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29 Oct 2002 : Column 243WH—continued

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National Asylum Support Service

1.30 pm

Mrs. Helen Clark (Peterborough): As the Minister is aware, I have been concerned for some time now about the performance of, and the standard of service provided by, the National Asylum Support Service. This is the second debate on the matter that I have sought this year. The first was on 12 March, also in Westminster Hall. On that occasion, I was assured by the then Minister that problems with the past performance of NASS had largely been addressed by a series of internal administrative reforms. In particular, I was assured that all cases involving a failure to deliver NASS subsistence support to an asylum seeker—one of the most common complaints against NASS—are now rectified within a maximum of 48 hours of NASS being notified of the problem.

I was told that further improvements in the performance of NASS would flow from an ongoing programme of regionalisation. However, since that time, I have continued to receive reports of problems with NASS, in my constituency of Peterborough and more generally. In Peterborough, the accurate number of asylum seekers remains unknown owing to the various routes and schemes by which individuals arrive, and despite the great efforts being made in Peterborough to assess them. However, health sources estimate that there are at least 2,500 cases, as do the police. The city council believes that the number could be even higher, particularly because of rapid turnover.

The pressure on housing has been increased by a very rapid rise in the number of homeless applicants in the past year, owing to the widening of duties under the homelessness legislation in July 2002. For instance, the numbers needing temporary accommodation have risen six times, putting pressure on all types of accommodation in the city. The duration of stay by asylum seekers dispersed through NASS in Peterborough—this is probably not untypical compared with other areas—is very short. On average, it is four months. That means that the same private and public sector accommodation is used over and over again as fresh populations arrive and depart. The city council has managed nearly 200 units of accommodation from its own stock during the past year, and in that time three quarters of those housed by the city council have been required to move on by NASS. The private landlords operating in Peterborough would report similar levels of turnover.

Obviously, the short-term nature of placement and the shortage of accommodation create a range of social problems. In general, there is also no recognition of the emotional and physical needs of individual asylum seekers placed in the city. No background knowledge of their circumstances is provided by NASS. It is clear that a number suffer from isolation, mental health problems and trauma. That is made more difficult by lack of work and idleness. Mental health services in Peterborough currently have an eight-month waiting list for counselling.

Despite those difficulties, I am glad to say that in the opinion of our housing director, Sheila Grant, the local picture is generally positive. Local people are no longer surprised by the presence of asylum seekers in the city,

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despite the fact that more than 40 languages are now spoken. There has been some excellent work by the police, the Red Cross and other agencies and some innovative work with schools to educate young people about the traumas of asylum seekers. However, I regret to say that none of the credit for that can be taken by NASS. I am told that the support given by NASS to the local authority in resettling and rehousing asylum seekers has been negligible.

The Home Office has yet to conclude a formal contract with the city council despite the fact that it has taken accommodation asylum seekers since July 2001, and is being paid for it. That means that permanent staff cannot be recruited. Moreover, no training or advice has been offered by NASS to assist staff in dealing with issues of immigration and so on. In July, BBC Radio 4's "File on Four" programme highlighted the poor standard of service provided by NASS to supported asylum seekers and the organisation's unsatisfactory relationship with many of the local authorities with whom it is supposed to work in partnership. Earlier this month, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux published a report entitled "Distant Voices". It follows on from NACAB's February 2002 report on NASS process error, to which I referred in my earlier Adjournment debate. It is based on the direct experience of CABs between 1 March and 31 August 2002. During that time, CABs dealt with as many as 10,000 NASS-related cases. The report is based on more than 400 specific case examples sent to NACAB, three of them by the CAB in my constituency.

The report paints a disturbing picture of a complex, inaccessible system that is frequently unable to meet the most basic needs of those people it was set up to support, and from which it is almost impossible to get a response when things go wrong, as they do. Despite the assurances given to me in this Chamber on 12 March, many vulnerable people, including families with young children, have been left for weeks and even months without the support that they need to buy food and other essential items. The report describes the case of a single woman with five young children, who in June and July was left without subsistence support for more than six weeks, simply because NASS was sending essential documentation to the wrong address.

