Draft Asylum Support (Repeal) Order 2002

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Mr. Marshall: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me a mention in dispatches, but my point was that we were not clearly identified to serve on the

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Committee. We were on a list that included our names but failed to register our direct interest in either supporting or opposing the legislation.

Roger Casale: I am not in a position to respond to that intervention, which is probably speculative and well outside the bounds of the debate. If I may, I will return to the matter in hand.

As I said, that was a moral issue, deeply felt, that stretched many of us to the limit. I was very tested at the time, and was grateful for the opportunity arranged for me through the Whips Office to speak to the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), just before the debate on the part of the Bill relating to vouchers for asylum seeker families. There had been an important debate in another place, and strong representations were made by many church groups and faith groups—the Bishop of Southwark's representations were particularly strong—asking the Government to think again, especially on vouchers for asylum seeker families.

I was grateful that the Home Secretary assured me then that vouchers would be introduced for asylum seeker families only when the six-month target set by the Government for processing asylum claims had been met. I was therefore able, although still with a rather heavy heart, to support the Government in the Lobby on that occasion. That showed that although we were putting in place a firm—some would say a tough—system, the Government were prepared to listen to representations made by Members and outside groups. The Government listened then, and are listening now.

To repeal the voucher system, having looked at its practical working, and replace it with a cash system will give great encouragement to church and faith groups who do so much to care for the needs of asylum seekers in addition to the support given through the Government. I mention in particular Merton Christian Care, with which I work very closely in my constituency, and Asylum Welcome, which has an exemplary care centre for asylum seekers in Merton. Other hon. Members will know of and work with many groups doing such work in their constituencies.

Those groups share with us solidarity with those who face persecution and pride in this country's tradition of giving refuge to the victims of repressive regimes. Because of the voucher system and the way in which it operated, it seemed for a while that we and the Government were moving away from that tradition. I do not think that we were, but we seemed to be giving the wrong message and to be adopting an inhumane rather than a firm approach. I do not believe that we have done that. Our approach is firm and fast but we are showing, especially through this order, that it is also fair.

We should continue to seek the best way to combine an effective support system for asylum seekers with a rational and liberal approach to immigration. Increasingly, we must look to place our approach to asylum and immigration in a European context and work towards a coherent, European approach. We should never forget that refugees have made an

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enormous contribution to societies in Europe. There is a need in Europe as a whole, and in this country, for positive net immigration flows.

I join other hon. Members in thanking Nick Hardwick and his colleagues at the Refugee Council and congratulating them on their work. Many organisations have pressed for the repeal of the voucher system, but many of us agree that the Refugee Council has taken the lead. We have listened to the Refugee Council's good arguments and drawn on the direct experience that it and other organisations have of the day-to-day plight of asylum seekers, and allowed that to inform, change and improve our approach. Long may that continue.

11.3 am

Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North-West): I am not sure that there are any particular reasons for my appointment to this Standing Committee, but having heard the debate, I welcome the steps that the Government are taking to replace vouchers with a cash system. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Roger Casale) said, many of us had grave misgivings about the voucher system at the beginning, not least on grounds of fairness and because of the impressions that it would convey of the Government and their motives. As the hon. Member for Woking said, having seen the system in practice, it is clear that it is unworkable, that it has given rise to great bureaucratic complications and that it has turned out to be very costly.

I therefore congratulate the Government on introducing the order. They saw the mess that we were getting into, and had the wisdom to rectify that by withdrawing the system—the only option in such circumstances—that is doing so much damage. I say that because it has hindered us in working with the various organisations in our constituencies to deal with the immigrant problem.

I echo the views expressed in support of the Refugee Council. Its work has been outstanding. Yesterday, I received its latest views on the matter, and it welcomes what we are introducing. Without further ado, I welcome the order. I am pleased to be on the Committee to see an important step being taken to improve the Government's position and our working relationships in this matter.

11.5 am

Angela Eagle: It is not often that I stand in Committee and hear the Government lauded all round. Perhaps this will be the first time of many when we reach complete agreement in Committee.

