HL Deb 10 July 2002 vol 637 cc773-814

House again in Committee on Clause 26.

Earl Russell

moved Amendment No. 117: Page 13, line 7, at end insert— () access to competent legal advice; The noble Earl said: I begin with argument on Amendment No. 119 that touches on a point with which we have not dealt previously. Amendment No. 119 deals with expenses in connection with communications or meetings with a legal adviser. During discussions on the way the system works under the 1999 Act, we have heard constantly of people unable to communicate with their lawyer because they did not have change for the telephone, money for a fax or access to a fax machine or—my noble friend Lord Avebury raised the case just before dinner—because the faxes ended up in the hands of the Immigration Service. I am sure that was an oversight and I hope that it will not occur again.

Meetings are a nightmare for the client and the legal adviser. If you have been dispersed to, say. Preston and have to get to London it can be very expensive, as many of us know well. In order to have justice done, people need to be able to undertake reasonable expenses in order to meet and communicate with their legal advisers. That is the purpose of Amendment No. 119 and of a later amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton. It may be for the convenience of the Committee if we discuss them together as we seek the same aim.

Amendment No. 117 provides for asylum seekers to have access to competent legal advice. I put forward my arguments on that issue on the first day. I shall not do so again. The Minister knows them perfectly well. In Amendment No. 121A he has responded generously. That amendment states that, the Secretary of State may arrange for the provision of facilities in an accommodation centre for the use of a person in providing legal advice to a resident of the centre". That meets the case exactly in all words save one. I thank the Minister warmly for doing so. The Minister will be in no doubt about the one word: it is "may". When the Minister has been so generous, I am sorry to say that that is not good enough. Providing access to competent legal advice has to be a duty on the Secretary of State. Were there to be any failure in that duty, it could turn out to be judicially reviewable. On these Benches, we do not divide in Committee, but I think I can promise the Minister that the word "may" will be the subject of an amendment on Report.

Lord Clinton-Davis

I am largely on the noble Earl's side. However, if "shall" is substituted for "may", the Secretary of State is obliged to enable the applicant to seek legal advice. I do not think that that is right. It is right that he should pause and think again about the issue.

Earl Russell

If someone has to return to a place every night and therefore cannot travel to London to meet a competent lawyer—by "competent" I mean someone competent in asylum law, which is not in all respects the same as immigration law—there must be a duty on the Secretary of State to allow them access to competent legal advice. If you impede them in that duty you deprive them of their legal right. You are preventing a level playing field in litigation and you may even be at risk of legal proceedings yourself. While I respect the noble Lord's point, I cannot bring myself to accept it.

Whatever we may say about the words "may" and "shall", I am deeply grateful for the remainder of the amendment, in particular for the speed with which the Minister responded to my remarks on the first day. For that I thank him very much indeed. I beg to move.

Lord Clinton-Davis

I wish that the noble Earl had gone a little further. Advice in an accommodation centre is not sufficient. The person may seek advice on a rather abstruse point of law. It is not always practicable for the legal adviser to come to the accommodation centre. I see no reason why, in appropriate circumstances, the asylum seeker should not go to the chambers of the barrister or the office of the solicitor, which may not be coincidental with the accommodation centre. I accept the view of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, on the word "may", but I do not think in practice that there should be any permissive nature about the duty of the Secretary of State.

However, we should address ourselves to the possibility of a bogus point being taken by the asylum seeker. In that event, it is not appropriate for the Secretary of State to provide the asylum seeker with the facilities to seek advice. I hope that at a later stage of the Bill the Minister will respond favourably to the proposal. It is not revolutionary. It is a simple proposition. The Minister should reply affirmatively. In other words, where it is essential for the asylum seeker to be able to visit a competent legal adviser— and I take the point that the legal adviser has to be competent in this area of the law—the Secretary of State should be obliged to enable that asylum seeker to go to the chambers or office of a suitable and competent legal adviser.

It may be that the advice sought is outside the competence of the person first consulted. In that case, the Secretary of State should also be obliged to provide facilities to enable the asylum seeker to obtain legal advice. I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that my noble friend the Minister has, in Amendment No. 121A, made a good attempt to meet the points that have been raised. However, in my respectful submission, it does not go far enough. I would like to return to the issue at a later stage, but I hope that my noble friend will agree in principle with the point that I have made.

8.30 p.m.

Earl Russell

The noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, is, of course, right that there may be points with which the adviser on the spot may not be able to deal. That was the purpose for which I put down Amendment No. 119, which would allow for the provision of expenses for travel to meet the legal adviser.

Bogus points have been put forward ever since Adam said, "Woman tempted me". The Secretary of State is not the best person to decide whether the point is bogus.

Lord Hylton

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, mentioned my amendment, Amendment No. 139. It is not in this group, and I would like to move it separately. It goes wider than just what happens within accommodation centres.

Having said that, I warmly welcome Amendment No. 121A. However, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, that, although the Government's amendment is a good effort, it does not go nearly far enough. For example, it does not say that the legal advice made available should be independent. That is crucial. Therefore, I would prefer Amendment No. 117, perhaps combined with Amendments Nos. 118 and 119. The question needs further and deeper consideration.

I was glad to hear the Minister say, during our discussion of Amendment No. 116, that interpretation would be provided. That is a good start. However, unless there is adequate legal advice, as well as interpretation, we will not get the quality of first decisions about which I have gone on at some length at previous stages. Nor will we get the speed of process that all members of the Committee wish to see.

Lord Dubs

I welcome Amendment No. 121A. However, I wish it went it a bit further— in a different direction from that suggested by my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis.

One of the strengths of the refugee world in Britain is that there are active and effective refugee community organisations that provide support to their members. Sometimes, they provide legal advice, hut, more often, they provide broader advice and, above all, support to members of their community. It is well known that that support for newly arrived asylum seekers, which familiarises them with our language and culture, is invaluable in helping them to adjust to being here and to deal with their asylum claim. Unfortunately, Amendment No. 121A simply says, "in providing legal advice". If it said, in providing legal and other advice and support", I should be happy. Will my noble friend the Minister consider that for a later stage?

Lord Avebury

Yesterday, the Minister said that a generic model for how facilities at accommodation centres would operate already existed. Presumably, those facilities include premises for the use of the legal advisers who will serve the inhabitants of the centre. Can the Minister give us an idea of the scale of the facilities envisaged?

We might take Oakington for comparison. I understand that the Refugee Legal Centre and the Immigration Advisory Service have separate office blocks containing rooms used by legal advisers as interview rooms and so on. Space of, roughly, 30,000 square feet is available to each agency in which to serve the residents at Oakington. There will be more people in the accommodation centres, so I take it that, in the generic model that the Minister said we could see, there are two blocks—one for the RLC and one for the IAS. What sort of square footage will they occupy?

Lord Kingsland

We have two difficulties with Amendment No. 121A. The first was eloquently explained by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. The second is connected with the expression "provision of facilities".

Amendment No. 121A arranges for, the provision of facilities … for the use of a person in providing legal advice to a resident of the centre". It does not guarantee the provision of the legal advice itself. That is why we believe that our amendment, Amendment No. 118, takes the correct approach. It would ensure that residents of an accommodation centre would have access to on-site legal advice for the purposes of their asylum claim, rather than having to travel many miles to meet their legal representatives—as far, perhaps, as a barrister's chambers in London.

Lord Clinton-Davis

What happens if a rather abstruse point of law—beyond the competence of the person at the accommodation centre—arises and it becomes necessary to go to see a barrister in chambers? It may not be practicable for the barrister to come to the accommodation centre.

Lord Kingsland

It may, ultimately, be desirable for the asylum seeker to go to the barrister's chambers, but he is likely to do so only after the advice offered in an initial consultation with his solicitor. So, in order to recognise that he needs expert legal advice, the asylum seeker must have general legal advice first. The Government should guarantee that such general legal advice is available on site. That is the purpose of Amendment No. 118.

I accept that our amendment does not provide for the further step. It may be necessary on Report to refine the amendment, so that we can approach the problem in two stages. Stage one is the on-site advice, and stage two concerns the legal consequences that flow from that advice.

Lord Clinton-Davis

Does the noble Lord agree with the proposition that the second stage should be included in the Bill? In other words, it may be necessary, in certain circumstances that he has defined, for the asylum seeker to go to the chambers of someone who specialises in this area of the law.

Lord Hylton

It would be helpful if the kind of provisions that the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, rightly wants were enlarged to cover not only residents of accommodation centres but asylum seekers in general.

Lord Kingsland

May I suggest that between Committee and Report stages, we might put our heads together and consider the possible elaboration of Amendment No. 118 in the unlikely event that the Minister does not concede both points?

Perhaps I could elaborate on the approach that we have adopted under Amendment No. 118. We entirely accept and appreciate that the Government did move in the direction suggested by the Opposition in another place. We appreciate the steps that they have taken so far. At col. 171 of the Official Report of the Standing Committee in another place, it was argued that there was no reference to "legal services" in the Bill. It is the Legal Services Commission rather than the Home Office that provides such services, and which is already empowered under existing statutory provisions to provide services to asylum seekers. I understand that that is the main reason why the Government have resisted including the matter in the Bill.

The noble Lord the Minister is neither nodding nor shaking his head, so I await his response with interest. We believe that it is vital to recognise that the accommodation centres will become a one-stop shop for asylum applications. I welcome Amendment No. 121, which reflects the concerns expressed both here and in another place. In the Standing Committee in another place, the Minister said that legal services would be freely available in accommodation centres as required.

However, I must press the Minister for an explanation as to why it cannot be specified in the Bill that legal advice should be provided in those centres. That is what the Government have said they intend to happen, so why not make it plain?

Lord Renton

I apologise for not having been present when this group of amendments was first discussed. I have been here for some time now and have heard valuable proposals. I support the proposition that between now and Report stage, the Front Benches and others if they feel like it, should consult to find a suitable method of achieving legal representation in the way in which the various amendments suggest. They all have a different emphasis, which is unfortunate in a way, but it is leading us in the right direction. I think that it would be a good thing if we did not press the issue tonight. It would be valuable if the Minister when replying says that he would be willing to have discussions about the best way of embracing the motives of the various amendments. I very often agree with the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and I agree that there should be access to legal advice. However, to introduce the word "competent" creates a bit of a problem.

8.45 p.m.

Lord Filkin

I shall make no comment on that.

I shall give the Government's position on these issues, but I am happy to have further discussions without commitment if that would be useful. First, I shall set out why we cannot accept Opposition Amendments Nos. 117 to 119, which deal with legal advice, and why we hope that the Committee will accept Government Amendment No. 121A.

