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National Asylum Support Service

1.30 pm

Mrs. Helen Clark (Peterborough): For more than a year, I have been concerned about aspects of the organisation and operation of the National Asylum Support Service, especially in my constituency. I sought this debate because I am concerned that problems remain, despite many measures already taken or proposed by the Government. Only yesterday, Harmesh Lakhanpaul, director of Peterborough's racial equality council, told me that, in his opinion, many problems are worse.

The local authority in Peterborough estimates that approximately 2,000 asylum seekers live in Peterborough. NASS accepts that estimate, although that took some time to establish. I emphasise that it is only an estimate, because it is impossible for the council or NASS to determine exactly how many asylum seekers there are, who they are, where they have come from and where they live. That has nothing to do with the asylum seekers themselves but everything to do with the system that sends them to the city, and the reasons for that go to the heart of the problems that I wish to debate today.

The first problem that we encountered in Peterborough, was the misinformation or lack of information concerning how many asylum seekers were to be dispersed to the city and when. Sadly, extreme language was used, promoted and published by certain individuals with a narrow and politically motivated agenda. I am sure that colleagues on both sides of the House can imagine the scenario: words such as "floods" and "swamped" were used to describe the refugees' potential impact on local services.

My office attempted to clarify the position with a NASS official on the telephone, and I was assured that no decision had been taken concerning dispersal to Peterborough. I wrote to the local paper, the Peterborough Evening Telegraph, to set the record straight. Fortunately my letter was not printed; because the following day the council heard that the first contingent of people was due to arrive shortly. Throughout the following months, I wrote to the Home Office several times suggesting that, at the very least, stakeholders such as local Members of Parliament should be kept informed of NASS decisions. Much more is necessary, but I shall return to that later.

Another fundamental flaw in the system is that county councils such as Kent, Essex, Cambridgeshire, and Lincolnshire, and London boroughs such as Westminster, have taken advantage of the relatively low rents in Peterborough to house asylum seekers sent to their areas. Once housed in Peterborough, it becomes the responsibility of the local authority to provide health education and other social support services.

Although NASS advises that it is best practice for local authorities to inform destination authorities that they are housing asylum seekers in their area, that does not always happen and there is no legislation to enforce it. Furthermore, when asylum seekers are housed in private accommodation, the local authority has found it impossible to obtain details of their names and identities. Private landlords have not been willing to share information on asylum seekers that they accommodate, and have challenged the local authority's

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need to know. Private landlords are required to identify properties being used to house asylum seekers but local authorities have no powers to prevent their use.

Local authorities cannot influence where asylum seekers are housed or ensure that appropriate facilities are locally available. Those include public transport, which is often expensive, language classes and interpretation services. Many asylum seekers are highly skilled and trained but need locally available language tuition and language support to access other services. Peterborough has a relatively large private rented market, and there has been a knock-on effect on rents. That creates problems for those moving on once asylum claims have been determined. They have to start to look after themselves, albeit with support from benefits.

I recognise that the Labour Government have done much to improve systems for dealing with asylum seekers, which were in utter disarray when we inherited them in 1997. In fact, they practically ground to a halt with a massive backlog. In April 1997, it took 20 months on average to make a decision, yet the Tory Administration planned to cut more than 1,000 posts at the immigration and nationality department. Following the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996, councils in London and the south-east faced huge financial burdens as they struggled to support those making asylum claims from within the UK.

The new Labour Government substantially increased the human and other resources of both the immigration and nationality department and the Immigration Appellate Authority. They tackled the problem of unscrupulous, often unqualified, immigration advisers, and in 1999 they set up the centrally administered NASS to provide an integrated system of support for asylum seekers. It was to be based on enforced dispersal to the regions, and most subsistence support was to be supplied in the form of vouchers. NASS was due to take over support functions from local authorities next month, but the period has been extended to April 2004—a further two years.

Last October, the Government announced the results of two internal reviews of NASS that acknowledged the hitherto "poor service"—their words—provided to asylum seekers. The combined report of the two reviews acknowledged real problems with the system and made many specific recommendations to ensure that in future NASS would offer

Those included the replacement of the much-criticised vouchers with a more robust but less socially divisive scheme that involved the piloting of asylum reception centres from late 2002 and administrative reforms of case-management systems.

