but, even if it were, it demonstrates, first, that the example is bad; secondly, if it is a good example, it shows the need for materiality; and, thirdly, if I am wrong about all of those points and there could be a circumstance in which love letters were asked for—assuming that they had nothing whatever to do with the issue before the authorities; namely, support—the question would then arise of whether the person had a reasonable excuse for not providing them. Answer: plainly yes. As the noble Earl is aware, an offence is committed under Clause 98 only if a person intentionally delays etc, "without reasonable excuse".

4.15 p.m.

Earl Russell

Does the noble and learned Lord accept that this exchange is proof that the question of what is material may be susceptible to argument.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

With the greatest respect, I would have thought it was quite the reverse. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, seeks to insert the word "material." Even if it were susceptible to argument, the mischief with which the noble Lord seeks to deal is unnecessary. I do not think that there is much between us in relation to this matter. It is more a drafting point than a point of substance.

Let me now deal with the other points raised in the debate. The noble Earl raised the question of the removal of any penalty for this offence. The noble Earl does not suggest that there should not be an offence; there should therefore be a penalty. The penalty imposed by the subsection he suggests should be removed is up to £1,000. The noble Earl, powerfully, persuasively—and totally misleadingly—refers only to the one side of the coin; that is, a person who does not have any money who is convicted of an offence. In those circumstances the court is well able to take such matters into account in determining the fine, which is a maximum of £1,000.

What would be the noble Earl's response to a person who gets support by telling a farrago of lies to disguise the fact that he has millions of pounds available to him in this country? In those circumstances, would he regard a fine of a maximum of £1,000 as unjust?

Earl Russell

Obviously there must be a punishment. I thought that the Government—and especially the noble and learned Lord—might have more expertise than I in what should be an appropriate punishment. I assumed that if these words were removed they would have substituted others; I would have been happy to discuss that.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

With the greatest respect, the noble Earl has not answered the point at all. We have proposed a fine of up to £1,000. In the case of a destitute asylum seeker, a minimal fine would be imposed by the court. In the case of someone who had told lies and had money, a fine of £1,000 does not seem unjust. That is why we inserted it in the Bill. The noble Earl has not come back with any counter-proposal.

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, says that if we are all thinking alike, why do we not put such a provision on the face of the Bill? I think as we go through the Bill we will see that the relevant protections are there, both in terms of what is an appropriate offence and in relation to the rights of a defendant. If one puts unnecessary words into a statute—as the noble Baroness suggested—it would simply lead to confusion and unnecessary prolixity.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

Will the noble and learned Lord readily agree that there are absolutely no unnecessary words in this very long Bill?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

I cannot give such a guarantee. We have tried our best not to include unnecessary words. Whether we have succeeded, I do not know.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton moved Amendment No. 175B:

Page 61, line 42, after ("person") insert ("under any provision made by or under this Part").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 96, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 97 agreed to.

Clause 98 [Delay or obstruction]:

[Amendments Nos. 176 to 180A not moved.]

Clause 98 agreed to.

Clause 99 [Failure of sponsor to maintain]:

[Amendment No. 180B not moved.]

Lord Falconer of Thoroton moved Amendment No. 180C:

Page 63, line 7, leave out ("section 85") and insert ("any provision made by or under this Part").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 99, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 100 agreed to.

Clause 101 [Payments to local authorities]:

Lord Falconer of Thoroton moved Amendment No. 180D:

Page 64, line 1, leave out ("an authority") and insert ("a body").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton moved Amendment No. 180E:

Page 64, line 3, leave out ("authority") and insert ("body").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 101. as amended, agreed to.

Clause 102 [Grants to voluntary organisations]:

Lord Glentoran moved Amendment No. 181:

Page 64, line 12, at end insert— ("() In the exercise of the power conferred under subsection (1) the Secretary of State shall ensure that as far as possible similar support is available in Northern Ireland as in Great Britain.").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 181 standing in my name, I shall also speak to Amendment No. 211. Both amendments specifically refer to Northern Ireland.

Amendment No. 181 deals with support for asylum seekers. As I said earlier in Committee, I was well briefed by the new upstanding Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. That commission has told me that it is particularly unhappy about the part of the Bill relating to support. Northern Ireland is remote from the centre of things and has only about 400 asylum seekers a year. The voucher system may be adequate where there are plenty of asylum seekers, but problems occur when the vouchers are not recognised and people do not know what to do with them. In addition, there is a severe shortage of management in that part of the world; hence the wording of Amendment No. 181.

Amendment No. 211 refers to equal opportunities. As the Committee is probably aware, the Equal Opportunities Commission for Northern Ireland specifically lays down what needs to be done to conform to its requirements. We are concerned that the Government have not considered those provisions in the light of the equality duties that are conferred on all public authorities in Northern Ireland in terms of Section 75 and Schedule 9 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. En that regard, the commission urges the Government to conduct an urgent audit of the possible impact of the proposed policy on the equal opportunity of people in Northern Ireland. I beg to move.

Lord Hylton

It seems to me that the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, could have made a stronger case. Perhaps the Government could completely reconsider how Northern Ireland should be treated in the context of the Bill, given the very small number of asylum cases and given, I imagine, the fairly small number of immigration cases that occur there each year. Perhaps it would be better to leave matters as they are now, at least as regards support systems, vouchers and such matters.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

I am grateful for the opportunity that Amendment No. 181, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, gives me to explain our proposals for the support of asylum seekers who are located in Northern Ireland. The Bill applies equally to all parts of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. To the extent that there is a need for support for voluntary organisations in Northern Ireland, Clause 102 will provide for that and it will be used in that way.

We see an important role for the voluntary sector in Northern Ireland. At present, it is not our intention to relocate asylum seekers into Northern Ireland. So the extent of support arrangements in place there will reflect only the number of asylum seekers who present themselves to the authorities in the Province. That means that arrangements are likely to be relatively small scale. Therefore, rather than set up large-scale contracts with commercial providers, we shall, in all probability, set up smaller-scale ad hoc arrangements with the existing voluntary sector to cater for asylum seekers who arrive in the Province of their own accord although we shall use our powers under Clause 85 for that purpose rather than the grant-making powers under Clause 102. That will ensure that asylum seekers in Northern Ireland receive the necessary assistance with accommodation and essential living expenses.

We see an important role for the voluntary sector in Northern Ireland. We propose to treat it on broadly the same terms as the voluntary sector elsewhere in the United Kingdom. On the basis of that assurance, I hope that the noble Lord will not press his amendment.

Amendment No. 211, also proposed by the noble Lord, opens up the prospect of a different time-scale for the implementation of Part VI in Northern Ireland.

Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act imposes certain statutory obligations on public authorities carrying out functions relating to Northern Ireland. They must have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity in terms of a number of categories, including racial group. Without prejudice to that obligation, they must also have regard to the desirability of promoting good relations between persons of different religious belief, political opinion or racial group. Schedule 9 to the Northern Ireland Act sets out a framework for implementing those obligations. In particular, it requires public authorities to submit equality schemes to a new equality commission for Northern Ireland within six months of the schedule coming into operation. Those equality schemes will include the public authority's arrangement for assessing and consulting on the likely impact of policies on the promotion of equality of opportunity.

Those provisions of the Northern Ireland Act have not yet been substantively commenced. The new equality commission has not been appointed and it is unlikely that the equality scheme system will be in operation until next year. When it is, the Act lays out a system for complaints about the implementation of equality schemes to be considered by the equality commission. The Northern Ireland Act does not include provision for individual equality impact assessments to be laid before Parliament.

The amendment tabled by the noble Lord does not indicate who should carry out an impact assessment of Part VI of the Bill. It is not clear whether that would be required from Northern Ireland public authorities, such as the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the Department of Health and Social Services for Northern Ireland, or whether the Home Office would be required to carry it out. There is provision in the Northern Ireland Act for Section 75 to apply to UK departments, but only after they have been designated by order. No final decisions have yet been made on which departments will be so designated.

I believe that this is also an appropriate time to mention that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission had previously raised concerns with the Government about the provisions governing the support of asylum seekers contained within the Bill. I take this opportunity to say that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has written to the chief commissioner responding to his points and, I hope, providing reassurance that we believe that the approach contained within the Bill concerning support for asylum seekers will meet all of our international obligations, and that it will give complete support to those who are genuinely fleeing persecution, wherever they seek asylum within the UK.

I hope, in the light of my earlier comments relating to Amendment No. 211, that the noble Lord will not move that amendment.

Lord Glentoran

I thank the Minister for that clear explanation. I am delighted to hear that his right honourable friend in the other place has written to the commission. I hope that it will be satisfied with what it reads. In the light of that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 102 agreed to.

Clauses 103 and 104 agreed to.

Clause 105 [Overpayments]:

Lord Falconer of Thoroton moved Amendment No. 181A:

Page 65, line 29, at end insert ("as a result of the error").

The noble and learned Lord said: I hope that the Committee will agree that this minor amendment will serve to improve the clarity of legislation, something to which this Government ever aspire. It safeguards the interests of the asylum seeker by putting beyond doubt that the only amount recoverable from the asylum seeker would be the amount overpaid by way of error. I beg to move.

4.30 p.m.

Earl Russell

I welcome the amendment. It brings the law in this area into line with social security law in a way that is thoroughly appropriate. Does it also imply the e converso principle which is applied in regard to social security; namely, if an under-payment is detected, the department will meet it?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

That certainly does not follow from this amendment. It relates to over-payment.

Earl Russell

In that case, will the Minister contemplate completing the bringing in of the alignment, as was first proposed?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

I will think about it. My initial reaction is that, if there is an under-payment, that would be in accordance with some provision of the legislation and that would not be necessary.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 105, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 106 [Exclusion from benefits]:

Lord Alton of Liverpool moved Amendment No. 182:

Page 65, line 39, leave out paragraph (b).

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I shall also speak to Amendments Nos. 183 to 185. The first three amendments in this group deal with the issue of disability. Amendment No. 185 deals with the entitlement of families with children to a limited range of mainstream benefits. With the permission of the Committee, I shall speak to the first three amendments and deal subsequently with the fourth.

The first group of amendments is supported by the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, who has asked me to express his apologies that he cannot be present for today's debate and to express his support for the arguments advanced. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, also has his name to this group of amendments. The second group is also supported by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby.

Many noble Lords will have seen the report in the Sunday Times last weekend concerning allegations that the French Government are paying refugees to seek asylum in Britain and that a confidential report has been sent to the Home Office by British immigration officials. It claims that substantial numbers of refugees have been placed on trains in order to take them out of French jurisdiction and place them under British jurisdiction.

If that is so, it seems extraordinary, given all the arguments advanced last week about collaboration with our European Community partners and the purpose of these arrangements being to safeguard asylum seekers. On the one hand, with the collaboration of another EC government, it appears that there is a deliberate abuse of our asylum arrangements and therefore the deliberate misuse of taxpayers' funds; on the other hand, we are being asked to approve legislation under which benefits are to be taken away from vulnerable groups of genuine people, including the disabled and families with children. Given those oft quoted words, "fairness", "firmness" and "faster arrangements'', this provision would seem to do none of those things. I hope that, in replying, the Minister will at least say a word about those reports. Does he agree that those resources could be placed at the disposal of vulnerable groups such as those who are disabled?

The purpose of the first three amendments is to ensure that disabled asylum seekers have a right to special support for which they qualify because of their disability. Clause 106 means that no one who is subject to immigration control will be entitled to a range of income, maintenance and extra cost benefits, including disability benefits. These amendments would ensure that severe disablement allowance, which is a meagre income replacement benefit available to those who are defined as 80 per cent disabled, and disability living allowance, which is an extra cost allowance for those with significant care and/or mobility needs, would still be available to those subject to immigration control who meet the criteria for those benefits in terms of their disability.

The Bill contains some welcome proposals for speeding up the asylum application process and far dealing with the backlog of cases. We all welcome those. But other aspects of the Bill not only fall short of alleviating the problems faced by disabled asylum seekers in particular but threaten to exacerbate the stress and difficulties caused by their disabilities.

Although there do not seem to be official figures on the number of asylum seekers or refugees who are disabled, perhaps in replying the Minister will be able to give the Committee some guidance as to the numbers of people whom we know to be disabled among those who are currently registered as asylum seekers. Disability organisations with a great deal of experience in the field support the view that the incidence of disability and ill health is much higher in that group than for the population in general. It would be for the interest of the Committee to have some comparative figures.

For some asylum seekers, it is the direct experience of depression, imprisonment, ill treatment, beatings or torture which results in disability. For example, beatings on the head can cause permanent damage to the inner ear and loss of hearing. Rape and other forms of sexual abuse often result in permanent damage and recurring health problems. For others, disability results from untreated wounds or malnutrition experienced when fleeing from persecution or war.

The loss of limbs as a result of landmines is, for example, a major cause of disablement in parts of the world which experience, or have experienced, warfare. Until recently, I was treasurer of the All Party Anti-Landmines Group. Many Members of this place are members of that group and are well aware of the situation concerning landmine victims. Last year, I travelled to the Burma/Thai border and saw at first hand prosthesis centres operating in areas where many people lose limbs as a direct result of the conflict in that part of the world.