An example from Peterborough CAB tells how an adviser spent five hours in total trying to get through to NASS to discuss the case of an Iranian single mother who did not speak English and had been dispersed to Peterborough on 13 June. She had received a letter from Sodexho that advised her to collect her first cash voucher from the local post office between 24 and 28 June. Sodexho is a French company. It has the contract from the United Kingdom Government to print and distribute the vouchers, although one gathers that it does not do so very well. That woman had not received a voucher receipt book from Sodexho as she should have done, and she had been told by post office staff that she must have it before she could be issued with cash vouchers.

A CAB adviser spent 30 minutes on the NASS voucher inquiry line before giving up, having received no answer. She then telephoned the NASS emergency payment line, but again could get no answer. She called

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the voucher inquiry line again, and spoke to an operator who told her to call the NASS general inquiry line. She tried, but gave up after getting no answer for 40 minutes. In desperation she telephoned the Sodexho helpline, but was told simply to call the NASS voucher inquiry line. She did so again but received no answer, so she called the general line, as advised previously by the voucher line. After waiting 25 minutes to get through to an operator, she was told that the matter was for the voucher inquiry line after all. When the adviser questioned the conflicting advice, a duty manager came on the line and after a short delay agreed to send a voucher receipt book to the client. I am exhausted after recounting all that.

"Distant Voices" describes many such cases in depressing detail. It reveals the remoteness and inaccessibility of NASS, which has no local presence, as I highlighted previously. It also reveals the resultant difficulty that asylum seekers and their advisers, such as the CAB, encounter when seeking to contact NASS by telephone to sort out a problem.

The NACAB report notes that the Government's proposed replacement for the NASS support system—a combined system of asylum induction and accommodation centres—is no more than embryonic and will remain so for many years. That is an important point, and I am sure that the Minister will accept it. It means that NASS is set to remain the principal provider of accommodation and welfare support to asylum seekers for many years, possibly until well after she and I have left the House for good. It is therefore essential that the Government fully address the current shortcomings in the performance of NASS, and especially those in its accessibility to supported asylum seekers.

There is some good news. Although NACAB tells me that it has not yet received a response from Ministers to "Distant Voices", it recently met the director of NASS. On that occasion, she and her senior officials frankly acknowledged the degree and nature of the service delivery problems described in the report. Furthermore, they acknowledged that there appeared to be some "disjoint" between what their quality assurance mechanisms told them about the performance of NASS and the reality. That sounds like progress, and I hope that the Government's response to "Distant Voices" will be to consider, in liaison with NACAB, local authorities and others, the action needed to address the issues that it raises. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about that today.

My local authority has again called particular attention to the need for Government agencies to co-ordinate with benefits, immigration, police and other agencies, and to meet local authorities to advise them of their plans for resettlement and actively to listen to their concerns. I should have thought that that was common sense, never mind a courtesy, as has been said on many occasions and over many months. It would also like to be allowed to negotiate local housing contracts with landlords, rather than having to deal with national agencies such as Clearsprings and Adelphi. It has had particular difficulty getting accurate information from Clearsprings on the number of bed spaces in Peterborough, as it claims that its contract prohibits it from releasing the information. However, it suggested that I could write to its head office in Rayleigh, Essex, if I wanted a direct response.

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I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about the regionalisation programme. I understood that Ministers may have decided to increase the degree to which NASS will be devolved to regional offices. I welcome that, as I am concerned that the regionalisation programme described by Ministers, not least in this place on 12 March, does not go anywhere near far enough. Although NASS clearly needs to improve its management of accommodation contracts, it is in no one's interests, least of all those of taxpayers, that it should be ripped off by cowboy landlords. NASS also needs to devolve its operational activities on the delivery of subsistence support so as to ensure that service delivery problems can be resolved speedily and without the intervention of third parties such as the CAB.

In January this year, many were sad to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), the previous Minister, say that the regionalisation programme would not include any operational aspects of providing support. I hope that the Minister will tell me today that that is no longer written in stone and that the fresh approach for which I called in March is at long last beginning to take shape. In previous correspondence, she said that she had no plans to visit Peterborough. I hope that, in the light of today's debate, she will reconsider her decision, and I look forward to welcoming her and her officials to Peterborough as soon as possible.

