HL Deb 20 January 2000 vol 608 cc1238-41

3.14 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What arrangements are being made between the Home Office and local authorities in Scotland for accommodating asylum seekers who have arrived in the south of England.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, from 1st April, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary will have responsibility for supporting destitute asylum seekers. As part of the new arrangements, destitute asylum seekers will be accommodated in areas around the country, including Scotland. The Home Office is currently engaged in a major procurement exercise to obtain private sector accommodation for that purpose. We also hope to secure a proportion of the accommodation through regional consortia of local authorities.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply. While genuine refugees from Kosovo and elsewhere have been received willingly and with sympathy in central Scotland, and vacant housing is available in the Glasgow area, has the disagreement about the amount of payment to the local authorities yet been settled before the new arrangements, which the noble Lord mentioned, start in April under the Immigration and Asylum Act?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am not aware that there are any profound disagreements. That whole process has been very carefully put together and orchestrated. My understanding is that thorough and adequate consultation arrangements are in place and that those arrangements are working well to resolve any outstanding problems as they arise.

Lord Harris of Haringey

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there are in excess of 59,000 refugee and asylum-seeker households which are the responsibility of local authorities in the London area? There are some London boroughs where more than 2 per cent of the population now comprises refugee and asylum-seeker households. Therefore, does he not agree that it is appropriate that all local authorities, including those in central Scotland, should take their fair share of that burden?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am aware of the statistics to which my noble friend has drawn our attention. In general terms, we are extremely pleased with the progress that has been made in detailed negotiations and discussions with local authorities to ensure that the dispersal arrangements are effective when they are brought on-stream. We are extremely grateful for the co-operation which we have received. Of course, it is a national problem and there must be a national solution. That is the determination of the Government.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, will the Minister tell us whether the money that will be paid to local authorities in Scotland will be adequate to meet the costs of the asylum seekers? Is he aware that in London that is certainly not so? Each local authority is bearing a heavy additional burden. Does he believe that any of the London boroughs are having all their costs reimbursed?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the arrangements are designed to ensure that local authorities are reimbursed for all reasonable costs. We believe that we have a reasonable package in place. The Government are always open to further representations on that issue, and discussions continue about matters of costs.

Lord Laming

My Lords, will the Minister acknowledge the contribution which many social services departments are making in the care of unaccompanied refugee children, many of whom speak no English and have had very traumatic experiences?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right to draw our attention to the profound difficulties that unaccompanied children face when they come to the United Kingdom in those circumstances. The Government are extremely grateful to local authority social services departments for the difficult and sometimes very disturbing and traumatising work which they undertake. We should all congratulate local authority social services departments on the quality of their work and give those local authorities our fullest support in those circumstances.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that it will he the Government's policy to disperse asylum applicants only to places where adequate support services, including legal services, are available and where there is a community speaking the same language as the applicants? How many centres in Scotland fulfil those criteria?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, as the noble Lord will understand from his involvement in the earlier debates on this matter, it is the Government's intention that our cluster arrangements take on board precisely the issues of which he spoke. We shall disperse asylum applicants only where we believe that the correct support and infrastructure are in place; where we can work with a well-defined refugee community; and where we can work locally with a refugee council where one is in place, operative and working well. I am sure that that will reassure the noble Lord that we are proceeding in a way which is sensitive to the problems that asylum applicants face, while being fully aware of the difficulties that we have to resolve in continuing to process asylum applications to this country.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, is not the real problem for the Government and local authorities the fact that, thanks to the kind of language talked by the party opposite before the last general election, lots of people thought that the gates of this country would be opened? In fact our problem is bogus asylum seekers who are still flooding in, despite the pathetic efforts of this Government to stop them.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, that will not do. This Government were left with an appalling shambles by the party opposite. We inherited an outrageous situation. We have put in place firm and effective measures, and further measures will be effective from 1st April.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, can the Minister say how many asylum seekers and immigrants came into this country last year?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I do not have the precise statistics. I am not prepared to invent numbers on my feet, but I am happy to write to the noble Lord.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, further to the Minister's first Answer to me, everyone is pleased that co-operation is going so well between the Home Office and Scottish local authorities—they normally deal with the Scottish Office and now the Scottish Parliament—but can he give a categorical assurance that the arguments in relation to finance and payments are not continuing?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, it would be unusual in government if arguments in relation to matters of finance did not continue at some length. Where problems and concerns arise, we shall address them. We are always available to listen to precise issues of detail with regard to costs and finance.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the flow of asylum seekers is closely related to international events and crises outside the control of this or any government? The flow of refugees last year was reflected in increased demands for asylum status in most of the countries of Europe, including the United Kingdom.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, as ever, the noble Baroness speaks with eminent good sense on this subject. She makes a perfectly valid and proper point. International affairs have a profound impact on the number of asylum seekers and applicants who come to this country seeking our support.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, how can the Minister come to this House without being properly briefed and without having the information to answer specific questions? How can he attack the record of the previous government without having those figures? In future, can he be properly briefed before he comes to this House?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I felt I was properly briefed. I do not want to give imprecise figures. I return to the point I made earlier. Our Government were presented with a shambles when we took control in this country. We intend to put that right. We have put firm and effective legislation in place and we intend to continue tackling the problems.

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