Reception of Asylum Applicants

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Beverley Hughes: I have already mentioned access to employment. The standards set down in the directive will require some member states to change their practices. Luxembourg and Italy do not allow asylum seekers access to the labour market at any stage of the application, but they will be forced to change that. France allows access to employment only in exceptional circumstances. However, in practice, asylum seekers are not granted permission to work. So, France, too, will have to change its employment procedures.

There are several examples in the area of support. Greece does not provide all asylum applicants with material reception conditions, as the directive terms them. It allows people to work but does not support them. Under the reception directive, it will have to support them. In Italy, accommodation is not always available to asylum applicants. The reception directive requires all asylum applicants to be provided with some form of accommodation. In Spain, where applicants are not supported for the first two months, there will have to be support from day one. Those are substantial improvements in those countries.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): Following the example of employment that the Minister gave, is it her understanding that the measures also cover access to voluntary work? One issue that has arisen in Britain is that asylum seekers would like to make a contribution in that way, but understand that they are unable to access even voluntary work.

Beverley Hughes: The directives do not mention voluntary work per se. They refer to vocational

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training and include a permissive power for member states to grant asylum seekers access to that. However, voluntary work is not specifically mentioned, so we are told neither one thing nor the other.

Mr. Malins: On secondary migration, does the Minister really believe that the new measures will have an effect and, if so, why?

Beverley Hughes: The directives alone will not stop secondary migration, because applicants move from one country to another in pursuit of an asylum claim for many reasons. The directives relate to matters such as access to employment and the support that is given during the application process. People might want to move for other reasons: to be near family or a more sizeable community of people from the same country of origin, for example. The directives will not necessarily have an impact when applicants' motives are not related to the issues addressed in them. None the less, they are a good start in moving towards harmonisation of such factors.

We know that in many instances such factors make a difference. There is evidence that they are significant for some asylum seekers, and in those cases they will have an impact. The directive on reception conditions needs to be seen alongside the other directives that are being introduced. There is greater potential for the package as a whole to have an impact on secondary migration, but the proposed measures are an important first step that gives us a foundation on which to build.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde): On several occasions the documents state that accelerated procedures that apply in other EU countries do not apply here, exempting us from the application of a particular point. Will the Minister tell us what those accelerated procedures in other EU countries amount to and why we do not have them?

Beverley Hughes: If I remember correctly, that matter is related to situations in some countries where people can be dealt with at a border by means of a fast-track process. We do not have such a system here because our circumstances are different. People do not cross borders to arrive here; they do so in a different way. As my hon. Friend says, that situation does not arise in our system. In any case, the references to a different set of conditions for accelerated procedures in EU states, where they exist, appeared in an earlier draft of the documents and have been removed.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Why do we have to wait for Eurodac to come on line in 2003 or the Dublin II convention to be implemented? Is the Minister not aware that the Dublin convention is a cause of the great burden placed on the United Kingdom in providing adequate standards for would-be refugees? For example, the schooling of unaccompanied refugee children costs my borough £1.5 million extra per annum. Is she sanguine that we can secure an improvement on the Dublin convention? At present, it operates on a pass-the-parcel basis.

Beverley Hughes: I am reasonably confident because there is a great deal of momentum not just in this

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country but in other European countries for revising and reforming the Dublin convention. Across the board, people in different member states acknowledge and agree that it is not working. We have heard several pronouncements recently from France and other countries that we need to reform that measure and ensure that it works effectively. In so far as there is commitment and motivation, without which we would not get agreement, there is every reason to be optimistic that we will find a way forward.

Dr. Palmer: Further to the Minister's helpful response to my earlier question, will she consider encouraging our negotiators in the final stages to explore whether a lower minimum standard might be introduced to allow people access to voluntary work, perhaps after six months?

Beverley Hughes: I will take some advice on that and write to my hon. Friend.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West): Does the Minister believe that the equalising of minimum standards will reduce secondary migration within the EU? Will there be pressure to reduce minimum standards when enlargement of the EU is discussed?

Beverley Hughes: No. Everybody has agreed on the minimum standards in the directive. They are the result of negotiation and some commentators already feel that undesirable compromises were made on one or two of them. The pressure is not to reduce the standards further but rather to use them as a foundation on which to raise standards and harmonise more closely the reception conditions in the EU.

Dr. Palmer: Article 16 deals with the difficult issue of how to discourage people from breaching the terms under which they are temporarily housed while awaiting a decision. Article 16(3) says:

    ''Member States shall under all circumstances ensure access to emergency health care.''

On the other hand, article 15, which deals with general health care, refers to

    ''necessary health care which shall include, at least, emergency care and essential treatment of illness.''

Taken together, that means that article 16 allows member states to withdraw care for essential treatment of illness.

Will the Minister give an example of the distinction made between emergency health care and ''essential treatment for illness''? I imagine that emergency health care would refer to the sort of incident in which someone was knocked down by a bus, when we would not refuse to treat them. Presumably, chemotherapy treatment for cancer would qualify as ongoing, essential health care. Does the Minister agree that there would be widespread concern if member states penalised applicants for breaching a condition by, for example, withdrawing chemotherapy for cancer?

Beverley Hughes: My hon. Friend is right and perceptive to point out that there is a difference between the minimum standard of health care set down by the directive under the titles ''Health care'' and ''Reduction or withdrawal of reception conditions''. I accept that the term ''essential

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treatment'' will inevitably enable a degree of interpretation and discretion and that the interpretation may vary in different member states.

There is potential for variance in essential medical treatment, but emergency health care will always be provided. As a result of the negotiations that have taken place so far, it has been accepted that if a medical practitioner validates that treatment is essential, the member state must provide that essential treatment. There will be a rubric over the opinion of the medical practitioner; the matter will not be decided in a non-medical or arbitrary fashion so that a member state can simply deny treatment.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): The Scrutiny Committee's report has a conclusion in paragraph 3.10, which opens with the sentence:

    ''We cannot share the Government's optimism about this draft Directive.''

Given the in-built Government majority on the Committee, that is condemnation indeed. However, I shall try to share the Government's optimism for the moment.

In aiming to create a level playing field throughout the European Union, what assessment has the Home Office made, in numerical terms or percentages, of the likely dispersal of new asylum seekers across the EU? Does the Minister anticipate that those seeking entry into the United Kingdom will decrease in preference to other member states?

Beverley Hughes: Given that the United Kingdom experiences a substantial effect from secondary migration, and subject to the qualifications that I have already set outóthat the directive will not have total impact until other directives have come on-line and Dublin II has been negotiatedówe expect the measures to have considerable impact. I cannot translate that into actual numbers at this point, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we have received estimates, that we shall monitor asylum applications carefully and make some judgment about the impact of the directive.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): I am grateful for the helpful answers that the Minister has given so far, but I am suffering from an information vacuum. We have few statistics from other member states on the provision that they make for accommodation, benefits and employment levels among asylum seekers. Will my hon. Friend the Minister undertake to acquire some figures that would provide us with a measure on which we could base our judgments?

 
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Prepared 17 June 2002