Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Mr. Malins: I shall conclude my remarks by saying that I remain disappointed. The Minister would not budge, even when I suggested that, because there would be the exceptional case in which someone would stay longer, it might be helpful to have an amendment saying that the stay should be no longer than three months save in exceptional circumstances. The Government are putting forward too many reasons for doing nothing. Doing nothing is not an option.

At this rate, I have extremely high hopes that the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North will vote with the official Opposition on a number of matters. On Tuesday when I moved an amendment, she said that she had some sympathy with my point. Today she said that she had a great deal of sympathy with this amendment. It can only go one way.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 9.

Division No. 4]

AYES
Barker, Mr. Gregory Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl
Malins, Mr. Humfrey Watkinson, Angela

NOES
Buck, Ms Karen Eagle, Angela Gapes, Mike Lammy, Mr. David Lazarowicz, Mr. Mark
McGuire, Mrs. Anne Prosser, Mr. Gwyn Rooney, Mr. Terry Winterton, Ms Rosie

Question accordingly negatived.

Simon Hughes: I beg to move amendment No. 169, in page 9, line 25, leave out paragraph (d).

This brings us on to subsections (2) and (3). Subsection (2) reads:

    ''The Secretary of State may make regulations about procedure to be followed in respect of the provision of accommodation under this section.''

There is nothing wrong with that. Subsection (3) lists six categories of activity that can be subject to those regulations. Five—(a), (b), (c), (e) and (f)—seem unexceptional and unproblematic. They deal with applying for accommodation; providing for one application to be combined with an application in relation to another piece of legislation; requiring an applicant to provide information; the way in which the Secretary of State makes inquiries; and requiring a person to notify the Secretary of State of a change in circumstances. Those five categories imply that the Secretary of State would expect people to apply formally to go to accommodation centres. Is that the intention or would the Government usually allocate them without a formal application?

Subsection (3)(d) is clearly the most controversial and worrying. The amendment, which is a probing amendment, would remove it. Under subsection (3)(d), the regulations make provision

    ''specifying circumstances in which an application may not be considered''.

We want to know what those circumstances are. It is an obvious point. We are in agreement about the principle that someone in an accommodation centre is

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in the same category as someone who is being supported. We shall soon move on to debate the link between accommodation and financial support and whether it still applies for people in dispersal out in the community. Amendments have been tabled to deal with that. Will the Minister explain the Government's intentions and whether subsection (3)(d) is necessary?

Angela Eagle: I hope that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman fairly quickly. The amendment would prevent the Secretary of State from specifying in regulations the circumstances in which an application for asylum may not be considered. The regulations specify the circumstances in which someone can apply for asylum support, and they can do so if they are destitute. The Secretary of State then allocates them to an accommodation centre or to the National Asylum Support Service for dispersal. The test of destitution is the same. The removal of the paragraph would prevent us from specifying that a particular application form should be used. It is as simple as that to apply for support. It is important administratively that people apply in the same way, so that applications can be processed effectively. There are no other implications. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, having probed our intentions, will withdraw the amendment.

Simon Hughes: If that is all that the provision is intended to do, it is perfectly reasonable. It was proper to ask the question through the probing amendment.

It is important to have two safeguards. First, for all legislation, we like to see the draft regulations as soon as possible. Will the Minister tell us—if not in this debate, on clause stand part—how soon we can expect to examine the draft regulations? I put down a marker by saying that we should be able to see them at the end of proceedings in Committee at the latest. We should have a chance to reflect before we meet on Report.

Secondly, when we reach the procedure for agreeing to regulations, which embraces affirmative and negative resolution, I hope that the Minister accepts that the affirmative rather than the negative procedure should apply to a subject as controversial as nationality, asylum and immigration claims.