Those asylum seekers with existing physical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or haemophilia will have those conditions exacerbated by stress and the inability to obtain regular medical treatment. It is extremely common for physically disabling conditions to be accompanied by mental health problems among asylum seekers. In addition, the Committee will be well aware that HIV and AIDS are likely to affect some asylum seekers and their children. There is a high incidence of AIDS among people coming from central Africa. Many noble Lords will have read the harrowing accounts of AIDS victims in countries such as Zambia and Kenya. Many do not know that they have the disease, and access to services is inadequate. A healthy diet, warm clothing and accommodation, not having to share bathroom facilities, and minimum stress are important in enabling that group to prevent their health deteriorating further.

The mental health problems that I have mentioned are the commonest manifestation of disability among asylum seekers according to those who operate in the field. Many asylum seekers suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome. The experience of torture, of seeing family members tortured or killed, of rape and beatings can all result in serious mental health problems. I recall visiting camps such as Bekla and Hwakalo on the Burma border last year and meeting people there who had seen family members raped or, in one case, a grandmother killed as a result of a bomb being dropped into the camp from the Burma side of the border. There were harrowing accounts of husbands who had been made to work as porters and were shot dead when their physical health broke down. That led to the mental breakdown of many of those family members who had been exposed to those accounts and sometimes to seeing the incidents at first hand.

There is, of course, the stress of not knowing what has happened to family members who have left their home country. Many of us have read the recent accounts of those fleeing from countries such as Kosovo and not knowing what has happened to other members of the family or what the future holds. All of that can lead to chronic depression, to isolation and also to mental illness. People can develop physical symptoms in relation to stress and fear and can undergo a personality change. Many others become ill as a result of dislocation from their home and culture and as they experience the loneliness of exile and alienation in the unfamiliar, often hostile societies in which they find themselves.

For others, it is the loss of status and responsibility consequent on the transition from being respected professionals in their own country to life in emergency accommodation and a hand-to-mouth existence in day centres. I have encountered groups of Sudanese and Egyptian Copts, for instance, living in this country and have drawn up reports on the situations in their home countries. These people are often high-powered individuals who suddenly find themselves regarded almost as the lowest of the low. Having to deal with the circumstances in which they find themselves can be traumatic.

Children can also become physically disabled as a result of injuries inflicted in war conditions or by exploding landmines. Others will have been disabled from birth or early childhood but have little access to medical treatment. Childhood diseases that leave little mark on British children can have serious consequences in countries where children are weakened as a result of poor nutrition and inadequate access to healthcare. Polio and TB are common causes of disability and ill health in many poorer countries.

My noble friend Lord Hylton was responsible for successfully amending a previous Criminal Justice Act to deal with the plight of children who were exploited by so-called "sex tourists" in countries such as Thailand and the Philippines. Your Lordships will be aware of other examples of children being shot dead on streets. I was the founding chairman of the All-Party Street Children Committee. I recall harrowing accounts by people from Guatemala, Nicaragua and Brazil of children being molested on the streets and shot dead because they were regarded as worse than vermin.

Children and young people also suffer from mental ill health. This may result from the loss of parents, witnessing beatings, rape or killings, or coping with the stress of the ill health of another family member. A teenager whose parent is severely depressed and unable to cope is also likely to suffer mental health problems. Other children find themselves bullied or taunted at school, unable to concentrate on lessons and isolated and lonely if they do not speak the language or have money to join in activities.

There is an accepted body of research that more than substantiates my assertion that disabled people from all of the categories I have mentioned face extra cost as a direct consequences of their disability. This is accepted by government and reflected in the social security system through the provision of extra costs disability benefits: disability living allowance and attendance allowance. There is also some limited recognition, in the form of disability premiums and disabled child premium for income support, within means-tested benefits that extra financial help is necessary for households with a disabled member.

The most obvious direct financial costs of disability are hearing aids, sticks, wheelchairs, special beds, prostheses, glasses, incontinence pads, handrails, home adaptations, ramps, non-prescription medicines, special cutlery and tin-openers. In addition, disabled people often must spend more on meeting basic needs: extra heating, especially if mobility is restricted; extra hot water for bathing, perhaps as a result of night sweats or pain relief; extra clothing, if this wears out more quickly; specially made clothing and shoes, if a disabled person's body shape is unusual or he or she is unable to use back-fastenings; extra laundry costs—hot water and washing powder—due to incontinence; extra nappies, sheets and mattresses for the same reason; food for special diets or allergies; individual transport and fares to hospital; and cleaning, cooking or personal care.

On top of these extra needs, disabled people may have to pay more for basic items. People with limited mobility may have to use the nearest, rather than the cheapest, shops. A disabled asylum seeker may face all or some of the extra costs that I have mentioned. I have deliberately not included those extra costs incurred by permanently settled disabled people, such as specially adapted cars or major home adaptations, such as stairlifts and the like.

Therefore, the withdrawal of access to social security benefits from those who apply for asylum in-country rather than at the port of entry has already resulted in much hardship among asylum seekers. Refugee organisations have provided well documented evidence of the disastrous effects of leaving asylum seekers destitute. The response of local authorities has been welcome and well intentioned but it is inefficient, expensive to administer and denies choice. It is not acceptable that the level of provision to an asylum seeker should be dependent entirely on the particular local authority area in which he or she happens to end up. The provision of bed and breakfast accommodation and food vouchers causes major problems for someone whose disability means that he or she must keep to a special diet. Health professionals report that their work in treating asylum seekers is hampered by their patients' inadequate diets, poor and insecure accommodation and generally high levels of stress.

It is therefore to these issues that I draw the Committee's attention in considering Amendments Nos. 182 to 184 which seek to reinstate the position of disabled people above and beyond any other category. I make no apology for singling them out in that way. I believe that there are very good reasons why the Committee should consider giving them particular consideration. The purpose of Amendment No. 185 is to restore the entitlement of families with children to a limited range of mainstream welfare benefits.

Last Wednesday the Minister made a welcome announcement in Committee regarding support for children as part of the family by the asylum support directorate. I strongly welcome that. However, there are four areas on which I should like the Minister briefly to touch in his reply. First his announcement that a couple with two children would receive £106 per week implies that asylum-seeking children will receive 100 per cent of the rate for children up to the age of 11 years. The increase in the provision for asylum-seeking families should not be paid as a flat rate of £24.90, which is the rate paid for children under the age of 11, but should increase according to the child's age. The payment of 100 per cent of the personal allowance for the purposes of income support for asylum-seeking children should correlate to the rate payable to a resident child of the same age. When the Minister comes to reply perhaps he will comment on that proposition.

Secondly, the increase in provision is said to be paid in cash as opposed to vouchers. The proportion of cash payments to vouchers should be increased in relation to the whole package for families. Can the Minister elaborate further on his statement on that matter last week?

Thirdly, the value of the support package for families with children rises in accordance with inflation and is in line with the annual increase in benefits payments. When the Minister comes to reply, can he say whether the value of this support package will rise in relation to benefits payments and whether, when the provision under Part VI of the Bill is implemented, in practice the value of the support package for parents and carers with children will be based on the equivalent level of income support?

Fourthly, provision is made for the payment of one-off grants for families immediately after arrival in the UK. I welcome the Secretary of State's announcement prior to Report in another place that after six months families will receive a one-off payment to meet the costs of replacing items, such as clothes and so on. While the payment may address the problem of replacing items of children's clothing that either wear out or are outgrown after six months—I raised this point with the Minister when I saw him as part of a delegation from the Refugee Council—it does not help families to provide for their children immediately upon arrival in the UK.

As we witnessed in the recent events in Kosovo, many families flee their homes and countries wearing literally the clothes in which they stand. There is a need for families to be able to purchase everyday clothing as well as particular items, such as warm clothes if they arrive in the winter. Many families may have had to exist without recourse to washing facilities or a change of clothes, which may render many clothes useless after weeks of difficult travel. In such circumstances families will need immediate recourse to funds to replace basic essential living items, the cost of which will be beyond them if they must exist on only 70 per cent of the adult income support level and 100 per cent of the personal allowance of income support for children.

I hope that, in the spirit of the Minister's recent very welcome announcement relating to children, he will be able to respond to the matters which are dealt with in Amendment No. 185. I beg to move.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis

I shall speak to Amendment No. 186 in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Graham. Effectively, it seeks to disapply some of the provisions of Clause 106(1)(e), (j) and (k) where there is evidence of persecution or torture, or both, which it elaborates.

The asylum support directorate is charged with enormous responsibilities. I do not believe that I go too far in suggesting that it is charged with setting up a separate system of welfare support. Those responsibilities go far beyond those which commonly exist in the welfare system in this country, because they determine where people should live and to which services they are able to seek access. In other words, they will decide whether an asylum seeker lives in an area where someone is able to communicate with that. person in a language which he or she may understand; whether there is a representative who is a specialist in asylum law and able to take the case of the asylum seeker; whether the asylum seeker lives in an area where healthcare workers are able to make appropriate linguistic and cultural provision, and whether he or she lives in an area in which specialist healthcare responsibilities are available. That is why I say that these are huge responsibilities.

I am not at all sure that the support directorate is doing more than setting up a very rudimentary way of dealing with these vitally important matters. Is it right that people who have undergone severe torture should be thrown into such a system?

The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, which has vast experience in such matters, asserts that in its experience safety, comfort and security make a huge difference to the ability of people to work through the experiences of torture, organised violence and exile. The steps proposed here do not suggest that that is the objective.

I know that my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn is extremely sensitive to all these matters. He gave assurances in the earlier debates in Committee that the dispersal policy will be sensitive to the need of the survivors of torture to access services and that, where a survivor of torture needs to travel to attend appointments, for example, with the medical foundation, the expenses will be met by the support directorate.

Many people including myself also have other concerns about the support scheme, in addition to those about dispersal. There are serious anxieties about the support proposals outlined in the Bill and in the documents produced by the asylum support team. As I understand it, little has allayed the anxieties of specialists in this field that the projections as to the time people will spend in the system, the numbers involved, and the cost and scale of the administrative project, are realistic. There is anxiety that the scale of services for refugees available in different regions has been overestimated. There is a fear that the support system will in due course, perhaps not immediately, become a system in crisis. Surely, the kind of people we are talking about have had enough crises in their lives already.

The asylum support information document asserts that the system being designed will have a significant deterrent effect. Is that the right sort of system to be set up here, having regard to the kind of people we are talking about? I am concerned with a whole range of case studies which have been submitted to the department about the anguish being endured by people in these circumstances; namely, those who are clearly torture survivors. I do not propose to weary the Committee with a list, but I hope that my noble friend is aware of them. I shall send him the documentation that has been made available to me.

I hope that my noble and learned friend will be able to offer some words of comfort in a potentially dire situation which has already become dire for many people. I hope that my noble and learned friend will be able to allay some of the very profound anxieties which have been expressed to me by an organisation of unsullied reputation which has a great deal of experience in dealing with the victims of torture.

Lord Dholakia

My name appears to this amendment, together with that of the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool. He has very ably dealt with the disability issues. What better champion could there be on that issue than the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, who has also put his name to this amendment? I do not need to develop the same arguments again.

I should like to concentrate on Amendment No. 185. If there is an area of serious concern in the Bill, it must be about the provision relating to children. We welcome the number of concessions that the Minister has already announced. But this particular amendment seeks to go a little further in trying to exclude certain people from the provisions of paragraphs (e), (j) and (k) of Clause 106(1). There was something of a heated debate last time when someone questioned whether we had the permission of the taxpayer on these matters. Perhaps I may put it another way. Throughout the world, this country has a unique record of supporting charities concerned with children. If this is one particular cause in which we should seek the approval of taxpayers, I have no reason to doubt that they would support what we are trying to do in this clause.

The amendment would take the asylum-seeker family with children out of the support scheme. Access to welfare benefits is currently restricted to asylum seekers who apply for asylum at the port of entry. The need for this amendment is particularly urgent because of the nature of the support that is to be provided for children and families under Part VI of the Bill. That may seriously compromise the welfare of children and their development. A lot of material has been produced by the Children's Consortium. Perhaps I may first of all declare an interest as a trustee of the Save the Children Fund. Other organisations, such as Barnardo's, UNICEF, the Refugee Council's children's section, and the Children's Society, are all concerned at the likely implications if we do not adequately support an asylum seeker's dependent children under the age of 18.

As I said earlier, we acknowledge the recent announcement as regards support arrangements for families with children. However, despite that concession, the legislation and the fundamental principle on which the asylum support directorate will operate still remain unchanged. As such, it will continue to appear that many of the provisions of Part VI of the Bill (on support for asylum seekers) clearly continue to breach Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights—relating to the right to family life—the Children Act 1989 and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. As it stands, the Bill's provisions on support arrangements for families will be detrimental to the welfare and development of children and inadequate for meeting their particular needs.

This is the first time in decades that support for an asylum seeker's children under the age of 18 is to be set at less than 100 per cent of the urgent cases rate of income support. The Government have justified that reduction in income support levels on the ground that a destitute asylum-seeking family will be dependent on the asylum support directorate only for two months while the asylum claim is being determined. The Minister in the other place stated that an asylum-seeking family will not have the same living expenses as a resident family. An asylum-seeking family will not have to replace long-term household items and utility costs will be met by the asylum support directorate while a one-off payment may be available to families after six months living on the asylum support arrangements.

