HL Deb 10 November 1999 vol 606 cc1367-84

(".—(1) If an asylum-seeker's household includes a child who is under 18 and dependant on him, the asylum-seeker and his dependants shall be eligible for any social security benefits or support under the child welfare provisions to which they would have been entitled if Part VI of this Act had not come into 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 support to be provided to the children of asylum-seekers under Part VI and certifying that the value of this support is not less than the value of the support to which the child 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.

(2) For the purposes of this Part, "child welfare provisions" has the same meaning as in section 113.")

The right reverend Prelate said: My Lords, I am naturally disappointed that Amendment No. 135 did not survive the machinations of debate in the other place. Amendment No. 135C focuses purely on the narrower but vital question of the care of children and ensures that families with children do not come into the new support system until arrangements have been made to make certain that children receive support at 100 per cent of income support.

In the debate in the other place the Secretary of State reiterated the Government's belief that shorter decision-making times were at the heart of the reform of the system. It was good to hear of the efforts being made to enable that to happen, particularly where families with children are concerned. Welcome assurances were also given concerning the effect of the support system on the care of children.

Amendment No. 135C would provide the opportunity for Ministers, Parliament and other interested parties to examine in detail the support that is to be provided and to scrutinise the means by which the pledge to support children at 100 per cent of income support is being fulfilled. For example, vouchers may have the same face value as their cash equivalent, but may in practice be worth less.

There remains the issue of the interim period. Again, a number of welcome commitments have been given in respect of families with children, including a firm pledge that they will not come under the terms of the new support system until time targets are met. However, the content of the pledge remains vague. During the debate in the other place, the Secretary of State made clear that he would not demand that local authorities pay only £10 in cash to children, the rest being provided in vouchers. Neither, however, would he dictate how local authorities were to provide support to families. They would be free to choose.

It seems there will continue to be a variety of practice during the interim period, some local authorities supporting families with cash and others not. There is a danger that during the interim period local authorities may compete to appear to be the least attractive destination for asylum seekers. One way of avoiding that downward spiral would be for the Secretary of State to make regulations under the new schedule to the effect that families must receive support through cash, not vouchers, in the interim period. Amendment No. 135C does not go that far. It does, however, ensure that a watch is kept on the care provided for children. I believe that such provision is prudent and necessary. I commend the proposal to the House.

Moved, That this House do not insist on their Amendment No. 135 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 135A, but do propose Amendment No. 135C in lieu thereof.—(The Lord Bishop of Southwark.)

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, perhaps I may briefly address Amendment No. 135C. I hope that the House will bear with me if I say a preliminary word or two in thanks. It would be churlish not to thank Ministers for the patience they have shown and for their willingness to listen to, if not always to hear, the many submissions made to them during the passage of the Bill. I express my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, and to his colleague, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, for the way they have so carefully taken into account the arguments we have advanced.

Perhaps I may also say how delighted I am that three of those who have been most engaged with this amendment, and the long debates that led to it, particularly regard to the children of asylum seekers— namely, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Lords, Lord Swinfen and Lord Hylton—have been elected to remain in this House. I place on record my great gratitude for all the work they have done so carefully and thoroughly on the Bill.

Before addressing the amendment, I do not hide from the House my belief that the Bill is a profoundly troubling one. It carries with it huge powers which presently apply to asylum seekers but which could extend more widely to the liberties and well-being of our own citizens. Therefore, it is vital that this House carries out its duty, following the report of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation, to examine carefully the regulations that will come before it, including those relating to the support system, as a result of the adoption of affirmative procedures.

I turn to the amendment. The right reverend Prelate referred to some of the pledges made by Ministers, one of which I shall quote. It is plain that for several months the Government have been aware of their pledge that children should not suffer as a result of the change in these important arrangements. If they meant those pledges—and I do not doubt that they did—they must have taken into account any financial consequences that may flow from them. Therefore, whatever objection there might be to the original amendment tabled by the right reverend Prelate, it cannot possibly apply to this amendment; otherwise, it would indicate that Ministers did not recognise the consequences of their own promises.

One promise was made in specific terms by the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General. He said: We have decided, after listening carefully over a period of weeks, that the provision of spending power in respect of children under the age of 18 should be set at a level that is the current equivalent of income support personal allowance for children".—[Official Report, 21/7/99; col. 1037.] In the other place last night, the Home Secretary repeated that pledge in a slightly different form, saying that, support for children will be equivalent to 100 per cent. of child benefit levels".—[Official Report, Commons, 9/11/99; col. 982.] As long ago as last July, as the right reverend Prelate indicated, a similar pledge was given by the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General.