Angela Eagle: I accept that regulations should be available for consideration as soon as possible. The particular regulations that apply here are not expected to be vastly different from those already operating, particularly regarding application for asylum. The Bill is unlikely to change that process. The difference comes with the allocation of people to accommodation centres rather than to National Asylum Support Service accommodation. The regulations are purely administrative, dealing with how to apply for asylum, what forms are appropriate and how quickly they should be submitted. We do not anticipate great changes in respect of the new procedures that will come into force when the Bill becomes an Act. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

Simon Hughes: It is partly reassuring. Let me raise one last point before seeking leave to withdraw the amendment. Other colleagues may have heard a discussion this morning on the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and when a resignation is not a resignation. In it, there

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was also some discussion of plain English, which brings me to the fact that the clause is confusing. The Under-Secretary and her civil servants should look at it, as it appears to mix applications for support and for accommodation, which is a drafting matter.

The clause is headed

    ''Support for destitute asylum-seeker''.

Subsection (3) starts:

    ''The regulations may, in particular, make provision—

    (a) specifying procedure to be followed in applying for accommodation in an accommodation centre'',

which clearly does not mean support in the financial sense. The Under-Secretary said that, under subsection (3)(d), an application may not be considered if it is not on the right forms, but that seems to apply to applications for support.

As I understand the Under-Secretary's comments—this has always been my understanding—asylum seekers will not apply to go to accommodation centres. Unless there has been a policy change, the procedure is not like booking a hotel, when people fill in a form and Saga Holidays arranges for them to go to the Isle of Wight. The clause seems to refer to two sorts of application and it moves from one to the other without it being clear which is which.

Angela Eagle: I accept the hon. Gentleman's desire, which we all share, for plain English in legislation. I am not sure whether we always manage to produce plain English, and I suspect that he has found an example of where have not. It might be reasonable to conclude from subsection (3)(a) that there will be a choice of whether to go into NASS accommodation or an accommodation centre, but there will not be. The accommodation allocation procedures will not involve asylum seekers being able to choose, just as there is no choice in the current system. The criteria used will include, for example, the port of arrival. Clearly, I shall pass his comments to parliamentary counsel.

Simon Hughes: In opposition, one sometimes contents oneself with small victories in Committee. It is obviously better that we make the Bill clear for those who will use it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Simon Hughes: I have three points to make. First, the Under-Secretary and other colleagues will have noticed that I did not vote with the Conservatives on the three-month provision. I hope that the reasons were obvious, but let me put them on the record. Although a three-month period is a wonderful aspiration, in reality it is too short and the advice that we have collected is that six months would be reasonable. I did not press the relevant amendment, because time is tight, and I am sure that we shall return to these matters on Report. It is also a pretty good bet that colleagues at the other end of the building will take particular interest in the issue. They will be more resolute in pressing amendments on time and more able to have them accepted. It is therefore better to save our collective energies for later.

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Secondly, the Under-Secretary rightly mentioned the improved processes for regulating those who advise people. I am grateful for the work of John Scampion and his colleagues, and my staff have been to their meetings. However, let me put one additional point in the Under-Secretary's mind. I am concerned that the Law Society has defended the current arrangements, under which solicitors who offer immigration advice and assistance need not be approved and confirmed. It is right that advisers, who are not practising solicitors, must be approved, and we have got rid of a lot of shady characters who collected money for providing very inadequate or, indeed, no services.

I understand that those who have qualified as a solicitor can hold themselves to practise immigration law, just as they can practise any other form of law. My day-to-day experience is that solicitors in some firms are still as poor in this field as people who are not qualified. Although there are some very good solicitors, in my surgeries and casework I regularly have to rescue people from poor solicitors and tell them not to use those persons any more. I say that they should ask for their money back and go to another firm or a not-for-profit non-governmental organisation, which would give them better advice. The problem is that those organisations are weighed down with work and under pressure. Will the Minister consider that issue? The Law Society has a vested interest in saying, ''Of course we must be perfect, but we can regulate ourselves.'' I have never been quite of that view.

 
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