I understand concerns that asylum seekers in accommodation centres will not be able to have access to free, independent legal advice. People are worried that we will say, "There is advice in that town 20 miles away. It is available to you. Off you go and get it", and that accommodation centre residents will not be able to afford to do that, or will not be able to reach the town and remain within their reporting and residence restrictions. Effectively asylum seekers will be denied legal advice. They are worried that there will be insufficient legal advisers available to provide advice for all centre residents.

We do not believe that that is so. We are committed to ensuring that all asylum seekers have access to legal advice if they want it at all stages of the asylum process. That applies equally to accommodation centre residents. We will ensure that there are sufficient advisers available for accommodation centre residents to receive that advice.

The advice will be provided and funded by the Legal Services Commission through on-site provision, local supply or a combination of both. The precise arrangements will depend on the location or each accommodation centre. The Legal Services Commission will enter into specific contracts with quality assured suppliers. That is being planned centrally by the commission, which has been involved in discussions with the Home Office on this issue over several months.

The Committee is aware that the Legal Services Commission is already under a duty to facilitate the provision of legal advice and representation by virtue of Section 4 of the Access to Justice Act 1999. Furthermore, the commission is under a duty, within the resources available and the priorities set by the Lord Chancellor, to ensure that individuals have access to services that effectively meet their needs. Issues involving life or liberty, including asylum, are given top priority for funding in accordance with the Lord Chancellor's direction on priorities issued under Section 6(1) of the Access to Justice Act and are also prioritised under the funding code issued under Section 8 of that Act and approved by Parliament.

Therefore, there is already an obligation on the Legal Services Commission to provide advice for asylum seekers. To meet concerns that such advice may be available but inaccessible, Government Amendment No. 121 A provides a power for the Home Office to provide facilities for accommodation centre residents to receive legal advice. We are taking this power to make clear the Home Office's express intention to facilitate the provision of legal advice at accommodation centres. Noble Lords may ask why our amendment does not insert a reference to legal advice facilities in Clause 26(1). That is a legal technicality. Clause 26(1) deals with facilities that we will provide to residents and effectively gives the Home Office a power to fund those facilities. We are not taking a power to fund legal advice because, as we have explained, a power already rests with the Lord Chancellor and he has taken on responsibility for the provision of advice.

Therefore, the government amendment provides a power for the Home Office to fund facilities only. It would not be appropriate for us to take a power to fund that which we did not intend to use. A further reason for not creating a duplicate power to fund in Clause 26 is that there is a power in Clause 97, which means that it will be open for the Home Office to grant fund voluntary organisations to provide advice to those in accommodation centres with a right of appeal.

Noble Lords may ask why the Government cannot accept. Amendment 117, which is a power to provide, access to competent legal advice". That could be construed as a power to provide legal advice. That is why we prefer the formulation in the government amendment which makes it clear that the Home Office will provide the facilities, while the Legal Services Commission provides the advice.

The Legal Services Commission is obliged to meet local needs and will do so by providing legal advice to asylum seekers in accommodation centres at all stages of the asylum process. It is committed to ensuring that that is done either by legal advisers based permanently on site or by means of visiting local advisers. The Home Office is committed to facilitating that by ensuring that all necessary facilities are made available.

We cannot accept Amendment No. 119 as it is unnecessary and duplicates existing provision. It will be unnecessary for us to fund accommodation centre residents' expenses for travelling to see their lawyer because legal advice will be provided on site. In the event that an asylum seeker needs to make an exceptional journey to see a legal adviser because the local supplier cannot visit the centre, as may happen from time to time, the Legal Services Commission can provide help with the costs of that travel. Under the terms of legal aid, the solicitor or other adviser who is handling the case can obtain reimbursement for the cost of an asylum seeker's travel to the legal adviser for the purpose of instructing the adviser. That assistance would of course be subject to the asylum seeker qualifying for legal aid in the usual way.

This approach is consistent with that currently taken by NASS, where NASS is expressly prohibited by Section 96(1)(c)—

Lord Clinton-Davis

I know that my noble friend is affected by time and other considerations, but it is impossible to understand his gabble. We are discussing a very important issue, so can he take it rather more slowly?

Lord Filkin

There we go! I have been accused of speaking slowly and of speaking quickly but never of gabble. I shall not repeat what I said because it will be set out clearly in Hansard and we shall all have the opportunity to study it. However, I shall continue at a more leisured pace.

The approach is consistent with that currently taken by NASS, where NASS is expressly prohibited by Section 96(1)(c) of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 from funding asylum seekers' legal expenses and does not fund the costs of travelling to visit a lawyer. Asylum seekers must therefore look to the Legal Services Commission for help with legal costs. At the appeal stage, they may also avail themselves of advice which the Home Office grant funds the Refugee Legal Centre, the Immigration Advisory Service arid the Northern Ireland Law Centre to provide.

As we already have a legal aid system, the Government do not consider that separate arrangements are required for asylum seekers. We cannot agree that the Home Office should have a duty to fund provision which will be unnecessary in an accommodation centre in most circumstances and is already available free of charge via the Legal Services Commission.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked what facilities would be available for legal advisers. We cannot give precise details at this stage, but we intend to provide proper and decent facilities that are adequate for the purpose. We envisage at least consultation rooms and office facilities for visiting lawyers. Where they are based permanently on site, they would have all that they need to function there.

I was also asked about the provision of other advice and support. We are happy to undertake to consider that. We would not want to stop NGOs and other advice givers being on site at centres and having access to residents. Indeed, we would want to encourage that as we believe it often assists the process.

I recognise that I have covered a great deal of dense ground and I have even been slightly fast in doing so. I shall study with interest what has been said by Members of the Committee and I am sure that they will return the compliment. With that, I invite the noble Earl to agree to withdraw his amendment and hope that the Committee will accept government Amendment No. 121A.

Lord Kingsland

Perhaps I may suggest to the noble Lord one of the flaws in the argument so well developed by him. The Government cannot require the Legal Services Commission to furnish legal advice. The Home Office cannot do that, nor can the Lord Chancellor. It is a matter, in the last resort, for the discretion of the Legal Services Commission. It may find that a particular asylum seeker at a particular accommodation centre does not meet the criteria for making a financial grant. What will the Government do in those circumstances?

Lord Dholakia

Perhaps I, too, may put a further question to the Minister. The point at issue is that in the amendment we are talking about, access to competent legal advice". I do not want to impinge on the integrity of the legal advice being provided, nor for that matter the integrity of the Legal Services Commission, but my experience and that in particular of the voluntary agencies in the field of making representation is that the matters are difficult and complex. They depend on the amount of legal casework that their solicitors are able to take.

Rather than depending on the legal services, whether there is power to give advice or not, we are talking about experienced solicitors and advisers being available. On the basis of what the Minister has said, I doubt that. That is why it is important for the Minister to take into account the reason why we suggest "competent legal advice" and why it should be available other than from the Legal Services Commission.

Lord Filkin

Both noble Lords asked good and interesting questions. The noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, asked what the Home Office would do if the Legal Services Commission did not consider an asylum seeker to be eligible for legal aid. I shall reflect on the question, but my initial reaction is that it would do nothing. I believe that the Home Office would not put itself in the place of the Legal Services Commission and seek to provide a legal aid service duplicating that which is the responsibility of the LSC.

Lord Kingsland

I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. As I understand the Government, one of the fundamental objectives of the legislation is to expedite asylum procedures. The crucial ingredient in meeting that objective is ensuring that the asylum seeker understands exactly what his legal position is. Understanding his legal position will help the Government to expedite the procedures, thus meeting their own legislative objective.

If the Legal Services Commission is unprepared to finance an asylum seeker in a particular case, surely it is in the interests of the Government to step in and provide the necessary money. That will fulfil the purpose of the legislation.

Lord Filkin

The matter is clearly well expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland. I repeat my offer to consider it, but today I will not go further than the position I have advanced.

With regard to the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, about trying to ensure that it is competent legal advice, it is the LSC's intention to ensure that legal advice is made available at accommodation centres from quality-assured suppliers. Specific contracts will be entered into for that purpose. The process is being planned centrally by the LSC, which for several months has been involved in discussions with the Home Office on this issue.

I offer that as a reasonable response and suggest that this is an opportunity for us to reflect on the matter in the coming months. I accept that we have not gone as far as Members of the Committee want without necessarily making a commitment that we can go any further.

Earl Russell

The debate has shown the Chamber at its best. It is not as a mere figure of speech that I want to thank all Members of the Committee who have spoken. The noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, and the Minister have found a way forward; that we must all talk further among ourselves about the issue.

I shall respond to one or two of the points made. The noble Lord, Lord Renton, asked about "competent legal advice". I see what is worrying him, but I meant the word "competent" in a rather more technical sense. I meant competent in the field of asylum law and not just immigration law in general. I hope that with that response the noble Lord, Lord Renton, will think that it was not altogether a fruitless suggestion.

The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, about the independence of legal advice is crucial, as is his point about the quality of the initial decision-making. That underlies the whole of any attempts to reform the asylum system. The poor quality of initial decision-making makes the whole thing go wrong and go on taking time, sometimes for ever and a day. I do not see how we can get that right without "competent" in the sense of qualified legal advice being available at the earliest stage. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, about advice and help from within the community. That is an important point and I am grateful to him for it.

The noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, raised the big problem about the impossibility of "requiring" the Legal Services Commission and about the Legal Services Commission being bound by criteria. Is it perhaps an answer to say that we ought to treat this as though it were a criminal rather than a civil matter? The penalty of being deported to a country where you may suffer death or torture is equivalent to a criminal penalty of considerable severity. The criteria for cases such as those for the Legal Services Commission are different from those for civil cases, in which one has to have a 50 per cent chance of success. Incidentally, in asylum law, judging a 50 per cent chance of success before a full hearing can be pretty difficult.

The law is still in the process of evolution. Very distinguished legal brains on the Bench have been working on it, which tends to make the law change from time to time. Thus it is difficult to apply those criteria. Would applying the criminal criteria go any way towards meeting the question, or if that is not exactly the way to approach it, is there a solution in that direction?

In the meantime, Amendment No. 121A is before us. It is a good amendment with the one reservation that I have already expressed. The other points can be discussed among ourselves over the summer. I thank all those who have spoken, in particular the Minister for his patience and consideration. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 118 and 119 not moved.]

9 p.m.

