Draft Asylum Support (Repeal) Order 2002

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Simon Hughes: I wonder whether the Minister knows the current figure for the total number of people in NASS accommodation. What is the Government's best estimated figure for those not in NASS accommodation who are staying with family or friends? I should like to know the balance, because the figure of 3,000 is well under 10 per cent. of the expected total.

Angela Eagle: The hon. Gentleman is right that the accommodation trials concern a small percentage of the total figure. If the trials work well, as we hope that they will, we may be able rapidly to expand accommodation centres, which would put us in a different organisational position in relation to other options. We have not decided what the system will look like in the end. It is a process of evolution, away from the current system and towards a more effective one. Frustrating as it may be for the hon. Gentleman, I cannot answer his questions in detail on how the system will look as it evolves.

Mr. Malins: I hope that the Minister will deal with the smooth communication of those matters to asylum

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seekers and the different languages used because everybody must be fully informed. May I say through her to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey that there are, as I understand it, 40,000 asylum seekers in NASS accommodation?

Angela Eagle: The hon. Gentleman is right on the 40,000 figure. We have a figure of 25,000 for those on voucher-only support at the end of December 2001, and new figures will be published quarterly.

On good communications in the smooth transition to the new system, I hope that I have showed that from April there will not be much change. Instead of vouchers there will be a docket for which one can get cash. A card, which I am told is in English, will go to those who have voucher books in their last package of vouchers. When those voucher books run out in April, people will move on to the new system. When new asylum seekers go through the induction centres, they will be informed about the way in which the system works and that information will be provided in appropriate languages. We aim to be able to communicate those changes in the most effective way.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South raised the issue, which constantly presents itself, of the 70 per cent. level of benefit given to adults. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey is right to recognise that we have moved—in orders under the negative procedure, which are not before us today but are relevant to the debate—to increase support for children to 100 per cent. All I can do is give my hon. Friend the justification, which the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey was again kind enough to foreshadow, for the continuation of the 70 per cent. level for adults. The 70 per cent. level is broadly equivalent to income support because NASS accommodation is fully furnished and has bed linen, curtains, knives and forks—all the things that one needs when one moves into a house. There is no council tax liability and utilities such as gas, electricity and water are paid for.

Taking that into account, the Government's view is that the 70 per cent. level is broadly equivalent to income support. I accept that my hon. Friend has his views, and I am certain that he will continue to propound them. That, however, is the current position with regard to overall levels of benefit. As I said in my opening remarks, a 3 per cent. increase for adults, which is broadly in line with other increases in benefits, and an 8 per cent. increase for children, which will take them to 100 per cent., are contained within a negative resolution, but we are not debating that today.

Simon Hughes: Obviously the Government will always take a view, but has the 70 per cent. figure been independently assessed as being correct? There is an argument for it being less than 100 per cent., but I am not expert enough to know whether the right figure is 70 per cent. Has anyone been asked independently to assess that figure? Social security advisory bodies and other organisations could be asked to do so. If such bodies have not been asked, could we have an independent assessment, which the Government would hopefully follow?

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Angela Eagle: The hon. Gentleman can ask, but off the top of my head I do not know whether that figure has been independently assessed. The best thing for me to do is to find out and write to him. Thinking in terms of rents, I suspect that there are variations around the country and that the 70 per cent. figure represents an average. In such matters it is often difficult to do anything other than take an average, but I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman asked for further details on the timetable. Earlier I said that we are hoping to make the applicant registration card available to all NASS clients by the end of September, which will enable us to plan a move to a requirement to use the card to get cash. After some IT work has been done, we will be able to use the applicant registration card before September. In some circumstances, we will examine whether those who have it can use it before September. It is a more robust system, which contains anti-fraud mechanisms, and we want to implement it as quickly as possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) asked two questions. The first was about milk tokens and I am afraid that that is a matter for the Department of Health, not the Home Office. My understanding is that the Department of Health has no plans to extend the scheme in the way that she suggested, but I shall bring her comments to the attention of my colleagues and perhaps she can correspond with them on that.

My hon. Friend's second question concerned travel costs. We already pay all travel costs to interviews in connection with asylum applications. I shall be surprised if people are saying that they have not

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received those payments, because we cover those costs and always have done.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon for saying that we are always prepared to listen and I reiterate that. There are no easy answers in this area of policy. We must co-operate to create a system that offers the fairest deal for those who are fleeing persecution and demonstrates that those who abuse the asylum system by making false and often multiple false claims are dealt with effectively so that the system has the support of those who pay for it: our constituents. The issues are complex.

I thank the Committee for giving a broad welcome to the abolition of vouchers and look forward to working with all Committee members to achieve a coherent approach to the system.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon referred to the European angle. We are working very hard with the Justice and Home Affairs Council to create a common policy to end the abuse of asylum shopping and to tackle some of the criminal activities of transnational people-smuggling gangs who make vast profits from trading in human misery. It is for all of us to do what we can to end that trade by working with source countries and transit countries at European Union level. I assure my hon. Friend that we are vigorously pursuing a huge agenda on that.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Asylum Support (Repeal) Order 2002.

Committee rose at twenty-two minutes past Eleven o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Widdecombe, Miss Ann (Chairman)
Casale, Roger
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs.
Eagle, Angela
Farrelly, Paul
Gapes, Mike
Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl
Hoban, Mr.
Hughes, Simon
Liddell-Grainger, Mr.
McGuire, Mrs.
Malins, Mr.
Marshall, Mr. Jim
Robinson, Mr. Geoffrey
Sheridan, Jim
Vis, Dr.

 
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