HL Deb 27 November 2000 vol 619 cc1104-6

2.44 p.m.

Baroness Prashar asked Her Majesty's Government:

What financial resources have been given to the National Health Service and primary care services in areas affected by the Government's dispersal system in order to assess and meet the health needs of asylum seekers.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath)

My Lords, the Government recognise that caring for asylum seekers can place additional pressure on the NHS. We expect the service to meet the cost of caring for asylum seekers from its unified budget. We are also encouraging it to meet these pressures through a number of initiatives which target specific resources in these areas. These include PMS pilots and local development schemes.

Baroness Prashar

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does he agree that information about entitlement to healthcare is not getting through to asylum seekers and that in some cases they are being denied care? What steps are being taken to develop a coherent strategy to meet both the health needs of asylum seekers and to ensure that they are made aware of their entitlements?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right to draw attention to the issue of providing information to asylum seekers. She will know that the Audit Commission report which was published earlier this year suggested that the department and the National Asylum Seeker Service should issue new arrivals with information about their entitlement to health services and a simple explanation of how the UK health system operates. We intend to ensure that that suggestion is implemented. In relation to the Audit Commission's recommendation that we should issue good practice guidance to health authorities so that they can ensure effective service delivery to asylum seekers and refugees, we have made available a grant of £30,000 to ensure that such good practice guidance is issued.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, can the Minister say exactly what is the entitlement of asylum seekers? Obviously an asylum seeker has not yet been granted asylum. Is he or she in the same category as a visitor to this country, whereby emergency treatment would be available, or, if asylum has been requested, is he or she immediately entitled to full national health treatment? Can the Minister clarify the position?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, any asylum seeker given leave to remain in the UK or awaiting a decision on his or her application is regarded as ordinarily resident and is eligible for free treatment by a GP. Similarly, asylum seekers needing hospital care will be treated on the same basis as anyone else eligible to receive NHS hospital treatment.

The Lord Bishop of Lichfield

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Minister about interpreter services. In a Midland town in my region an asylum seeker who had lost an eye through torture received no on-going medical treatment through lack of an interpreter, even though he was registered with a GP. Can the Minister comment on that situation?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate has identified a particularly difficult issue in relation to language. As part of their health improvement programmes, which are aimed at assessing health needs, we expect health authorities to identify interpreting issues and to ensure that such services are available. As part of the good practice guidance arising out of the Audit Commission report, we would expect health authorities to identify the necessity for action in training staff on cultural issues and in providing interpreter, advocacy and translation services.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, I declare an interest because all four of my grandparents were fortunate enough to emigrate to this country at the end of the 19th century in circumstances which today would clearly have made them asylum seekers. Can the Minister give an assurance that in health and other matters every effort will be made to deal with asylum seekers swiftly and fairly—perhaps more swiftly and with more apparent fairness than in the past—recognising not only their rights as human beings but that many asylum seekers who settle here will make a significant contribution to the life of this country?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I agree with everything that my noble friend has said. So far as concerns the National Health Service, we are under an obligation to ensure that asylum seekers receive high quality health services.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, does the Minister agree that in many cases asylum seekers do not have easy access to the health services, especially dental services? In many towns there are no vacancies for national health dental patients—if indeed they have national health dentists. Even in the case of emergency treatment there is extreme difficulty. What are the Government doing to make dental services properly available to asylum seekers?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, what we are doing to improve dental services will apply to all residents of this country. The dental strategy published by the Government two months ago outlines our proposals to ensure that those people who wish to receive NHS dental treatment do receive it. We are establishing dental access centres. We are also establishing initiatives to provide incentives to dentists to increase their NHS provision. Those improvements would apply to asylum seekers as much as to any other group.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, what happens if an asylum seeker has a baby in this country? Is that baby a British citizen?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I shall have to write to the noble Baroness on that issue. The responsibilities of the Department of Health are great but they are not as great as that. We expect the families and dependants of asylum seekers to receive the appropriate NHS services.

Earl Howe

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the single most important step towards solving the difficulties identified by the noble Baroness is proper co-ordination between the Home Office, the Department of Health and local authorities? Does he share my perception that, without a single body taking overall responsibility for the welfare of refugees, general practitioners are picking up the extra workload, often with no notice and no extra back-up funds?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the Department of Health will be anxious to pick up any issues raised by general practitioners and ensure that they are discussed either with the Home Office or with the NASS directly. At the end of the day, I do not think it matters which part of government or which particular unit takes overall responsibility. What is important is to ensure a co-ordinated response. I am satisfied that in areas where a greater demand is placed on health authorities through the development of a proper health improvement programme, through the use of local initiatives such as PMS and the local development of services authorities are in a position to target resources where they can be used most effectively.