Earl Russell

moved Amendment No. 120: Page 13, line 25, after "(1)(b)" insert "(provided that such amount shall not he less than the level of income support for the time being) The noble Earl said: This amendment would provide that the support given to asylum seekers should he set at a level not less than that of income support for the time being. It has been a matter of considerable concern among a good many of us that, in effect, the present level of support provided is only 70 per cent of income support. That is a pretty low figure.

Some noble Lords may have been present on Monday last when I asked a Question concerning what the Government regard as a minimum income necessary for subsistence. I do not think that I can pretend that I got an answer to the Question. Under the circumstances, I think that for the time being I am entitled to treat the level of income support as being that of the level of subsistence.

If I remember correctly the debates of 1999, the answer I shall receive from the Minister in a few moments is that this is not necessary because a large amount is provided in the equipment at the centres; that is, goods that other people have to buy. It is a fair point as far as it goes, hut what it leaves out is the fact that asylum seekers do not have access to the Social Fund.

I recall another point made extremely persuasively by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham. She said that poverty becomes much more serious when it continues for a long time. That is because one does not face only the ordinary problems of day-to-day nourishment; there is the difficulty of all one's equipment wearing out. Shoes and overcoats need to be replaced. All this will happen over a period of six months, which incidentally is the length of time estimated by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, for the problem really to kick in. That is an interesting estimate.

If asylum seekers arrive here from, say, Sierra Leone and are sent to Lancashire, they will not have with them the kind of winter clothing needed in Lancashire, especially when one is at all high up. A large number of things must be bought in order to keep warm, for which no application may be put to the Social Fund because asylum seekers are not eligible for it. I should have thought that that would cancel out all the arguments just about to be made by the Minister with regard to basic facilities being provided within the centres.

The Home Secretary has put forward a further argument; that is, that he is afraid of what he terms "benefit shopping" among asylum seekers. With respect, the Home Secretary is not a social security specialist. He appears not to know that our benefits are below the average level for the European Union. The idea that we offer particularly generous benefits dates from a long time ago. It has not been true at any time that I have been in this House. Last night I checked the Eurostat figures in the Library and found that within the European Union we are ranked eighth out of 15 for benefits. That is not disgraceful. Of course there are several ways of measuring the figures and if the Minister wishes to bandy statistics with me, he is welcome to do so. However, I doubt whether this is the time of night for such an exercise.

Anyone who comes to this country for the sake of benefit shopping would do so in ignorance. If the Minister can produce any cases of people doing so, then it will just go to sustain a point that I have been making for a long time; namely, that we cannot deter people from seeking asylum in this country by making the regime experienced by asylum seekers more harsh. That is because there is no provision for publishing the details of our social security provision in the press in Freetown, Sierra Leone or in the backstreets of Kandahar. People in those cities simply do not get to hear about them.

I think that it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that asylum seekers should be provided with a level of income equivalent to income support for the time being. It is an amendment that I first moved in the Social Security Act 1989. I have been trying for a long time. I fear that I may have to try for a little longer, but I shall keep at it. I beg to move.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

I rise to add a brief comment. I cannot say that this debate has conjured in my mind an image of Aeneas carrying his aged father out of the flames, but it has brought to mind those gaunt, forbidding buildings which one can still come across on country roads. They were provided as a result of the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 to cater for those who somehow had to be helped. But the principle behind the Act was that the lives of those people should be less eligible than those of any other members of the community.

I believe that that is something which lies behind the inadequate provision made for asylum seekers. By fixing the level of support at 70 per cent of income support, then by definition those people must be regarded as less eligible. Again and again the Minister has tried to persuade the Committee that accommodation centres will be desirable places and will provide better for asylum seekers than will any other form of accommodation.

I believe that the matter of financial support is deeply serious. If we want this to be a country where asylum seekers are treated in a civilised manner, we should not set their income at a level that makes them in every way less eligible than is the lot of other people—in the sense of the 19th century legislation to which I have referred.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, has pointed out most eloquently the needs of people who arrive from very different climates and their lack of access to the Social Fund. I warmly support the amendment.

Lord Filkin

I was beginning to be encouraged by the economy with which the noble Earl, Lord Russell, advanced his own cause, indicated mine and gave a resolution of the two. On that basis we would make considerable progress.

He is substantially right in his conjecture as to what I shall say. Nevertheless, let me explain why I cannot accept Amendment No. 120. It would mean that the cash support that we provide to accommodation centre residents would have to be the same as the equivalent income support allowance. Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 established the principle of treating asylum support separately from the mainstream benefits system. Providing asylum seekers with cash to exactly the same value as income support would undermine that principle.

Concerns have been expressed about the value of NASS support. It is not correct to say that NASS support is worth only 70 per cent of income support. Taken as a package, NASS accommodation and support is broadly equivalent to what an asylum seeker would receive if he or she qualified for income support. The reason for this is, as the Committee knows, that NASS accommodation is fully furnished and includes all utility bills—heating, lighting and hot water— kitchen utensils and equipment, crockery, cutlery, towels and bedding. These items would not normally be provided to a person in receipt of income support and housing benefit.

We intend to take the same approach for accommodation centres, where of course utility bills will be paid centrally and items such as bed linen will be provided by the accommodation centre itself. It would therefore be unfair to provide accommodation centre residents with full income support because that would mean that the value of their support would be greater than that of a person settled in dispersed accommodation.

Our original intention was to provide accommodation centre residents with the majority of their support in kind with only a small cash allowance for incidental expenses. We set out this policy in the White Paper. However, as I indicated yesterday, we have reviewed this policy in the light of the response to the White Paper and what we know of European accommodation centres. We have decided that it is important to allow asylum seekers to cook for themselves, to provide a degree of autonomy over their day-to-day lives and to avoid encouraging institutionalisation. We shall therefore pay asylum seekers a subsistence allowance, in cash, to enable them to purchase food and other goods.

We are still considering precisely how much this cash allowance should be, but we intend that it should be in the region of full NASS subsistence support and certainly substantially more than the pocket money we originally planned. We will consider carefully the case for any variations in support between NASS and accommodation centres and will ensure that any variations are justified. It is important that the value of support in the two systems is broadly comparable.

For the reasons that I have given, I hope that noble Lords will understand why we cannot accept an amendment that would require us to pay accommodation centre residents full income support levels. Not only would they receive more than their counterparts supported by NASS but, because of the value of the in-kind support which centre residents will receive, they would be receiving total support worth more than the income support provided to people settled here. While my reply may not have surprised the noble Earl, Lord Russell, I hope that he will withdraw his amendment.

Earl Russell

I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford for his support. The Church is still the only institution represented in every parish in the country. It is therefore a valuable witness to the level of poverty and does a great deal of good which is very much appreciated.

The Minister's calculations about the equivalence of the NASS package to income support seem to have been, at some stage in their life, somewhere near the Treasury. I remember what the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, had to say about the Treasury before the dinner adjournment. I agree with her. I also agree with what my colleague Susan Kramer had to say about the Treasury—that is, that no self-respecting business would allow its finance department so much power.

It is not only the Social Fund which is missing from this package but the whole range of access to passported benefits. I had hoped to table an amendment on this but I gather that it is still floating around the e-ether and has not yet reached me. The Minister can expect to see it on Report. I do not believe that the Minister is right about the package.

He is of course right about self-catering, which I welcomed yesterday. But, if one thinks about the problem that I raised then of buying tropical produce in Worcestershire, it is, if one can do it at all, likely to be rather expensive. If they are able to take advantage of the self-catering which is intended, many people will be buying things which are a good deal more expensive than in their country of origin—and if they cannot do that, what is the point of self-catering? So there will be a cost.

As to the amount of cash to be provided, in Standing Committee in the other place on 9th May, Angela Eagle said at col. 174 that the Government were thinking about a range of £5 to £14 but that no final decisions have yet been made. Not even a student is expected to undertake self-catering for that kind of cost. Nor, indeed, as these people will be placed in remote places, are they likely to be able to afford the journey on that amount.

When we had a debate on poverty in February 2000, I remember the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans drawing attention to someone who, with £60 a week of benefit, was spending a tenth of her benefit simply on going to the benefit office to claim it. That is a factor of putting accommodation centres in remote locations, which is likely to mean that almost the whole of the cash, if provided at that level, will be used to subsidise rural bus services. I have no objection to subsidising rural bus services, but I do not believe that we should rely on a supply of cheap asylum seekers to do it. There are better ways of doing that job.

The Minister is right to speculate that I intend to withdraw this amendment at this time of the day. However, it is a matter about which he can expect to hear more before the Bill is over. For the time being, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

9.15 p.m.

Lord Filkin

moved Amendment No. 121: Page 13, line 26, leave out paragraph (b). The noble Lord said: This amendment deletes subsection (2)(b) of Clause 26, in response to concerns raised in the other place.

Subsection (2)(b) would allow the Secretary of State to make regulations requiring the manager of an accommodation centre to determine the amount of money to be provided to a centre resident. We included it in the Bill because we believed that the flexibility to allow local decisions would be helpful. However, concerns were expressed about placing decisions relating to the amount of money that asylum seekers receive into the hands of someone who is not a public servant. There were fears that that position might be abused, that arbitrary decisions might be made or that centre managers might have incentives to minimise the amount of cash handed out. We have listened to the concerns raised.

Because a manager would have been able to take decisions only in accordance with regulations made by the Secretary of State, there were safeguards. However, we have reviewed the position and have concluded that it is not necessary to be able to take local decisions about the money that we give to centre residents. In practice, all decisions will be taken by the Secretary of State. Clause 26(2)(b) is therefore unnecessary, and we have decided to delete it. I beg to move.

Earl Russell

Without wasting words, I warmly welcome this amendment.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Filkin

moved Amendment No. 121A: Page 13, line 28, at end insert— () The Secretary of State may arrange for the provision of facilities in an accommodation centre for the use of a person in providing legal advice to a resident of the centre. On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 26, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 27 [Conditions of residence]:

[Amendment No. 122 not moved.]

Lord Bassam of Brighton

moved Amendment No. 123: Page 14, line 13, at end insert "or under paragraph 2(5) of Schedule 3 to that Act (control pending deportation). The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 124, both of which are minor, technical amendments. Amendment No. 123 corrects an oversight by inserting a reference to paragraph 2(5) of Schedule 3 to the Immigration Act 1971 into Clause 27(7). It ensures consistency with Clause 21 and makes clear that any accommodation centre residence conditions imposed under Clause 27 of this Bill are additional to any residence restrictions imposed under paragraph 21 of Schedule 2 and paragraph 2(5) of Schedule 3 to the 1971 Act.

