Draft Asylum Support (Repeal) Order 2002

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Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South): As you know, Miss Widdecombe, the primary function of Back-Bench Government Members on such Committees is normally to remain silent and support the Government. Occasionally the Selection Committee, advised by the Whips, makes errors because it actually puts people on the Government's side who have an interest in the subject under consideration. Unfortunately for the Whips, I happen to be in that position this morning.

I join with the official Opposition in welcoming the proposed change. The Opposition spokesman mentioned the mechanics of the new system: how it may work and how some of the difficulties seen in the past few years can be eradicated. It is significant that the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) referred to the important point underlying the matter—the level of benefits—only at the end of his comments. Change is good, but we must grasp the nettle because the system is not equitable if the level of benefits for one group of people is not the same as for other groups when the level of need is the same. The Government's changes are welcome, but the inequality will continue unless the Opposition, with the help of Labour Members, can force a change.

My understanding of the Government's proposals is that asylum seekers in receipt of financial assistance will receive only 70 per cent. of the income support that indigenous people receive in the United Kingdom. That is inequitable and I hope that the Minister will indicate, first, that philosophically she is opposed to the continuation of that discrimination, and, secondly, that she and her colleagues are prepared to put pressure on the Chancellor of the Exchequer to remove that inequity. Only by doing so can we be seen to be treating asylum seekers fairly. We welcome

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asylum seekers, despite some of the changes that have been made in the past few years, but it is wrong to discriminate against them when they arrive and that they must endure worse levels of poverty than other people here in similar conditions. I hope that, even at this late stage, the Government will do something to alleviate that.

10.47 am

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): First, I welcome you to your new-found eminence in the Chair, Miss Widdecombe. I am happy to serve under you and apologise that I was delayed for a minute or two in arriving from my previous meeting. Like the hon. Member for Woking, and as the Minister will hope and expect, we welcome the order and the repeal of the provision in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. The Minister will know, although she was not in office at the time, that my hon. Friends who took the 1999 Bill through the House—I was involved only at the end—opposed the voucher system throughout and consistently argued for a different system. It is logical for us to support the order.

I shall not detain the Committee because the hon. Members for Woking and for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) raised most of the issues. First, at every stage since the Government announced their intention to change the system, people have been interested in the timetable for the change. It would be helpful if the Minister could elaborate on that and say whether there will be transitional arrangements.

Secondly, on the issue raised by the hon. Member for Leicester, South, if society sets a minimum income on which to live, that should, by definition, apply to people who have the same needs whether or not they happen to be asylum seekers. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, although it is a matter not for the Home Office but for the Department for Work and Pensions, but my understanding is that the level of benefits is due to be increased for children—from the beginning of April, it will be the same for asylum-seeking children as for other children, which I welcome. All the organisations concerned with such matters—the Child Poverty Action Group and so on—have wanted to ensure equivalence since the start of the 1999 legislation. Clearly, that benefit for asylum seekers' children slipped behind. I would like the Minister to assure us, or undertake to seek an assurance from her colleagues and pass it on, that there will be no slippage in the future and that children will remain on the same rate, so that that issue can be fairly addressed.

On the benefit for adults, I understand the argument—there may be some truth in it—that asylum seekers do not normally have to pay certain bills. The example given is utility bills and that argument seems to be backed up. Asylum seekers may not have to meet those bills in the same way that others have to, so I am not arguing categorically that they must receive the same rates. However, there does not seem to be any evidence that a 70 per cent. payment is a justified reduction.

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All who have looked into those matters, from a poverty and social security angle, from constituency experience such as ours or from the angle of organisations such as the Immigration Advisory Service and the Refugee Council say that there ought to be equivalence. I join colleagues on both sides of the Committee in asking the Minister to help us by giving us good news on that today or by undertaking to ask her colleagues in other Government Departments to write to us about it. I hope that they will tell us that they will either use the opportunity of the new financial year to make the change that will bring about equivalence or, at worst, implement changes at the time of the Budget and Finance Bill, perhaps under the automatic provisions, to do that.