Why then is it necessary to have this amendment at all? It is necessary because there is no such reference in the primary legislation. There are many pledges by Ministers, and in the next few weeks the Home Office will lay detailed regulations which the House has not had an opportunity to see regarding support arrangements for the families, including children, of asylum seekers. The intention of the amendment is therefore to elicit from the Government a clear statement that the commitment made repeatedly by Ministers through the course of discussion on the Bill will be embodied in regulations so that it has the force of law.

The proposal is the more important because, in giving evidence recently to the Home Affairs Committee, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, with his usual candour, made clear that he rather doubted that the targets that the Government had set themselves would be reached. I do not criticise the Government for that. We understand that they are facing an increase in applications, and we understand the difficulties involved in dealing with them. However, we underline once again the implications that families may have to live not merely for weeks but for months on a level of income support which, for single refugees, amounts to between 70 and 80 per cent of the minimum income support level. The figure depends on how one rates, for example, the provision of household utensils, sheets, utility bills, and so on.

There is genuine substantial confusion about the role of the interim arrangements. In the other place last night the Home Secretary said that, before the new national system comes into force on 1 April [2000], local authorities should be able to give all support to families in cash for their living needs, as they choose. Some local authorities operate in that way under the current arrangements, whereas others do not".—[Official Report, Commons, 9/11/99; col. 981.] In short, during the interim period a local authority that is well disposed towards asylum seekers will provide its support in cash, and another, as the right reverend Prelate indicated, may provide most of its support in vouchers. The matter has been left open, whereas previously the Home Secretary indicated that £10 would be the absolute maximum in cash that could be provided for a child in an asylum seeker's family. So some clarification is needed.

Is it the case that under the interim support arrangements children will be supported in line with the pledges of Ministers? Will local authorities be encouraged to maintain the best practice in respect of that support? Finally, in April 2000, when the long-term support arrangements come in, will children be protected in the way that the right reverend Prelate requested? I repeat that Ministers indicated—but not on the face of the Bill—that they regard themselves as pledged to it.

In concluding, I make no apology for having explained matters at a little length because we are talking about the most vulnerable people in our country, the test by which the quality of our civilised standards and generosity are now to be judged. I am honoured to support the right reverend Prelate's Motion.

4 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, at the outset I should repeat my declaration of interest. I was a former chairman of the Refugee Council and I have kept in touch with it, not only on these salient issues but also on many other matters. My noble friend Lord Dubs, now a Minister, was the executive director when I served in the capacity to which I have just referred.

I have lingering doubts about the way in which the Bill (and the Act) will work in practice. For that reason, I believe that the points made by the right reverend Prelate—I have been here a long time and I hope that I have the nomenclature right—are good ones. He served an important and distinctive role in addressing many important issues which affect the way in which the legislation will operate in practice. He and the noble Baroness illustrated that again today.

However, while paying that sincere tribute to them, I believe that the issues raised today will have to be observed in practice. The Government are on notice: they must work out regulations to cover the issues. I hope that my noble friend who will reply to this debate will indicate how the Government propose to go about the process of consultation on the regulations with interested organisations. I fully support the plea made by the noble Baroness, subject only to the caveat which I have just registered.

In a number of debates, the right reverend Prelate made it clear that he and his colleagues look with considerable anxiety at the way in which all the legislation will develop. I do too.

I declare another interest: a number of my relatives were refugees. My grandparents were refugees from oppression at the beginning of the century. There were refugees in my family from Nazism. So it is no accident that I came to be involved with the Refugee Council and the invaluable work which it and like-minded organisations undertake.

It is right that we should scrutinise the practice, the evolution of the legislation. I know that the noble Baroness and others will do so, as I shall. However, I hope that the Motion will not be pressed to a Division today. I am assured that the Government have given, and will continue to give, careful consideration to the representations that have been made from many sides of the House.

I do not like certain aspects of the Bill and I do not hide that from the House today; but I believe that Ministers have listened carefully to the concerns and anxieties which have been expressed. I have confidence in that and, knowing them personally, I believe that they will take the representations strongly to heart. That is their duty.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, I strongly support the right reverend Prelate's Motion. I shall try not to show too much grief at this late stage about the losses suffered during the passage of the Bill. The grief will be borne by thousands of people not in this Chamber. However, those of us who have supported or moved amendments over the past few months have had backing from all sides of the House. We were dismayed to see the degeneration last night in another place of the all-party support. I thank the noble Baroness for her kind remarks and all my peers who supported me.