Amendment No. 124 deletes what is now an unnecessary subsection. The purpose of subsection (8) of Clause 27 is already provided for by Clause 23(3), which was introduced at Committee stage in the other place. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

moved Amendment No. 124: Page 14, line 14, leave out subsection (8). On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 27, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 28 [Financial contribution by resident]:

Earl Russell

moved Amendment No. 125: Page 14, line 34, leave out subsection (3). The noble Lord said: This amendment seeks to delete subsection (3) of Clause 28. The clause authorises the Secretary of State to draw on the assets of the asylum seeker to meet any charges that may be incurred in the centre. Subsection (3) authorises the Secretary of State to draw on assets outside the United Kingdom. Since the asylum seeker is in this country presumably because he cannot remain in his native country in safety, and since his assets are presumed to be in his native country, does not this require an impossibility? I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

We are grateful to the noble Earl for moving this amendment, if only because it will enable us to consider a minor drafting error that can be corrected in the next print of the Bill. Subsection (3) of Clause 28 should—and, of course, will—refer to "assets" in subsection (2), not subsection (3). We will ensure that that error is rectified.

Leaving aside the error, we believe that subsection (3) is necessary. We cannot accept its wholesale deletion. When correctly drafted, it will make clear that the reference to "assets" in subsection (2) in the clause includes assets outside the United Kingdom. Subsection (2) will allow the Secretary of State to make regulations enabling him to recover some, or all, of the value of support that has been paid to an accommodation centre resident if that resident has asked for support and at the time of asking for support he had assets that were not realisable and if those assets have subsequently become realisable.

We believe that the approach is entirely fair and that it is completely reasonable to include it in our definition of "assets"; that is, assets outside the United Kingdom. The point to bear in mind—and this goes to the heart of the noble Earl's point—is that we would only take account of assets outside the United Kingdom if those assets have become realisable. We believe that it is quite proper that an asylum seeker with, say, property in his home country that he cannot sell at the time that he applies for asylum support but which he subsequently sells or is able to sell should make a contribution to his support in the United Kingdom.

There is no question of us taking account of assets abroad if the money could not be said to be reasonably available to the accommodation centre resident. In our view, the provisions for accommodation centres are entirely consistent with those for people currently supported by NASS under Part VI of the 1999 Act. The equivalent provision is set out in Regulation 17 of the Asylum Support Regulations 2000.

There is, I believe, a point here that the noble Earl has missed; namely, that an asylum seeker resident in an accommodation centre could have assets not perhaps in his country of origin but in another county. It may not necessarily be the case that assets in the home country are inaccessible to him. Subsection (3) requires those assets to be realisable. If they are not realisable, they cannot be accessed and, indeed, cannot be taken into account. We believe that we have got this right and that it is a reasonable provision. Of course, its application will depend on all the circumstances involved in the case. With those words of reassurance—and they are intended as such—I hope that the noble Earl will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Avebury

Perhaps I may suggest to the Minister that the principal asset that an asylum seeker may have left behind in his country of origin may be the house in which he was living. Although it would be theoretically possible in many cases for him to instruct agents to sell the house, the normal course of action would be to allow other members of the family to live in it so that he would have a home to return to should the situation subsequently change; in other words, he would at least have somewhere to go.

The Minister is proposing that such an asylum seeker should be forced to sell that accommodation. Therefore, if the dictatorship, or whatever, in his home country is overthrown and he is able to return after, say, 10 or 15 years, he would have nowhere to live. Does the noble Lord think that it is wise to impose such a solution on asylum seekers?

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

Before the Minister responds, perhaps I may put a question to him that arises from the language that he used in his response. I do not believe that the Minister was suggesting that the word "realisable" and the phrase "reasonably available" are equivalent to each other, but I wonder whether the phrase "reasonably available" includes references to exchange control. One can conceive of circumstances under these provisions where the person would be required to sell his house and then, having sold it and transformed it into cash, would not actually be able to remove the money from the country of origin.

Therefore, in addition to the correction to the drafting of subsection (3) at the next printing of the Bill, it seems that a certain amount of tidying up of this particular provision will he needed before the Bill becomes law.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

Noble Lords have made fair and reasonable points. However, I return to the point that the assets must be realisable. Moreover, they will he considered on a case by case basis. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, makes a very reasonable point. If the assets are not realisable, they cannot be taken into account. I think that there will be a test of reasonableness in all of this. While the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is right that property may well be an asylum seeker's major asset, there may well be other assets such as—I do not know—insurance policies, national savings certificates, pension schemes, premium bonds, stocks, shares and so on. Any of those may be assets that are accessible and available. As I said, it will be done very much on a case by case basis.

As it is, NASS currently takes account of cash, savings, investments and certain types of property which belong to an applicant or may have belonged to an asylum seeker or his or her dependants. So all of that is already provided for in the current regulations. They have not caused great difficulty in their application, or at least we are not aware of them causing great difficulty. So this is continuing an existing provision.

Lord Greaves

The Minister clearly said that this provision is similar to that which applies to people currently obtaining NASS support. In the past two years, since NASS started operating, in how many cases has this provision been used? Of the 44,000 people that NASS has dispersed and the others that it has supported, how many have paid over money?

Lord Kingsland

As I understand it, the effect of the clause is to make the exercise by the Secretary of State an ex post one. In other words, someone will enter the accommodation centre, receive the support that everyone else receives, but, at a later stage, as a result of research into their finances, the Secretary of State will seek to claw back that money. That will be the subject matter of the proposed regulations.

Before the Minister embarks on that course, he might like to ask the Home Office to reflect on the cost-benefit of the exercise. If the Government want to extract these sums from individuals owning property abroad, there will have to be, first, a fair amount of research abroad; and, secondly, perhaps a heavy investment in the actual recovery process. I can see the force of injecting into the Bill a disincentive system in relation to someone wrongfully claiming support. Conversely, I think that cost is an appropriate issue for the Home Office to address.

Lord Berkeley

We have to remember that many of those claiming asylum and using the Sangatte centre are alleged to have paid between £5,000 and £10,000 to get there. I do not know how they got that money or whether they paid it to the mafia or someone else, but it is possible that some of them have other assets. I think that this type of situation will be rare, and that it will be even rarer that, as other noble Lords have said, those assets will be realisable from the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, if someone has raised £10,000 to come to the United Kingdom as an economic migrant and is claiming asylum, and if it can be demonstrated that he has realisable assets, I do not know why he should not be made to pay for his accommodation while his application is being processed.

9.30 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I respond first to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley. I know one person personally who happens to have come not from Sangatte but ultimately from Kosovo via an expensive lorry journey across Europe beginning in the Valley of Death in Blace. That person had absolutely nothing left after that. That is, I think, a rather commoner case than the one that the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, envisages.

As for the Minister's reply, not for the first time I remind the Home Office that it is not a Foreign Office. In assessing the realisability of assets in another country the Home Office is literally outside its element. This is the office which believed in 1996 that opposition groups were allowed to flourish freely in Zaire and that in Turkey efforts were being made to encourage the better expression of the Kurdish cultural identity. I do not think that the Home Office's opinion that an asset is realisable is necessarily sound. The point that my noble friend Lord Avebury made about the house being very likely to be occupied by relatives is a serious one. The risk to the relatives is also serious in that case. In fact, it might be the first effect of putting such a provision into effect to bring another asylum seeker to our shores in great haste. I doubt whether that is what the Home Secretary intends.

The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, about exchange controls is also one of considerable force. The sort of countries that produce large numbers of asylum seekers tend not to be the sort of countries that have particularly sound currencies. So once the asset is realised, it is likely to produce when it is brought over here a sum a great deal less than the Home Office intended, in which case the point of the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, about the cost of realising the asset is of considerable force.

The case of the asylum seeker with large numbers of assets in another country is not likely to be a sufficiently common one to justify this provision on its own. When people such as Saddam Hussein and General Mobutu seek asylum in the United Kingdom I shall take that point seriously. At present I do not feel the need to.

The only asset that most asylum seekers will have is probably a small amount of family jewellery and ornament about their person. Those will often be family heirlooms and a precious reminder of a sense of identity which has been deeply challenged. I am reminded of the story of a couple in desperate poverty. They were equally desperately in love. Her one great asset was a wonderfully beautiful head of hair. His one asset was an inherited gold watch for which he had no watch chain. Come Christmas morning they discovered that she had cut off her hair and sold it to a wigmaker to buy a chain for his watch and that he had sold his watch in order to buy a gold chain o put round her hair. That really is the course of true love but I do not want it to be the course of British law, l shall not take the matter further tonight; we may hear more of it later. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 28 agreed to.

Clause 29 agreed to.

Lord Filkin

moved Amendment No. 126: After Clause 29, insert the following new clause—


  1. (1) The Secretary of State shall appoint a group (to be known as an Accommodation Centre Advisory Group) for each accommodation centre.
  2. 793
  3. (2) The Secretary of State may by regulations—
    1. (a) confer functions on Advisory Groups;
    2. (b) make provision about the constitution and proceedings of Advisory Groups.
  4. (3) Regulations under subsection (2)(a) must, in particular, provide for members of an accommodation centre's Advisory Group—
    1. (a) to visit the centre;
    2. (b) to hear complaints made by residents of the centre;
    3. (c) to report to the Secretary of State.
  5. (4) The manager of an accommodation centre must permit a member of the centre's Advisory Group on request—
    1. (a) to visit the centre at any time;
    2. (b) to visit any resident of the centre at any time, provided that the resident consents.
  6. (5) A member of an Advisory Group shall hold and vacate office in accordance with the terms of his appointment (which may include provision about retirement, resignation or dismissal).
  7. (6) The Secretary of State may—
    1. (a) defray expenses of members of an Advisory Group;
    2. (b) make facilities available to members of an Advisory Group."

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 127 to 131 not moved.]

Lord Filkin moved Amendment No. 132: Before Clause 30, insert the following new clause—


  1. (1) The Secretary of State shall appoint a person as Monitor of Accommodation Centres.
  2. (2) The Monitor shall monitor the operation of this Part of this Act and shall, in particular, consider—
    1. (a) the quality and effectiveness of accommodation and other facilities provided in accommodation centres,
    2. (b) the nature and enforcement of conditions of residence, and
    3. (c) the treatment of residents.
  3. (3) In exercising his functions the Monitor shall consult—
    1. (a) the Secretary of State, and
    2. (b) such other persons as he considers appropriate.
  4. (4) The Monitor shall report to the Secretary of State about the matters considered by the Monitor in the course of the exercise of his functions—
    1. (a) at least once in each calendar year, and
    2. (b) on such occasions as the Secretary of State may request.
  5. (5) Where the Secretary of State receives a report under subsection (4)(a) he shall lay a copy before Parliament as soon as is reasonably practicable.
  6. (6) The Monitor shall hold and vacate office in accordance with the terms of his appointment (which may include provision about retirement, resignation or dismissal).
  7. (7) The Secretary of State may—
    1. (a) pay fees and allowances to the Monitor;
    2. (b) defray expenses of the Monitor;
    3. (c) make staff and other facilities available to the Monitor.
  8. (8) The Secretary of State may appoint more than one person to act jointly as Monitor (in which case they shall divide or share functions in accordance with the terms of their appointment and, subject to that, by agreement between them).
  9. (9) A person who is employed within a government department may not be appointed as Monitor of Accommodation Centres."

