Reception of Asylum Applicants

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Mr. Malins: It all comes back to me. I apologise to the Minister. What I should have said was that that was quite a brief debate, in which we did not cover things in much depth. However, for me to have forgotten the ministerial response is unforgivable.

Beverley Hughes: The hon. Gentleman is very generous. If he looks in Hansard, he will see that I was trying to explain that we have methods and

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mechanisms in the UK for enforcing housing standards. They apply as much to dispersed accommodation and other forms of accommodation for asylum seekers as to other housing.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the potential to withdraw support for breaching conditions and his concern that a breach might, of itself, influence the process and judgment of an application. I want to assure him, as my ministerial predecessor did in Committee, that we must allow for the possibility that someone's behaviour might be such that it is relevant to an application. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would acknowledge that if, for example, someone committed a serious criminal offence, such as a sexual crime, that would be relevant to the consideration of a claim for asylum. I am not saying that that would have to determine that claim, but it would be relevant.

Mr. Malins: How?

Beverley Hughes: If the nature of the behaviour were so serious and contravened the laws of the country, it would have to be set alongside the evidence that a person put forward for their application. Clearly, behaviour such as that which the hon. Gentleman had in mind—arguments among people in an accommodation centre and difficulties of that nature—of course would not and should not be relevant.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe for mentioning the final point that the hon. Member for Woking made about feeling rather impotent, if I may use that term, in this process because he has not had an opportunity to influence the content of the UK position and what we have taken to the negotiating table. I said in my opening remarks that responses from the parent Committee in particular, and from other Members, have been influential on the position that we have taken with other member states.

On article 5(2), I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe about ''may'', having looked again and seen the words ''where appropriate''. I shall take that back as a drafting point to see whether there is agreement on changing it. On voluntary work, I can tell my hon. Friend that we intend, in the accommodation centre trials, to encourage interaction between accommodation centre residents and local residents, as I think we have made clear. We envisage that part of that could be voluntary work by asylum seekers. Whether it is quite right to include that in a document setting down minimum standards for all member states is another question, but it is certainly something that we want to develop in the UK.

Mr. Hopkins: The statistics about which I was concerned before were on employment in particular. Will my hon. Friend undertake to try to find out the extent to which asylum seekers work in other member states and make real comparisons between them and us? I am concerned about that and think, personally, that the more asylum seekers can work, the better they

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will be integrated into the societies to which they have moved.

Beverley Hughes: I shall certainly see if I can put together some information to give my hon. Friend a picture of the situation in that regard across member states. I remind him of the comment that I made in my opening remarks; whether employment is a pull factor plays differently in different member states. We must bear that in mind. There will be variants, relating to the different conditions already persisting in those countries.

On the difference between articles 16 and 15, the feeling from the working groups suggested that anything life threatening—my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe mentioned cancer—should be covered. My hon. Friend is right to point to those differences in standards for health care. We must also recognise that member states need to be able to withdraw support when necessary. I have accepted that there is potential for the term ''essential medical treatment'' to be interpreted differently when dealing with a situation over and above the threshold relating to things that are life threatening. However, I hope that I can assure my hon. Friend that so far as emergency treatment and anything that threatens life is concerned, all member states are bound to meet the minimum standards.

My hon. Friend the member for Broxtowe also asked about the potential violation of the ECHR. We should not pretend—I would not try to—that people would not be affected by the withdrawal of support. My hon. Friend read out remarks made by my ministerial predecessor and seemed to be saying that the Government did not believe that the extent to which people would be affected would engage article 3 of the document, which relates to the level of destitution. If that were the case in any member state, it could be challenged under the convention.

My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North clearly set out the aims of the directive in his introductory remarks. The directive will ensure minimum standards that can be built on over time and will harmonise standards to reduce secondary migration and the need for people to feel that they must migrate to yet another country. I can assure him that full account has been taken of Committee members' comments. We are also involved in a process outside Parliament, in which we are negotiating to reach an agreement with other member states; there will be a need for compromise, notwithstanding our having taken careful regard of the views of Members of both Houses of Parliament.

I thank the Committee for an interesting and informative debate. Members have today, as before, raised pertinent and important questions. I shall reply to those hon. Members to whom made I such a commitment. The key questions about the directive are these; how much do we need to harmonise and how far does the directive achieve that? In today's discussion, hon. Members have implicitly—sometimes explicitly—accepted that setting minimum standards and having harmonisation as an objective are worthwhile aims.

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As regards how far the directive will go, I said at the outset that the proposal is a first step and will require some member states to make significant changes to their current procedures; that will be positive and will raise standards. It is only a first step and will not have a significant effect without the other minimum standard measures that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary called for during a recent sitting of Home Affairs Committee.

The measures will form the first stage of what we all acknowledge is important; a common European asylum system. I am grateful to Committee members for their contribution to the debate and to helping the UK Government to secure that objective.

The Chairman: Before I put the question, I thank Committee members for their forbearance during our

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problems with the new recording system. I also thank the Officials of the House who ensured that the Committee could continue.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 8351/02, draft Council Directive laying down minimum standards for the reception of applicants for asylum in Member States; supports the Governments efforts to secure agreement on a Council Directive for reception conditions for asylum applicants which will promote a balance in the provision of reception arrangements throughout the Union; and notes the Government's commitment to secure agreement to the asylum measures within the time period envisage by the Treaty of Amsterdam.

Committee rose at half-past Six o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Atkinson, Mr. Peter (Chairman)
Barrett, John
Cairns, David
Farrelly, Paul
Griffiths, Jane
Hopkins, Mr.
Johnson, Mr. Boris
Palmer, Dr.
Picking, Anne
Tami, Mark
Walter, Mr. Robert
Wilkinson, Mr.

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(5):
Caplin, Mr. Ivor (Hove)
Clark, Paul (Gillingham)
Gillan, Mrs. Cheryl (Chesham and Amersham)
Hughes, Beverley (Minister for Citizenship and Immigration)
Malins, Mr. Humfrey (Woking)

 
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Prepared 17 June 2002