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Mr. Oaten: I understand that what the Minister has described would not fall foul of human rights provisions, but if the Government are planning to put in place some sort of penalty for failure to carry out the community work, would that not risk failing to comply with those provisions?
Mr. Browne: I shall come on to that as I develop my arguments, but I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his recognition that some of the more extravagant ways of describing what the Government are trying to do here do not apply. I am grateful for his implied concession that this sort of activity could not be described as forced labour.
I reiterate that this requirement is not a punishment. It forms part of a wider policy of encouraging the ethos of "something for something" and encouraging people to be active contributors to the community in which they live, rather than just seeing itor, more importantly, being seen to do soas a resource to be drawn down from. Participation in community activities is merely another way in which someone gives something back to society in return for society giving something to thema long-held principle of social provision in this country. We consider that to require some contribution of failed asylum seekers along the lines proposed does not go beyond what could readily be characterised as a normal and entirely reasonable obligation, so it does not fall within the scope of article 4(2).
In fact, I do not think that we should automatically assume, as some have, that the measure will be entirely unwelcome. Some have assumed that, since many in this groupfailed asylum seekers seeking section 4
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supportwill, by definition, shortly be leaving the UK, they will have no interest in benefiting the community by participating in such activities. However, I know that the point has already been made forcefully in the other place that they surely do have an interest in occupying themselves purposefully while they remain here.
As I have already indicated, there will be a deal of flexibility in the way that failed asylum seekers are able to fulfil the obligation to contribute, and we will be consulting refugee groups on how to provide opportunities that utilise the specific skills that failed asylum seekers might have, such that the work that they do will be both more fulfilling for them and more productive for the community. Of course, the fundamental point is that, if the taxpayer is prepared to pay for their board and lodging during this period, it is right that something be given in return. I see no reason why that principle should not be respected. I assure hon. Members that I am coming on to deal with withdrawal of support.
Mr. Malins: Before moving on from the Joint Committee report, will the Minister tell us who advised the Committee that there was a significant risk of a breach of human rights provisions? Who advised the Government that they were wrong?
Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman knows fine well that the Government do not reveal their sources or the content of their legal advice. He has been fingering a copy of the Joint Committee report for some time. If he looks through it, he will see that the staff of the Committee, including specialists and others, are free to take advice from any source that they want. I know that when I was a member of the Committee, it took standing advice from an eminent academic lawyer in the field of human rights, and I suspect that it still has such advice.
It is not for me to identify the source, however. Those who have the report can read it for themselves. [Interruption.] I practised law for 25 years before I came to this place and I practised much litigation in the courts, as an advocate and solicitor, without having to resort to accusing people who were arguing a different point of view from mine of being wrong. Lawyers are well able to argue their position and tell others to decide which position they prefer. In this place, too, we do not resort in the main to that sort of argumentation. There are different points of view here. The Government have a point of view. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has a point of viewand there is continuing dialogue between the Government and that Committee. The Government put their position forward and, ultimately, this place is the court of decision and those who go through the Division Lobbies are the judges.
Jeremy Corbyn: A few minutes ago, the Minister mentioned the International Labour Organisation conventions. In the consultation exercise, will he consult the ILO, and if its opinion is that what the Government are doing is outwith its declarations, will the Government decide not to proceed to regulate?
To get back to the withdrawal of support, amendment (e) would insert a provision for the Secretary of State to prescribe the circumstances that constitute a breach of a requirement to participate in community activities. Again, as I said, that was discussed in another place and correspondence passed between Baroness Scotland and myself in which we set out the procedure we envisage before support is withdrawn.
We do not consider that the amendment is necessary. The new clause already allows the Secretary of State to set out in regulations the circumstances in which failure to comply with a condition of support under section 4 would lead to termination of support, which clearly passed the hon. Member for Woking by when he compiled his remarks. We have spelled out how we envisage the process working before support is withdrawn.