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 133 and 134 not moved.]

Clauses 30 to 32 agreed to.

Clause 33 ["Preseribed": orders and regulations]:

Lord Filkin

moved Amendments Nos. 134A and 135: Page 18, line 27, at end insert— () section (Length of stay: family with children), Page 18, line 31, at end insert— () section (Advisory Groups), On Question, amendments agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 136 and 137 not moved.]

Clause 33, as amended, agreed to.

Clauses 34 to 36 agreed to.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

moved Amendment No. 138: Before Clause 37, insert the following new clause—


  1. (1) The Secretary of State shall establish by order a documentation centre to provide country of origin information for use in the determination of asylum applications.
  2. (2) The order providing for the establishment of the documentation centre shall provide that responsibility for the functioning of the documentation centre will rest with a person or persons who is or are independent of the Secretary of State.
  3. (3) The Secretary of State may provide financial support to an organisation in the United Kingdom to enable that organisation to assist in the functioning of the documentation centre.
  4. (4) The Secretary of State shall not make an order under this section unless a draft of the order has been laid before and approved by resolution of each House of Parliament."

The noble Baroness said: The purpose of the amendment is to create an independent documentation centre, which would conduct country risk assessments with the speed and confidence necessary to allow a junior official to decide that a claim was wholly unfounded, and to do so with the conviction required to withstand judicial review.

To make the process set out by the Bill work, we must have a system of country risk assessments that carries weight and which will stand the full test of judicial challenge. We can do that by having a documentation centre that is independent of the Home Office responsible for producing country risk assessments, as the Refugee Council proposes. It would carry credibility because it would not be influenced by a desire to achieve a particular result in appeals.

When I raised this matter on Second Reading I was both encouraged and intrigued by the response of the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, on what he acknowledged was an important matter. He stated: We have agreed to set up an advisory committee. On Report the Home Secretary said that such a committee would have to be open and transparent and prepared to have consultations with the Government and the two main Opposition parties as to its makeup. That work will commence as soon as possible. That is a clear commitment".—[Official Report, 24/6/02; col. 1174]

I am encouraged because the Minister stated that the Government have given a clear commitment in this regard. However, I am also intrigued because he stated that the Government have agreed to set up an advisory committee and that the work will commence "as soon as possible". That was not the impression conveyed by the Home Secretary in another place on Report on 11th June at col. 798 of Hansard, when he acknowledged the concerns that have been expressed about whether the assessment of countries is sufficiently clear or rapid. He rebutted the suggestion that the assessment of countries is not sufficiently clear or rapid. He also said that, if it were not, then, we need an advisory committee to assist us. Such a committee would have to be open and transparent and prepared to have consultations with the Government and the two main Opposition parties on its make-up. It would have to help us with the process without removing the existing formulations, which draw down all the known available evidence".— [Official Report, Commons, 11/6/02; cols. 798–799.]

That makes it appear that the Home Secretary is saying that there is nothing wrong with the system but, if there were, we might do something about it. That is rather different from the statement made by the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, at Second Reading. Therefore, with great encouragement from what the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, said, I can only assume that the Home Secretary now accepts that the assessment of countries is not currently sufficiently clear or rapid after all.

As we have been assured by the Minister that work on the advisory committee will commence as soon as possible, several questions arise. When will that work commence, or is it already taking place? If it has not started, will it do so before we reach Report stage in the autumn? Shall we be given details of the Government's plans by then so that they can form part of an amendment which I may table for discussion on Report? As, according to the Minister, the committee would have to be prepared to have consultations with the two main opposition parties on the committee's make-up, what procedures are the Government putting in place to achieve that? I look forward to hearing the Minister's plans and perhaps discussing the matter with the Government over the summer. Finally, when do the Government expect the advisory committee to be operational?

The Minister will recall that when the subject matter of my amendment was discussed in another place on 11th June my right honourable friend Mr Letwin welcomed the Home Secretary's idea of an advisory committee but made it clear that we do not believe that it goes far enough. That is reported at col. 804 of Commons Hansard. We do not accept that the present system of country risk assessment is merely in need of oversight by an advisory committee. The oversight is welcome, but the present system of assessment is woefully and intrinsically deficient.

The important issue is that if the Government want Clause 82(2) and subsections (1) and (3) of Clause 101 to have any chance of sustaining themselves under judicial review they will need to move to a genuinely independent country risk assessment at the very least.

If the Government are not able to provide assurances that their plans for an advisory committee will achieve the same objectives as my amendment and that they will set up the advisory committee swiftly with the assistance of the views expressed by Members of this House in debates on the Bill throughout Committee, then we may have to return to the matter on Report to press the Government rather hard. Certainly, having had the encouragement of what the Minister said at Second Reading, I hope that he will be able to give even more encouraging information tonight. I beg to move.

Lord Dholakia

I support the amendment. It had our support in the Commons and we are delighted to support it in this Chamber. This is probably one of the most important amendments. It is designed to bring a fresh approach in the determination of asylum applications.

First, perhaps I may explain why. I had the privilege of visiting the headquarters in London where adjudicators deal with important aspects of individuals' applications. Much of the source material is provided by the Immigration Service and often adjudicators establish their own information system to supplement what is available.

I have sat on some of the adjudications in the past and I have no doubt that adjudicators perform a very delicate task in sifting information provided by government sources and information available to them through the work of some of the valuable international agencies, such as the UNHCR, Amnesty International and so on.

Often, much depends on the accurate analysis of such information because, for many, a wrong decision resulting in deportation could lead to death. I have often seen evidence which does not tally with what is known about a particular country. It is often the diligence of the adjudicator that makes a difference between life and death. We must build on that. The Government have nothing to fear. In fact, I do not believe that our High Commissions or, for that matter, our embassies have the same depth of knowledge as the international agencies, which work at grass-roots level and have first-hand information which is required by the adjudicators about the country of origin.

I pay tribute to Amnesty International, Save the Children, Oxfam and many other organisations which have made a great difference to the status of refugees in the way in which their applications are processed. It is vital that such a centre is independent of the Government. There are a number of reasons for that. First, most importantly it establishes an element of fairness. Secondly, it builds the confidence of the applicant in the system; and, thirdly, it assists adjudicators to reach a decision based on up-to-date information about the country of origin.

The estimate by the Government shows a likely large increase in the removal of rejected applications. That has been estimated by government sources to be up to 30,000 per annum. In the absence of an independent documentation centre, many of the decisions could be reached on the basis of unsatisfactory information. The larger the number of removals, the greater the danger that some genuine asylum seekers may face a wrong decision. To realise that, one has to consider the work of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. In no way are we denying the right of the Government to remove those who do not qualify, but seek simply to assist them to reach the correct decision.

There is a general acceptance by many people working in the field of immigration that that is the right approach. There is no need for further research. All such research would confirm is the weakness of the present system and the need for an improved approach. Today we have the opportunity to set up an independent documentation centre and we should proceed with that. We should ensure that it has the funding to make it possible. I support the amendment.

9.45 p.m.

Lord Hylton

This is an important amendment, which I support. It builds on the Canadian model. In that country an independent documentation centre has been functioning satisfactorily for a number of years. I believe that the amendment would be strongly supported by Professor Goodwin-Gill, the professor of international refugee law at Oxford University.

If accepted, the amendment would end the paradoxical and unsatisfactory situation which has cropped up from time to time over the past 10 years in which the Home Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have been giving out completely different and conflicting opinions about the situation in individual countries. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, gave the example of Turkey and one other example.

An independent centre of this kind would help greatly to improve the quality of first decisions in asylum cases, thus leading to fewer appeals and fewer judicial reviews. I hope that this will be pursued.

Lord Avebury

Most practitioners who have considered the country assessments from the Home Office, which are available on its website, will have noticed inaccuracies, omissions and delays in putting the information on to the site. The Home Office country assessments are meant to be amended every six months. Sometimes they are not. Sometimes, the situation in countries of origin can move rapidly. I shall give one example.

In Zimbabwe we pressed the Government to take note of the fact that the killings, arrests, torture and other violations of human rights of members of the opposition, and in particular of the main opposition party, were reaching a crescendo which justified exceptional measures not to send people back until a complete evaluation of their position had been made by the Secretary of State. For weeks that was resisted, until finally, just after Christmas, it was decided that we were right and that the removals should be suspended.

If the Home Office had been monitoring the situation as closely as other people had been, it would have agreed with us and perhaps some people who subsequently found themselves in great trouble with the regime in Harare would not have been sent back. Therefore, the independence of the proposed centre is important.

Any independent agency worth its salt would make certain that the information it provided to adjudicators was bang up-to-date. A situation can change drastically for the worse. People who were reasonably safe in a country until maybe a few weeks ago may suddenly find themselves at risk. If the information available to adjudicators is not bang up-to-date they may be completely unaware of changes in situations. Certainly that may be so if they had to rely on the six-monthly periodic reports of the Home Office, which frequently, in the experience of practitioners, are not complete. Therefore, they do not give an accurate picture of what is happening in those countries.

Earl Russell

I add to that briefly. I mentioned to the Minister the two pamphlets by Alasdair Mackenzie— No Reason At All and Still No Reason At All. In the second of those he pointed out that the Home Office was still returning asylum seekers to Kosovo after the NATO bombing had begun. Being not up-to-date cannot go much further than that.

Lord Filkin

I thank all noble Lords who have spoken on this important debate. I note that the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, seeks to drive a wedge between the Home Secretary and myself. I assure her that she will not succeed in that. I find that I agree with the Home Secretary on almost all things.

As the Committee knows, country of origin information was established in 1997 to provide asylum decision-makers with accurate and balanced country information as the background against which individual asylum claims can be considered and assessed. It has been indicated that that is of considerable importance in terms of fairness, speed and trying to make sure that original decisions are well founded and therefore do not require to go to other and more complex stages.