Major concerns remain despite recent government announcements. Perhaps I may explain those concerns. Income support is designed to cover only day-to-day subsistence needs as opposed to additional long-term expenses ably identified in the detailed cases specified by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. Children and their families have the same basic daily living needs regardless of their immigration status and the time they are resident in the United Kingdom. There is a lack of public scrutiny regarding the detail of Part VI of the Bill, and a lack of empirical evidence to establish an irrefutable link between the incentive of income support payments and the arrival of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom. We need to concentrate resources upon achieving best value within the Immigration and Nationality Directorate as the most efficient strategy to reduce abuse of the asylum system.

I refer to the relative cost of supporting asylum-seeking families with children through welfare benefits as opposed to the arrangements of Part VI of the Bill. There is the incompatibility of the support arrangements of Part VI with the Government's commitments and obligations to safeguard the best interests of the child as set out in international and domestic childcare legislation. I point out the contradiction between the Government's policies towards asylum seekers and their commitment to eradicating social exclusion and poverty among all children, young people and families in the United Kingdom and the discrimination and daily difficulties faced by asylum-seeking families and their children who are obliged to use vouchers as the main source of income.

It is undoubtedly the case that the most effective disincentive to economic migrants would be to speed up the decision-making process for asylum claims. We welcome the Government's commitment to reducing the current length of time in making a decision on an asylum claim as this will prevent people abusing the system over the years. However, the priority given by the Government to creating a below-subsistence level support system despite the adverse effect on the development of children stands in disappointing contrast to their commitment to tackle child poverty and social exclusion.

Many asylum-seeking families will ultimately settle in the United Kingdom. The initial impression gained while they wait for the decision will have a lasting effect on the emotional attitude of children and young people towards their host country while the support arrangements are likely to have a negative impact upon their physical and social well being. It is not conducive to the long-term settlement of asylum-seeking families to place them in a system which will not enable them to meet the children's basic needs. I hope, therefore, that the Government will look sympathetically at the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others.

5 p.m.

Lord Hylton

I support this group of amendments. The first three of those proposed by my noble friend Lord Alton refer to the removal of disability benefits from asylum seekers. We have to look at the context in which it is proposed that this should happen. We know that there is a backlog of some 75,000 cases stretching back to 1993, perhaps a little further. The Committee will recall that that was the year of the Act previous to the last legislation on the subject. So we are faced with a number of disabled people, some severely disabled, who will be deprived of what they currently receive.

I shall be grateful if the Minister will reply to this question. If the Bill is passed as drafted, will asylum seekers suffering from disabilities be placed in a worse position than other immigration cases which happen to be pending?

On Amendment No. 185, I should be pleased if the Minister would undertake to study between now and Report stage the 24 pages of briefing on this one amendment produced by the Children's Society speaking on behalf of five of the leading voluntary children's societies in this country. I shall not weary the Committee with the details, but it would be helpful if the Minister could deal with the five points spelt out by my noble friend Lord Alton on dependent children under 18. I hope that we can have satisfactory answers today.

Viscount Brentford

I support the amendment. However, I wish to ask the Minister a few questions. The clause seems somewhat oddly structured. Subsection (1) deals with the jobseeker's allowance. What is the thinking behind the drafting of the clause? It does not matter how the individual's disability arose. Some people become disabled in the course of the flight from their country to avoid persecution. Others were disabled earlier in life. It is important that in either case people who are disabled are properly looked after in this country.

There is a great deal of anxiety among those who have the practical care of asylum seekers that only about 70 per cent of the value received—whether in vouchers or cash—will be available for the asylum seekers as opposed to those who are in this country. The exclusion of the allowances will make carers of asylum seekers even more concerned. I am sure that many Members of the Committee are receiving papers, letters and memoranda expressing concern about the situation. If the Minister rejects the amendment, I look forward to an assurance from him as to how the extra financial provision will be made by the Government or the local authority to ensure that those disabled people are properly looked after.

The Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells

I begin with an apology. I was unable to take part in earlier discussion of the Bill, although I am grateful for the diligence shown in amending it. I am grateful to my colleagues on these Benches for the important contributions they have made.

When I first saw the Bill, I was unfortunately ill and therefore unable to give it my whole attention. However, I was shocked at the treatment that the Bill implied and threatened. Having worked for 13 years as the Bishop of Stepney among immigrant communities and being involved many times in disputed cases, the unamended version of the Bill suggested to me a nation which, in its desire to deter economic migrants, was committing itself to laws which not only added to the suffering of genuine asylum seekers but which were also insensitive to the needs of the extremely vulnerable families involved.

I have vivid memories of the lives of children shut up for months, indeed, years, in one room. I have memories of the illness and neurotic disorders involved. I experienced that not only in east London, where families often became submerged in the difficulties which already existed for others, but also in a new town where the victims, so to speak, were considerably isolated by being so different from the rest of the community.

I therefore want to express appreciation for the way in which the Government and Ministers have listened to the debates and amended the proposed legislation. There have also been many consultations outside your Lordships' House, not least with the voluntary organisations, the consortium which has just been mentioned concerned with children, and the Children's Society of which I am the chairman.

Sadly, I come to the debate late in the day, but I want to pay tribute to the progress made. However, today I hear substantial anxiety and a hope for further change. There are more questions still to ask. I shall not repeat the evidence given by the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Dholakia, but, in case the Committee thought that by my silence I did not support what they said, I wish to stand and support them.

There appears to be a distinction between the Government's policy towards asylum seekers and their commitment to eradicate social exclusion and poverty among all children, young people and their families in the UK. We all realise the enormous difficulties in the situation which the Government face and we want to encourage them in their determination to be fair and just to such families as they come exposed and vulnerable to our society. I want to emphasise the great importance of the cohesion of families. If, through all the harrowing events which have brought a family here, they manage somehow to stay together and to support each other, they are different from the isolated people I have seen during my ministry who crack up under the pressure of the society around them.

One proposal which distresses me, and which was noted by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, is the use of vouchers. The voucher system was described by the Government as expensive, cumbersome and not very useful, and I do not know why it is necessary now. Will the Minister attend to that detail because there is something discriminatory about trying to live with vouchers? They are discriminatory in terms of available shopping facilities; other people see the vouchers being used at the check-out; and the system is difficult to control.

On the one hand, I want to thank the Government for what is being done, but, on the other hand, I believe that there is still more to be done. Finally, will the Minister more fully explain the voucher system and how people are expected to survive on them in their own setting?

The Earl of Sandwich

The amendment seeks an assurance from the Government that asylum seekers, especially the vulnerable groups, are not treated on a different basis from our own citizens. It can be fairly stated, but today we have heard evidence that asylum seekers need to be treated more generously than our own citizens because of the afflictions they have endured.

I have visited refugee camps in Thailand and Sudan where refugees or asylum seekers are treated better than the local population. The local population feel resentment, but that is not the case in the United Kingdom. However, the organisations are most concerned that we should consider these vulnerable groups on an equal footing, if nothing else.

5.15 p.m.

Earl Russell

I have not found it so difficult to take part in a debate since the poll tax! I shall not detain the Committee long, but I want to ask for clarification. It is common ground that disability carries extra costs. Those costs were quantified, or an attempt was made to do so, by the OPCS survey in 1990. Every disability organisation I know believes that it underestimated the costs. I know no one who believes that it overestimated the costs.

The question then arises: do the Government intend that under the provisions of Clause 85 those needs of asylum seekers will be met? If the answer is "yes", the question arises: will that be by benefits or will the costs of disability be recognised as essential living needs within the meaning of Clause 85(7)? If the Minister can answer "yes", we have a further question to discuss. If he cannot answer "yes", he must accept the amendment. Those costs exist and, one way or another, they have to be dealt with.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

I want to refer in particular to Amendments Nos. 185 and 187ZZA on the supplementary Marshalled List. Sometimes when I listen to debates on the Bill in this House I am reminded of nothing so much as a brilliant pianist dealing with a broken-down piano and a very bad composition. No one who has sat through our days of debate in Committee could be other than extremely impressed by the ability, compassion and responses of Ministers. The trouble is that the composition is frightfully bad and however brilliant their handling of the instrument, the Bill is appalling.

No part of it more clearly demonstrates that than Clauses 106 to 108. They are invested with a mean-spiritedness which is not within the mood or spirit of this country nor of this debate. Distinguished contributions have been made. I shall not name everyone because it would take too long, but what we heard from the right reverend Prelate, from the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, from the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, and others bears out the fact that there is a strong spirit of humanity in this country and that the Bill falls very far short of it.

I shall not go on, except to say that in Amendment No. 185 some of us have tried to deal with the position of families which include children under the age of 18. In Amendment No. 186, the noble Lords, Lord Graham and Lord Clinton-Davis, have tried to deal with the victims of torture. We have tried to exempt those particularly vulnerable groups from the sheer harshness of the decision that benefits relating to people's needs over and above the basic level of income support cannot be met because the people concerned are subject to immigration laws.

As the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, said so forcefully, it is troubling that we seem to be relegating the most vulnerable groups to deliberately less favourable treatment than ourselves, despite the situations they have confronted and experienced. None of us would argue that there need not be proper controls. We have discussed that in other parts of the Bill. However, that cannot explain the discrimination against the disabled, those who are mentally ill and, above all, those who are in need of our mercy and understanding.

Because of the shortage of time, I shall direct myself to only two amendments in a little more detail. Amendments No. 185 and 187ZZA relate in particular to the position of children. As my noble friend Lord Dholakia so eloquently said, Amendment No. 185 relates to the attempt to re-establish the right to child benefit, housing benefit and council tax benefit for families which include children. It would go some way to restore their position from what has been laid down elsewhere in the Bill.

Amendment No. 187ZZA—I apologise for the complicated nomenclature of the amendments—relates more directly to what the Government have said. I want them to explain the present position. Earlier in the Committee proceedings, we strongly welcomed the statement made by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, about a decision to restore to children 100 per cent of their benefit entitlement in certain clear situations. Those situations related in particular to families waiting for procedures to be completed and appeals to be heard for a period longer than average expected as a result of the speeding-up of the process by the Government.

Amendment No. 187ZZA attempts to put into more legal phrases promises made from the Government Benches as regards the position of families where the average targets at which the Government themselves are aiming cannot be met. The Government have used the phrase "average lengths of time". They have also said, "When it appears that those lengths of time will have been accomplished". However, the phrases used so far are not precise. Amendment No. 187ZZA attempts to set out in precise detail the situations in which families with children would continue to be entitled to the present support system up to the introduction of Part VI of the Bill. Therefore, the provisions would be the same as they have been until now for children in families, and support would not be reduced in any period in which the targets were not met.

Amendment No. 187ZZA seeks to provide that persons whose families include children under the age of 18 will continue to be eligible for the social security benefits to which they would have been entitled if Part VI of this Bill or Schedule 1 to the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 had not been passed. In short, the amendment seeks to hold the Government to their promise that families will not be subject to the support system and will not have their existing right to benefit withdrawn until the targets have been met.

In the second part of the amendment we specify the targets. I believe that they are directly in line with those at which the Government are aiming; namely, three months from the lodging of an application for asylum if no decision has been received and six months from any appeal if it has not yet been disposed of. This is an attempt to ask the Government to set out in more detail the nature of their commitment; for how long the full support system set up under existing legislation will be maintained for families with children; at what stage families with children would fall back on Part VI of the Bill—namely, the new support system—and whether that would happen if the targets were not met. I invite the Government to say rather more about their intentions towards families with children.

Baroness David

I rise to express my support for Amendments Nos. 185 and 187ZZA, so ably moved by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby. 1 support very much what has been said by the right reverend Prelate. Furthermore, I should like to support what he said on vouchers. The Government have gone some way to improve the Bill, but it could do with a great deal more improvement. I hope very much that the Minister has listened to the concerns that have been expressed. I have a special interest in those involved with children. I hope that the Minister can be of real help when he comes to reply.

Viscount Astor

The amendments relate to Clause 106 which refers to the allowance under the Jobseekers Act and other benefits. Rather depressingly, I note that the Jobseekers Act was passed in 1995. I remember piloting the measure through your Lordships' House. It seems a long time ago, but there we are.

I should like to comment only on Amendment No. 185, which was spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I do not want to add anything except to say that we welcome the concessions made by the Government. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked questions which I believe deserve careful consideration by the Minister. I am sure he will give that. I hope equally that the Minister will not be drawn into a debate on the principle of vouchers. We have already had that debate and it is not necessary to go over it again. In any case, the principles do not relate to these amendments.

We are all concerned about children and how asylum seekers with children should fit in. My only concern about Amendment No. 185 relates to council tax. I am not sure whether an asylum seeker would ever pay council tax, so that provision seems rather unnecessary. However, the issue of children is important. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I shall take a little while to respond to the amendments because the debate on them has lasted about an hour. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I reply at some length. I believe that the noble Viscount is right. Last week we had a very extensive debate about vouchers, the principle of them and so forth. I think that the topic has now been sufficiently addressed. I realise that different views have been expressed, but there must be a limit to how many times we discuss the same topic, especially as these amendments do not focus on vouchers.

Despite the right reverend Prelate's experience in the past of children living together in one room, in some cases for years—we all deprecate that—perhaps I may say quite gently that that is the kind of vice that we are trying to avoid in the Bill. A family with dependent children will not live in a single room for years. They will be given proper, furnished accommodation. They will have pots and pans and the necessities of life; they will have their utility bills paid as a part of the scheme; they will be looking to a determination of their claim not in years but in two months and to a determination of any appeal which might be lodged within a total of six months. That is an infinitely better scheme and it bears no relationship to the circumstances described by the right reverend Prelate.