Having been reprieved at the 11th hour last week as a Member of this House, it is perhaps churlish to complain about the system in Parliament. However, Front-Benchers in another place were reduced to pointing fingers at one another. The spirit of compromise which we saw again today in the right reverend Prelate's final Motion has all but vanished. Perhaps it is inevitable that at this stage the only amendment before us is based on the Minister's promises to the children of asylum seekers. If that cannot carry, I am not sure what will. It is imperative that the target for families with children is met before April, if the Home Secretary is not to go back on his own commitment in the summer to maintain the present support arrangements for them during the interim period, as well as in future.

The right reverend Prelate's amendment in lieu no longer makes the link with targets but simply asks for a continuation of support, as if the new Act had not come into force. I am nearly sure that the Minister will have no quarrel with that. I go away unhappy with many aspects of the Bill and am unsure whether asylum seekers will benefit from it. They certainly will not under Part VI.

It remains, however, only to say "Thank you" to the Government for the amendments which have been genuinely accepted and to hope, without too much lamentation, that the right reverend Prelate's Motion today will not have been in vain. We all want to see the computers working and the backlog reduced but equally none of us wants to see competition between local authorities for fewer asylum seekers in the interim period, or a bogus reduction of the numbers through over-hasty decisions.

Finally, I ask the Minister for that reassurance. The best way forward is surely to improve the quality of processing in the earlier stages of a claim, rather than speeding it up simply to ensure a superficial reduction of the numbers. I support the right reverend Prelate's Motion.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, I support the remarks of my noble friend Lord Sandwich and the Motion proposed this afternoon by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark. During our Second Reading debate, raised the issue of how we treat children. The Minister's predecessor, the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General, was good enough to meet my noble friend Lord Hylton and me at the Home Office, with representatives from the Refugee Council. We discussed with them the level of support that would be provided for children under this legislation.

I was appreciative, and expressed my gratitude in Committee and again on Report for the way in which Ministers tried to respond in a practical way with regard to this vulnerable group. There is widespread agreement in the House that, regardless of what we think about other provisions in the Bill, we recognise that these are children first and asylum seekers second. Therefore, children are a special category and we must treat them properly as the vulnerable individuals that they are.

I was grateful for the assurances which the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General and the present Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, gave the House during the course of our deliberations. My disappointment has, nevertheless, been tinged by the failure to provide on the face of the Bill the kind of security for which the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, my noble friend Lord Sandwich and the right reverend Prelate asked this afternoon. That sadness has been underlined by the way in which, as my noble friend mentioned, the matter was dealt with in another place.

I am sorry that this has become yet another ping-pong battle. This is a very modest, belt-and-braces amendment which simply asks that the assurances that have been given for the interim period should be written on the face of the Bill. Certainly, if the Secretary of State were to make regulations under the new schedule to the effect that families should receive support in cash during the interim period, it would go a long way to reduce the concerns. When the legislation was introduced, Ministers themselves, not least the noble and learned Lord, made it clear they understood that some of the measures were harsh.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, who spoke about the extraordinary accretion and consolidation of powers within the scope of the legislation. We all understand the reasons for that. Some people have arrived in the United Kingdom to seek asylum status without legitimate reason. We also realise that there is a backlog, part of it inherited, with which the Government have had to deal and that real problems must be addressed. But in the accretion and consolidation of those powers, we also lose some of our liberties, rights and opportunities to question the way in which the system operates. Is it not always the case that, because of abuses that occur, the criminal law is changed to diminish the rights of the rest of us? I fear that in part we have witnessed that in the course of this legislation.

One of the assurances given was that the quid pro quo for the harshness of the legislation would be its short duration and that, in future, asylum cases would be dealt with so much more efficiently and effectively that there would not be the spectacle of people lingering, often for years on end, in many of our detention centres. Noble Lords will recall that at Third Reading I gave details of the cases of some genuine asylum seekers who had been tortured. Those details had been provided by the medical foundation which deals with victims of torture. Clearly, those individuals, who had already been in detention for over a year, were not bogus but genuine asylum seekers in every sense. I do not believe that anyone in your Lordships' House disagrees with that.

All of us want to see more expeditious arrangements and an end to lingering periods in detention. We recognise that there is some harshness in the new arrangements, but they should be mitigated by a willingness on the part of Ministers at least to recognise the special category of children. That is precisely what the right reverend Prelate has invited us to do in this Motion and in the amendment that he tabled previously. Your Lordships supported him on that earlier occasion and I hope that if he decides to press this matter to a Division this evening, he will continue to have that support.

4.15 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I join my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby in expressions of thanks for the courtesy and consideration with which we have been heard in this House by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, and the two noble and learned Lords, Lord Williams of Mostyn and Lord Falconer of Thoroton.