The assessments do not contain Home Office opinion or policy. They do not interpret information. They are compiled from a wide variety of independent, reliable and well-recognised sources.

Although they are the primary source of information available to caseworkers, the Home Office assessments are not the only source. Caseworkers have access at all times to senior caseworkers with country knowledge and to the CIPU, who produce country assessments. Applicants are entitled to put any other evidence they think is relevant before the adjudicator or tribunal. The CIPU reports are not binding.

A number of criticisms have been made of CIPU reports. It is not appropriate to respond to them here and now. The current country reports are held in high regard. UNHCR country background reports often extensively quote from them. All other western countries use them as source material in their asylum procedures. That is not to argue that they are perfect—that would he foolish—but it would not be right to claim that they are grossly flawed or fundamentally inaccurate. It is not a case for saying that we should not seek to make the system better.

Last year IND commissioned a research project to evaluate the content and use of the country information produced by CIPU. That work will assist in identifying the scope for instigating more structured systems for quality-assuring CIPU produces. The research project's methodology involved interviews and surveys of internal and external stakeholders as well as identifying the approach taken in other countries. We have recently received the results of that research, which broadly validate CIPU's work.

Previous Ministers have undertaken to examine the suggestion that an independent documentation funded by, but independent of, government should be established to undertake preparation of country assessments. Probably the only example of that is in Canada. We had intended to do that in the light of research findings, but bearing in mind that an independent centre would be expensive.

My noble friend Lord Rooker was recently sent a copy of a paper by Professor Guy Goodwin-Gill, the president of the Refugee Legal Centre, which discussed the case for an independent documentation centre. It also introduced the option to establish an advisory board with appropriate representation from the different constituencies and published guidelines on the production of assessments.

We had already thought that a more cost-effective alternative might be to establish an independent panel of external people eminent in this field to provide scrutiny and oversight of the quality and content of the bi-annual country assessments and equally of the important bulletin updates that supplement them when time and circumstances move rapidly.

The evidence presented in the research project's report suggests that many of the problems which currently arise in the use of country of origin information during the asylum determination process would not necessarily be resolved by the establishment of an independent documentation system.

The research project's findings make clear that while the IND's country assessments are effective tools which contribute significantly to the asylum decision-making process, considerable value could be added to the quality of country information by establishing a user panel for those who utilise country of origin information, and an expert panel of topic and country specialists.

This work is already being taken forward: an IND working party is being established to take forward the research project's recommendations towards improving the quality and effectiveness of the country assessments and other recommendations, including ensuring that the draft assessments are reviewed by expert advisers.

An IND users' group has been set up to identify more specifically the information needed to assist in determining asylum applications. Initial discussions have highlighted the usefulness of greater knowledge concerning the availability of medical care.

We believe that the most constructive and cost-effective way forward will be to establish an expert advisory panel, which will assist in and inform the continuing process of improving the quality, impartiality and objectivity of the CIPU country assessments.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, referred to the situation in Zimbabwe. He was right in signalling that the normal period is six months, but, as I indicated, the bulletins are an equally important part of updating in rapidly moving situations. It is crucial that they are brought out rapidly in such circumstances. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, reminded me of Alasdair Mackenzie's pamphlets.

In terms of implementation, first, let me repeat what was said. We shall be having consultation with opposition parties, both about what is proposed and about its implementation. I firmly intend that the consultation should take place well before the Report stage, so that Members opposite are aware of our thinking and have an opportunity at least to comment on it, both in terms of the printed proposals and in terms of their implementation.

Officials are currently considering potential membership from a range of experts from the voluntary sector, those engaged in research and those who are knowledgeable about the experiences of asylum seekers in their countries of origin. There will be consultation, as one would expect, as to their acceptability. It is important that we have the meetings with opposition parties relatively soon, so that noble Lords are aware of the broad thrust of our approach before we get into too much of the detail.

In the light of my remarks, I hope that the noble Baroness will be minded to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

I am grateful to the Minister for his response. I welcome his offer of consultation with Members from these Benches and from the Liberal Democrat Benches on the proposals and their implementation in terms of the advisory group. It seems that there will be quite a variety of changes—user panels, expert panels and goodness knows what. I certainly welcome the Minister's remark that the consultation should take place "relatively soon".

I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Dholakia, Lord Hylton, and Lord Avebury, for their support on this matter. I was struck by the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. He made the point that the situation changes rapidly in these countries and that the biannual report—the six-monthly change in the assessment—is not realistic. It does not catch up with the real world and the real situation faced by people who believe that they have to leave their countries and come here. That point must be strongly borne in mind in terms of the tests as to whether the Government's proposals and their implementation will properly meet the needs of the system. At the moment, I have the residual feeling that the Minister's helpful description of the current system and of how the Government might try to adapt it to make it slightly better, might be like Emmental cheese. It might be a case of trying to stuff up the holes rather than churning a completely new cheese which might be more acceptable—I do not want to be rude to those who make Emmental, although it is not one of my favourites.

Although I welcome the Minister's remarks and look forward to consultation, we shall look carefully at those proposals to make sure that they meet all our concerns. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 37 [Asylum-seeker: form of support]:

10 p.m.

Lord Hylton

moved Amendment No. 139: Page 19, line 23, at end insert— () In section 96(1)(c) of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 (c. 33), for "other than legal expenses or" there is substituted "including any travel expenses incurred to obtain legal advice, but not". The noble Lord said: This modest amendment attempts to improve the Bill across the board. During earlier discussions in Committee there was universal agreement from all sides of the Chamber on the importance of independent legal advice for securing high quality first decisions in asylum cases. I ask the Government, therefore, to understand the situation of people claiming refugee status who have been dispersed to towns well outside London and the South-East where experienced asylum and immigration advisers are few or non-existent. The same may also apply to residents of future accommodation centres. Such people may have to travel long distances to secure the advice they need. They are likely to be dependent on less than 100 per cent income support and may have great difficulty in finding their own travel expenses. We know that there are some 76,000 applicants already supported by NASS.

Secondly, there will be others who have spent more than six months in this country and who may have succeeded in obtaining low-paid work. They, too, especially if they are supporting dependants, may have difficulty in affording to travel perhaps from Lancashire or north-east England to London.

The purpose of this modest amendment is to make it possible, although not mandatory, for the Secretary of State to reimburse genuine travel expenses. The Committee will appreciate that in almost all cases it will be much cheaper for the applicant to travel to the adviser rather than vice versa.

I table the amendment in the interests of getting good quality first decisions and proper advice on appeals. This is in the interest of fairness, justice and the proper discharge of this country's international obligations. I beg to move.

Lord Greaves

I support the amendment. I understand that it applies to asylum seekers accommodated under the existing arrangements of dispersal rather than at accommodation centres. A small minority of people are seriously disadvantaged by finding themselves at the opposite end of the country from those who are providing them with legal advice and assistance.

That occurs legitimately when people are housed in one area and, for good reasons, are moved to another place perhaps through circumstances relating to their community. That has occurred to my knowledge in the past two years. A person living in Lancashire may have a solicitor in London who is providing good advice which he does not want to lose. He may have a good legal adviser in Manchester but, for whatever reason, that person moves to Nottingham or Birmingham. There is no doubt that that causes difficulties.

Lord Filkin

I understand the concerns of the noble Lord in proposing the amendment. For reasons I shall explain the Government believe that it is not necessary.

In England and Wales the Legal Services Commission already provides a means for an asylum seeker who is eligible for legal aid to obtain help with the cost of travel to obtain legal advice. The solicitor who is handling the case is able to obtain reimbursement for the cost of the asylum seeker's travel to the solicitor for the purpose of instructing the solicitor. He may also be reimbursed by the commission for his own travel costs if it is necessary for him to travel to see an asylum seeker in connection with an asylum claim. In Scotland, that is not the case, but solicitors may be reimbursed if it is necessary for them to travel to see an asylum seeker. Legal aid in Scotland is devolved to the Scottish Parliament, and it would be inappropriate to place additional burdens on Scottish Ministers without proper consultation.

This is the best way of ensuring that, where necessary, such costs are met. It avoids the difficulties of obliging asylum seekers to apply to the Home Office for a ticket in advance or for reimbursement afterwards and thereby risking inconvenience, or worse, if they have to wait longer than they had expected for their request to be dealt with. In the light of what I have said, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Earl Russell

The point about Scotland is well made and well taken. However, if the Minister were to approach my right honourable friend Mr Wallace, who is Minister for Justice in Scotland, he might find that the procedure by Sewel Motion, which has been used before, was not altogether beyond my right honourable friend's imagination. The fact that the matter requires independent action by the Scottish Parliament does not prove that the Scottish Parliament might not be prepared—if suitably approached—to undertake such action on its own behalf.

According to information reaching the Immigration Advisory Service, the Refugee Council and many other concerned people, the fact that the Legal Services Commission has the power to meet such claims does not mean that they are being met in anything like adequate quantities. That is something which I do not think the Minister realises. We hear constantly about the kind of cases to which my noble friend Lord Greaves referred. In such cases, justice is not done. There are prolonged appeals, judicial reviews and all the types of delay that most irritate the Home Secretary.

The Minister has not yet taken on board the importance of the problem of initial decision making. There are, for example, demands for inappropriate standards of proof. There are particular problems with that in cases relating to claims of torture. The medical evidence is heard, and then it is decided that it does not provide proof that the injuries were inflicted by torture. It is of the nature of medical evidence that it can describe injuries but cannot prove who inflicted them or from what motive they were inflicted. That is an inappropriate standard of proof. The presence of a competent lawyer early on could put it right.

I recall accompanying the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, on a deputation to the Home Office about the case of somebody who had scars that had been inflicted by heavy beating. The Home Office insisted that the wounds were self-inflicted. The scars were on his back.

If lawyers were present at an earlier stage, we could save a great deal of the Home Office's time and everyone else's by getting such matters settled earlier. I beg the Minister—if he cannot direct the Legal Services Commission—to set up another fund, independent of the commission, with the collaboration of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, who, after all, lives not far from here. The Minister can go and talk to him. One way or another, it must be done, or the whole thing will remain as much of a mess as it has been all the time that I have been associated with it.

Lord Filkin

I thank the noble Earl for his comments. I am fully seized of the importance of getting initial decision making of the highest possible quality. That was made clear in our discussions yesterday. I see the relevance of the points made to that objective.

Between now and Report, I will discuss the issue with my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor. As for Mr Wallace, I enjoyed working with him recently in Luxembourg. I am reluctant, for obvious reasons, to infringe on the role of the Scottish Parliament, but I shall ensure that he is aware of the debate and the issues.