As the noble Viscount pointed out, my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer and I have sketched out on many occasions our policy approach to the scheme behind the Bill. It would better assist the Committee this evening if I focus on the amendments before us.

I do not know anything about a report in the Sunday Times; that is, any secondary report. I read the report myself. Whether it was accurate, I simply do not know. There has been a suggestion, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, pointed out, that some "French officials" were making financial payments or giving free tickets or similar benefits to encourage people to come here. I do not know whether that is true.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

Before the noble Lord leaves that point, I should like to point out that the report on the front page of the Sunday Times also indicated that a report had been lodged by immigration officials with the Home Office corroborating some of the allegations. Is that the case?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I said that I do not know about the secondary report. I understand that that was the report within the Sunday Times referred to by the noble Lord. If, before Friday, I discover anything further, I shall of course get in touch with the noble Lord as soon as I can. However, I have made inquiries and we do not have any knowledge of that report at this moment.

Several noble Lords asked about the number of disabled asylum seekers. At present I am told that there is a very small number. The phrase I have been given is that "a handful" receive the benefits mentioned in Amendments Nos. 182, 183 and 184. Perhaps I may give the reason for that. At present, those whose leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom is subject to limitation are not eligible to claim severe disablement allowance, disability living allowance or disability working allowance. That is the present state of our law and has been our law under the arrangements which derive from the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996.

Amendments Nos. 182, 183 and 184 would extend entitlement to those three benefits to all persons subject to immigration control, as defined in this clause. I do not know whether the movers and supporters of those amendments contemplated that that would apply not only to asylum seekers but to people who come to the United Kingdom in a wide range of circumstances; for example, visitors, students and business people, or if it is the intended consequence that that should be the result. It would be.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I shall try not to interrupt again. I think he can accept from me on behalf of the other proposers of the amendment that that is not the intention. If the amendments in any way lead towards that, they would have to be clarified by redrafting. As the Minister knows, the purpose of the amendment is directed at the group I identified in my remarks. I wonder whether, therefore, he will concentrate on that group on the assumption that we will return with an amendment that deals specifically with those involved?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I understood that to be the purpose of what the noble Lord seeks. However, it is my duty to inform the Committee of the consequence of an amendment, if accepted.

These benefits are all non-contributory. They are not based on individual national insurance contributions but come from general taxation. Obviously, people may come to this country for a variety of reasons. Visitors, students and business people have their interests. Some people come here as ultimately well founded asylum seekers. Quite a significant majority come for other reasons. Some are genuine economic migrants. I have said before that I sympathise with their motives; I am sure that all noble Lords would. Some people come here for fraudulent purposes. Any sensibly organised system has to deal with a wide spectrum of people.

We believe that the status of a person's stay in this country should play a part in deciding to what extent he or she should benefit from the protection afforded by the social security system. Generally, when there are restrictions on a person's right to remain in Britain, that person does not have access to the social welfare system in the normal way.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, indicated privately to me—I am grateful for his courtesy—that he was concerned about the essential living needs of asylum seekers. I know that RADAR shares his concerns. Perhaps I may say to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, who raised this point, that where individual asylum seekers are able to show that they have needs beyond the general norm arising from disablement they will be able to make their claim to the support scheme for such assistance as represents their essential needs. For the reasons I have given, I am not therefore able to accept Amendments Nos. 182, 183 and 184.

I turn to Amendment No. 185. Under Clause 84(5), where an asylum seeker's household includes a dependant under 18 the family will continue to be entitled to support under the Bill scheme while they are in the United Kingdom until they are granted leave to enter or remain, or leave the country.

I remind the Committee that the cash element of the support has gone up to £10 per dependant child per week. Perhaps I may reiterate that if the average time for initial decisions on asylum applications by families has not been brought down to two months by 1st April 2000 they will not be brought into the new support arrangements. I have said that on an earlier occasion. I reiterate it in deference to the amendment and to the question asked by the noble Baroness. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, raised a number of questions.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Before the noble Lord moves on to the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, perhaps I may pursue a point. I understood clearly what the Minister said at an earlier stage, and I believe that the Committee welcomed it. The problem is the same as the one to which I referred in my earlier discussion with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. How does one put that pledge on to the face of the Bill so that it is clear in law what such a family is and is not entitled to? That is my concern.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising that point, which I would have returned to. We will be taking a view, very early in 2000, as to whether we can expect to meet the two-month target. If we cannot, families will continue as at present. They will not be brought into the new system. I do not believe that it is necessary to have that on the face of the Bill. It would not be politically sustainable for any Home Secretary to renege on a pledge which he clearly made and I have repeated on at least three occasions in this Chamber.

We will not put families into the scheme if we have not been able to satisfy ourselves that we can meet the two-month target. I do not think I can put it plainer than that. It is true that the more cynical might say, "Why not put it on the face of the Bill?" That is a question which has been asked on a number of occasions in various contexts. The answer is that there must be a sensible limit to what one puts on the face of the Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked a number of questions. I recorded four, not five. I am grateful for his acceptance of the increased level of support which I announced last week. That will reflect the merging of the different income support levels for children up to the age of 16. That will take us up to 1st April 2000. The noble Lord also asked about the increase of cash and the expense of vouchers; the ratio question. I am not able to take matters any further. I have gone as far as I can in that context.

The third question I recorded related to the increased uplift in a general correlation to DSS benefits. We will keep the level of support under annual review. I cannot give a commitment at this stage about the nature of the link to DSS benefits. I do not believe that any Minister could.

The final question raised by the noble Lord was perfectly legitimate, if I may say so; namely, what about people who need clothing on arrival, particularly if the weather is inclement, or, as he said last time, children have simply outgrown their shoes. We believe that the voluntary sector, which will be handling the initial reception arrangements, is best placed to give assistance with immediate replacement items where needed. That is much more helpful than people coming from a land far from home trying to make their own arrangements.

I shall return to the other questions raised. The underlying purpose of Part VI is to take asylum seekers out of the social welfare benefit system and offer them a fast, accurate delivery of support that is responsive to their individual needs. We want to be faster, firmer and fairer. I do not believe that a delayed scheme, of the sort referred to by the right reverend Prelate, is civilised; that is, to keep people in limbo for years. It is very important that we identify at an early stage those who are entitled to asylum. We have a duty to treat them with a decent regard to their needs. However, we have to bear in mind that their needs are not necessarily the same—in fact they will generally not be the same—as the needs of those who are otherwise destitute in our society.

I repeat that we are providing a decent level of support with furnished accommodation, pots and pans and all utilities paid for. We are providing the opportunity of a grant after the six-month period with a positive indication (I cannot say a cast-iron guarantee for every family in every circumstance) that the two-month and six-month regime will be in effect before they enter the scheme. These arrangements, properly administered in a sensitive way, are much better than what presently happens on occasions. I refer to the dumping of people in local authority areas where they meet hostility because the local community simply will not or cannot cope.

A better outcome would be to find a sensible resettlement scheme, discussed so many times in the progress of this Bill, with people from similar cultural, linguistic and ethnic backgrounds clustered together helpfully away from the pressures of the south east. It is certainly a more humane one.

The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, is right. We do not believe that income support, housing benefit and council tax benefit are appropriate or relevant. I shall not repeal: what we are offering; I have made it perfectly plain.

I understand the point behind Amendment No. 186, but it refers to the case of, an asylum seeker where there is evidence of persecution or torture, or both". This is my problem: if the reference to "evidence" means evidence that the Secretary of State has accepted, then, unless the persecution has been for a reason outside the refugee convention, the individual would by then have been granted refugee status. If the noble Lords mean simply where the asylum seeker has given oral evidence or provided a document indicating that persecution has occurred, that would apply to every asylum seeker.

Earl Russell

Looking for middle ground, I would suggest that it means where the claim of torture is supported by expert organisations or professional medical witnesses.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

That is what I have tried to meet in answer to the very helpful conversations I have had with the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. I dealt with that matter last time. I do not say it was a concession; that would sound graceless. I was extremely pleased to have their informed intervention, and I think I met their legitimate concerns.

The Lord Bishop of Southwark

While the Minister is on that point, I should like to say that I have been reflecting upon the earlier exchange between him and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, about whether or not the promises made should be put on the face of the Bill. Although, of course, it is quite understandable that not everything can be put on the face of the Bill, Amendment No. 187ZZA is so crucial to those in the voluntary agencies who are very anxious about the effect of the Bill on children and family life that it would bring a great deal of confidence to them if the noble Lord could reconsider his response to that amendment. It might change the tone of the way in which the voluntary agencies regard the Bill.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I shall come to that when I have finished the point I am dealing with now, because I should deal with the amendments in a coherent pattern. I am dealing now with Amendment No. 186, which concerns the specific question to which my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis spoke.

I repeat that if the evidence referred to in the amendment is evidence which has been accepted, the claim will have been upheld. If it is evidence by way of assertion, which it could be, it will apply to virtually every asylum seeker.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

The Minister was kind enough to refer to the earlier concession that he made in the light of the conversations that he had with my noble friend Lord Dholakia and me, for which we are extremely grateful. In the course of those conversations he said that where a general practitioner agreed that there was a prima facie case that there could be torture he would accept that the cost of attending a more senior and expert medical practitioner would be borne as part of the support system. We were very grateful for that.

I think that what my noble friend Lord Russell has in mind is the possibility that where a GP agreed that there was a prima facie case there might be an argument for considering additional support along the lines of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, specifically in that rather specialised group of cases where the GP has conceded the likelihood of torture but where there has not been a final outcome to the case, which, as the noble Lord rightly said, would bring it within the terms of the convention.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I certainly think there is a case to be considered there. I hope that I can develop my response to it as I proceed.

What the noble Baroness has said is really about introducing a single or dual filter: whether one takes the certificate of the general practitioner or the concluded view of the medical foundation as the final arbiter. I take her point that that builds in safeguards, which are needed, because otherwise assertion will be the same as evidence. It is morally wrong to treat people who have genuinely been tortured in the same way in every instance as those who simply assert it, maybe wrongly.

What I have to say is important to many voluntary organisations with a particular interest in this field. Incidentally, I forgot a long time ago to declare that I was once a patron of an organisation called Redress, which deals with people in this capacity. I hope that the Committee will forgive me retrospectively.

We shall instruct officers dealing with asylum cases that they must be particularly careful and sensitive when they deal with people who say they have been tortured, and that rape or other sexual violence should be treated as torture. I know that some members of the Committee have been very keen to underline that. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, has done so on a number of occasions, saying that in some communities rape is an even more horrendous act than in others, because it is used as a particular device; almost, I think, the noble Lord said on another occasion, as an activity of war. Therefore, those will be the instructions given. Obviously, if there has been torture it is a very important element in deciding whether an asylum seeker qualifies for refugee status.

I return to the general points that were put by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and those who supported him. I agree that if one has been tortured there will be many consequences, which will not simply be physical. They may be long-term. There again I say—and I believe we should take the credit for it—that if there is a family one or more of whose members have been tortured it is a good deed to tell them "Your application will be dealt with in two months, and if you have an appeal you will know where you are in six months". I put this as humbly as I can when I say that this is part of the restorative process, which I know will be long term, that I think the noble Lord had in mind.

We want, therefore, to have determinations carried out as swiftly as possible. If the person's account is believed, he or she is accepted. If it is not believed, he or she will not qualify for refugee status. But where the asylum seeker is part of a family containing a dependant under the age of 18, I repeat, we continue to offer support until they have left the United Kingdom.

I go further, because the noble Earl and the noble Baroness quite properly wanted to draw these points out. Where an asylum seeker evidences a particular need for treatment arising from torture or sexual violence, he or she will have the freedom to apply under the asylum support scheme for this to be covered as an essential living need. I think that was the specific question the noble Earl put to me. He or she will have access to the health service, and to social services at a local authority level, to get the help, support and treatment needed.

We want to deal with all asylum seekers equitably, and I believe that treating them in the way that our scheme provides brings that about.

The noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, asked about extra finance for local authorities. My understanding is that funding local authority services for asylum seekers will be part of the normal spending assessments associated with the local government finance settlement.

A number of Members of the Committee raised the question of children's organisations. We had a most useful meeting just a few days ago in the Home Office with some representatives from Save the Children, UNICEF, Barnardo's, the Children's Society and the Refugee Council. They raised particular questions about details of how the scheme might work in practice. I undertook that if they wrote to me I would give them every consideration as regards any assurance I could give them, whether in writing or in this Committee, about their concerns. I am waiting for their letters. I am not chiding them; the meeting took place only a few days ago.

Amendment No. 186YA is a minor drafting amendment. We made an identical amendment to Clause 4, and I say no more about it.

We next come to Amendment No. 187ZZA, concerning the processing times for asylum applications. I have made my position plain. We will not bring in the new support arrangements if we have not reached the position that I have mentioned in answer to the noble Baroness. I am told that we shall be able to achieve that target. Work is in hand to ensure that the average time for appeal is kept down to no more than four months. If we need to defer commencement—it is possible—we can do so by means of the commencement order powers in the Bill.