I am also aware that a claim of financial privilege by another place is one which we may under no circumstances resist or dispute. Nevertheless, the Commons reason on this amendment is something of a procedural curiosity. They have claimed financial privilege for an amendment which, as we understand it, would have had the effect of reducing, not increasing, public expenditure.

In the brief time available I took the advice of the Table on this matter. I was referred to page 798 of Erskine May from which it appears that it is perfectly in order for another place to insist on their right to spend more public money than we thought necessary or wise. However, only one of the precedents quoted by Erskine May has arisen since the Second World War; namely, that relating to the Water Bill. That Bill was so long that I hope I can be forgiven for not remembering every amendment made thereto.

I do not really believe that the concern of another place was simply with its right to spend more public money than we thought it should. I cannot help wondering whether this is something to do with the decline in the quality of Commons reasons to which I have previously referred and to which I alluded in passing last night. I was further taken aback when I read the remarks made by the Home Secretary in another place last night. In the short time available we have been unable to scrutinise those remarks with as much care as we might otherwise. The Home Secretary, to my intense surprise, claimed that the cost of the right reverend Prelate's amendment could be up to £500 million. He also claimed that the reasoning on which that was based had not been challenged. That reasoning rested on the alleged deterrent effect of the Bill on asylum seekers.

My honourable friend Mr Allan, who has had a very good Bill, immediately took up the point and brought a large number of witnesses to support his challenge. I should like to add more one. I refer to my own speech at Second Reading in which I queried at some length whether the alleged deterrent effect on asylum seekers—to make their conditions harsher when they arrived—was genuine or existed only in the Home Office's imagination. I am not for a moment so stupid as to suppose that the Home Secretary might have been persuaded by a single word of my Second Reading speech, but I should have liked to think that he was aware that it existed.

When we turn to the next page of the Home Secretary's speech, we see that his logic becomes interesting. He moves on from the hypothesis with which he began his speech to say: there is no question that the costs would run to £400 million or £500 million".—[Official Report, Commons, 9/11/99; col. 979.] Of course there is a question; I am asking one. In the next column, he says: Implicit in amendment No. 135 is an assumption that the new support arrangements will be in some way inferior to the current arrangements; I do not accept that". I simply do not understand how the Home Secretary can have both arguments. On the one hand, he insists on the virtue of his arrangements to deter and, on the other hand, he asserts that they are in no way inferior to the present arrangements. If they are in no way inferior to the present arrangements, why does the Home Secretary suppose that they will deter so many asylum seekers from coming to this country? That is a point to which I very much hope to receive an answer. I am tempted to ask him what one of my pupils once put to me: where are you right? It was a question to which I could not put up any credible resistance.

The Home Office's own asylum support document of last March said that the proposed provision was intended to be a safety net arrangement on a short-term basis and that it should be possible to live on these amounts for short periods only. The last three words are crucial to the department's case. We expressed scepticism about those targets the last time that the Bill was before this House. They are further off now than they were then. Even in the short period the Bill has been out of this House, the backlog has increased and the targets have receded. I believe that that justifies just a small amount of scepticism.

Some noble Lords may remember that Matthew Parris when an MP set out to live for a week on income support and reported that it was possible to do so but that because of the wearing out of durables—shoes and coats, for example—with every week that passed, the task was likely to become harder. As far as I am aware, Matthew Parris's observation has not been contradicted; indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, explicitly accepted it in this House. Therefore, for an arrangement which is justified because it may deter applicants, it is vital that it should be in place for a short time only and that nobody should have to live under it for too long, which I believe was the central point of the amendment. I do not see the Home Office going any distance to meet that.

There is also a good deal of misgiving about the arrangements for interim support. The Local Government Association and the Association of London Government were quoted last month in Housing Today as believing that, because of the increase in the number of applicants, the sum of money made available by the Home Office for the system of support is approximately £100 million too small. If that has happened it will not be for the first time in government arrangements for financial support. It could have the effect of making government arrangements a great deal harsher than was intended.

I turn to the right reverend Prelate's Motion. It is a good convention in British politics that, when we can avoid it, we do not penalise children for the action of their parents. For example, I remember that when, under the administration of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, strikers were restricted in their right to draw social security benefits, it was decided that the arrangements should not apply to the strikers' children. That was good reason. The right reverend Prelate will confirm that the text that the sins of the fathers are visited on the children was not intended as an instruction to politicians. If it is so used, it is contrary to its intention; it is contrary to normal practice.

