|Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No.92) (HC877) on Special Grants for Asylum Seekers Support (Adults and Families of Asylum Seekers) for 1999-2000 and Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No.99) (HC878) on Special Grants for Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children for 2002-2003
Simon Hughes: First, I congratulate you, Sir Nicholas, on your knighthood, which has happened since you were last in the Chair of a Committee of which I was a member. I shall be brief, not least because I am meant to be both on the Front Bench in the House dealing with the intelligence debate and elsewhere.
I am a veteran of some of the earlier debates on the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill, in which this matter came up, and of debates in Standing Committee dealing with previous grant orders. I shall make the general view of me and my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) clear. We will not vote against the reports because local authorities should be compensated properly for money that they have spent.
The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire made it clear that it is wrong that local authorities should always be paid in arrears. I have made the point before in Committee during the proceedings of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill to the Minister's predecessor, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), that there should be payment up front and money should be paid quarterly. The Government indicated that they accepted the logic of that case because local authorities should not always be in arrears and in deficit in dealing with what is clearly a costly obligation.
In relation to the first report, it is difficult for the Government to argue that they were not warned that the bill would be higher than the sum of money that they sought, and there were two reasons for that. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) spoke for the Liberal Democrats in that Committee, and he put to Ministers the sums by which there was underfunding by central Government of local authorities. He reminded the Committee that Oxfordshire's claim exceeded its funding by £30,000. He listed the London figures, and the under funding was significant not only in Haringey but elsewhere. Camden was under-compensated by more than £500,000 and Islington by more than £1.4 million. The total cost in London was £6,000,059 for adults and £10,000,201 for families. For the whole of
Column Number: 019England, the figures were £6,500,402 for adults and £11,106,194 for families. I understand that it was clear when the Committee met that the money was going to be adequate.
A further irony is that the local authority that was to put in the largest bill for a shortfall was the local authority represented by the then Minister of State, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), who was arguing that the money was enough. If ever there was a lack of communication it was between the London borough of Haringey and the hon. Lady, who represents Haringey. She should have known that there might have been a problem. Perhaps we can have an explanation of how that happened. If it was not a lack of joined-up government, it was a lack of joined-up information.
I shall make two final points on grant report No. 99. I heard the Minister give the estimates for this year's figure. I would have thought that it was a little difficult to give an estimate for this year, as we do not know when the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill will have completed its passage and become law, although we can guess that that will be sometime in the autumn. If the Minister in her winding-up speech could give the monthly estimate, that would allow us to calculate, depending on when the Bill is enacted, to what extent local authorities will be reimbursed.
I have not heard whether the Government believe that under the new system—under the Bill when enacted—the unit costs per child will be cheaper, so that money will be saved. The Treasury would benefit were that the case, but we must ensure that unaccompanied minors for whom we have a responsibility are looked after properly under whichever system is in place. There is a question—we have never quite been able to get to the bottom of it—of who can adjudicate independently on whether people are adults or children. Some youngsters coming from the other side of the world with no papers could be interpreted as being either. I am not suggesting that the Government are not seeking to get at the truth, but it seems to me important that the best independent advice is given and that an agency in which everyone can have confidence makes that decision.
I apologise that I have to depart, but I am leaving affairs in the competent hands of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester. As we are not seeking to divide the Committee, I trust that he will be able to report back to me and that the Minister can give answers either today, if possible, or later, if necessary.
The Chairman: I am sure that the Committee is grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy.
Beverley Hughes: I shall certainly try to address the issues that Opposition Members have raised. I am grateful that they are not going to divide the Committee on these important reports.
On the further comments that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire made on Haringey, I am
Column Number: 020well aware, as he and some of his colleagues may be, of the way in which the Government responded to some of the issues with which Haringey presented them at the time, because I was one of the Local Government Ministers and very much involved in the matter. I am grateful that you, Sir Nicholas, endorsed the position that I have taken on that matter in relation to this debate—that it is not appropriate to rehearse any of that detail in the context of a debate on the special grant reports.
The hon. Gentleman raised another point about comparing the unit costs in the 92 report on adults and families with those involved in other ways of accommodating asylum seeking families. He mentioned Oakington and accommodation centres and said that he wanted comparisons. I must say that those costs are not at all comparable. We are clearly talking about a very different situation. The whole infrastructure costs of accommodating, feeding, caring for and staffing families in centres are very difficult to compare with the unit costs when people are living in the community.
Looking at health, which is just one dimension of that, in accommodation centres, health, like education, will be provided on site. For asylum-seeking children in families, those costs are met via routes outside of the unit costs that go to local authorities. The local authority provides for a much more limited range of support. Education costs, for example, come through the per capita amount going to the local education authority and, through it, to schools. It is not possible really to compare those two different systems.
The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire also raised the point that his hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham raised earlier about the difference in per capita rates between authorities caring for less than 100 unaccompanied asylum seeking-children and those caring for more than 100. I acknowledge to him and my hon. Friends that we recognise that the system is not perfect, which is why we are looking at changing it. I hope, however, that I can give him some assurance by saying that the figures have been negotiated with the local authority associations. They are not something that Government officials and Ministers have just dreamed up.
I think that the hon. Gentleman was concerned about the amount of the difference. He felt that the degree of difference was too large to be accounted for by different costs. In a sense that may be so across the board, but we are also trying to relate the costs to the reality of the situation through the negotiations. The reality of the situation is that most authorities with large numbers of asylum-seeking children—more than 100—are in London and the south-east, where the unit cost to the authorities is higher than in other parts of the country. Indirectly, that important factor has been fed into and has contributed to the difference in the figures.
In a way, we cannot win with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. He referred to when the report was debated and said, as he often does, that he told us that the bill would be higher. We
Column Number: 021knew that it might well be, but to have delayed payments to local authorities even longer because the estimates could not be finalised would have been something that he and others would have, rightly, criticised us for. Notwithstanding that, there were two significant issues that could not be resolved with two local authorities, and it did not seem right to us to delay the payments to the vast majority of local authorities at that time.
As I have said to hon. Members, we recognise that although the system was the best we could negotiate with local authorities, it is not perfect. To go forward we are considering whether we can refine a system based on unit costs, or whether we need to have more flexibility to enable us to pay local authorities to use the money in different ways. For example, Kent cares for large numbers and is looking at providing some sort of dedicated accommodation that is purpose-specific for young people. It is considering what that might look like. If we can have the flexibility to assist Kent with the cost of that special provision, we would want to do that. A unit cost-based approach might not give us that flexibility. We want to work with local authorities to devise something in the limits of the resources that we can put forward, that is as flexible as possible and meets their needs as well as possible.
Bob Russell (Colchester): Could I suggest to the Minister that my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey was suggesting that where it is known what the likely costs are to a local authority month after month, it could have a sort of standing order rather than having to apply retrospectively? Then the Government could balance
Column Number: 022the bill one way or the other at the end of the financial year or the quarter. My hon. Friend was referring to the retrospective aspect of the process.
Beverley Hughes: I take that point. As a former local authority leader myself, although not one responsible for large numbers of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, I know that other special grant reports have traditionally worked in the same way. We tried to take that point on board substantially, if not fully, with the quarterly payments included in the arrangements for the special grant report. If, on reflection, there are any other issues that I have not replied to in the debate, I will certainly write to hon. Members.
Question put and agreed to.
Grant Report (No. 99) (HC 878) On Special
Grants For Unaccompanied Asylum-seeking
Children For 2002–03
|©Parliamentary copyright 2002||Prepared 11 July 2002|