It is not right to say that we are making asylum seekers worse off than people in receipt of social security benefits. I repeat what I said when I made the announcement about the additional cash for children; that is, that they will be broadly in the same position. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, was seeking to press me on asylum seekers receiving disability benefits and what will happen to those who may be in transition. I paraphrase what he said, but I believe that I do so fairly.

Lord Hylton

I was concerned about the backlog and the impact of the whole of Part VI on them.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

The backlog—by which I mean people who are in receipt of disability benefits at the moment—is very small. Their rights will be preserved until the next review of the situation. I repeat, the generality is that entitlement to disability benefits was removed in 1996 but a small number of people are still in receipt of them.

I know the anxiety expressed, but I repeat that exceptional types of support can be provided under Clause 86(2) for those who are disabled. We are looking to one-stop shops funded by the Home Office which will provide advice from experienced workers in the field.

I dealt with the point of the noble Earl, Lord Russell. I hope: that I have dealt with all the queries. I do not mistake the importance which Members of the Committee attach to these matters, but in return I ask that, when we make improvements—and we have—the nature of them should be widely disseminated. Many people have concerns which were raised at the outset when the Bill was published. Some of them were misplaced. I understand that. Some of them were well based and we have met a good deal of them. So I do not ask all Members of the Committee immediately to join this side of the Chamber and sit behind my noble friend and myself. However, we have made concessions and it is better that people should know about them rather than be fearful.

I cannot accept these amendments. I have taken a little while but thought it appropriate.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

I shall be brief in my response. The Minister should not get a complex about this. He may recall that in my introductory remarks I paid tribute to what he said in Committee last week about the position of children. I hope that in all parts of the Chamber we have been fair to the Minister. I also asked him last week whether he would meet children's organisations. Within seven days he has done so and been able to report back to the Committee.

So there have been immediate responses on a number of occasions and the Minister has taken seriously all the issues that have been raised. The issue at the heart of our anxieties is the one expressed by several Members of the Committee in this debate; that is, what should be on the face of the Bill. The Minister told us, for instance, that in 1996 disability benefits were taken away from disabled people and we would be reverting to the pre-1996 position if we were to do that.

Clearly this provision was on the face of legislation prior to 1996 and did not include all categories of all visitors; it included those people to whom it was directed. That is the purpose that lies behind this amendment, although I am happy to accept what the Minister says about the wording being improved. I asked the Minister to indicate whether he would be prepared to go back to a pre-1996 position when it came to the question of how disabled people are dealt with. He indicated in his reply that it is not the Government's intention to do that. Obviously I am disappointed by that reply and know that many others will be also.

The Minister said in his response that we are talking about only a handful of people. Whether we are talking about the children mentioned in the course of the debate on Amendment No. 185; the disabled people mentioned in the course of the debate on Amendments Nos. 182, 183 and 184, or the victims of torture, they comprise relatively small numbers; yet they are crucially important categories to whom we should extend every possible assistance. I know that many Members of the Committee who opposed the 1996 legislation—including some now sitting on the government side of the Committee—did so because they knew that such groups were worth keeping within the context of the law and safeguarding. I believe therefore that this will be an issue to which we shall return on Report.

We are being asked to make a leap of faith by not writing these safeguards on to the face of the Bill. However much we may respect the integrity of the Ministers who have spoken during our Committee stage, it is not their integrity and it is not their probity which is at issue. It is how these categories and groups of people will be treated in the future, possibly when there are Ministers in office who will be less receptive to these concerns than has been this Minister of State.

My final point before seeking to withdraw the amendment—awaiting the opportunity to divide on these issues on Report—involves the issue of discrimination. We have gone to great lengths to pass laudable legislation on issues such as discrimination against disabled people. We passed the 1989 Children Act—one of the better pieces of legislation passed during the past decade; yet we are setting aside that legislation to say that the one group of children who will not be protected by the Children Act will be the children of asylum seekers, and the one group of disabled people who will not be protected by legislation affecting disabled people in the United Kingdom will be disabled people who are asylum seekers. That is discriminatory and I suspect it will be open to challenge in the courts in due course. I hope therefore that between now and Report stage the Minister will continue to listen to the representations being made to him and give these matters further consideration. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 183 to 186 not moved.]

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 186YA:

Page 66, line 29, leave out subsection (5).

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 106, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 107 [Amendment of section 21 of the National Assistance Act 1948]:

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 186ZA:

Page 66, line 35, leave out from ("person") to ("may") in line 36 and insert ("to whom section 106 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 (exclusion from benefits) applies").

The noble Lord said: Amendments Nos. 108ZA and 186C are drafting amendments designed to standardise the terminology used throughout Part VI of the Bill. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

On Question, Whether Clause 107, as amended, shall stand part of the Bill?

Earl Russell

I am relieved to know that the Minister's amendment was a purely technical, drafting amendment. I have not been able to work out any major purpose in it or substantial change. It adds a little elegance to the Bill and that is to be welcomed.

But the substance of Clause 107 is an altogether different matter. Considering that clause, I am reminded of the sad story of Mrs Jones's funeral. Mrs Jones, one day, collapsed; became unconscious; her pulse stopped; she was pronounced dead. The undertaker was called in; she was placed in a coffin and the funeral was organised. They carried her in procession down the hill and as they turned the corner into the gate of the churchyard, they bumped against the corner. A noise of tapping was heard from inside the coffin, which was opened, and Mrs Jones, very much alive and extremely angry, was taken out of it.

Twenty years later, Mrs Jones was pronounced dead. The undertaker was called in. They arranged the funeral; they organised the funeral procession; they carried the coffin down the hill to the corner by the church gate. As they carried the coffin in, Mr Jones said, "Be careful not to bump against the corner"!

On the last occasion that benefits for asylum seekers were restricted, the corner that they bumped against was the National Assistance Act 1948. This Government are now not merely careful to avoid bumping against the corner but are actually taking down the corner. This principle of the whipping boy is rather a drastic application.

I should apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, for discussing the duties of local authorities under the National Assistance Act 1948 when she is in the Chair and cannot take part. I have listened to her, with benefit, many times on this subject. I would like to take as correct everything that she has said on the subject.

The National Assistance Act was not an ideal vehicle for dealing with the situation. Indeed, very far from it. On the other hand, it was, as experience taught us, a safety net. Whoever removes a safety net is either an optimist or a sadist. I shall not speculate on—and I believe that the rules of order forbid it—which of those the Ministers concerned might be. However, I always think the best of them.

The wording of the clause is very curious. Clause 108 totally disapplies the National Health Service Act 1977. However, it makes only a limited disapplication. It does not disapply the National Assistance Act for other needs, such as pregnancy, disability and old age. It disapplies it solely for the purpose of destitution. Clause 107 states: A person … may not be provided with residential accommodation under subsection (1)(a) if his need for care and attention has arisen solely because he is destitute". The Bill therefore clearly envisages that destitution may possibly result. The Bill may not expect it. It may simply be an example of belt and braces. However, the Bill certainly considers that this is possible.

The Bill therefore seriously considers the possibility that destitution may result and may be unrelieved. It sounds a little unfortunate. Were I to discover such a document in isolation, I would be very tempted to put the worst construction upon it. The need to relieve real destitution, where one finds it, is part of our common humanity. It is part of the same impulse that makes one pick up survivors at sea following a shipwreck or makes one try to rescue people from a burning building. If those impulses were dead, the world would be a very much poorer place than it is. It would indeed diminish us all. I cannot see why the clause needs to envisage this. I cannot understand what useful purpose is served by leaving destitution unrelieved.

I understand, of course, all the basic points regarding economic migrants. There is no way of ensuring that this clause will bite only on economic migrants and not on genuine asylum seekers. That is simply not within the realm of administrative possibility. On Second Reading, the Minister said: It is not motivated—to answer the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell—by the desire to make everything more unpleasant".—[Official Report, 29/6/99; col. 249.] I very warmly welcomed that assurance. However, I oppose the clause standing part of the Bill.

6 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I believe that the noble Earl wanted me to put myself in the sub-category of either opportunist or sadist; optimist or sadist. I hope that that was not a Freudian slip!

I believe that we are trying to be humanitarian and realistic. I do not believe that I can expand on the policy difference here. Our intention is to take asylum seekers from the mainstream welfare system and put them under the new arrangements of the support. Clause 107, by way of insertion after the reference to the National Assistance Act 1948, states: A person subject to immigration control … may not be provided with residential accommodation … if his need for care and attention has arisen solely because he is destitute".

As I have already explained, our intention is to provide an intact scheme for those in that category, separate from the mainstream welfare system, in what I believe is a more responsive and sensitive way. I believe that it is a prudent way and one which will be more effective.

At the moment, local authorities accommodate over 15,000 asylum seekers under the 1948 provisions. I do not believe that anyone who has looked at this matter with any care could dispute that there is an intolerable strain on a small number of social services departments. That is not fair to them, it is not fair to the local communities, and it is not fair to those who are in the position of having to rely on this small number. I repeat that in future they will be relieved of the burden and asylum seekers, defined by Part VI, will be able to apply for support under the new scheme.

All destitution needs will be met by the new scheme by virtue of Clause 85. One does not have to meet destitution needs under Section 21 of the 1948 Act. I am aware that the noble Earl has said that he is alarmed. However, I do not see any cause for alarm. If the matter is put to the Committee, I would urge such of your Lordships who have followed the earlier arguments in some detail not to agree with the noble Earl's proposition.

Lord Avebury

What will happen to the people who are at present accommodated, under the provisions of the National Assistance Act, in hostels run by the London boroughs where the pressures may be very acute? Will these people be able to remain indefinitely in the places in which they are at the moment residing, or will they too be forced to move to the provinces?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

They will not be able to remain indefinitely. A decision would have to be made about their status. I believe that that is one of the serious vices in which we have colluded over the years; namely the uncertainty and limbo. No one will be left destitute. There will be people who will still be eligible for social benefits in the general mainstream. However, when we start the support scheme under Part VI, everyone will be entitled to those elements of the support scheme which we have discussed over a length)' period of time.

I believe it is wise to contemplate—and this is what we do contemplate—moving single people, over time, to relieve the pressure on London. There is a genuine pressure on London. I do not believe that it is simply a question of the ignoble "not in my back yard" syndrome. A very large proportion of accommodation in London is being used by local authorities when they have competing demands on their resources. I repeat that if one carries out dispersal on a cluster basis with a decent regard to the matters that I have mentioned, that will be a better outcome for people than simply being stuck in sometimes not very agreeable circumstances in London and the south east.

Earl Russell

The Minister has answered my question. He is an optimist, and I am very glad to hear it. However, he has not answered the question asked by my noble friend Lord Avebury. What is to happen to people who are at present in accommodation under the National Assistance Act in the period between the commencement of the Bill and the conclusion of their applications?

I believe that osmosis is in progress, is it not? I never for a moment wished to suggest that it was the intention of the Minister or anyone else in the Government to leave these people destitute. I never for a moment wished to enter into the debate on the comparative merits of the National Assistance Act 1948 and the system recommended in this Bill. Whenever osmosis is complete, I shall be happy to hear its results.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

The noble Earl is always extremely courteous, bearing in mind the distance between me and the box. The answer to his question is that we shall use the powers under Schedule 8 to meet the question identified by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury.

Earl Russell

I thank the Minister for clearing up that matter. Coming to the point of replying to him, I was not suggesting that the intention was to impose destitution. The point of a safety net is that it is used when the existing system does not work. That is why it was used in 1996. But things can go wrong, if the Minister tells me—

Lord Williams of Mostyn

It was used post-1996 because there was no alternative. I am suggesting that there will be an alternative—which is the whole of die Part VI regime. The situations are entirely different. Without the courts' utilisation of the National Assistance Act 1948, there would be no means for support. That is not the position which we have here.

Earl Russell

If the Minister had waited for one more sentence, he would have found that that intervention was unnecessary. I was about to deal with the point which he was making. It is, of course, clear that every system, including the one being introduced under Part VI of the Bill, is capable of breaking down on occasion. If the Minister believes that he has introduced the perfect system which will never break down then he will be the first Minister in any government in the history of the world ever to do so. In that case I should congratulate him even more warmly than usual. But—begging the Minister's pardon—I do not expect to do that.

There is the possibility, as happened in Lübeck, of a large part of accommodation provided under Part VI being burned down and no immediate other accommodation being available for that particular night. In that situation, for example, the powers under the National Assistance Act 1948 could have been very material and useful to clear up an immediate emergency in which action would have been essential. I believe that the Minister will miss those powers sooner or later. However, I shall not press the point tonight. I withdraw my opposition to the Motion that the clause stand part.

Clause 107, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 108 [Other restrictions on assistance: England and Wales]:

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 186A:

Page 67, line 1, leave out subsections (1) and (2).

The noble Earl said: In moving the amendment I shall speak also to what is, in fact, my main concern. That is to oppose the Motion that Clause 108 shall stand part of the Bill. Clause 108 disapplies the National Health Service Act 1977. There is a sharp contrast between the way in which Clauses 108 and 107 apply. Clause 107 bites only on need because of destitution. But Clause 108 bites on practically all forms of social service provision. It bites on care of the elderly; on all sorts of community care; it may well bite on some of the services which have to be provided for victims of torture; it bites on the treatment of illness. I do not see why it has been made quite so far-reaching. I hope that in his reply the Minister will explain the reason for the difference in the drafting of the two clauses. It has puzzled all of us for some time.