Only last month the White Paper "Secure Borders, Safe Haven: Integration with Diversity in Modern Britain" on nationality, immigration and asylum matters was published, and comments on it are due next week. I have read it carefully, and it seems to contain very little that will substantially improve the operation of NASS. I am not alone in that estimation. Expectations that vouchers will be replaced with a smartcard that delivers subsistence by automated credit transfer have been disappointed. From 8 April, vouchers exchangeable for cash at post offices will be issued, but the system will use existing NASS delivery mechanisms.

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The new asylum accommodation centres due later this year are unlikely to provide lodging and support for more than a small percentage of asylum seekers at any one time—3,000 out of a total of 100,000, according to the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. That means that for some time to come most will continue to be supported under the existing NASS-administered dispersal-based scheme. For all those reasons, it is still highly relevant and necessary to debate the inadequacies in NASS, which are causing continuing problems for local authorities, host communities and, most importantly, asylum seekers. We should also suggest ways in which the system might be improved through a more fundamental re-organisation of NASS.

Last month, NACAB published a report entitled "Process Error: CAB Clients' Experience of the National Asylum Support Service". It is based on the day-to-day advice work of citizens advice bureaux. The report describes serious shortcomings in the administrative performance and accessibility of NASS. Asylum seekers and advice workers—I would add Members of Parliament, too—experienced serious delays and extreme difficulty in contacting NASS officials.

Since April 2000, when NASS began operating, citizens advice bureaux have dealt with increasing numbers of inquiries from NASS–supported asylum seekers. Many people needed help contacting NASS to obtain their full entitlement to subsistence support, others to resolve accommodation problems. Some, having been granted refugee status or other leave to remain, had been left in limbo between the NASS system and the mainstream benefits system. Cases described reveal families left for days or even weeks without the means to buy food and other necessities.

The report quotes an adviser, who said:

I am sure that NACAB will submit evidence for the Government's White Paper, because citizens advice bureaux often provide services that should be provided by NASS.

What needs to be done? Peterborough city council, in its excellent briefing to me, which I have sent to the Home Secretary, advised that

I emphasise the words "and consultation"—

Why should they cash in?

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Those ideas would make a great improvement, but, sadly, I have received absolutely no response to the suggestions from the Home Office, despite commissioning the briefing specifically for the purpose, and sending it to the Home Office on two separate occasions.

NACAB suggests a more fundamental reorganisation of NASS. The White Paper sets out plans already under way to decentralise NASS operations, thereby creating a service that is more responsive to regional issues. The Government propose that more resources should be deployed regionally and existing resources should be used more effectively. The move-on period will be extended from 14 to 21days for asylum seekers receiving a negative decision and from 14 to 28 days for those who are granted refugee status or exceptional leave to remain. However, as the Refugee Council and NACAB pointed out, the White Paper provides little detail about how that will be achieved.

I want to put on the record some specific proposals made by NACAB and the Refugee Council: NASS should be expanded, decentralised and regionalised in order to provide a responsive and accessible local service; NASS should establish adequate counter or drop-in services for supported asylum seekers—staff providing those services will need appropriate language skills; performance targets should be set and published for each main aspect of NASS's administration of the support system and those targets should be adequately monitored, which will require effective case management and recording systems; at local, regional and national levels NASS must be appropriately managed to ensure that all its performance targets are met; and NASS must establish effective stakeholder groups locally and nationally to enable communication with all partners including the citizens advice bureaux and local authorities.

Councillor Harmesh Lakhanpaul, of Peterborough's racial equality council, and, no doubt, the Refugee Council, would also enter a plea for more resources, another stream of funding, to support refugees—asylum seekers whose claims have been accepted—who have a right to education, health and social services but who still need additional transitional help, especially in such matters as language classes. However, strictly speaking, that is outside my brief today.

All new immigrants need help of many kinds to get to grips with a strange culture. However, almost by definition, asylum seekers have additional problems, which result from the situations in the countries that they have left behind. The Government have made good progress to ensure that they receive a better welcome today than hitherto, and they promise to do more. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take on board the serious recommendations by some of the major players in the delivery of the improved policy and that she will include them in the forthcoming evaluation of responses to the White Paper.

