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Second Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Tuesday 12 March 2002
[Miss Ann Widdecombe in the Chair]
Draft Asylum Support
(Repeal) Order 2002
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Asylum Support (Repeal) Order 2002.
May I first say what a pleasure it is to serve on a Committee chaired by you, Miss Widdecombe? I do not know whether this is your first Committee but it is my first with you. I hope that you find it as enjoyable an experience as I hope it will be.
The order, which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary laid before the House on 25 February, will repeal section 96(3) of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. This provision effectively bars, except to a limited extent, the Home Secretary from making subsistence payments to asylum seekers in cash.
Hon. Members will be aware that last October the Home Secretary announced his intention to move away from the provision of subsistence payments by way of vouchers. To achieve that, section 96(3) of the 1999 Act must be repealed, which is why we are considering the order. Subject to parliamentary approval, it is proposed that cash payments will start from 8 April for all asylum seekers supported by the National Asylum Support Service. In the short term those payments will be made using the existing system for the issue of vouchers. We aim to use the new application registration card as a means of identifying those who are eligible for receipt of payment, which will be the next stage of reform.
We have decided to introduce cash payments five months early for two reasons. First, the change to cash payments will enable us better to manage the transition to payments based on the applicant registration card. Secondly, moving to cash will mean that asylum seekers will be able to spend their money where they like, and they will not have a limited choice of shops in which they can use vouchers. Since the announcement of the end of vouchers, maintaining the retail network has been an issue, and I am glad that we have been able to make that move early.
It will be necessary to make consequential amendments to the Asylum Support Regulations 2000, and the necessary amending regulations were laid before Parliament on 6 March. Those regulations include the Asylum Support (Amendment) Regulations 2002, which will raise levels of support for asylum seekers by 3 per cent. for adults and 8 per cent. for children.
Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): On behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-
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Grainger) and myself, may I say what a pleasure it is to see you in the Chair, Miss Widdecombe?
I am grateful to the Minister for her introduction to the statutory instrument, which enables me to deal with the matter more briefly than I might otherwise have done. I hope that that will be convenient for the Committee, and I see signs of assent to that from Government Members.
The official Opposition welcome the order, and like all members of the Committee we look back on the past two years of vouchers with some disquiet. We all know the problems with vouchers. It is impossible to exchange them for cash or to get change from them. That they are usable only in certain stores means that asylum seekers are unable to buy goods at the cheapest prices, and many of us think that that contributes to the growth of the black market and possibly makes illegal work more appealing. There are those, not least the Chartered Institute of Housing, who think that they exacerbate and create health problems among asylum seekers, and that they fail to take account of everyday essential needs such as travel.
Many of us worry about the stigma attached to using vouchers because they mark a person out as an asylum seeker. It is also thought—I think properly—that they encourage discriminatory treatment. They are a bureaucratic nightmare and are inefficient. If their purpose was to discourage asylum seekers, they have singularly failed. The replacement of the voucher system with cash, or its equivalent, will be warmly welcomed by refugee and immigration support organisations, and throughout the House of Commons.
We have taken much time over the past few years to discuss the cost of maintaining asylum seekers and the right level of benefits. Many feel that asylum seekers should be properly looked after as regards the cash or vouchers that are available to them. I recently found out that the weekly unit cost of housing an asylum seeker at Oakington is estimated at £1,620—an awful lot of money. At the end of December 2001, 25,000 asylum seekers were receiving voucher-only support; most of those—some 18,000—were living in Greater London. At the same time, 40,000 asylum seekers were supported in National Asylum Support Service accommodation in five regions ranging from the midlands, through the north and into Scotland.
Vouchers are to go, but what of the future for benefits and accommodation? Can the Minister tell us how will they be delivered? One possibility is that asylum seekers will receive something similar to a girocheque or ration book to be redeemed for cash, perhaps at a post office. Will the Minister explain the importance of being able to confirm the correct identity of the asylum seeker, who will exchange the voucher for cash, to prevent fraud? There is the practical problem of where the voucher or docket is cashed; not all areas have ready access to a post office. Will other places in which cash could be provided be arranged? Does the Minister worry that an asylum seeker with a voucher or docket might be unable to cash it because of heavy public transport costs to the nearest post office? The new system must give the
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asylum seeker cash in his or her hand to avoid the problems of the voucher system.
On accommodation, it appears that the future plan is for asylum seekers to move into an induction centre initially for one to seven days, then into an accommodation centre, which will provide up to 3,000 places in the medium term. Asylum seekers will not be detained there, and will be free to come and go as long as they sleep there overnight. I understand that they will not be able to take up employment, which is a matter of some sorrow. I have always felt that asylum seekers should be able to take up employment straight away.
Accommodation centres will be able to house only a small proportion of those who seek asylum. A proportion of asylum seekers will be placed in such a centre, and will receive full board and lodging, plus a cash sum, which is a neat outcome. A larger proportion will be put into NASS accommodation throughout the country and in addition will receive some level of cash benefits. However, I should like to probe the Minister on those who fall into neither category. Is it likely that a person who enters an accommodation centre and then leaves it to stay at an address known to the authorities will lose his or her entitlement to benefit?
What about an asylum seeker who is not placed in an accommodation centre and who decides to avoid NASS housing altogether by staying with a friend or relative? Would that person be penalised in any way in terms of the support provided? I perceive a distinction between an asylum seeker who goes to ground and does not co-operate with the authorities, and one who does not want anything to do with an accommodation centre or NASS accommodation and wants to stay with dear friends in London or elsewhere. That asylum seeker would keep regularly in touch and tell the authorities what their address was. I should be grateful for a little advice on the situation of such a person.
I conclude my remarks by mentioning a couple of points that have been raised by several bodies, including the Refugee Council and the Immigration Advisory Service, which I founded. Such bodies take a clear interest in these matters. They welcome the Home Secretary's decision to scrap the voucher system, as do we all, but make the good point that good communication is absolutely vital for a smooth transition to the new system. Asylum seekers will shortly receive a card explaining the new arrangements. It is not clear whether that card will be in English only or in other languages. The information must be communicated in languages that asylum seekers can understand. I urge that those cards, or any method of explanation, should be made available in several languages, and an emphasis placed on a full and clear policy of communication.
In a decent and humane society, such as ours, we must focus in the medium term on the level of cash support that will be available, although it is too early to be certain about that. There is some consensus on such matters between the official Opposition and the Government. We want to work with the Government to create a better, fairer system. In any system, the level of support must be of a reasonable standard. The
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position of thousands of children asylum seekers and the level of benefits available to them has troubled me for some years. It is a matter of concern to anyone interested in such issues that the support available for asylum seekers should be of a reasonable and decent nature.
I am grateful to the Minister for the way in which she introduced the regulations. There is much more that I could say. There will come a time when we get to a Bill on the subject—
Angela Eagle: In the not-too-distant future.
Mr. Malins: I hear the Minister say that it will be in the not-too-distant future. Perhaps she will let me know in her wind-up comments when that Bill will be given its Second Reading because many of us would like to keep our diaries clear for a few weeks or months after that. We shall return to many of the issues because I am sure that we will have constructive debates on that Bill.
Meanwhile, my hon. Friends the Members for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) and for Bridgwater are united with me, and my party, in welcoming the measure. We shall watch developments carefully during the next few months, and hope to contribute in a constructive fashion.