In another place my former honourable friend Mr Parris once argued that he thought it impossible for a child to be a bogus asylum seeker. Without going into an argument about doli incapax—we have heard it exhaustively in this Chamber—I believe that children cannot be held morally responsible and penalised for the decisions of their parents, over which they have no control. Let us suppose for the sake of argument that the parent is a bogus asylum seeker—we on these Benches have never denied that such exist—that is no fault of the child. The child should not be reduced to a low level of support for that reason. The child has a right to a future and not to be penalised for its parents' actions. That is the central purpose underlying the right reverend Prelate's amendment. I hope that the Government will listen to it. We were all children once.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, as noble Lords know, my primary concern about Part VI of the Bill has been and remains the administrative problems of the system of support for asylum seekers proposed in the Bill. However, I believe that it is now dawning on the Home Office exactly what it is taking upon itself. Lords Amendment No. 135—a similar amendment was proposed on Report by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark—has helped to lead them to the light, at least in some respects.

My evidence for that proposition is that the Home Office slipped out last Friday a Written Answer saying that the number of staff required for the support system was now estimated at 512—it compares with an estimate earlier in the year of 100 to 200 staff—and is, I think, more realistic, although I have no doubt that it will be exceeded, in particular if one takes into account the contractors who are to be involved as well as the government employees.

However, there has been another change since we discussed the amendment. The Home Secretary has agreed to a modest recognition of those who find themselves on the new support system for longer than six months. Yesterday in another place it was confirmed that that recognition will occur for each six months that they are on the new support system.

We all want a system which admits genuine asylum seekers. Both compassion and our longstanding international obligations require that we should do so. In addition, our country has benefited immeasurably over many years from the contribution of immigrants and their families and continues to do so. But the system is under severe strain because of bogus asylum seekers and the problems of sorting out the genuine from the bogus. The right honourable Gerald Kaufman spoke yesterday in another place of how the system is even now clogged with bogus asylum seekers, and he was quite right.

The Government made the situation worse by their early actions and they are now trying to claw it back. We are anxious that they should succeed in mastering the problem, but the first essential is that they should recognise it. The amendment has helped them to do that.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, spoke of the Commons reasons and the introduction of the financial aspect in discussion on Lords Amendment No. 135. I believe that the figures used yesterday by Ministers in another place were wildly exaggerated. They rest on the proposition that cash benefits by comparison with vouchers described by the Home Secretary as of equivalent value would cause an extra 40,000 applications a year. The noble Earl made a strong case that there would be no increase in applications as a result of the temporary change proposed in the amendment. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that argument, the estimates given by Ministers are simply not believable. It is not without interest to recall that the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General did not use such figures, or any figure approaching them, in his efforts to dissuade your Lordships from passing such an amendment on Report.

On the question of whether the estimate has been challenged in the past, if I recall correctly, it was mentioned briefly by the noble Lord, Lord Warner, on Third Reading. I challenged the estimate he quoted and poured doubt on it within a few minutes of his doing so. I agree that that was not in detail because it was entirely out of order to refer to it! Nevertheless, I challenged the estimates at that time.

However, today the right reverend Prelate has again done us a service by highlighting the pledges made by Ministers on a number of occasions in respect of support of children. No doubt the Minister will reaffirm the pledges today and add his own authority to those of the other more senior Ministers who have given pledges: and that, I suppose, will have to suffice, at least for the time being. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, that this House will need to scrutinise most carefully the enormous amount of secondary legislation which will flow from the Bill.

Having reflected on the position and, judging by the new figure of civil servants required, having taken some administrative actions, the Government will no doubt wish to stick to their course. I do not think that it would be wise for us to stand in their way today. However, the right reverend Prelate has concentrated the minds of the Home Office on the problems that it is creating, and we must now all hope that it succeeds in solving them.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, before replying in detail, it would be churlish of me not to pay tribute to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark for the way in which he has conducted the debate and to other noble Lords for the sincerity with which the provisions have been spoken to. I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for her kind comments and the warmth with which she has approached the matter. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cope, for the plain-speaking way in which he has dealt with an extremely complicated set of provisions, a difficult piece of legislation and hard-fought arguments. Many noble Lords have played a very important part in the debate by reminding us of the difficulties with which the legislation attempts to wrestle, including difficult personal circumstances and the situation of staff in the Immigration Service who have to deal with the problems presented by immigration and asylum matters.

I fully recognise the concerns behind the right reverend Prelate's amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, reminded us of the value and importance that we should place on families and children, a sentiment that was echoed by the noble Earl, Lord Russell.