I have been asked to raise a matter that I know is unresolved, although I do not pretend to be an expert on it. In the past, a one-off payment of £50 has been paid to people who have been on vouchers for six months. I am not aware of having read anything about the future plan for that payment. Can the Minister tell us whether there will still be a one-off payment under the new system or whether the Government argue that that should go and with what justification?

The hon. Member for Woking raised the important question of what will happen to asylum seekers who do not take the accommodation offered but go to stay with friends or family. All the figures bear out the fact that, if the Government are working on the basis of having 3,000 accommodation centre places—the four times 750 multiple—and have a roll-out programme for other spaces, a considerable number of people will still use the existing NASS programme and be dispersed. Some will always choose to stay with relatives and, on all the evidence, that is cheaper for the state. It is important that support should not be prejudiced for those who do that.

The Minister will understand the real worry that such people will often be staying with families with very low incomes and no capital. We must be careful that the understandable generosity of family and friends and the preference of asylum seekers to stay with people they know does not lead to them being in difficult financial circumstances that are then translated to the people with whom they are staying. That is an issue of concern. Can the Minister give her views on it?

My last point relates to the NASS programme and those who will be in accommodation centres. Can the Minister tell us the current judgment of the Home Office on how many people will come under which umbrella? I understand that she cannot predict that accurately, but given that there is a plan that some will be accommodated centrally—an option that we have supported—and that some will be dispersed, it would be helpful to know what projections the Minister has for who will be in which category. If she needs more time to supply further information, I should be happy for her to do that later.

The order is welcome. Many people in the Minister's party, other parties, the trade unions and campaigning organisations said from the start that the voucher system was the wrong one. I believe that we were proved right and I am glad that we were able to

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persuade the Government. It is inevitable in politics that sometimes persuasion takes a little longer to work than one would think was necessary, but this is a glad day for all concerned.

10.54 am

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): I should like to endorse some of the comments that have been made and raise several issues on which I hope the Minister will have time to comment. On payments for children, I am concerned that free milk tokens are not provided to nursing mothers. The matter has been drawn to my attention by some children's societies, which are particularly concerned about mothers who are carrying HIV. Members may be aware that HIV can be transmitted through breast milk. Instead of using vouchers for milk, mothers may have been forced to breast-feed their children, because of shortage of income, thus increasing the risk of passing on the virus. Therefore, milk tokens should be available to nursing mothers and they should not distinguish which mothers have HIV.

Several constituents who are asylum seekers have brought to my attention the problem of transportation costs. They find it incredibly difficult to manage on the funds that they receive—I wholeheartedly welcome the abandonment of the voucher system—but many also have to bear the burden of significant transportation costs in the pursuit of their application. Those who have to make trips up and down the country may avoid such costs by hitching lifts and those who have to turn up in Liverpool at a very early hour may spend the night on the pavement because they cannot afford the accommodation costs. Is there an opportunity to assist people with legitimate expenses associated with pursuing their asylum application?

I hope that the Minister will have an opportunity to reflect on my comments and perhaps offer some hope to people who find themselves in such positions.

10.57 am

Roger Casale (Wimbledon): I wish briefly to put on record my support for the repeal of the system of voucher support for asylum seekers. Although I supported the Government when the voucher scheme was introduced, I did so reluctantly, believing that it would not work in practice, as has been the case. It was obvious to me that the scheme was not fair, that it would stigmatise those in receipt of vouchers and that it would be particularly onerous on asylum seeker families and their children.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South said that the Whips had carefully selected the members of the Committee. I am sure that I am on the Committee because the Whips remember the difficulties that I had in supporting a part of the Bill dealing with support for asylum seeker families. Government Members are called on to support the Government where we can but, for some of us, this issue was one of conscience that stretched our party loyalty to the limit.

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