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The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish): Perhaps I may start by reminding the Committee what council housing and housing association housing is for. It is a valuable asset. It is there for people who are here on a long-term basis, including people who have been here all their lives, and their fathers, grandfathers and so on before them. It is for their use and, if they are allocated such a house, it gives them a tenancy of a house gained for life. The person who gains tenancy can stay there for as long as he wants. He also acquires succession rights whereby he can pass the tenancy on to a close relative, and certain rights of assignment. He can exchange the property with another tenant elsewhere; and, thanks to this Government's legislation, he can acquire the right to buy that property.
So the Government are concerned that such housing should go to those with clearly established long-term needs--people who have the right to remain in this country indefinitely. I was slightly puzzled by what the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, said. He seemed to cast doubts on the last point that I made: that people who have a right to remain in this country indefinitely will be entitled to apply for and receive local authority housing and housing association housing. For example, people who have been granted asylum, who have exceptional leave to remain or who have leave to remain on a long-term basis will not be affected by the proposals before the Committee this afternoon. The classes of immigrants whom we propose to exclude from council housing are listed in the papers before the Committee. We state clearly--
Earl Russell: I am grateful to the Minister for the assurance about people with exceptional leave to remain. However, am I correct that the vires permit subsequent Secretaries of State to disentitle those people under future regulations?
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am used to the noble Earl showing extreme suspicion of future Secretaries of State. It is the normal line of argument that he takes whenever secondary legislation is considered. However, the issue is more complicated than he usually suggests. As he knows, governments cannot just use secondary legislation for any old thing.
Most of the groups whom we propose to exclude from entitlement to social housing are already excluded from other forms of social assistance. There is no reason they should be entitled to housing created with public assistance, particularly when there are people with settled residence seeking such housing. That applies equally to immigrants here on limited leave and asylum seekers. I remind the Committee, from speeches I have made on the subject before, that only a tiny proportion of asylum seekers--less than 8 per cent.--are granted full refugee status. Double that number are granted exceptional leave to remain. However, I underline the point that, if those two groups are granted leave to remain, they then acquire the same rights to council housing as people with settled residence. If I heard him correctly, I fear that that is something which the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, did not appreciate. I hope that I have been able to reassure him on the point.
We do not have a comprehensive picture of the distribution of people with limited leave across the country, but if we look at the most visible subset--asylum seekers--we find that the vast majority, probably 90 per cent., are in the London area. That is precisely the part of the country where housing pressures are greatest and waiting times for council housing longest. For established residents to see temporary immigrants--people who are here for only a short time and who have not been given asylum or exceptional leave to remain--being allocated permanent social housing is not fair.
We spend a great deal of money on housing. The Government have this year invested about £2 billion in the creation of new housing and the improvement of existing stock. The expenditure should go to help the housing position of the established population. That includes people from abroad who come here and have leave to remain. But it should not include those who do not have leave to remain in the longer term. That is the important point.
The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, drew the Committee's attention to the forthcoming Housing Bill and asked how this Bill's provisions relate to it. First, it is naturally an immigration issue rather than a housing issue. Secondly, the Housing Bill extends only to England and Wales, but we wish these provisions to operate on a UK-wide basis. Thirdly, we wish the provisions to take effect as soon as possible after Royal Assent in order to relieve the burden on local authorities following the change to housing benefit entitlement which came into force on 5th February. We expect that the Bill will reach the statute book earlier than the Housing Bill. Moreover, all the Housing Bill's homelessness provisions will need to be commenced together, which may take a few months longer than the Royal Assent to the Housing Bill. Also, the corresponding powers in the Housing Bill, which will be found in Clause 144 on housing allocations and Clause 165 on homelessness, are cast in broader terms. That is because we wish to use the powers to catch European Union benefit tourists as well as people who require leave under the Immigration Act 1971. The two different provisions will achieve the same effect. They will not involve two rounds of implementation. We shall issue guidance on implementation of the Asylum and Immigration Bill which will in most respects be valid when the Housing Bill comes into force.
I turn to the problem raised by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, on how local authorities screen. Anyone who knows local authorities realises that when councils accept someone on the council list, questions have to be asked. Applicants must be asked where they have lived for the past five years and other questions in order, if a points system is operated, to ascertain how many points a person may be able to accumulate. So local authorities must ask questions. That already happens and the Department of the Environment issued a revised homelessness--
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am not sure about the figure for those who have been here that long looking for asylum. I suggest that part of the reason their claims have not been determined is that they have managed to spin out the procedure, for example, by asking for adjournments and the like during the appeals procedure. In any case, on the more general point, the noble Earl underlines the argument that I have put before the Committee on other occasions. It is that if we try to reduce the number of people coming here looking for asylum with no justifiable reason, we will be able to treat genuine asylum seekers much more quickly and better than at the moment.
I turn now to the Department of the Environment's revised homelessness code of guidance for local authorities. In 1994 it was drawn up in consultation with the Commission for Racial Equality. It contains advice on the subject, and we have every reason to believe that the procedure works well and has not given rise to complaints.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, asked why people should come here when our benefits system is not all that good. He may recall what I said when we debated the general proposition of excluding asylum seekers who do not seek asylum at the port of entry from our benefits system. I explained what other countries do against the background that, until the Government's changes, someone seeking asylum here had immediate eligibility for benefit and sometimes had had that eligibility for a long time while they went through the first decision process, the appeal process and the tribunal process. All that could be spun out to some extent. In Belgium and France the benefit stops after a year. In Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Spain asylum seekers are not allowed to work, whereas after six months in Britain they are allowed to work. As the noble Earl knows, the rest of Europe has tightened up procedures and we have seen their figures for asylum seekers decrease while ours have increased considerably.
For all those reasons, this seems to me to be a fair and equitable way to proceed. People who come from abroad and have a settled right to live here should, along with the natives--if I may call them that--of this country, have the right to seek council housing. I do not think that those who are here with limited leave to remain, or whose leave to remain is still questioned because they are asylum seekers and no decision has yet been taken, should have access to long-term council housing. I hope that with that explanation the noble Lord will be able to withdraw his amendment. If he does not withdraw it, I trust that my noble friends will support me in the Division Lobby.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: The Minister concludes where he started with an entirely specious argument about the long-term benefits of council housing. He rightly referred to the fact that people in council housing in this country have the right to stay there, have certain rights of nomination and succession, and certain rights to buy in certain circumstances. I hope that he is not suggesting that those rights, which have existed ever since public housing started in this country, are now at risk and that the Government think they are matters that could possibly be changed.
The suggestion he makes by his repeated reference to the phrase "long-term" is that, somehow, the rights of those in public housing are superior to the right to remain in this country. He appears to suggest that the long-term rights somebody has because he is in a council house are somehow more important than his right to remain in this country, and if he loses his right to remain in this country those rights would then disappear. That is clearly not the case and is not suggested in the amendment.
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