1.41 pm

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Clark) on securing, within six months, a second opportunity to raise issues of concern to her constituents and her local authority about the operation of the National Asylum Support Service. Neither I nor my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), have ever made a secret of the fact that, at its inception, NASS was not set up in the best possible way; indeed, it has had difficulties—some would say that they were considerable—during its first two years. We both made it clear, to my hon. Friend and to others, that substantial improvements were needed, and a programme of improvement is now being delivered.

As my hon. Friend said, I was not the Minister responsible at the time of the first debate on 12 March, and I am sorry if she feels that the changes that have taken place since then are not as evident as she would have wished. None the less, those changes are taking place and I am sure that everyone would agree that changes are needed if the system is to work.

My hon. Friend referred to the Government's proposals to bring forward a radical and comprehensive package of measures designed to ensure that the immigration and asylum systems are fair, efficient and timely, and that they operate in a proper and efficient manner. We must ensure the integrity of the asylum system, not least to establish its credibility with the British people. However, we must also ensure that we deal properly with asylum seekers.

The Bill proposes a complete reform of that system, from induction, accommodation and reporting to the integration of refugees—or their removal if their claims are not successful. Accommodation centres are to be the

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subject of a trial, and, pending the outcome of that trial, the policy of dispersal will continue. We cannot return to the pre-NASS position, with its enormous pressures on London and the south-east, which, as the hon. Lady knows, the dispersal system was developed in response to. We are not complacent about the way in which asylum seekers are dispersed. I have made it clear, as did my predecessor, that we expect NASS officials to work much more closely with local authorities and other organisations in the dispersal areas. I have visited a number of areas and spoken to regional consortia. The feedback from areas such as the north-east and Scotland, which have considerably more asylum seekers than Peterborough, is that the tide is turning. They discern improvements in NASS and—perhaps more importantly—feel that the working relationships between NASS, the local authorities and the partner agencies are improving substantially.

We recognised from the outset that the presence of asylum seekers could lead to additional pressure on local services such as health and education. It was never intended that the pressure would be such that services could not be provided, and I do not believe that that is the case. Colleagues in other parts of government worked with us to guarantee the provision of extra funding—largely through local authorities and other agencies—to ensure that that did not happen.

As Secretary of State for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) announced that an additional £500 per pupil would made available to schools. Similar additional tranches of money were given to the health service through local development schemes to enable it to provide specified general medical services to meet local needs. I accept that many people coming into the country and claiming asylum have particular needs as a result of their long-term experiences and certainly as a result of their journeys, but it is not the sole responsibility of NASS to deliver the services that they need. Local agencies must take on the responsibility for delivery, albeit that we recognise that—certainly for dispersed asylum seekers—the funding needs to follow.

Since taking up my appointment, I have been concerned that we should accelerate the programme of regionalisation. As my hon. Friend said, as it becomes operational, we should look for ways in which to extend the range of functions that we can devolve to regional level. I am also determined, having spoken to local authorities and consortia, substantially to strengthen the involvement of local authorities at every level.

The internal review into the operation of the dispersal process, as my hon. Friend knows, recommended a regional presence. The process of developing a strong regional infrastructure is well under way and it will be in place by April 2003. That was the time scale that we set. Our intention is to establish a NASS presence as close as possible to dispersal clusters where the need for service delivery is greatest. NASS will regionalise in connection with housing management and investigations, and a separate team will manage outreach contact with asylum seekers in those areas. My intention is that that will enable the organisation to manage the services closer to the point of delivery and strengthen relationships with partners and other stakeholders on the ground. Certainly, outreach staff will visit asylum seekers in their homes shortly after arrival to ensure that

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they have everything that they need. We will then be able to assist and signpost them in order to negotiate what will, for most of them, be a new environment. They will then be able to get on with daily living and look after themselves and their families as effectively as possible.