Lord Avebury

When the Minister has discussions with the Lord Chancellor, will he also put it to him that it is equally necessary for people to have access to competent medical and other advice, as well as legal advice? I do not know whether the Legal Services Commission is empowered in cases of torture or alleged torture, such as my noble friend Lord Russell described, to pay for someone's transport costs to visit a doctor or other medical expert so that that information can be put together with the legal advice.

Lord Hylton

I am grateful to those noble Lords who have helpfully spoken in support of my amendment. I am equally grateful to the Minister for the discussions that he says he will have. They will be parallel to those with the Legal Services Commission, which are already on offer, concerning accommodation centres. This may well be a matter to which we have to return on Report, but meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 139A not moved.]

Lord Filkin

moved Amendment No. 140: Page 19, line 38, leave out paragraph (b) and insert— (b) may not be made unless a draft has been laid before and approved by resolution of each House of Parliament. The noble Lord said: The amendment would change the parliamentary procedure for making orders under Clause 37 of the Bill from the negative resolution procedure to the draft affirmative resolution procedure. It will ensure that before any order aimed at ending cash only support for asylum seekers, whether in all cases or in specified circumstances, can be made and put into effect, it will have to be laid in draft before both Houses of Parliament for approval.

That change fulfils the assurance given on Report in the other place that a suitably worded amendment to achieve the same effect as an amendment proposed by the honourable member for Walthamstow would be tabled when the Bill came before this House.

I hope that the proposed amendment will do much to assuage the concerns expressed about the powers that the Government are taking in Clause 37. It means that the Secretary of State can exercise those powers only when and if he has obtained the approval of both Houses to the terms of any order that he wishes to make. I commend the amendment to the Committee.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

On Question, Whether Clause 37, as amended, shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Dubs

My purpose in opposing the Motion is to seek more information from my noble friend. Although I welcomed Amendment No. 140, which means that the Secretary of State will need an affirmative resolution, he is still taking powers to limit entitlement to social security for asylum seekers in certain circumstances. The present position—before the Bill is enacted—is that asylum seekers can be dispersed and receive support plus accommodation but if they choose not to be dispersed and instead live with friends and family they receive support only. It is the second option of receiving support only I hat will be removed by the clause if the Secretary of State decides to give effect to it.

That is a retrograde step. Some asylum seekers have friends and family and find it much more satisfactory—as we all would—to stay with them rather than be dispersed when those are the only people they know in this country. Incidentally, if the Government seek to deny the option, then either asylum seekers will have to stay with their friends and family in penury, receiving no support at all, or they will have to move into accommodation on dispersal, which in turn will be more costly for the Government.

This is not a satisfactory situation. It could result in the separation of families, it could result in destitution and it could have an adverse effect on refugee community organisations which provide support for members of their communities who arrive in this country as asylum seekers. They would have to provide much more support for those asylum seekers who chose to stay with their family and friends but who no longer were in receipt of any government assistance. I hope that the Government will think again because I do not believe that this is a helpful way forward.

10.15 p.m.

Lord Greaves

On behalf of these Benches I rise to support the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, in his proposal that Clause 37 should not stand part of the Bill.

The clause sets out a drastic step in view of the existing situation in terms of NASS support for asylum seekers. No doubt the Minister will have the exact figures, but a large proportion of asylum seekers presently take the option of support only and then find their own accommodation. It will be interesting to hear the Minister's justification for removing that option.

At the moment many asylum seekers take the support-only option because if they are dispersed, they may be sent to the north of England, to Scotland or to the West Country, while generally their friends and family members live in the South East. Usually asylum seekers take the option of living with their relatives and friends, some of whom may be settled refugees from the same part of the world. There is a strong argument for the advantages of those arrangements in terms of the welfare of asylum seekers themselves. Rather than being placed in a terraced house in Nelson, Lancashire, or a tower block in Liverpool, living with people they have never met before, they live instead with people they know who can provide them with moral, welfare and psychological support. That is a valid option.

I should like to ask the Minister the following questions: if this proposal had been enacted over the past two years, what proportion of those who presently accept support-only assistance from NASS do the Government estimate would have opted for full assistance, which would cost more than the existing arrangements? What proportion do the Government estimate will opt for accepting no assistance whatever and for living as best they can off the resources of other people? Unless the Government have made those assessments, then they do not understand the implications of their policy.

Earl Russell

I have promised the Minister that I shall not say any more about the denial of support tonight and I shall not do so. However, I will say this. If you have seen practically every relative shot by Serbs, then you do tend to cling rather desperately to any surviving relatives that you may have in this country. That is an emotion that I think it would be unwise to deny.

Lord Hylton

I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for proposing that this clause should not stand part. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, pointed out that many current asylum seekers receive cash-only support. There is good evidence to show that something in the order of 40 per cent of the 76,000 asylum seekers currently supported by NASS take that option. That represents a large number of people.

I also understand that in May in another place, Ministers stated that it would be a long time before Clause 37 would come into effect. How long is that long time likely to be? It is important that we have some idea of the timeframe and the conditions that will have to be satisfied before the clause will take effect.

Lord Avebury

The Explanatory Notes are silent on this clause. They give no indication of the motivation behind it. I understand that the Government's official position is that the support only decisions have yet to be made. There is no timescale involved but they want the power in Clause 37 should it prove necessary, in undefined circumstances, to invoke it.

A leaked memorandum from Downing Street was published in the Guardian last June indicating that the Government intend to remove support only some time this coming autumn. If that is the case and the Government have already made the decision, they had better come clean now. If they do not and what was in the leaked memo is put into effect this autumn, Parliament will have a serious grievance against the Government for withholding material facts from the House when they came to the decision to allow this clause to remain part of the Bill.

Lord Filkin

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is right, at least in the respect that this concerns the creation of a power to remove or restrict an asylum seeker's ability to choose to receive essential living needs support without accommodation.

Under current arrangements, asylum seekers who do not wish to take NASS accommodation are able to claim support to cover essential living needs and to live with family or friends. NASS has no control over where they live and few means of checking whether they are living at the address they state. This makes it difficult to maintain contact, which is an important part of the new, more managed asylum process.

It has proved to be the case that very large numbers of those who take up living needs only support remain in London and the South East, often in overcrowded and unsatisfactory accommodation in areas where large numbers of asylum seekers are placing great pressure on local services. This is very problematic and does nothing to help alleviate the pressure on services in these areas which the introduction of the dispersal scheme was designed to help.

As we move to a more managed asylum process— and this undoubtedly will be a progressive rather than a rapid process—with improved contact throughout the process and the introduction of accommodation centres, it is important that asylum seekers are not able to evade this more managed environment by choosing essential needs only support. The ability to restrict such support, at least in principle, is therefore an important feature of the new asylum process.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, asked about the proportion of people receiving cash only support out of the total on NASS support. The latest figure to March 2002 is that 30,000 are receiving subsistence only support out of a total of 74,000. We seem to have similar figures on that.

I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, understands that, because of the time of night and the hypothetical nature of his question about the proportion who would opt for NASS accommodation if it was the only option available—I think that was the question—there is no realistic answer.

Lord Greaves

I do not understand at all. If the Government are bringing in a new policy designed for certain objectives, they ought to have an assessment of what the effect of that policy will be in relation to those objectives. If they do not, they will be floundering.

Why should the provision of support of any kind be automatically tied to the Government's desire to keep more control over where people live while they are claiming asylum? Does not the fact that people can opt out of support and live where they want nullify the objective of doing so? If it is to be made a condition of seeking asylum that people live in a certain place, surely that can be made a condition regardless of whether people are receiving support?

Lord Filkin

I agree with the noble Lord. Were the Government on the point of implementing such a power, one would expect a careful assessment of its implementation process, costs, timetable and burden. In that respect, the noble Lord is right. I perhaps should have prefaced my remarks by saying that we have no plans to introduce this measure in the near future. I have no knowledge of any proposal for implementation in the autumn, and no timetable has been drawn up to that effect. I can therefore give a clear assurance in that regard.

With regard to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, about the importance of maintaining contact, in essence, the state provides, as I believe it should, substantial support in aggregate, if not on an individual basis, to asylum seekers who are destitute. The current cost of that provision is approximately £1 billion per year. That does not mean that needs are not being met from that cost, but it is a substantial sum. The Government's view is that if people wish to be supported, it is perfectly reasonable that the Government should be entitled to know where people are and to exercise some discretion about the form in which such assistance will be offered. I do not wish to prolong the debate. Broadly, that is the Government's position on that matter.

Earl Russell

The Minister has not yet taken on board the force of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, about the dependence of refugees on members of their own community. That removes a great deal of the burden from many of the institutions of state, notably, social services. The budgets of social services departments are not in a particularly comfortable state. I am sure that the Minister will have heard some of the recent complaints about care homes; it is a constant refrain.

By depriving refugees of the support of their own communities, the Minister is pickling a rod for his own back. He may consider the case of the Somali who was sent to Brighton, where not a single person spoke his language. That created a very considerable burden. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, looks surprised. It is an NACAB story, and it is in the habit of getting such matters right.

I also believe that the Minister should not blame the burdens on the South East, which I agree have been considerable, simply on the fact of people being allowed to live where they like. That was the result of two consecutive matters: first, the withdrawal of benefits by the 1996 Act; secondly, shortly afterwards, the judgment of Mr Justice Collins that asylum seekers were entitled to support under the provisions of the National Assistance Act 1948. That placed a burden on local authorities, which admittedly was a great deal too heavy for them, and they had a legitimate grievance. However, their grievance was not the presence of the asylum seekers but the Government's failure to shoulder a burden that should have been their own.

Lord Hylton

In his reply, the Minister mentioned some 30,000 people whom he felt may be attempting to evade the forthcoming managed system. We agree that the way to prevent such evasion is to have a comprehensive network of reporting centres and to make use of the recently introduced application registration card, rather than to take away cash-only support from that category of people.

Lord Filkin

I do not want needlessly to prolong the debate at this time of day, particularly as the Government have no immediate plans for implementation under this clause. I certainly did not intend to suggest that there were in London 30,000 people seeking to avoid their reporting obligations. I was merely marking the reality of the situation that the concentration of very large numbers of support-only asylum seekers in London creates challenges and burdens for local government and for society in some of those areas.

However, be that as it may, there is no immediate plan to implement this proposal. I am certain that the observations made by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and other noble Lords about the cost effectiveness of moving towards implementation of this, as well as the other humanitarian points that have been raised, will be considered by the Government before we decide to move forward on implementation.

