Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Ms Buck: I beg to move amendment No. 152, in page 18, line 25, at end insert—

    '(3B) The Secretary of State shall make arrangements with local housing authorities, social services authorities, health and education authorities and other relevant agencies to promote the resettlement of those recognised as refugees under the Refugee Convention 1951, and those granted exceptional leave to remain in the United Kingdom.

    (3C) For the purposes of subsection (3B), resettlement may include assistance in securing accommodation, welfare benefits, health, community care and education services.'.

I shall be brief, because the amendment is designed only to ask the Minister for clarification about the arrangements that she has in mind for the permanent resettlement of asylum seekers who go through the accommodation centre process and are given leave to remain, with their place of residence being at the accommodation centre. As we know, successive asylum Acts—including, in different ways, both the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 and the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999—left it unclear which authority carries the responsibility for those who receive leave to remain, particularly concerning duties under the Housing Acts. That complication should be cleared up as soon as possible, so will she explain her thinking on the permanent resettlement arrangements?

Angela Eagle: I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend. We are working with other Departments, local government and non-governmental organisations to see how we can develop a more effective integration process. That is particularly important for those who leave accommodation centres and do not then live in the area in which they were accommodated. Part of the trial will help us to create circumstances that smooth the transition, and I would be the first to admit that the transition from asylum seeker to refugee status and

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from one system to the other is not perfect, as she will know from her casework.

My noble Friend Lord Rooker chairs the national refugee integration forum, which includes other Departments, local authorities and NGO representatives. It meets quarterly and has nine specialist sub-groups, which examine subjects such as health and education and meet eight times a year. We are beginning to create information, joint working and consideration of how we can best facilitate integration. The work is at a reasonably early stage, but it encompasses the spirit of the amendment, and I would prefer not to have the statutory obligation.

I assure my hon. Friend that the Government are already thinking along the lines of the spirit of the amendment. The work is at an early stage, and we can keep her informed of how it goes as the trials progress, but we have already identified that it is crucial that we develop a more effective transition from asylum seeker to refugee status for those who are successful in their claims.

Ms Buck: I thank the Minister for her reply and am happy with the tone and the expressed commitment to tackle what has been a problem. As we discussed when debating the citizenship arrangements, a process that should be positive for the refugees and their communities is often undermined by the fact that the arrangements are chaotic. People are sometimes left with no means of subsistence or any documents to prove their identity. I know that she is familiar with those and other problems.

I want to press the Minister on housing duty, because it is a particularly serious problem. Glancing at the list of areas in which planning permission may be sought for accommodation centres, most do not have low housing demand and we cannot immediately assume that people would be able to come out of an accommodation centre and be rehoused by the relevant housing authority in surplus accommodation. The housing pinch is most acute in London, and as housing is probably the single most important factor that impedes effective integration of refugees and asylum seekers, I would hate to see that pinch replicated. We will need to see how the people go through accommodation centres and become members of communities in which the Government are trying to make dispersal in the broader sense work. How will the specific statutory housing duty be applied?

Angela Eagle: I cannot tell my hon. Friend that ahead of the work on facilitating transition for those granted refugee status from accommodation centres—which do not yet exist—to the communities where they may wish to live. As she knows, once granted that status, refugees leave the dispersal system and can choose to live anywhere in the country. A different process will apply for accommodation centres than for dispersal in cluster areas. We are considering with other Departments and local authorities how best and most appropriately to facilitate that process. We are mindful of the issues, of which housing is one of the most important. I cannot give her a detailed breakdown of our intended procedure, but I am happy to keep her informed.

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Ms Buck: I wanted to test the Government's opinion. I appreciate that the problem has been recognised and is being considered. If housing duty is not grappled with, we could end up exacerbating homelessness, particularly across London and the south-east. I look forward to receiving further information from the Minister and beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: No. 119, in page 18, line 26, leave out 'subsection (5)' and insert 'subsections (5) and (6)'.—[Angela Eagle.]

Mr. Allan: I beg to move amendment No. 211, in page 18, line 36, at end insert—

    ''(4A) For the purposes of subsections (3) and (4) above a person does not have or cannot obtain adequate accommodation if he cannot pay the rent and similar charges for it or the Council Tax (if any) payable by the person or his dependant.''.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take new clause 13—Support for council tax—

    ''(1) Schedule 8 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 shall be amended by the insertion after paragraph 3 of the following—

    '(3A) The regulations shall make provision that the needs of a person to be taken into account by the Secretary of State when deciding—

    (a) if a person is destitute, and

    (b) if support is required to be provided,

    (c) the amount of support to be provided shall include the rent and similar charges and the Council Tax if any payable by the person or his dependant.'.

    (2) Schedule 9 to the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 shall be amended by the insertion after paragraph 7 of the following—

    '(7A) The regulations shall make provision that the needs of a person to be taken into account by the local authority when deciding

    (a) if a person is destitute, and

    (b) if support is required to be provided,

    (c) the amount of support to be provided shall include the rent and similar charges and the Council Tax if any payable by the person or his dependant.'.

    (3) The Secretary of State shall make provision by regulations made under Schedules 8 and 9 to the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 in respect of a qualifying person to be paid whether directly or indirectly for the Council Tax and any court or bailiff's costs in respect of the qualifying period.

    (4) In this section—

    (a) 'A qualifying person' is a person

    (i) who or whose dependant was liable to pay Council Tax in respect of a time when he was or ought to have been in receipt of support under section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999,

    (ii) whose needs to be met by the funder (subject to the resources of the person), as calculated by the funder did not include Council Tax, and

    (iii) where that person has not subsequently received Council Tax benefit in respect of that period.

    (b) 'The qualifying period' is the period or periods in relation to which the person was a qualifying person,

    (c) 'funder' is the Secretary of State in cases where the Secretary of State was the person supplying the support under section 95(1) and the relevant local authority when the support was supplied under section 95(13), and

    (d) 'section 95' means section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999.

    (5) This section shall come into force 7 days after the passing of this Act.''.

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Mr. Allan: We seek clarification on council tax. Our understanding is that an individual on income support receives housing benefit through the housing benefit system and council tax benefit through the council tax benefit system, while an asylum seeker under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 receives a living allowance at around 70 per cent of income support, has his rent paid directly and is exempt from council tax from 1 April 2000 if the accommodation was arranged for him under the provisions of section 95, which would classify him as class F under the exempt classes.

That provision should cover the situation, but we have had representations, particularly from Wandsworth and Merton law centre—although I understand that the problem is not confined to those boroughs—that some individuals are in accommodation found in ways other than under section 95: either under different provisions, or they found the accommodation themselves or there is some other reason why they are not under class F for exemptions.

Wandsworth and Merton law centre has come across a significant number of asylum seekers who are receiving support but who have been chased by bailiffs for recovery of council tax. There is a differential provision: some local authorities exercise a discretionary exemption; others have not applied it. The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux has reported this as a widespread problem in London.

We would be grateful for the Minister's clarification on asylum seekers' liability for council tax. It is clear that these individuals are living below income support level. It is not a question of gaining a status above those on income support. There should be sensible arrangements for resolving the council tax issue. It seems silly that local authorities are responsible for supporting individuals yet are effectively paying to chase them to recover money that they cannot pay.

Citizens advice bureaux and law centres want clarification, as they are seeing people who have breached the law and are being pursued by bailiffs because they have not paid their council tax. It would help those organisations if the position was clarified in the Bill and the local authorities had clearer directions, so that the council tax regime could be applied in a universal and sensible fashion to everyone receiving support under the asylum support system.

 
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