A project board has been established to oversee the development and examine which casework functions we can best devolve to regional offices, on which local authorities and key voluntary organisations are represented. Freda Chaloner, the director of NASS, has asked representatives of NACAB whether they also want to be represented on the board, and I am pleased to say that they have accepted. Irrespective of any formal response to the NACAB report and the issues that it highlights, it enables us to obtain a direct input from NACAB and other important stakeholders into the development of the regionalisation project and ensure that we make it as effective as possible in terms of what local authorities and other people on the ground really need.

I expect the regionalisation project to assist the strong working partnership that already exists in many areas, which will be important in dealing with issues such as the provision of accommodation, as my hon. Friend mentioned. NASS should engage more closely with local authorities on property acquisition. Together with officials from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, we are trying to ensure that accommodation is not procured in areas that have been identified for regeneration. That is causing a problem in some regions. I also want to examine whether we can involve local authorities much more as prime contractors in the delivery of accommodation, although I cannot say what the outcome will be because it relates to the wider issue of procurement rules and contracting regimes within the Government as a whole.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the operation of NASS, the quality of its decision-making and other aspects of its work. There has been an extensive, radical overhaul of procedures and I am sorry if the changes have not been evident so far because that is an important priority for me, Freda Chaloner and my senior officials. We continue to examine how to develop processes and procedures to improve efficiency, effectiveness and quality. I am not familiar with the individual cases that my hon. Friend cited, but I have no difficulty saying that they are not acceptable. We cannot tolerate people being left in such circumstances.

NASS is working towards achieving an acceptable standard of service with the minimum number of errors and disruption to the people that it is supporting. I hope that, in the not-too-distant future, I will be able to say to my hon. Friend and other colleagues—as I wish to say about the whole of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate—that it is now an excellent organisation that is doing its work in a proper way, and that it is a public service of which we can be proud. Certainly, I do not separate out the directorate or NASS from the wider Government objectives of improving the standard of public services.

My hon. Friend mentioned the number of asylum seekers in Peterborough. I accept that it was not a major point in her contribution, but it has been a theme of my

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hon. Friend and others in Peterborough that there are significant numbers of asylum seekers in the area—much higher numbers than have ever been the case.

There are at present 520 NASS-supported asylum seekers in Peterborough. I cannot give my hon. Friend an exact figure for the number of people in Peterborough who have only financial support because we do not have that information, but there are 2,450 such people in the east of England. I apologise, I gave the wrong figure earlier. The figure of 520 NASS-supported asylum seekers was for the east of England. In the region as a whole there are around 3,000 asylum seekers, including those on local authority interim support. There are 410 asylum seekers in NASS accommodation in Peterborough and while I cannot give her an exact figure, most of the remainder who are on financial support are in areas that are much closer to London and the outer London boroughs than Peterborough.

My hon. Friend's claim today of 2,500 asylum seekers in Peterborough, which is 500 more than her claim six months ago, is not one that we recognise. That figure is wrong and it is unhelpful to the issues that need to be addressed in Peterborough that elected representatives and others are voicing what some may feel is an alarmist view about the extent to which Peterborough is accommodating asylum seekers. Community relations issues have arisen in that town, and to some extent the presence of asylum seekers has been an easy target for those who wish to claim that asylum seekers and the operation of NASS are the primary reasons for some of those difficulties. As we know from elsewhere, community tensions arise from much longer-term factors concerned with the segregation of communities, where people live in separated housing, young people go to separated schools and people feel alienated and that they have been denied access to opportunities.

Clearly, asylum seekers and the issues that they raise may be part of people's perceptions of the difficulties, but they cannot be a causative factor in the way that some claim. Such factors relate to much more long-standing and deep-seated problems that need to be addressed. I am grateful that officials in Peterborough council have shown themselves to be keen not only to work directly with NASS on the issues raised by asylum seekers, but to work on the wider agenda of promoting community cohesion and developing an action plan to start the process of addressing some of the more deep-seated factors that currently colour community relations in Peterborough.

My hon. Friend said that I had no plans to visit Peterborough. She wrote to me several times over the summer, and she may recall that I told her that I had no plans to visit Peterborough over the summer, because I had already planned to visit other areas in the country where there had been disturbances, but that when I planned my next series of ministerial visits Peterborough would be included as it is an area that I want to visit.

Question put and agreed to.

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