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Damian Green: I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wish to speak principally to amendment (b), which stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), but I also wish to comment on the arguments of the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard).
As our amendment is carefully modelled on amendment No. 6, which has been agreed between the two Front Benches in another place, I have high hopes that the Minister will accept it. He will agree that the argument over vouchers is a delicate one. I have been following his correspondence in various newspapers with those who are flatly against his scheme and his argument that it will not make much difference and will not be a voucher scheme. He has clearly failed to convince the hon. Member for Walthamstow, among others. I am sure that the House will be waiting to hear how he deals with that issue.
Although I do not agree with all the arguments of the hon. Member for Walthamstow, he raises valid points, particularly as regards people from Zimbabwe, who are in a very difficult situation. The Government, rightly, do not wish to return them to Zimbabwe even if they have failed in their application for asylum. That gives rise to practical problems as to how they are to continue living in a decent and civilised way in this country.
One of the questions that the Government have not answered adequately concerns the cost of such a voucher scheme. They have tried voucher schemes before and scrapped them before. A previous Home Secretary conceded that the voucher scheme that operated previously was unworkable and unfair. Having come to that conclusion once, it is incumbent on the Minister to explain why the current scheme is going to be workable and fair and, while he does so, what, in broad terms, he thinks that the costs will be.
That question may be impossible to answer because the Government have no idea of how long many people will be forced to wait until they can be returned to their
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own country. As the hon. Member for Walthamstow pointed out, the phrase, "about to leave", is a term of art that appears to cover not just days or weeks but in some cases months and years. Clearly, a system designed to cope with the needs of those who may be here for a few weeks will not serve those who might be here for years. The hon. Member for Walthamstow and the Refugee Council have made that point, which is central to the argument.
Nevertheless, I should make it clear that Conservative Members have no objection in principle to vouchers, provided that the system is workable and fair. However, we recognise the possibility of inefficiency and waste, which may lead to hardship for some vulnerable people. We have tabled amendment (b) to Lords amendment No. 18 in the hope that it gives the Government a decent escape route, not least from the criticism that the Minister is receiving from Labour Members. I am sure that he sincerely believes that the voucher system will not cause the unfairness and hardship that some Labour Members claim, so the Government should, at the very least, enable Parliament to receive a full report on its working in three years.
If the Minister will listen, I am about to praise him. A few moments ago, he made a sensible comment about parliamentary scrutiny and using the Bill to enhance Parliament's ability to revisit legislation that it has passed. He was right to say that the lack of that ability is a common failing of our legislation. That is why amendment (b) tries to give hon. Members the opportunity to debate whether the new system causes genuine hardship and to have the Government justify their actions if they need justification. The terms of the amendment allow that to happen earlier if there is an immediate crisis or if the Government want a convenient vehicle to enable them to change the policy.
Even if the scheme proves perfectly practical and the Government want to continue with it, the requirement to report back on its day-to-day workings will act as a spur to Ministers to check what is happening. The Minister knows that many bodies that object to that sort of scheme concentrate precisely on which shops can take the vouchers and the range of goods to which they apply. The nitty-gritty, day-to-day details will make the difference in some cases between fairness and unfairness and hardship and lack of hardship.
I agree with the Minister that reporting back on the scheme is important. I hope, therefore, that he will accept the amendment in the constructive spirit in which it is offered. The long-term solution is not to have a system that keeps thousands of people in limbo for years. Since that happy prospect is many years away, I commend amendment (b) to the House, as a modest improvement to managing the current failing system, and I hope that it will satisfy hon. Members from all sides of the debate.
I commend the passionate and articulate speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), who has spent many years considering the relevant issues. Few of us have as much experience as he. The way in which he presented the argument was correct.
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The amendment is about the practical implications of the scheme. I am against the voucher scheme and I commend the trade unions who fought so hard to get the Government to reverse their decision to reintroduce vouchers. We did not need to reintroduce them, but they are there. The Government will not be pilloried in the Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday or The Sun if they give in on the point. That is sometimes a consideration for those in government, though happily not the Minister.
Amendment (a) will cover the practical complaints that have been made to me in my surgery by many hundreds of people who provide anecdotal evidence of what they face when they use the vouchers. I have never been in a supermarket queue when someone has had to produce those vouchersindeed, I have never seen one. However, like other hon. Members, I hear every Friday about the practical difficulties that people face. Treating people as human beings, with dignity, is important, especially given the current climate.
I appear on a website that states that I am a Member of Parliament who hardly ever rebels and that I am a serial loyalist. However, I shall support my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow if he presses amendment (a) to a Division and, if he does not, any party that wishes to do that. In all conscience, it is the right thing to do.
Mr. Heath: I, too, welcome the speech made by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), which he pitched exactly right. Lords amendment No. 18, which forms the basis for this group of amendments, is a welcome move. It extends the provision of support and, in normal circumstances, we would be hanging out the flags for that reason. Unfortunately, however, the provision is flawed by the decision to offer that support only through the voucher system. We know what vouchers do; we have gone through all that already.
The Government have made it clear that the voucher system, when used for a large number of people, was ineffective and uneconomic and, more importantly, that it had a serious effect on the recipients in terms not only of the range of opportunities that it offered for buying goods and services but of the stigmatising effect that it had on the individuals presenting the vouchers in a local shop or business. That presents considerable dangers for community relations, because it clearly labels people
Mr. Heath: Yes, and we are against it existing now, but it does. I have not said, as some have done, that this provision would be a reintroduction of the system. We know that it is not a reintroduction but an extension. However, we now have the opportunity to provide a better route for the growing number of people who are in this position. I accept the contention that they will be leaving the country after a short period, but the practical fact is that sometimes they do not. We have to accept that they are often stuck here for a considerable amount of time, for reasons beyond their or the Government's control.
I am struck by the modesty of the proposal of the hon. Member for Walthamstow, to which my hon. Friends and I are happy to put our names. It would not require the Minister to move to a cash system; it would simply
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give him the opportunity to do so. The alternative amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) would provide some benefit in that it would allow the situation to be monitored and reported on, but it would not provide a vehicle for the Government to change their mind in the face of the evidence that had been collected. There would be no primary legislative ability in the Act to enable the provision of cash rather than vouchersindeed, that is specifically prohibited by the Bill. If the hon. Member for Ashford feels that his amendment is sensible, in that it gives the Government the ability to reflect on the performance of the scheme, he should logically also support amendment (a), which would give the Minister the capacity in primary legislation to correct any error in order to meet the requirements.
I hope that the hon. Member for Walthamstow will press his amendment to a Division, because this is an important issue of principle on which the House should have a voice. If he does not wish to do so, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I make it clear that we do? We shall object to any proposal to withdraw the amendment and we shall seek the opinion of the House on this matter, because it is a matter of principle. It relates to how we should deal effectively and humanely with people who are in our care in this country, and this is not an argument that we should run away from.
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