Mr. Malins: Don't count on it.

Angela Eagle: I will not count on it. The hon. Gentleman is right to fire that shot across my bows, but I am enjoying the moment while it lasts.

I want to answer some of the questions and queries that were raised amidst this sea of approval, which I hope will demonstrate to hon. Members the way in which the reform is progressing. I ask hon. Members to take into account the context set by the White

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Paper. As we develop a new system, some of the elements identified in the White Paper are crucial to the changes that we will effect. Hon. Members should consider the accommodation centres, the induction centres and the reporting centres for those receiving voucher-only support while living with friends and family. Reporting centres enable us to keep closer contact with those claiming asylum, which we hope will expedite the process so that they can receive a decision quickly.

The detention estate means that our asylum process has integrity. There is a difference between those who go through the process and fail and those who are successful. We must bear that in mind when we deal with such issues in the country at large. Our system must be seen to have integrity. There must be a difference between those who claim asylum and are accepted as refugees and those who are not. In the latter instance, we must be as efficient as possible in difficult circumstances when returning such people to their countries of origin.

Regarding the comment made by the hon. Member for Woking about Oakington and the cost of keeping someone there, I would say that there are many paradoxes—he knows that as well as I—in this difficult area of policy. At Oakington, it is cheaper to achieve the fast tracking of what are known as simple cases. We can secure a first-tier decision for them in a week, and the appeal in a couple of months maximum. The vast majority of people who go through Oakington fail because, on the face of it, they seem likely to fail. That is a much cheaper way of dealing with their claims. Since Oakington opened, the numbers of asylum seekers coming from particular countries in eastern Europe have fallen by large percentages. They know that they will have to go through Oakington; there is a prevention aspect as well as fast tracking. It is pretty good value for money.

The hon. Member for Woking asked about the future of voucher-only support organisation. In the first stage of the move to cash, which will happen from 8 April, individuals currently receiving vouchers will instead be given cash dockets—that is as good a phrase as any—which they can present to the post office in the same way that they presented the docket that gave them the voucher book. They will be entitled to cash that will be paid at the post office. There is little change in the way in which the process works.

On the question of identity, the voucher system uses codes of numbers that represent individuals, which are matched up by post office clerks. That will continue until the applicant registration card is introduced, which is a photo-identity card that can be read at post offices to check details on individuals, such as what they are entitled to. Once registration cards are available to everyone, the system will be more robust. It is hoped that cards will be available to all NASS-supported asylum seekers by September this year. Some 3,000 cards have already been issued and more are being issued as we speak. The second stage is to move towards the use of those cards as a proof of identity, and as part of the process by which cash will be made available.

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Simon Hughes: Is the Minister saying that the process will be entirely dependent on the cards, so that the sequence will be to have a card first, which will then access cash? Is it the case that anyone who wants to benefit from the transfer from the voucher to the cash system will have to have had a card issued first?

Angela Eagle: We will transfer all payments to cash by April, which will be before cards are in everyone's possession. That is stage one. I was attempting to give the Committee an idea of the next stage. By September, we hope that every NASS-supported asylum seeker will have a registration card, which will contain information on him or her, including some biometric information. That card can be checked at the reporting centre. Such a system will be much harder to defraud than the one it replaces. I hope that we will be able to cut out much existing fraud. Everyone will be entitled to cash by April.

The hon. Member for Woking, and other hon. Members, asked about voucher-only support and its future. We are not in a position to make a full comment on the future of voucher-only support. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey was correct when he said that people will be in accommodation centres while the 3,000 places are being trialled—others will be in NASS-supported accommodation and some will receive voucher-only support. Those systems will be made more robust by the reporting requirements and by the fact that NASS staff will visit people in accommodation more regularly and keep in better touch.

Were we to reach a stage at which everyone who applied for asylum went into an accommodation centre—say, the trials had worked and the accommodation centre estate was expanded—a different position might be taken on voucher-only support in the community. We have not yet reached that position and the Government do not have a view on whether voucher-only support should be phased out. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey is twitching to speak again.

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