There is also a danger that the wording, a person subject to immigration control", may make it even more difficult than it is at present for members of our ethnic minority communities to obtain treatment and service when they need it. We know the sort of difficulties that we have run into with the operation of Section 8 of the 1996 Act. Many people do not understand "exceptional leave to remain", and believe that any unusually-spelt name is sufficient proof of foreignness. It is just as well that they do not live in America because they would rapidly learn otherwise. Perhaps they should all be sent to visit.

Clause 108 also disapplies all the mental health services. We have been hearing all day about the effect of trauma in the course of becoming an asylum seeker on the mental health of those concerned. It is always likely to be considered. If trauma is followed by a total refusal to provide access to the necessary services, there must be a risk that trauma may lead on to paranoia. Paranoia is capable of leading to all sorts of undesirable forms of behaviour. When that happens, people may complain. I believe that the appropriate reply may be, in the words of John Stuart Mill, that it shows: The inability of the unanalytic mind to recognise its own handiwork".

To cut severely disturbed people off from mental health services is liable to bring its own poetic justice with it. I do not applaud that. I regret it very deeply. But there is a considerable unwisdom involved. I should like to hear why the Government believe that this is a sensible thing to do. For the life of me, I cannot understand it.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I may be able to be helpful. The noble Earl has raised an important question on Amendment No. 186A in the distinction which he drew between the two succeeding clauses. Our belief is that the powers under the provisions to which the noble Earl spoke are little used by local authorities. I am not denying that there may be a need for existing services. I am trying to be helpful by saying that we are considering the need for Clause 108(1) and (2) and that those subsections should be restricted to those subject to immigration control whose need for support arises solely as a result of destitution. I believe that that meets the point which the noble Earl was making.

Viscount Astor

Perhaps it would be convenient if I spoke to my amendment, Amendment No. 187, which is in this group. I should like to make two quick points. I understand that, as currently drafted, the Bill removes the obligation on local authorities to provide residential accommodation and aftercare services for those subject to immigration control who have been suffering from a mental disorder. We are concerned that that proposal will have much further-reaching consequences than those immediately apparent for the individual concerned. To leave an immigrant suffering from a mental disorder without access to residential accommodation or aftercare services will have profound public policy implications. To adopt such a policy would raise concerns for the safety of the community as a whole.

That seems to fit rather strangely with the Home Secretary's recent announcement in relation to our own nationals in this matter. Perhaps the Minister will briefly enlighten the Committee on how those fit together. My further point is that, as I understand it, mental health law is devolved to the Scottish Parliament and is currently being reviewed by the Scottish Executive. How does that fit with the powers in Clause 108?

Baroness Williams of Crosby

I do not wish to delay the Committee, as the Minister obviously hoped that his intervention would prevent us from doing so. I simply want to ask him, for absolute clarity, whether he is saying that Clause 108(1) and (2) would not apply to people subject to immigration control as a result of the further consideration which he is giving to the representation made by my noble friend Lord Russell, or whether we have misunderstood that. We are not completely clear on these Benches.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

The noble Earl has raised important questions. He has pointed out the difference in drafting between Clauses 107 and 108. I said that I would look again at subsections (1) and (2) of Clause 108 to ascertain whether asylum seekers with specific need to access services provided under those provisions will be able to access them in the same way in future.

As I understood the noble Earl's questions, they were: why have you cast Clause 108 differently from Clause 107? Are you in danger of excluding those whom you do not really want to exclude? I believe that he has a legitimate point. I did not give any guarantee in that respect, but the reason I intervened early in the debate was simply to say that I thought it was a point that we ought to consider. Indeed, it is one that I shall be considering actively before Report stage.

Earl Russell

I thank the Minister most warmly for that response. I do not yet know whether I have received a welcome concession or a very welcome concession; in either case, I am extremely pleased. I look forward to hearing more about it on Report. For the time being—

Viscount Astor

Before the noble Earl withdraws the amendment, I wonder whether the Minister would like to respond to my points now or wait until we reach Amendment No. 187.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

Amendment No. 187 is included in this group. However, I thought that I should give way to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, on that point. I should remind Members of the Committee that this group comprises Amendments Nos. 186A, 186B and 187. I have dealt with Amendment No. 186A and the noble Earl has responded. Amendment No. 186B will remove the current prohibition on making an order under Clause 109(1) that would grant access to social housing to people excluded from support by virtue of Part VI.

I should point out to the Committee that I am dealing, first, with my amendment. I shall then turn to the amendment tabled in the name of the noble Viscount. The general intention is that those subject to immigration control who are here for a limited period should not have access to long-term social housing. There are some cases where we might want to relax that; for example, some universities lease spare accommodation from local authorities to accommodate students, some of whom may be from overseas and subject to immigration control. The amendment is designed to give flexibility.

I am grateful to the noble Viscount for raising his particular point and for giving me this opportunity to deal with it. I can tell him that I am aware that there is some concern that we have the drafting wrong; in other words, we have gone further than is necessary. Therefore, I undertake to think carefully about this and, if necessary, I shall come back with a further amendment on Report. Essentially, the Bill is about the support of asylum seekers during their asylum application. However, I can confirm to the noble Viscount that, in the devolution context, asylum is a reserved matter.

Earl Russell

I beg leave to with my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 108 agreed to.

Clause 109 [Housing authority accommodation]:

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 186B:

Page 67. line 36, leave out subsection (2).

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 109, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 110 agreed to.

Clause 111 [Other restrictions on assistance: Scotland]:

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 186C:

Page 68, line 33, leave out from ("person") to ("is") in line 34 and insert ("to whom section 106 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 (exclusion from benefits) applies").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 187 not moved.]

Clause 111, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 112 agreed to.

Clause 113 [Support for children]:

Baroness Williams of Crosby had given notice of her intention to move Amendment No. 187ZZA:

Page 70, line 5, at end insert— ("() An eligible person whose household includes a child under the age of 18, and his dependants, 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—

  1. (a) initial asylum decisions; and
  2. (b) appeals to adjudicators against initial asylum decisions,
and certifying that the average time from the lodging of an asylum application by a person whose household includes a child under the age of 18 to the initial decision on such applications is riot more than 2 months and that the average time from the lodging of such asylum applications to the determination by an adjudicator of the initial asylum decision is not more than 6 months. () An eligible person whose household includes a child under the age of 18, and his dependants, shall in any event be eligible for any social security benefits to which he 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, if—
  1. (a) 3 months have elapsed since the lodging of his application for asylum and he has received no decision on that application; or
  2. (b) 6 months have elapsed since the lodging of his application for asylum and his appeal against refusal of asylum is disposed of.").

The noble Baroness said: This gives me the opportunity simply to say that I accept the Minister's assurances. I apologise for my attempt to try to say so too soon, when he spoke to this group of amendments. I am most grateful for those assurances and fully understand the points made by the noble Lord. I shall not move this amendment.

[Amendment No. 187ZZA not moved.]

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 187ZA:

Page 70, line 20, after ("families)") insert ("or section 22 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 (equivalent provision for Scotland)").

The noble Lord said: We turn now to quite an extensive group of amendments relating to Clause 113. The grouping includes Amendments Nos. 187ZA, 187A, 187B, 187BA, 187C, 187D, 188 and 188A. As we have followed this procedure in the past, perhaps it will be helpful if I speak to these amendments now. I should, of course, point out that my remarks are not intended to pre-empt anything which Members of the Committee may wish to say. I simply seek to set out our view on this group; otherwise, we may find ourselves in something of a muddle.

The provisions of Clause 113 are a little complex, although necessary. These amendments give me an opportunity to explain the working of the provisions. Under the new support arrangements, it will be the Home Secretary, rather than the local authority social services department, who is ordinarily responsible for meeting the accommodation and essential living needs of families. Local authorities cannot generally provide for those needs. But in all other respects, local authority social services departments will have the full range of responsibilities towards children and their families—for example, if a child had particular needs resulting from a disability or where a child was at risk. So asylum-seeking families can expect the same level of assistance as any other family, albeit from two different sources.

We are concerned to ensure that there is no gap in the sort of provision that may be made. We want the same arrangements to apply across the whole of the United Kingdom. Therefore, Amendments Nos. 187ZA and 187BA, which are government amendments, will extend the effect of the clause to Scottish law, on exactly the same basis as applies in England.

Perhaps I may now refer to Amendment No. 188, tabled in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Cope of Berkeley and Lord Alton. The reason for taking a regulation-making power in subsection (10) is to ensure that no gap can be opened up. This is a reserve power. However, if it transpires in the future that there is some essential service which is not being provided by the Secretary of State which a social services department is prevented from providing because it is classed as "assistance" under subsection (6) (which a local authority may not provide), we would want to make regulations removing that service from the general prohibition. As we ought to be able to have a seamless safety net, we thought that we should have this power available to us.

Amendments Nos. 187A, 187B, 187C and 187D, tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, address a different concern; namely, what happens when the Secretary of State withdraws assistance? I believe that the circumstances in which accommodation would be withdrawn from a family are very few and far between. If we are faced with a "problem" family, we would try counselling, support and supervision. As a last resort, the sanction may have to be to withdraw accommodation being provided.

In those circumstances, Clause 113 provides that it is only the social services department for the area in which the "withdrawn" accommodation was located that can provide assistance—in the form of accommodation or essential living needs support—under Section 17 of the Children Act, in England. The reason for this is quite plain: we do not want families to be able to bring about an eviction so that they can then go to a social services department in a completely different part of the country, demanding to be accommodated in that area. That is the point of this provision.

The amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, would apply the same restrictions on which authority would be able to provide assistance with essential living needs, if this sort of support were withdrawn. So it could be provided only by the authority in whose area the family had previously been living. I cannot think of circumstances in which assistance by way of essential living needs would be withdrawn, other than if the family had some other source of income; for example, getting assets transferred from overseas, or, as my noble and learned friend said earlier, perhaps winning the lottery.

The restrictions that Clause 113 places on areas of residence are, essentially, to prevent the drift of asylum seekers back to the South East, if they want to be accommodated by the state. It has always been perfectly plain that, if asylum seekers want to make their own arrangements for accommodation—for example, by staying with friends or relatives—and seek only assistance with essential living needs, we are content to provide that, wherever they live. During such period as accommodation is to be provided if needed by the Secretary of State, and he is providing essential living needs support, there is no role for local authorities in providing those forms of support. Subsections (7) to (9) of the clause relate only to which authority is to provide support where accommodation is withdrawn to prevent, as I said, a drift back to the South East.

Amendment No. 187C would amend subsection (8) of this clause. Subsection (8) provides that, if the Secretary of State withdraws accommodation from an asylum-seeker family, only the local authority in whose area the family was previously residing can provide assistance under Section 17 of the Children Act. Amendment No. 187C would limit this further so that the local authority in question could only provide such assistance to the family unit rather than to the child on its own. That would mean that any local authority, not just the local authority in whose area the family was already residing, could provide assistance to a child separately from its family, where the Secretary of State had withdrawn support from the family. We do not think that such an amendment is necessary. Under the Bill as it stands, any local authority—I am happy to confirm this—would be able separately to support the child under Section 20 of the Children Act.

I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for raising the question of inspections in Amendment No. 188A. In taking over the functions that local authorities would otherwise have for the support of asylum-seeker families, we are taking on a serious responsibility. I agree with the noble Earl that proper standards need to be maintained. I am happy to tell him—I think that this derives from part of our earlier conversations—that we are actively considering, along with the Department of Health, what role the Social Services Inspectorate might play in monitoring the activities of the new asylum support directorate in respect of families, and providing advice. We—or our agents—shall, of course, advise local authorities of families placed within their area, and liaise with them where particular services are required. However, the inspectorate has an interest in maintaining standards nationally, and we feel that its inspection or monitoring, rather than that of the local authorities, is the best way forward. I hope that I have met a concern and that the Committee has found my comments helpful. I beg to move.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Dholakia

I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation. He is right to say that Clause 113 is fairly complex. Therefore, we need to probe the implications of the four amendments in this group which stand in my name. The Minister has explained in what circumstances the provision of essential living needs in respect of a child might be withdrawn. The Minister has made it clear that there are few, if any, circumstances where the provisions of this clause would apply. However, will the Minister clarify whether—if such essential living needs are withdrawn—Section 17 assistance under the Children Act could be accessed?

My next point was mentioned in the other place. I refer to the circumstances under which accommodation might be withdrawn. Can the Minister give us any further information on that point? Will the Minister give an assurance that when access to Section 17 assistance is envisaged, this will be in respect of the child and his or her family, as provided for under Section 17, and that the child will be taken into care only as a last resort where that is deemed to be in the best interests of the child? As I say, I am grateful for the Minister's explanation of the amendments.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

I too am grateful for the explanation of this group of amendments. Amendment No. 188 stands in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool. In my view—I do not attempt to speak for the noble Lord—this is a probing amendment. We do not want to prevent the Secretary of State allowing local authorities to pick up a case if that should prove necessary. However, we were anxious to find out what the Government have in mind in this respect. That has been made fairly clear. It is important to have what I think the Minister described as "seamless assistance". The amendment helps to achieve that.

