HL Deb 08 December 2004 vol 667 cc895-8

2.44 p.m.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Greaves is unable to attend the House today. Therefore, on his behalf and at his request, I beg leave to ask Her Majesty's Government the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper:

Whether the arrangements for dispersal of asylum seekers are operating satisfactorily.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker)

My Lords, yes. The National Asylum Support Service (NASS) disperses asylum seekers under powers set out in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. The Government are satisfied that, while this is a complex and sometimes very sensitive process, the arrangements in place are working well and the performance of the National Asylum Support Service is continuing to improve.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, considering that the number of people in NASS accommodation has fallen successively in the past six quarters and that many of the contracts for accommodation taken out by NASS were of a long-term nature, can the Minister say how many NASS dwellings are now vacant? Is it not a scandal that NASS spent no less than £1.1 billion in the last year for which accounts are available—2002–03—yet that expenditure is not subject to parliamentary control?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the current situation is that NASS is accommodating some 41,000 people, which is 10,000 fewer than the same time last year. The latest figures that I have for empty properties under NASS control is just over 7,500. It is the case of course that many of those contracts were taken out five years ago in 2000. They had to be long-term contracts given the scale of the issue. Frankly, we would be rightly criticised if we had not made long-term arrangements.

Most of those contracts will come to an end in 2005–06. We still have to have arrangements to keep some liquidity in the system. Indeed, the Government would be rightly criticised if they did not have the flexibility of empty properties. However, it is true that there have been too many empty properties because of the long-term nature of those contracts and the fall in the numbers of people claiming asylum and seeking NASS support.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, are the Government aware of the strain on local communities and the essential infrastructure services that are required, which is caused by the lack of warning given to those communities of the arrival of dispersed asylum seekers? I am thinking of the experience in Portsmouth of the non-availability of courses in English for speakers of other languages.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, that can easily be corrected. The performance of NASS has vastly improved over the past two or three years in terms of liaison with local communities. People are not dispersed without checking that broadly speaking there is a cluster area and language connections. We have obviously got some areas where sometimes we suspend dispersal for reasons that may be fairly obvious.

In terms of making sure that language courses are available, there are plenty of facilities for that around the country. It may be that there is not a place on a course the day after a person arrives at a dispersal centre, but it is soon made available.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, is the Minister aware that dispersal policies could be more effective if asylum seekers were allowed to take paid employment while their applications were being considered? Is he further aware that the BMA has now reported that there are more than 1,000 asylum-seeking and refugee doctors on its database? Would it not make sense for people to be allowed to take paid employment rather than rely on NASS to provide assistance and accommodation?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, with all due respect, that is the way to make the asylum numbers go through the roof. We all know that. The present policy looks harsh. Sometimes it does not look as though it is common sense because of the nature of the occupations of people claiming asylum. However, if the ability to work was there, it would just up the numbers. We all know that.

It is true that when people claim asylum and the initial questions are asked, their occupation qualifications are not relevant in the main. Therefore, we do not have all that information, but that may have changed in the past couple of years. However, the route to work is successfully to claim asylum. The better route to work is to come here through one of the many schemes that allow people to come into this country for the purpose of work in the first place.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, reverting to the Question, does the noble Lord agree that the arrangements for the dispersal of asylum seekers could not operate satisfactorily if strict adherence were had for all asylum seekers to the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, with due respect to the noble Lord, I should remind the House that there cannot be a free choice in this. We knew what had been happening: prior to dispersal we were on the verge of a collapse of social services in Kent, East Sussex and some London boroughs. Something had to be done about it. The human rights of the people living in those areas were at risk simply because there was no plan in place, and dispersal arrangements had to be put in place. We progressed from a standing start when NASS was set up in 2000 to the dispersal of tens of thousands of people in its first two years of operation. In the main, it has been a very satisfactory process. However, I do not deny that there have been problems.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, when is the report of the National Audit Office on NASS due to be presented to Ministers, and will he undertake to publish it?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I do not think that any National Audit Office reports are not published. Whether the report is about NASS or any other matter, there are no secret National Audit Office reports. When we get the report, it will be published. Indeed, I think that it is the responsibility of the NAO to publish the report, and it is our responsibility to answer the points raised.

Baroness Walmsley

My Lords, following on the Minister's answer in response to my noble friend Lord Dholakia, what is the evidence for his claim that the number of asylum seekers would go up drastically if they were allowed to work while their applications were being considered, or is he just looking in his crystal ball?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, from the experience of other countries, and leaving aside all other factors, we know that work is probably the ultimate of the pull factors. We know what would happen: people trafficking is now a multi-million pound business. We are concerned to make sure that people fleeing their countries on genuine grounds of persecution and fear are given a warn welcome here and, when they become successful refugees, are settled in as quickly as possible. But the fact is that we know what is happening around the world, and access to work is the ultimate pull factor. We are not going down that road.

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