It is important to stress that we are not looking for ways to make people destitute. If we believe it appropriate, a failed asylum seeker will be issued with a warning and reminded of the requirement to perform community activities as a condition of receiving support and reminded of the consequences of failing to do so. Failure to participate again after the warning will lead to termination of support unless, of course, there is a reasonable excuse for not participating again. We will clearly need to consider all the circumstances of individual cases, but I hope that it is clear that we are not looking to terminate support automatically without first assessing the reasons for a failure to comply.
I should emphasise again that people who are unable to participate in community activity will not be required to do so. It follows, therefore, that if a person's circumstances change, or if he is unwell, we would review whether he should be expected to continue the activity. We would not terminate support without first having examined fully the reasons for a person's failing to comply with the conditions. These basic principles will be provided for in greater detail in the regulations made under amended section 4, specifically under the regulation-making power contained in new subsection (5).
The new clause also provides for a new right of appeal to the asylum support adjudicator against a decision by the Secretary of State to terminate support and against a decision by the Secretary of State not to provide support in the first place. That is an important safeguard, making our overall approach to support under section 4 more robust.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) asked why we do not just let these people work. There is a clear answer to that. It is imperative that we maintain the distinction between immigration and asylum. People who want to come and work in the UK can do so provided that they qualify for entry under one of the managed migration routes designed for that purpose. It is simply wrong to blur the boundaries between immigration and asylum. It risks confusing in the public eye two utterly distinct policies with completely different aims. The very people who argue that we should do that for this purpose also argue that the tabloid press should not be allowed to do it for their purposes.
Confusing the two policies is unfair to genuine economic migrants, who have to satisfy strict conditions and have no recourse to the support that is offered to
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asylum seekers. It encourages people who are, in fact, economic migrants to enter unfounded asylum claims, knowing that they will be able to combine such a claim with continuing to work as long as they remain in the country. That would clog up the asylum system to the detriment of genuine refugees, placing an unfair burden on the taxpayer and undermining social cohesion. The Government will do nothing that has that consequence.
Those urging a different approach might also want to consider the practicalities. By definition, members of the group will return to their own countries. It is not obvious that it is helpful to them or to potential employers for them to be encouraged to find paid employment.
I want to add a brief word on the rest of the new clause and, in particular, on amendment (c), which would remove new subsection (6)(b). The subsection enables the Secretary of State to provide for the continuation of the provision of accommodation to be subject to conditions other than the requirement to perform community activities, which is referred to in new subsection (6)(a). The intention is that the Secretary of State sets out in regulations the existing criteria, which I referred to earlier, under which section 4 support is provided.
It is right to place the existing conditions for section 4 support on a statutory basis. At the moment, to qualify for, and continue to qualify for, support under section 4, individuals must have been supported by the National Asylum Support Service or a local authority, have exhausted their rights of appeal, be destitute and have no other avenue of support. They must then have fulfilled one of the five eligibility criteria, which are that the failed asylum seeker must have been given permission to proceed with a judicial review of the decision to refuse asylum, must have been unable to leave because no viable route of return is available, must have been complying with arrangements to obtain a travel document, or must have been unable to leave the UK because of illness or late pregnancy; or there must otherwise have been wholly exceptional or compassionate circumstances. The conditions will be spelled out in the regulations themselves, which, as I have explained, will have been the product of consultation and made subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. We cannot agree, therefore, that amendment (c) is necessary.
In summary, people in receipt of support under section 4 have no right to remain in the UK. We support them while arrangements are made for their return or if it is not possible for them to return home because of circumstances generally outside their control. However, we and they must recognise that there is a cost to the taxpayer for providing that support. Those failed asylum seekers who can participate in community activities need to recognise that they should contribute to the cost by giving something in return while they are waiting to return home.
I was asked whether other countries do the same thing. Some require asylum seekers to get involved in activities in, for example, reception centres, so the requirement is not unusual. The Government view it as a fair and reasonable requirement, an important reinforcement to the clarity and fairness of the overall asylum system, and an important part of our overall approach to social cohesion.
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People rightly want reassurance that asylum is being managed properly. The measures in the Bill, building on our success in reducing the number of asylum applications by more than 60 per cent. over the past 18 months, are all helping to achieve that. Requiring people whose asylum claims have failed to give something back to society while it is supporting them is an important and not unreasonable part of this overall strategy.
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