Amendment No. 188A concerns inspection. I believe that it is important that this new service should be inspected, although not necessarily precisely in the way suggested in the amendment. I believe that the Minister has made favourable noises in that respect for which we are grateful.

Lord Hylton

I should like to speak to this whole group of amendments. I do so particularly to welcome the letter from the Under-Secretary of State, Mr O'Brien, to UNICEF which was apparently dated 15th July. The key phrase in that letter was, No asylum seeker children will be removed from the provisions of the Children Act". That is fine. I believe that it improves on another, slightly earlier letter from the Minister here to Llin Golding MP dated 30th June. In my view what we need is a clear boundary between what local authorities will be able to continue to do in this context and the work of the asylum support directorate. I do not think that vie can expect that directorate to have represented within it all the skills that now exist within children's departments. Children's departments are able to take what one might describe as a very holistic approach to children's needs. That is what we want to see continued in respect of asylum-seeking children.

The Earl of Sandwich

I think that everything has been said. I shall not seek to move Amendment No 188A which stands in the name of my noble friend Lord Northbourne who, unfortunately, cannot be present and to whom we owe the original amendment. I was encouraged by the Minister's letter after we met him, and now by the confirmation that he has given.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I believe that there are two matters that I ought to deal with in response to the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. First, I can confirm that subsection (8) of Clause 113 simply sets limits on which. authority can provide assistance in the form of accommodation and essential living needs under Section 17 of the Children Act. I am happy to repeat that the subsection does not limit the operation of that section.

Secondly, the rubric of Section 17 mentions, Provision of services for children in need, their families and others". I believe that it is inherent in that provision that, if the relevant local authority feels that it is appropriate, it will continue to be able to make available accommodation for the whole family group. I agree with the noble Lord's observation—I think we all do—that taking a child into care in any circumstance ought to be the choice of last resort.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 187A and 187B not moved.]

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 187BA:

Page 70, line 36, after ("1989") insert ("or section 22 of the Act of 1995").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 187C to 188A not moved.]

Clause 113, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 114 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 188B not moved.]

Clause 115 [Secretary of State to be corporation sole for purposes of Part VI]:

Lord Cope of Berkeley moved Amendment No. 189:

Page 72, line 3, after ("State") insert ("while acting in England and Wales").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 189 I shall speak also to Amendment No. 190. The Committee will have noticed that the amendments stand not only in my name but also in the name of my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Drumadoon. The Committee may be of the impression that the amendments concern Scottish legal points, in which case the Committee is correct.

I am advised that Amendment No. 189 might be considered necessary to clarify that the provisions in the clause do not apply in Scotland—or, for that matter, Northern Ireland—where the law is rather different. The amendment seeks to make clear that a corporation sole is a characteristic of the English legal system and has no corresponding provision in the Scottish legal system.

Amendment No. 190 seeks to ensure that the provisions of the subsection extend to moveable property in addition to real or personal property. From a Scottish point of view, it was again thought that the amendment would fill a gap in the drafting of the statute. I beg to move.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I am grateful for that explanation. In this group of amendments we find Amendments Nos. 189, 189A and 190. With regard to the Scottish and Northern Ireland question, as it were, which the noble Lord raised, we have given a great deal of thought to the matter. As the noble Lord indicated, the amendment would have the effect of disapplying for Northern Ireland the concept of the Secretary of State as a corporation sole. I did not assume that that is what it was seeking. In the context of the Northern Ireland jurisdiction the concept has application and meaning. For that reason alone I would invite the noble Lord in due time not to press the amendment.

I understood from the noble Lord that he was raising the fundamental question of the concept of the corporation sole in Scotland. He is quite right, Scottish law does not have such a concept but its rules of private international law recognise bodies which are corporations sole under the law of another country. I think that is the answer to that conundrum. That is what Clause 115(1) does for England, Wales and Northern Ireland; it creates the Secretary of State a corporation sole for those countries. The purpose is to give continuity to the exercise of his functions under Part VI for holding property and making contracts. It is not needed for Scotland, and Clause 115(1) as framed does not have the effect of introducing the concept into Scotland.

There have been precedents. For example, the Data Protection Registrar, whose functions extend throughout the United Kingdom, was created a corporation sole in Schedule 2 to the Data Protection Act 1984, and her successor, in the form of the Data Protection Commissioner, continues as a corporation sole under Schedule 5 of the Data Protection Act 1988. The Secretary of State for Employment, who has jurisdiction throughout Great Britain, is a corporation sole under Schedule 5 to the Employment Act 1989. I do not think there have been any explanations, but that is the reason for it.

Amendment No. 189A speaks for itself. It seeks to insert: property, real or personal, heritable or moveable". I think the amendment is wide enough to cover everything the noble Lord, Lord Cope, wished to cover with Amendment No. 190 and probably goes a little further. As we have gone further than he asked, I would ask him not to press that amendment either.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

That sounded a most reasonable explanation. I shall ensure that it is considered by those who know more than I do about these matters. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Gardner of Parkes)

In calling Amendment No. 189A, I should inform the Committee that if the amendment is agreed to I cannot call Amendment No. 190.

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 189A:

Page 72, line 5, leave out ("real or personal property") and insert ("property, real or personal, heritable or moveable,").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 190 not moved.]

Clause 115, as amended, agreed to.

Clauses 116 to 118 agreed to.

6.45 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby moved Amendment No. 190XA:

Before Clause 119, insert the following new clause—


(" .—(1) The Secretary of State for the Home Department shall issue a codes of practice in connection with the exercise by immigration officers, or any other persons, of the powers contained in this Part of this Act to—

  1. (a) search for and arrest persons, enter and search premises and search persons held in detention;
  2. (b) seize and retain material found on persons or premises;
  3. (c) fingerprint.

(2) Any person exercising powers under this Part of this Act shall be bound by a disciplinary code, which shall be attached to the said codes.

(3) A failure on the part of an immigration officer or other said person to abide by any of the provisions of the codes shall raise a presumption against the admissibility of any evidence obtained in exercise of the powers contained in this Part of this Act in any hearing before a court or tribunal.

(4) A failure to abide by the procedures contained within the codes shall also lead to disciplinary charges being laid against the immigration officer or other person concerned.").

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 190XA I shall, following the lead of the Government Front Bench, pre-empt Amendment No. 195C, and my noble friend Lord Dholakia will speak to Amendment No. 190YA. He has quite wide experience of the Police Complaints Authority, with which the amendment has certain parallels.

This is an important group of amendments which concern the issue of the code of practice for immigration officers and the system for dealing with complaints about their behaviour. The amendments deal with major powers. The powers are so major that they have been of considerable concern to civil liberties organisations in this country because they are so far-reaching.

Perhaps I should briefly mention the kinds of powers that immigration officers are to be given. Clause 122 concerns their right to enter and search premises in relation to immigration offences; they will have the right to fingerprint individuals; they will have the right to seize documentation and, in some instances, to insist upon the provision of personal data. They are very sweeping powers. Unlike the powers in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, they are not restricted to investigating serious crime. The powers take in a wide range of offences, some of which are difficult to describe as major offences.

Understandably, we are concerned that there should be a proper framework, including a code of practice and a complaints system. We recognise two factors in that regard. First, it is vital that there is confidence in the operation of immigration officials; that people not only in our own community but those in the immigrant and asylum seeker communities will broadly recognise that immigration officials are attempting to do their job fairly, decently and as well as they possibly can. We recognise that those who work for the Home Office as immigration officials will welcome the protection that a code of practice will give them, in much the same way as the police have done under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. Obviously, primary legislation cannot lay down the detail of the powers arid rights that an immigration officer has in pursuing his duties.

Secondly, we think that any code of practice should be related back to a disciplinary code—again as it is in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act—so that if an immigration officer's behaviour is not in line with the code of practice it will lead to the instigation of disciplinary procedures. In very serious instances it could lead to a police investigation, but we are not currently dealing with that matter.

So far as concerns the whole area of a code of practice, there will be particular difficulties with regard to the communities with which immigration officers will have to deal. We have talked at length in Committee about the fact that such communities are in many ways more difficult and more fraught with suspicions and fears than the communities with which the police normally deal. There are also additional factors of lack of understanding of the language; cultural differences; and mental illness, of which there is a higher incidence among refugees and asylum seekers than in the population of the United Kingdom as a whole. Not least, it is worth referring to the genuine fear that many asylum seekers feel when faced with someone who appears to be an agent of the state—because their own experience of agents of the state was often one of extreme concern and extreme apprehension.

So the various duties that fall to the immigration officer as a result of the Bill are extremely complex, extremely difficult and require great sensitivity. That is why we believe that Amendments Nos. 190XA and 190YA are of crucial importance.

I turn to why we believe that Amendment No. 190)CA provides a much better basis for a code of practice and a related disciplinary code than Amendment No. 195C tabled by the Government. First, we believe that the link that Amendment No. 195C indicates between any code of practice for immigration officers and the code of practice that relates to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act is, to say the least, troubling. I have already explained one of the reasons for that—the different communities with which both sets of officers deal—but I add to that that Amendment No. 195C suggests, under subsection (3): Any specified provision of a code may have effect for the purposes of this section subject to such modifications as may be specified".

The code concerned under subsection (3) appears to encompass the Police and Criminal Evidence Act codes. The modifications will be such as the Secretary of State determines and the word "specified" appears to relate to his directions. I believe that that means, if I have read and understood the wording of Amendment No. 195C correctly, that we shall be dealing with the PACE codes—the Police and Criminal Evidence Act codes—modified by what one can describe only as relatively sweeping powers by the Home Secretary.

We have already said that we do not believe that those codes are appropriate to the different communities with which immigration officers have to deal. I add to that our concern that under subsection (3) there appear to be wide powers, without any specific indication as to what those powers are, to make modifications. We ask the Minister to say more about how those modifications may be put before an affirmative procedure of Parliament.

Secondly, we are concerned that the powers given to immigration officers under Clause 132 also allow the finger-printing of individuals who have not—I repeat, who have not—committed any criminal offence. By itself that concerns us on the grounds of civil liberties, but if the provision is to be retained, in our view there must at least be specific reference in the codes to it. Those references would be different from the references in the PACE codes on finger-printing, which are more limited.

Thirdly, there are likely to be many women and children caught within the area of immigration offences or in the families of those involved in immigration offences. Therefore, again that community will demand much more sensitivity than in the case of the PACE codes, although those are certainly important.

Lastly, the broad Civil Service disciplinary code does not deal with the relations between civil servants—in this case immigration officers—and the people with whom they shall deal outside the Civil Service. The helpful information provided in another place included an extract from the Home Office staff handbook at paragraph 17.2. That was provided in a letter to Mr John Maxton, Member of Parliament, by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in another place. Paragraph 17.2, described as, Behaviour likely to attract disciplinary action",

refers to such matters as poor timekeeping, breaches of staff rules, being unfit for duty through drunkenness, and rather strikingly, false statements in expense claims. However, I see no reference to any behaviour likely to attract disciplinary action that relates to the treatment of people with whom the officer concerned has to deal.

On those grounds, we feel that neither the PACE codes nor the disciplinary procedures so far laid down meet the special and sensitive needs of the immigration community. We do not believe that they meet the particular problems that arise from the sweeping powers concerned with people who have committed no criminal offences at all, and we do not believe that they deal adequately with a community comprising many women and children who may be the subject of the attention of immigration officers.

Therefore, in moving the amendment, we ask whether the Minister can address the questions of the distinction between the two codes and the distinction between the two sets of disciplinary systems. I also ask the Minister to consider the remarks that will be made, complementary to mine, by my noble colleague with regard to the complaints procedures. I beg to move.

Lord Dholakia

My noble friend Lady Williams talked about the need for a code of practice. I shall concentrate on Amendment No. 190YA which concerns the need for an immigration complaints authority.

The Minister has been open about his area of responsibilities. A good example is prisons, on which so much information is now available to the public and to those who ask questions. I feel that that is right. If one wants to build confidence in a system, it is right and proper that the system must be subject to scrutiny and open in terms of the information required by ordinary people who fairly frequently complain about the treatment they receive.

We believe that when a group of civil servants and others are given such wide-ranging powers, which threaten to breach basic rights to privacy, liberty and the right to a fair hearing of any immigration or asylum appeal, it is imperative to ensure the widest possible public scrutiny of the exercise of those powers. We believe that that is achievable only if an independent complaints authority is established. The authority should be appointed by the Lord Chancellor and not by the Secretary of State for the Home Office. It should also be empowered to carry out its own investigations using its own staff and it should report directly to Parliament.

We also believe that the present system, whereby a complaints audit committee of two or three people appointed by the Secretary of State for the Home Office monitors the effectiveness of internal immigration service complaints procedures and reports back to him on an annual basis, is at best an example of departmental self-appraisal.

I make no criticism of the three or four individuals involved in immigration audit. In fact, they perform a useful task. However, I shall explain why that particular procedure is not appropriate. It lacks the capability and objectivity to investigate sensitive complaints against the immigration service staff and to institute swift action to eradicate malpractice before it takes root. Moreover, it is not of sufficient weight to counter-balance the inroads in civil liberties being introduced by Part VII of the Bill by ensuring that individual rights are not sacrificed for the sake of public police considerations without consideration of the individual facts of each case.