NASS was an improvement, but it needs more fundamental reform than appears to be intended. I reiterate that the principal needs are closer collaboration and local counter services. Obviously, resources are always limited, and I am not advocating the establishment of dedicated NASS outlets throughout the country; 70 to 80 should be sufficient to cover the main dispersal areas. In other places, a regular

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NASS clinic in the local benefits office would be a possibility. Surely some of the cost would be met by greater efficiency elsewhere in the NASS system.

No one would countenance the idea of the Department for Work and Pensions closing local benefits offices and operating from a central office, or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office closing its foreign embassies and doing all its business from Whitehall. The same should apply to NASS.

To date, the experience of asylum in Peterborough has been miserable for all concerned. I hope that this Adjournment debate will mark the beginning of a fresh approach that will benefit not only my constituency, but everywhere else in the country.

1.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Clark) on securing this debate on an important subject, which has clearly concerned her and her constituents for a while.

First, I shall give some facts about the asylum seekers who are supported in Peterborough and the rest of the east of England region, in which Peterborough is one of the main towns. As of 31 December, the National Asylum Support Service was supporting 320 asylum seekers in accommodation that it had booked in the whole region. There were 280 asylum seekers in NASS-supported accommodation in Peterborough and 30 in Ipswich. Ten so-called disbenefited asylum seekers were also being supported in the region. We do not accept the figure of 2,000, therefore, and I am not sure where my hon. Friend got the idea that we do.

The amount of accommodation available to NASS in Peterborough would allow us to house hundreds, but certainly not thousands, of asylum seekers, so I can assure my hon. Friend that any worries that may have surfaced in the local media about the imminent arrival of thousands of new asylum seekers are misplaced.

Unfortunately, until now—this may explain some of the confusion—local authorities have had to provide information only for the number of support weeks for which they wish to claim. My hon. Friend will recall that that interim scheme was put together rapidly after a series of adverse judgments in the High Court on the Conservative Government's approach, which was to ban anyone who had not applied for asylum at a port from public support—a ban that the courts overturned. The interim scheme was organised by local authorities and had to be drawn up at very short notice. That is why we do not have the names and addresses of those in the scheme.

We are, however, undertaking an audit whereby we want local authorities to give us addresses instead of the number of support weeks for asylum seekers for which they are claiming Government grant. We hope that once the audit has finished, we will be much better able to establish precisely how many people are in particular areas because they were placed there under the interim scheme. Again, as my hon. Friend should know, the scheme is organised not by NASS, but by local authorities.

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In Peterborough in the financial year 2000-01 there were claims for 3,436 support weeks for single adults and 1,458 support weeks for families. We cannot say accurately what that means in terms of the true number of asylum seekers that Peterborough was supporting, for the reasons that I have just explained to my hon. Friend. However, we can make assumptions. If, for example, we assumed that those support weeks were allotted for people who stayed in the area for a year, that would give a figure of 66 single adults. The large numbers that have been bandied around in the local press are therefore fairly wide of the mark.Following the audit, we should be in a much better position to establish not only the NASS numbers—which we can do with great accuracy—but the numbers in interim schemes.

I hope that that will comfort local Members who have been told that there are far larger numbers of asylum seekers in their areas than our figures show. We should be able to reconcile such discrepancies. As for future demand for accommodation in Peterborough, it has been made clear to my hon. Friend in correspondence that we have no plans to send another 2,000, or any other large number of asylum seekers, to Peterborough— certainly not without its co-operation.

My hon. Friend also raised the issue of the NASS review and some of the changes to administration systems. I would be the first to acknowledge that when NASS was set up, under great pressure and with rising numbers, it did not always get dispersal right. Peterborough has had some experience of that. I will not defend everything that happened in the early days of NASS, but things are getting better and there have been major changes both in practice and in administrative systems. The issues involved in dispersal are being dealt with, and under a new system, cash chits rather than vouchers are being given to people. From 8 April they will be able to cash them in at the local post office.

We are also considering how to regionalise NASS to allow far more local problem-solving. Once reporting centres are up and running, NASS officials will regularly visit people who have been dispersed to ensure that everything is working well. When the induction centre process comes in—all the information on that is contained in the White Paper—it will enable us to spend time at the beginning of asylum seekers' claims explaining far more fully and effectively than we have been able to do in the past how the process will work, and who they should contact if things go wrong. I hope that a lot of the confusion to which my hon. Friend alluded in her speech, which occurred a year or so ago when the system was beginning, will be managed down to a much more acceptable level.

