HL Deb 16 July 2001 vol 626 cc1263-6

2.45 p.m.

Lord Greavesasked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they expect to announce the outcome of the review of the asylum seekers voucher scheme before the Summer Recess.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Rooker)

My Lords, the accurate and precise answer to the noble Lord's Question is no. As a new ministerial team it will take a while for us to come to our conclusions and, therefore, it is not proposed to make any announcement before the Recess.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that disappointing Answer. This review was first promised at the Labour Party conference in response to a conference rebellion some nine months ago. On 13th November 2000 the then Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, in reply to a Question for Written Answer tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said: It is hoped to complete the review early next year"—[Official Report, 13/11/00; col. WA 7.] Can the Minister tell us the reasons for this extraordinary and disgraceful delay? Is it departmental incompetence, ministerial indecision, whether on the part of old or new Ministers, or pure political cowardice?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, we do not propose to make any announcement before the Recess, and it would be futile to go beyond that during the course of this exchange.

Lord Judd

My Lords, while my noble friend's Answer is refreshing in its candour, does he agree that there are many people working at the front line with asylum seekers and immigrants who believe that the stigma and humiliation involved in the scheme outweigh any possible benefits and that the sooner it can be revised the better?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that many people are concerned about the operation of the scheme, hence the Question as formulated and the reason for the review. However, it is not productive for me to speculate as to when we shall be able to publish our conclusions on the review, or how our thinking is developing as I speak.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, referring to the Minister's original Answer, why does he not publish the conclusion?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, because it is not ready.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, as part of the review will the Minister consider the possibility of asylum seekers taking paid employment, which is the case in most European countries? Is it not time that we appreciated the skills that they have to offer rather than that they should depend on something which they find very demeaning?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, with respect to the noble Lord, that matter goes some way beyond the review of the voucher scheme and is concerned with the rules as they apply to asylum seekers. To my certain knowledge, that has been considered in the past and is always on the table. As new Ministers we are looking at the current situation. On the other hand, in some ways it could be counter-productive and lead to an enormous "pull" factor, which we would consider at the time. That is a separate issue but not one that we dismiss out of hand.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, is it possible that the review has been delayed because the new team is also reviewing the dispersal policy, which creates such difficulties? If so, does the Minister agree that that is a very good thing?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, this morning I made a quick visit to Oakington together with my honourable friend Angela Eagle. We are not a new government but a new team of Home Office Ministers and, if you like, we are reviewing everything at the moment.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, are there any organisations concerned with refugees which the Government still have to consult? If so, which ones?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I believe that the answer is no. The detailed review which took place early this year included interviews, visits and submissions by many groups and organisations. I am not aware of any outstanding inquiries in that respect. It is a question of Ministers coming to conclusions and, as I have said, we are not ready to do so before the Recess.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn

My Lords, is the Minister aware of or can he confirm that there are outstanding applications for asylum which have not been responded to after seven years? I raised this question in the House a couple of years ago and the Leader of the House gave a very courteous reply. But can the Minister indicate that such matters remain on the desk without resolution?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, yes, I know that from my former role I probably have a couple of dozen cases floating around the system. Some of those people have been in this country for many years. Last year, 130,000 decisions were made. That was about two and a half times more than the number of decisions made the previous year. Not everyone likes quick decisions. The consequence is that we are working on the backlog of cases. In the very near future, as a consequence of the huge increase in the number of decisions made last year, there will be fewer people who have had this issue hanging around them for years. They may not like the answer, but at least they will get an answer. There is a backlog of cases which we are trying to clear as quickly as possible.

Earl Russell

My Lords, is the Minister aware that according to Chapter 8 of the White Paper that preceded the 1999 Act, and as the noble Lord confirmed in his references to pull factors a moment ago, one of the main purposes of the voucher system was to deter people from seeking asylum in this country? Does the Minister agree that since the main refugee-producing countries are not famed for their devotion to freedom of information, this is an entirely useless piece of cruelty?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I do not accept that the policy is cruel. I do not accept the way the noble Earl puts the matter. However, there are differences in different countries. Although, in one month the largest group comes from one country, it is not the same the next month. There are variations in different countries. It is simply not possible to give one blanket answer that covers all countries.