I believe that the complaints audit committee is limited in its scope for investigating complaints arising out of the powers contained in Part VII of the Bill. When the independent audit committee was established, Mr Charles Wardle, the Under-Secretary of State, said in another place: The Committee's remit will be to satisfy itself as to the effectiveness of the procedures for investigating complaints"— I repeat, it is about the procedures for investigating complaints, not the investigation itself—and, to draw IND management's attention to any weaknesses, and to make an annual report to the Secretary of State.

No one disputes that an effective complaints system is vital in terms of maintaining confidence in the operation of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate. The problem is that the procedures are to be examined by the complaints audit committee, but the procedures themselves are to be implemented by means of an internal complaints procedure. In other words, there is no independent element. The service oversees itself in terms of the complaints levelled against it.

The total number of complaints must be a matter for concern in view of the millions of passengers who are dealt with at airports, including those who claim asylum seeker status. Figures published last year indicate that no more than 105 complaints were received. It may be said that that effectively proves that there are not many complaints. But the procedure is not well known. If people do not know that such a procedure exists, how often are they going to complain? The figures indicate an increase of 52 per cent in the complaints received as compared with the figures for 1996. So more complaints are received now than were received in previous years. The figures also indicate that in some 50 per cent of completed cases the complaints are wholly or partially substantiated. So, of those who did find out about the complaints mechanism, at least half had their complaints substantiated.

It may be interesting to examine a similarity under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act regarding provision for complaints against police officers. Let us remember that in many cases the powers of immigration officers are close to those given to the police under PACE. When in opposition, the present Home Secretary, dealing with the matter of police complaints, spoke clearly of the need to introduce an independent element into the police complaints machinery. The Macpherson Report on the investigation into the death of Stephen Lawrence refers to the need for some independent element in the complaints procedure. It is right and proper that there should be an independent complaints committee which can examine complaints against the immigration service. But beyond that we also need to establish that the process is not restricted merely to complaints lodged in this country. Much of the procedure applies to operations abroad, at British High Commissions and British embassies which are responsible for issuing documentation such as visas and entry certificates to those who come to this country. It is right that those officers are also brought under the scrutiny of such an independent commission. It is part of the process of building confidence among communities here. It is right and proper that an independent machinery should exist. That will help not only the complainants, but also those officers who repeatedly have to perform a very difficult task. The fact that they could be scrutinised and checked would be to their advantage. I commend the proposal to the Committee.

7 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia has made some interesting points on Amendment No. 190YA relating to the complaints authority. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply. I merely want to say a word about the other two amendments in this group, Amendment No. 190XA in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and government Amendment No. 195C.

The Minister's answer regarding a code of practice is to put in place the code that operates under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. That seems a very appropriate way of dealing with the matter. The noble Baroness said that immigrants and asylum seekers who will be affected by the strong powers in this part of the Bill are not criminals. Of course they are not. Nor are those who are dealt with under PACE—they are people who are suspected of crimes. The police and those who are dealt with under PACE are covered by the police code of practice. After all, immigration officers deal with people who are suspected of having no right to be in this country. In some cases—

Baroness Williams of Crosby

I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. My point was simply that the powers regarding search and seizure are, in the case of PACE, restricted to suspicion of offences of a very serious nature. Some of the offences listed under the Bill are of a much less serious nature.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

I shall let the Minister respond to that point in detail. I am not sure that I entirely accept the noble Baroness's point as she expresses it. PACE applies right across the activities of the police in dealing with people who are suspected of even quite small crimes in many cases. Aspects of PACE apply to those who are detained for one reason or another in police cells, just as the code will apply to immigrants who are detained in the appropriate circumstances, which will be to some extent equivalent.

The noble Baroness drew attention to the power in subsection (3) of the proposed new clause regarding the modifications that may be necessary to deal with the specific aspects relating to immigration cases. As I understand it, the provision will be subject to the negative procedure under the Bill as it stands. The noble Baroness had a good point in suggesting that it might be more appropriate if the affirmative procedure were to be used. That, so far as I know, is not presently proposed by the Government as the new clause stands. Perhaps it should be.

I did not check before entering the Chamber and I cannot recall whether the PACE code is subject to the affirmative or negative procedure when it is modified. I believe it is the affirmative procedure, but I may be wrong; I do not have firm information. Clearly, whatever parliamentary procedure applies to adjustments of PACE and alterations made from time to time to the PACE code of practice would also be appropriate for any modifications to be made to PACE to allow it to fit more accurately the circumstances of immigration officers.

On the whole, PACE has worked well so far as the police are concerned over the considerable period since its introduction—during which time it has been improved. Bearing that fact in mind, even if there were to be a separate code of practice for immigration officers in regard to these very strong powers, it ought to be closely based on PACE. The process of osmosis may not be entirely complete on this occasion. Nevertheless, the Minister may think it appropriate to respond now.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I appreciate the thinking behind Amendments Nos. 190XA arid 190YA. Immigration officers must be clearly accountable for their actions in exercising these new powers; and there must be an effective complaints system. I do not believe that Amendment No. 190XA is now required, bearing in mind government Amendment No. 195C. I am grateful for the support of the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley.

Amendment No. 195C allows that the Secretary of State may bring immigration officers under the auspices of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act codes of practice. That plainly must be so. Immigration officers are already required to have regard to PACE codes when investigating offences by virtue of Section 67(9) of the Act. If the government amendment is accepted by the Committee, it will ensure that immigration officers exercising powers of entry, search and seizure under Schedule 2 to the Immigration Act 1971 will have to have regard to the PACE codes in the same way.

In reply to the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, it is important to bear in mind that the PACE codes govern not only the exercise of the statutory powers but the manner in which police officers are obliged to conduct their duties. Immigration officers will be no different. If an immigration officer breaches any applicable requirements of the code, he or she will be accountable and subject to discipline. I believe that every aspect of the immigration officer's use of these new powers is covered.

It seems to us that the advantages of making immigration officers adhere to PACE codes are quite significant. As the noble Lord, Lord Cope, pointed out, the PACE codes have been in existence for a very long time and are well known and widely circulated. They are known and understood by the legal profession and the courts. We should have one set of codes to ensure consistency when police and immigration officers work either alongside each other or independently. I believe that it would be wrong effectively to have police and immigration officers doing the same job in those circumstances but working to different rules. We intend to ensure that any failure to comply with the codes will render an immigration officer liable to disciplinary procedures. As to the admissibility or otherwise of evidence, it should be a matter for the court to decide in the particular case, as at present.

I turn to Amendment No. 190YA. This proposes the establishment of an independent immigration complaints authority. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, is quite right. The Complaints Audit Committee was set up in 1994 to monitor the investigation of complaints. The noble Lord is also right to say that its members are appointed by the Home Secretary. They are required to meet certain criteria; namely, they must have experience in race relations, community relations, immigration law, customer relations and local or central government.

Members of the committee are given unfettered access to all complaint investigations and are able to make critical comments on the quality of those investigations and their conclusions. If necessary, they have access to Ministers. They are required to produce an annual report for the Secretary of State, and the Home Office is obliged to respond to the committee's recommendations and criticisms. In May of this year, we placed in the Libraries of both Houses a paper detailing the existing complaints procedures. The paper also outlines further measures that we intend to take to strengthen the existing procedures.

Briefly, we intend to treat complaints arising from the exercise of the new powers separately from others. A small team of specially trained officers—probably three or four—will be required to have knowledge of enforcement law and practice, and PACE codes. The Complaints Audit Committee will scrutinise each complaint as soon as possible after receipt and take the following action: first, agree the manner in which it is to be investigated; secondly, monitor progress; and, thirdly, ensure that investigation of the complaint receives the right degree of attention and priority. We intend to review those procedures after one year to ensure that they are working satisfactorily.

I stress that if a criminal offence is alleged, it will be referred to the police and that such action as it and the Crown Prosecution Service consider necessary will follow. Therefore, these powers will be carefully regulated by a stringent monitoring apparatus. Officers will be fully accountable for their actions.

In relation to Amendment No. 195C, the noble Baroness asked about the modifications under subsection (3). I can reassure her that the modifications are simply those which are necessary to adapt the PACE codes for the purposes of the specific powers in Part VII. There is nothing sinister in it. One simply has the ability to adapt the present PACE codes for the Part VII powers. Therefore, there will be no difference in effect.

Community groups will be consulted via existing police consultative groups. PACE places on investigating officers a number of duties. Further, PACE does not apply simply to serious offences but to a very wide range of alleged criminal activities.

We believe that the powers in Part VII are consistent with those available to the police under PACE. We have tried to ensure that the new powers go no further than PACE. The thinking behind Part VII is that these powers should be available to immigration officers rather than the latter having to depend on the police. Originally, a small number of immigration officers—perhaps 15 or 20—will be charged with these duties following proper training.

The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, is correct to say that complaints are small in number compared with the 18,000 to 20,000 complaints against the police. I take his point that if a person does not know that he can complain, he is not likely to complain. He and I know perfectly well that the facility to complain is advertised in police stations. That is something to which I should like to give consideration.

We believe that our solution is the better one. We hope that the Committee will agree that our Amendment No. 195C is the way forward. It is important to incorporate PACE and to provide training. I believe that in that way we shall have a more structured discipline and complaints system. On the basis of those explanations, I hope that these amendments will not be pressed and that the Government's Amendment No. 195C will be accepted.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Dholakia

Perhaps I may press the Minister a little further. Earlier I raised the question of decisions taken by entry clearance officers or immigration officers seconded to British posts abroad. How will complaints against those individuals be dealt with under the existing procedures?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I do not believe that they fall within any PACE codes, because the circumstances are wholly different. Perhaps I may think about that question and write to the noble Lord. That is something to which I have not put my mind in the context of PACE.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

I may have misled the Committee by not being sufficiently clear. I thought I said that my understanding was that the power to search and seize premises under PACE was limited to relatively serious offences, such as manslaughter, murder and so on, but that in the context of this Bill it would include considerably less serious offences attracting a much lower penalty than would be the case for very serious offences. I did not intend to say that PACE did not deal with a wide range of minor offences. For that reason, I said that this considerable power was very much more constrained by the PACE codes of practice than it would be under the Bill.

One of the matters about which we are concerned is that the modification of PACE to take account of the very different community which will be affected by the powers of immigration officers may be a very complex operation, such that the understanding of those powers by both sides may be even more difficult than it is today. That was why we were unhappy with the idea of simply modifying the PACE codes. Indeed, a good deal of PACE would be irrelevant to the code of practice for immigration officers.

I have taken note of the Minister's comments and remain profoundly concerned. This is a community which will find it difficult to understand the operations of immigration officers in the way that one would expect the resident UK community to understand the operations of police officers. I reiterate that many of these people will have had very painful, even violent, episodes in the past involving police officers in other places and countries. We believe that that must be taken into account.

Having heard the Minister, we are grateful for his observations. At this stage, we shall withdraw the amendment, but we may wish to hear more on Report. We cannot give an absolute commitment that we shall not return to this issue. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 119 [Arrest without warrant]:

[Amendments Nos. 190ZA to 190ZAA not moved.]

Clause 119 agreed to.

Clause 120 [Search and arrest by warrant]:

Lord Cope of Berkeley moved Amendment No. 191:

Page 75, line 1, leave out ("or a justice of the peace").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I shall also speak to Amendments Nos. 192 and 193. They all refer to the same simple point dealing with Scotland. With a name like "John Cope" I hesitate to speak for Scotland. It has been suggested to me that at least in Scotland it would be appropriate if the sheriff, who is a legally qualified judicial official, were the person to grant a warrant authorising an immigration officer or a constable to enter premises for the purpose of searching for and arresting individuals. That is worth suggesting to the Committee.

Amendment No. 192 makes essentially the same point as does Amendment No. 193 concerning entering and searching premises. The question is at what level of judicial rank the warrants should be authorised and whether they should be left to the lay justices of the peace in Scotland or referred always to the sheriff. I beg to move.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

I shall reply to the three amendments. The noble Lord is quite right. These provisions would mean that a warrant could not be issued in Scotland except by a sheriff. In other words, the power of the justices of the peace in Scotland would be taken away. They issue warrants regularly in the context of making warrants for arrest, search and entry. For instance, they have been carrying out that provision under the immigration legislation of 1991 and 1996 to allow police constables to enter, search and arrest for immigration offences.

Clauses 120 and 122 will allow immigration officers, as well as police officers, to execute warrants. Justices in Scotland also grant warrants to agencies other than the police. They give them to Customs and Excise and the utility services. They are given guidance and training covering all their duties. I have had no detail put to me of any operational difficulties.

The helpful nature of the justices of the peace is that they are local. They are accessible outside routine hours and give valuable assistance to the police. If there was a perceived need for additional guidance, that could easily be provided. We do not see any reason to differ from the existing accepted practices in relation to warrants for entry, search and arrest in relation to immigration offences. There would be a different level of scrutiny in Scotland from that which applied elsewhere in the United Kingdom. I believe that the justices in Scotland have discharged their duties with care and therefore I am unable to accept or support these amendments.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

That was a very full explanation. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 192 and 192A not moved.]

Clause 120 agreed to.

Clause 121 agreed to.

Clause 122 [Entry and search of premises]:

[Amendment No. 193 not moved.]

Clause 122 agreed to.

Lord Burlison

I beg to move that the House do now resume. Perhaps I may suggest that the Committee stage begin again not before 8.30 p.m.

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

House resumed.