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Lord Dubs: Having listened to what the Minister has said, I feel he is not his usual persuasive self. I notice that the Minister has dropped his argument about illegal entrants and overstayers as regards this group of people. (Perhaps he was persuaded by what I said earlier.) Let us confine ourselves to asylum seekers. What he seeks to do is to draw a distinction between those who claim asylum at the port of entry and those who claim asylum after they pass through immigration at Heathrow or Dover and, a few days later, make a claim. I understand why he does that. He seeks to bring it into line with some of the other measures which have been introduced by the Government and those in this Bill. One will still be left with people who are vulnerable and who are without accommodation. It is not clear to me from the wording of this particular clause that asylum seekers who claim asylum at the port of entry, and do it properly by the Government's book, will be entitled to homelessness provision. I find it hard to interpret the measure in that way. Perhaps the Minister can give further assurance on the point.
Nevertheless, the noble Lord has said that the Government do not intend to go down the route followed by countries such as Germany and the Netherlands. He made reference to camps. I think that they are more likely to be hostels than camps, but it may be both. Therefore, he is saying that nothing will be done for these people. It is my contention that when we are dealing with people who are so vulnerable, as a humane, civilised country, we are under an obligation to do something. We talk about those people who fail to claim asylum at the port of entry but do so later. We have all heard the arguments as to why, reasonably and understandably, some asylum seekers do not understand the importance of the distinction. Even if we say that people should apply for asylum at the port of entry, and because they have not done so they will be punished, what about their children? Should they be punished as well because one asylum seeker failed to make the right statement to immigration when coming into the country?
We are dealing with people who are vulnerable, who have not made themselves homeless intentionally, and who are clearly a priority group. They are people who, in most cases for reasons beyond their control, find themselves sleeping on the streets of London and other cities. Surely we do not want that to happen to the small number of vulnerable people who are victims of persecution in the country they left. We are going to make them the victims of the Bill when they get here.
Baroness Seear: Before the Minister replies perhaps I, too, may ask a question. I understood the Minister to say that people who said that they could maintain themselves and came into the country on that undertaking, and who subsequently claimed assistance, were not to be supported. They might have come in with a well-founded, genuine belief that they would be able to support themselves. They might have work in prospect or a generous relation who was going to fork out. Both of those optimistic futures might be denied them. They might start in a job and lose it. The relation who is going to help might help for a while and then abandon them. They would then be penniless and homeless. Are we going to do nothing about those people even if they were genuine when they first arrived?
Lord Avebury: Perhaps I may ask the Minister a question before he replies to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, asked about the children. I should like to know whether local authorities, under legislation relating to children, would be obliged to take the children into care. If that is so, has the cost of doing so been taken into account in the Financial and Explanatory Memorandum, because I cannot find it anywhere there? The assumption is that anyone who has applied too late, after going through immigration control procedures--whether he has three, five or eight children--will be denied the housing to which he would otherwise have been entitled under the homelessness legislation.
In those circumstances will the local authority have to pick up the pieces by offering the children places in a local authority home or by fostering them? If so, has the Minister any idea what that will cost this country's ratepayers and taxpayers?
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: As we all seem to be raising points for my noble friend to reply to, I should like to follow up the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear. As I understand it, a common pattern that local authorities find is that people arrive with a letter from someone guaranteeing to support them and that they will be no burden on the state. As I understand it, we take that on face value in this country.
A few minutes ago I met a woman who works in the House. She told me that she was very pleased because the Australian immigration authorities had just agreed to allow her to go there. It has been quite a battle, and I have been involved in it. She said that her daughter was paying the money. I asked her what she meant. She said, "Oh well, I have to put up"--I wrote it down on my hand because I was called out of the Chamber to have a word with her--"3,500 dollars plus 1,500 dollars for my husband and 1,500 dollars for my mother. That is 6,500 dollars to ensure that we do not claim state benefits for a period of two years. We have to pay a further 800 dollars per person to be sure that we do not call on the health service".
This country does not demand that people put up a guarantee in the form of a bond or money. We take people's word when the letters say that they will be supported. It is a great breach of trust if that is not true. It is happening all the time: people arrive, and a few days later they claim all these benefits. The noble Baroness, Lady Seear, said that it could go on a long time and that people could run out of money. That is different. If it goes on a long time, they might qualify for some entitlement from the local authority. People arrive deliberately with documents assuring everyone that they will be no burden on the state when they have every intention of being such a burden. We cannot accept that.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I shall respond to the questions that I have been asked. My noble friend Lady Gardner made a good point. We should look at what other countries do. We accept what people say abroad when seeking a visa to enter this country, or what they tell the immigration officer at the port of entry when they say why they are here. If they say that they are here for this reason or that reason and will not be a burden on public funds, I like to think that we can continue to live in a world where we take them at their word, and do not have to go down the road of asking them, so to speak, to put down deposits as a mark of their good faith.
But it is a problem when people turn round a few days, weeks, or months later and say, "Oh, by the way, all that I said about not being a burden on public funds and coming here for a holiday, to see my relatives, or whatever it is, was not true. I am coming here because I want to seek asylum". That is not right. The provision that we have made is clear.
Baroness Seear: Perhaps I may interrupt the Minister. That is not the question that I was asking. I hope that my question will not be confused in the reply that he is giving. I was talking about people who came here genuinely, who may have obtained a job, and who months later, as so easily happens, lost it and became in need. They may be genuine people. I agree with the Minister that if they are trying to fool the authorities, and two or three days later turn round and say that the offer is not valid, their request should not be considered. But if they are genuine, and have been here for months, and then fall on bad times, are we saying that we cannot do anything for them?
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: If the noble Baroness had been patient for a moment or two she would have saved herself a second speech; I was coming to that issue. I was addressing a point made by my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes. I shall turn to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, in a few moments. First, perhaps I may turn to her noble friend Lord Avebury who asked about the duties of local authorities under the Children Act. Local authorities have a general duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need within their area. That involves a general duty to promote the upbringing of such children by their families.
It is for individual local authorities to decide what form that assistance will take. They can make cash payments in exceptional circumstances, but those can be for a limited period only. They may decide not only to take a child into care, but also to help the parents and the family to house themselves and the children. Under the Children Act we cater for children who enter in those circumstances. We will come later to the question of the costs.
In previous debates on income support and housing benefit we made it clear that we would be in discussion, as we are, with the local authorities, to quantify the additional costs, and that we are prepared to pay them up to 80 per cent. of what we identify jointly as the additional costs arising from their obligations.
Lord Avebury: Which does the Minister think will be more expensive: for the local authority to offer the parents of the asylum application family accommodation so that they can look after their own children, to take the children into care in a local authority home, or to foster them? Which will be more expensive?
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