Clause 37, as amended, agreed to.

10.30 p.m.

Clause 38[Destitute asylum-seeker].

Earl Russell

moved Amendment No. 140A: Page 20, line 21, leave out from second "the" to ", or" in line 22 and insert "claimant receives notice of the Secretary of State's decision The noble Earl said: I shall move this amendment, but I shall not move Amendments Nos. 141 and 141B which are grouped with it. Amendment No. 140A would make provision for the termination of support to run from when the asylum seeker is notified of the failure of his claim—that is, when he receives the notification—not from when the Secretary of State is thought to have despatched it. It is all too common now for people whose claims have been refused to discover the fact not through a letter from Lunar House, still less from the Secretary of State; but from a letter from NASS saying, "Since the rejection of your claim, your support has been terminated". So they bother to let NASS know but they do not bother to inform the claimant. That is not the way that it ought to be. It creates a shock, a sudden collapse of support, which can be very serious in its consequences.

I have referred the Minister previously to Alasdair Mackenzie. He quotes one case of a Home Office letter of refusal that reached the applicant 10½ months after the date on its letter-head. That is the sort of example that makes me suggest that the clock should run from the time of the applicant's receipt of the letter and not from the date that appears on the top of the letter. I beg to move.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I can understand why the noble Earl has moved the amendment. It would certainly be unfair to stop supporting an asylum seeker whose claim had been determined in circumstances where, through no fault of his own, he was unaware that a decision on his claim had been reached.

The purpose of Section 94(3) of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, which this clause seeks to amend, is to ensure that asylum seekers whose claims have been determined are given a period of grace to make other arrangements for support when their entitlement to support under Part VI of that Act ends.

As we understand it, the noble Earl's proposed amendment seems to be aimed at ensuring that the start of the so-called "grace period", during which an asylum seeker can still receive support under Section 95 of the 1999 Act once he has received a decision by the Secretary of State on his asylum claim, begins when he actually receives the decision notice—I believe that that understanding is shared—not when it is sent out by the Secretary of State. However, that is already the intention and effect of Section 94(3).

We do not argue that the posting of a decision notice constitutes notification; nor are we clear what is wrong with the present arrangements. Service of a decision notice is either carried out in person or by post using the Recorded Delivery mail where a person is required to sign for the letter received. I should have thought that that was entirely adequate in all the circumstances.

I do not see how we can go any further; otherwise, it would mean us serving around 100,000 notices personally each year. Of course, the reputation of the Home Office in this field is legendary. But even that might just be a touch beyond us. The resource implications are frightening. If the noble Earl pauses to think about it, and takes in exactly what I have said in my response. I am sure that he will find it within himself to agree that this is an effective, pragmatic and fair way to deal with such matters. I hope, therefore, that he will withdraw amendment. I should add that I am grateful to the noble Earl for giving notice of the fact that he does not intend to move the other two amendments in this group; namely, Amendments Nos. 141A and 141B.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

I am very glad to hear of the humane and sensible practice that the Minister described as being in operation. What occurs to me, however, is that if that system is in operation, what do the Government have to lose by accepting the amendment moved by the noble Earl, Lord Russell? I may have missed the point, but the noble Earl seems to be advancing an argument that really makes itself. If there is to be a deleterious consequence flowing from late reaction to a determination, that consequence should at least flow from the date of notification rather than the date of posting of the notification.

Earl Russell

I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, for his support. I reassure the Minister that I was not intending to press the amendment at this time of night. However, I might perhaps draw his attention to Section 94(3) of the 1999 Act to which he refers. It states: For the purposes of this part, a claim for asylum is determined at the end of such period beginning … on the day on which the Secretary of State notifies the claimant of his decision of the claim". I think that, in normal English, that means the day on the head of the Secretary of State's letter.

Whatever ought to happen, it is clear that the system is not working at the moment. Perhaps the Minister can familiarise himself with the correspondence that I have been having in the past few weeks with his predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and with the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, about malfunctions in the issue of the form NASS 35, which is the NASS sign-off to say how much benefit the applicant has had from NASS which is used by Social Security as a means of triggering the claim. It does not start to pay until it has the NASS 35. This form very often fails to get issued. If the Minister wants further examples of that, I am sure that Mr John Wheatley of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux will be very happy to supply it to him in considerable detail.

So before I beg leave to withdraw the amendment, may I just ask the Minister not to assume that everything is all right as it is now?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I think that we all appreciate that we do not live in a world of absolute perfection. However, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, gave helpful support to the noble Earl, I should like to try to put this point on the record so that it is understood. The status quo is precisely what the noble Earl is seeking to achieve; there is no difference. In our view, the amendment is entirely unnecessary. A person is "notified" when he or she receives the notification. That is what the words mean. So it is the moment that the notification is received that they are "notified", not when the notification is posted, which is the point on which the noble Earl relied in his argument, in which he was supported by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden. I hope that that clarification, on the record, will enable the noble Earl to withdraw his amendment with considerable satisfaction. It has enabled us to spell out precisely what is meant by the law.

Earl Russell

The Minister describes utopia very well. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

moved Amendment No. 141: Page 20, line 24, leave out "finally determined" and insert "disposed of The noble Lord said: This technical amendment corrects a drafting error. Section 94(4) of the 1999 Act contains the definition of when an appeal is considered to have been "disposed of". The amendment will ensure that this very worthwhile and wholly sensible definition applies. In the new Section 94(3) inserted by Clause 38(4), there was an error in that we were referring to "finally determined". We have taken great pains to ensure that this amendment wholly corrects that error and puts it right. I beg to move.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

If it is not asking too much of the Minister, will he explain what is the difference between "finally determined" and "disposed of"?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I am a history graduate, not an English graduate. However, as I hear the words, I suppose that they mean pretty much the same thing. It is our intention to ensure clarity. We consider that the term "disposed or is more correct. I have no doubt that if the noble Lord refers to Fowler's Modern English Usage, he will find that that is the case.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

I am grateful for that attempt at an explanation. During the previous Parliament I wrote to the Home Office 40 times more often than I had done before due to the reluctance of the Home Office to communicate with my constituents. I remember case after case where the final determination of an appeal never reached the constituent. I can also think of cases where, although the appeal had been disposed of, the Home Office was blissfully ignorant of that. In neither case did it appear to me that the word "finality" had any rationale in terms of the course of events.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

I hope that I may in 30 seconds suggest an answer which the Minister might give. Let us suppose that an appeal is withdrawn It is finally disposed of but it is not determined as it has not been the subject of adjudication. Might that possibly be the answer?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

That seems most sensible. I am always in the hands of lawyers in your Lordships' House.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 141A and 141B not moved.]

Clause 38, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 39 [Section 38: supplemental]:

Baroness Greengross

moved Amendment No. 141C: Page 21, line 34, at end insert— () The following shall be inserted into section 97(4) of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 (support-supplemental)— (c) must provide an asylum seeker who is over the age of 60 with regular additional cash payments equivalent in proportion to the pensioner premiums provided to other pensioners in the United Kingdom." The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 141C is a probing amendment to test the principle on which the Government have decided on the level of support for older asylum seekers. Perhaps it is art oversight or I have misunderstood the Bill's provisions, but older asylum seekers appear to be treated in the same way as younger people.

I apologise to the Committee for not having been able to take part in the Bill's Second Reading as fully as I would have liked. I am, however, a member of Sub-Committee F of the European Union Select Committee which is currently considering these very issues as part of its ongoing inquiry into a common EU policy on illegal immigration.

Put simply, my amendment would give extra financial support to older asylum seekers, which the Refugee Council and Oxfam recommend in their recently published excellent report on poverty and asylum. It provides a sad picture of the poverty suffered by many older asylum seekers at a level not experienced by older UK residents who benefit over and above income support.

The logic for this is taken from the Government's rules on support for our own citizens. As the Committee will know, our own older people now receive a much more generous level of support than people aged under 60. They always received a premium on supplementary benefit and income support. Now the premium on the normal income support level of £53.95 per week has risen to £44.20 per week, making a total of £98.15 for a single person aged over 60. That is a substantial premium for those on what is currently called the minimum income guarantee.

That higher level of support is partly to reflect the extra needs of and costs for our older people. Other Members of the Committee have mentioned the need for clothes in cold weather, for example. Does the Minister think that older asylum seekers do not have those extra needs?

My amendment does not in fact suggest that older asylum seekers should get the same pensioner premium as our own citizens: £44.20 per week. Rather, I suggest that they should get the same proportion extra—it is almost double—as our own citizens receive. That would mean that older asylum seekers would receive an additional £30 or so on top of the flat rate weekly amount of £37.77 which asylum seekers will receive.

In 2001, around 700 asylum seekers aged over 60 sought asylum in this country. We are not talking about great numbers. I beg to move.

10.45 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, we on these Benches warmly support the amendment. I shall make two points in support of it. First, many asylum seekers concerned come from communities that have a much stronger tradition of family support for the old than we have in this country. For those people, being dispersed away from those communities will be a correspondingly greater wrench than it would be for many British people in the same situation. Secondly, the Minister argued earlier this evening that the package of support available for asylum seekers is broadly equivalent to income support. If the amendment is not agreed to, that argument of the Minister's must be untenable.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

The Government certainly understand the concerns put forward by the noble Baroness, who has a long record of work in arguing cases such as this. Of course, I would also expect the generosity of spirit shown by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, in expressing his support. However, the Government cannot accept the amendment.

It is worth reminding the Committee that the NASS dispersal scheme was set up to be separate from the main benefits system. It is important that that distinction is maintained. Support provided to those with asylum seeker status is different and separate from that provided to other residents. It is not intended exactly to replicate the social security system but to provide a means of short-term support aimed at providing, as necessary, a roof over the heads of destitute asylum seekers and the basic wherewithal to meet their essential living needs. Accordingly, the Government cannot accept that supplementary payments are necessary for asylum seekers who are over 60 years old.

We understand the argument but we do not believe that it is an acceptable approach. We have set out our rationale for the current scheme. It has been argued in this Chamber this evening and explained with great clarity. While we understand the points made, I am afraid that we do not find the amendment acceptable. I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw it.

Baroness Greengross

I thank the Minister for that reply but I am obviously disappointed. I also thank the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for his support. I hope that perhaps at a later stage the Government will reconsider the matter. It is important that the needs of older asylum seekers are considered very carefully. However, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 39 agreed to.

Clauses 40 and 41 agreed to.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I beg to move that the House do now resume.

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

House resumed.

House adjourned at ten minutes before eleven o'clock.