It is only proper that families should receive the proper level of support to enable them to maintain their children. That is why in Committee we confirmed that we would be increasing the allowance made available in respect of children to a sum equivalent to the full rate of income support payable for children. This is fully in line with what is currently payable for the children of asylum seekers by way of social security benefits.

Equally, we have made it clear that our support arrangements for families will be subject to the scrutiny of the Social Services Inspectorate and that there will be 24-hour emergency cover.

We have said on a number of occasions that there is not a direct equivalence between social security benefits and the kind of support we were providing under Part VI. I remind noble Lords that under Part VI, we shall be providing as part of the accommodation package certain facilities that an asylum seeker on social security would have to finance out of the benefits available to him. In particular, we shall be meeting utility bills centrally, which are typically worth at least £14 per week. We are also providing the full range of domestic equipment; for example, cooking utensils and bed linen, which, again, a household in receipt of social security would need to find for itself. In many ways, the accommodation we are providing is more akin to what one might expect to find in accommodation let on a casual, short-term basis.

All of these items add up. Although we can put a notional cost on them, there is no direct cash equivalence, and it would be exceedingly difficult to provide the kind of certification suggested in the amendment of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark. There would always be grounds for contesting how the assessment of a particular set of items has been constructed.

The amendment proposes that a comparison should be made of all the components of the Part IV support package and social security benefits. That is deeply problematic: although levels of support for essential living needs are set nationally, rent levels vary very widely on a local basis. If there were to be a higher proportion of such families in the North, the costs of accommodation may be lower, even though the accommodation would generally be better. Comparisons of that kind do not stand up.

We believe that we are providing a decent level of support for families in what we are committed to making a short-term stay in our accommodation. We have already made the commitment that families with children will not be brought into the new support system if their initial claims cannot be resolved within an average of two months and any appeal within a further four months. Those are average times and clearly they will be longer in some cases. In such instances, we are providing for a grant of £50 per person for anyone who, through no fault of their own, has remained on the support system for more than six months. This will allow for the replacement of items that wear out in the medium term. It will take the form of a cash-back voucher.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I did not understand the argument about average times. Either we are saying that there should be no further extension than that contemplated, or otherwise it is meaningless. How does one introduce average times into the situation?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for making that point, but we clearly have to consider average times. We make evaluations based on average times, but we are committed to having targets because we believe that people should be able clearly to understand how long the process will take.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I should like to follow up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis. If a group of cases was dealt with very quickly, within eight weeks, but another group of cases, with the average still at six months, took 10 months to deal with, the average would still be met, but the latter group would enter a situation of very great hardship. They would be relying on the support system for much longer than the Home Office ever intended.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, it is for that reason that we have suggested a cash-back voucher. I should be happy to enter into correspondence on that matter.

I do not think the certification proposed in the amendment is the right way forward. In Committee my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General made a commitment to the effect that the level of support for children from April 2000 will be equivalent to the level available by way of child benefit and therefore we have effectively discharged the obligation that the amendment seeks to impose.

We shall be reviewing the level of support available to asylum seekers annually. This will allow us to take account, as necessary, of changes to the prices of goods that asylum seekers require. I should expect these levels of support to be set out in the regulations governing the support scheme that we shall be making early next year. That being the case, they will need to be amended on a regular basis following the outcome of any review. That will provide Parliament with the ability to monitor the level of support we are giving to children on a continuing basis.

I understand that in some instances the level of support families receive from local authorities is significantly less than the amount we are proposing to provide under the new support scheme. Those who are currently on social security benefits tend to congregate in London and the south-east and therefore impose a wholly unsustainable burden on the host local authorities. I do not think that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark would want to see families continue in those circumstances. We shall be providing something that is better and more effective.

I believe that the commitment given in Committee by my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General in regard to the level of support for the children of asylum seekers effectively delivers what the right reverend Prelate is seeking. To that extent, we could make the certification shortly after Royal Assent. However, to the extent that the right reverend Prelate believes that we are not in a position to do that, the effect of the amendment would be to delay the commencement of the new support arrangements for families.

We are committed to removing the magnet that the current social security benefits appear to provide for certain groups of rather doubtful asylum seekers. Continuing to make social security available for families would lease that incentive in place, thereby increasing yet further the number of people using asylum as a vehicle for gaining entry to, and remaining in, this country. For those reasons, I ask the right reverend Prelate not to press the Motion.