NASS aims to have good co-operation with local authorities. We work with the local authority regional consortiums, most of which provide accommodation for NASS-supported asylum seekers, and all of which aim to co-ordinate the input of local services and support for asylum seekers. A national consultative group for the consortiums meets regularly and is chaired by a senior NASS official; any concerns can be raised there for referral back to NASS headquarters. I hope that there will be feedback loops that my hon. Friend will have plenty of time to use if particular issues arise in the Peterborough area.

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The private accommodation providers for NASS are required to consult the relevant local authority when they have more than six bed spaces, and we seek to develop a way of dealing satisfactorily with consultation on smaller properties. As at the start of the NASS scheme, we will also consult regional local authority consortiums about proposals for further cluster areas. My hon. Friend's suggestion that there could be large-scale swapping of personal information on asylum seekers and on where they live would fall foul of the Data Protection Act 1998. I hope that we can find ways of consulting on practicalities for local service provision without compromising the confidentiality of those who are claiming asylum, so that we can continue to comply with our duties of confidentiality. There are ways of doing that.

My hon. Friend asked about counter services. We do not intend to set up such services as part of the regionalisation of NASS. I hope that she will recognise that some of the improvements that I mentioned earlier, such as outreach and more local problem solving, will address some of the problems that have been experienced in Peterborough. We hold effective discussions with stakeholder groups, and we are currently consulting them about the terms of reference and the composition of a national asylum supporters forum. That would be another welcome feedback loop.

My hon. Friend mentioned some issues concerning the White Paper. She said that there was disappointment that the smartcard—I think she was referring to the applicant registration card—that will be used to pay cash was not going to be in place. This morning I moved the regulations to abolish vouchers. Everyone currently on vouchers will begin to be paid in cash, initially using the same distribution system as vouchers, via post offices. That will cause the least disruption to systems that are already in place, and existing asylum seekers already know the ropes by now. That will all happen from April.

We hope that the applicant registration card, which is being issued even as we speak, will have been issued to all NASS asylum seekers by September. We certainly hope that we can begin to use some of the more secure features of that card as a form of identification and a mechanism for paying cash. Again, that will be done through post offices, perhaps even before September for those who have an existing card. I hope that my hon. Friend will welcome the rapid progress in that area. We abolished vouchers five months early to enable the transition from the current voucher system to the new

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cash-based system to run more smoothly. I can assure my hon. Friend that we will ensure that our administrative systems are robust enough to deal with it.

I do not want to spend the remaining four minutes going through the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux report and the criticism of past performance on a point-by-point basis, although I am happy to let my hon. Friend have some of our response to it. We recognise that there were teething problems with NASS when it was first set up and that performance has had to be raised. We are considering what more we can do about that.

For example, NASS has just published, on the immigration and nationality directorate website, contact and phone numbers for all its sections. People who wish to contact NASS can now do so more effectively. A dedicated voucher inquiry helpline has been in place since early last year. Asylum seekers who have been left without vouchers, which did happen at the beginning of the process, can now usually get emergency vouchers within 24 hours, and within a maximum of 48 hours those problems are rectified.

In the last few months NASS has reduced by 70 per cent. the backlog of problems arising after initial allocation of support. The backlog is now equivalent to two days' intake. There have been some substantial improvements in the way in which NASS works. Clearly, the key to increasing the efficacy and effectiveness of the new system will be the role of induction centres. Instead of being put into emergency accommodation, people will be put into induction centres for between one and seven days. They will be taken through the process and told about where they are going, and where they can access what will then be cash payments. There will be a much more managed system. I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise that these changes substantially improve the administrative systems that we originally set up.

There were complaints about the £50 supplementary payments, which were often late. We now normally deal with those within two days, which beats NASS's target of five days. My hon. Friend will see a substantial increase in the effectiveness of NASS. That ties in with the more managed approach that we are taking with the induction centres. Accommodation centres are being trialled. It has always been clear that the 3,000 places are a trial. If the trial is successful we will consider extending accommodation centres to take more people. Clearly, until then it is important that we improve the effectiveness of NASS, and I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise that we are doing that.

Question put and agreed to.

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