During the debate a number of points have been raised by noble Lords, and I should like to turn to some of those, if I may. The right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, raised the important issue of scrutiny. I can confirm that the content of the regulations setting out the details of the support scheme will be the subject of a consultation paper later this month. That will provide Members of your Lordships' House with the opportunity to comment on the way in which they are framed and phrased and the way in which they will work. I know that that is a broad concern and it will be open to the House fully to debate those regulations if they are prayed against.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for giving way. I apologise for intervening again, but it is an important matter. The consultation may be difficult because of the forthcoming Christmas period and Recess. What will be the period within which the consultation will take place? Will it be extended appropriately into January or perhaps February in order to take account of the break? I do not expect my noble friend necessarily to reply immediately, but it would be helpful to the various organisations to know that fairly soon.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his question. He is right in saying that I cannot give him an off-the-cuff answer; it would be wrong of me to do so. I am happy to write to him, placing a copy in the Library in the usual way and distributing it widely to Members who express an interest.

However, I am told that we expect that the consultation will run to a minimum of six to eight weeks, probably from the middle of November. I trust that that answer is helpful and I am happy to confirm it in writing.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I hope that my noble friend will take into account the fact that the period we are approaching is most unusual in terms of people being able to begin work on the issue. Perhaps the department would be a little more generous in allocating time for a response.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, again, I am grateful to my noble friend for his comment I shall reflect further upon it and we shall be as helpful as possible in seeking to maximise the time available for consultation. I recognise that this is a complex area. We shall take full account of my noble friend's comments.

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, asked about the quality of the support available under the interim arrangements. It is open to local authorities to continue their current practice of providing support. There may well be cases in which support in kind is needed in order to ensure that support reaches the children. That is an important point. Many Members of your Lordships' House have said that we must ensure that children fully receive the benefit that is intended for them. We give an important pledge in that respect.

Therefore, we shall not prescribe how local authorities deliver support or how much, but they will be under a duty to meet essential living needs. Again, that is important. I reaffirm the commitment which we made in Committee that the level of support for children in the first year of the new scheme will be equivalent to the level of income support in respect of children—

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I apologise for interrupting, but the Minister is dealing with an important point. Will he say that although local authorities may deal differently with children, during the interim period the Social Services Inspectorate will ensure that no local authority will be allowed to go below the equivalence of 100 per cent support?

4.45 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for asking that question. It is one on which I should like to reflect. However, she raises an important issue to which we would expect the inspectorate to have due regard. I should like to address the point at some length, but I cannot give an absolute commitment to the House today. It is an important and valid question and I shall undertake to write to the noble Baroness about the arrangements which will be made. Primarily, they will be at the discretion of local authorities, but we have expressed concern about the different levels of support. We recognise that they must be more than adequate for the purpose.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark also asked about the interim arrangements. I can only repeat that at present a choice is open to local authorities. We are not aware that they are failing to provide adequate support, but, clearly, we must monitor that. We must ensure that we and they get it right.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked about cash for families during the interim period. I am happy to confirm that the regulations relating to the interim arrangements will allow local authorities to support the living needs of families wholly by way of cash, if that is their policy. Flexibility is important and we believe that that will preserve the current position under the Children Act 1989.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, asked how the new scheme can be no worse without increasing incentives. That is an interesting point and our response is straightforward and simple. The difference is the way in which support is to be delivered. The quality of accommodation and other support will be broadly equivalent, but we believe that the fact that it will involve limited use of cash payments will help to reduce the incentive effect. There was evidence, particularly after the previous legislation in 1996, that the removal of the cash incentive will have a depressing effect on the number of those coming into the system who are economic migrants and who may well be abusing the asylum process.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I should be grateful if the Minister would quote the evidence for the statement he has made about the deterrent effect of the 1996 legislation.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am happy to rely on the statistics which were produced as a byproduct of the change in the legislation. I am happy to provide those figures to the noble Earl by way of correspondence.

Earl Russell

My Lords, the figures are in my Second Reading speech.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for his reminder.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, will the Minister also recognise that the 1996 legislation did a great deal more than create the change at issue? Therefore, the change in the number of asylum seekers after that was the result of a whole series of different factors.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am happy to acknowledge that that is the case and I am sure that the legislation made a valid contribution. However, in this piece of legislation we are seeking to strengthen and improve the quality of the regulatory framework surrounding immigration and asylum. That has been widely acknowledged from all quarters of the House.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope, asked about the number of staff and the fact that figures have varied. Simply, the number of staff needed for the Part VI purposes has risen as our prediction for the number of asylum seekers has risen. It is simply a reflection of that. We want to ensure that we get it right; that we reduce waiting times; and that we deal effectively with the caseload. I am confident that all Members of your Lordships' House will want to support that overall aim.

This has been a long debate. The discussions and reasonings on the legislation have taken place over many months. The arguments have been well researched, rehearsed and argued throughout, and have benefited greatly from the scrutinising nature of your Lordships' House. At times, the message that we are seeking to get across is hard, but it is important. We seek to strike the right balance using firmness, fairness and a fast-tracking processes. That is the right objective for this difficult piece of legislation which, in broad terms, your Lordships want to see on the statute book.

I ask the right reverend Prelate not to press his Motion. I believe that we have addressed his issues of concern and those expressed by other Members of your Lordships' House tonight.

The Lord Bishop of Southwark

My Lords, perhaps the House will forgive me if I first make one or two general points before focusing on the Bill. I believe that your Lordships' House has done itself credit in seeking to lift the debate about asylum seekers above the sometimes mean-spirited and often hostile attitudes whipped up by some sources outside the House.

Noble Lords have tried in a compassionate, yet realistic, way to ensure that the claims of people seeking asylum on these shores are not prejudiced, but are considered fairy and that, while their claims are being considered, their needs are met in a humane way. Although several of the practical proposals put forward by noble Lords and actively supported from this Bench have been accepted by the Government, for which we are grateful, sadly, many have not.

We have been given assurances that special care will be taken to assure the welfare of children as well as of adults who may be particularly vulnerable. Time will tell whether those assurances will prove to be adequate. As the Bill's implementation will begin as early as 6th December, the test of its justice will not be long in coming. Meanwhile, the most useful comment I can make is to signal to the Government a few of the areas in which I am informed that church groups working with asylum seekers have major worries.

First, there is utter disbelief that the Government's targets of processing initial applications within two months and appeals within six months can possibly be met for the foreseeable future. The far from generous provisions of the Bill, both those relating to accommodation and those relating to the level of cash and vouchers, have been justified to us again and again by Ministers on the basis that people will be affected by them only for a short period of time. For tens of thousands of people that justification simply will not stand. I am aware that the Government have conceded that in cases unresolved after six months, claimants will be given a £50 grant for replacement of basic necessities, but most people will see that as little more than a token.

Secondly, there is concern that even the inadequate assistance offered by the Bill will not extend to large numbers of asylum seekers. That is likely for various reasons. For some asylum seekers, the prospect of being shipped out with no regard for their own wishes to other parts of the UK where there may be high unemployment, poor housing, lack of educational and legal support, and, conceivably, resentment and outright abuse from local residents, may be so alarming that they may choose to stay in areas where they have friends or relatives, even if that means forgoing their entitlement to any state support.

Other asylum seekers whose perceived legitimate claims have been refused at an earlier stage will be told that the price of their wish to seek judicial review will be the loss of entitlement to state support. The only provision made for people in such situations by the Bill is the possibility of applying for charitable aid in so-called "hard cases". However, that approach has proved so distasteful that many of the most respectable voluntary organisations working with refugees have made it clear that they do not want to be part of any such system.

That issue brings me to my third point. Given the number of asylum seekers who will simply not qualify for assistance under the new system and the inadequacy of the assistance available to those who do, it is inevitable that more and more asylum seekers, even in London, will be turning to voluntary agencies, including churches, for material, emotional and spiritual help simply to survive.

Many fine words have been said during the course of these debates about the invaluable contribution of the voluntary sector and the faith communities. However, unless realistic account is taken of what they are not able to do, unless their role is properly evaluated, and unless they are provided with much more secure and adequate funding than they currently enjoy, their good will will simply be exploited, and asylum seekers will be given shabby services. I refer not so much to the larger well-known refugee organisations which are quite skilled in negotiating with governments and other funding bodies, but to local community groups, particularly churches, which quite literally currently provide a lifeline for thousands of asylum seekers. I cannot believe that your Lordships—or, indeed, the Government—would want to countenance, much less encourage, such an abuse of so valuable a resource as the care and the commitment of those small local initiatives.

I am grateful to those who have spoken in support of my Motion during this short debate. I am grateful also to the Minister for his kind words. We shall, of course, have to examine carefully what he has told us this afternoon, but I am afraid that we have not heard any further assurances, and, if anything, I am rather more anxious about the interim arrangements than I was at the beginning of our short debate.

The request of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, that the Minister's pledges should be embodied in the regulations so that they have the force of law seems to me to be reasonable. We have not been given such an assurance, but we have been promised consultation on those regulations. We are all of a mind that the care of children, whether of British nationals or of asylum seekers, must be of supreme concern. I should like to have seen further assurances on the face of the Bill, but I accept that we have taken this matter as far as is practicably possible in your Lordships' House. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion 135B.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 135 to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason No. 135A.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 135 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 135A—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.