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Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: The noble Baroness heard me explain at length the benefit changes that came about on 5th February. The position is, as I again make clear, if the Home Office decides that the person should not have either refugee status or be granted exceptional leave to remain, that person ceases to be eligible for

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income support and housing benefit. If the local authority was housing the family under the homelessness Act--not all families will be housed under the homelessness Act--at that stage it would be up to the local authority to decide what it should do. Indeed the people themselves have some responsibility. They have come to this country; they must have worked out what they were going to do. They have made the application and it has been found wanting. They are given the right to appeal.

I made it clear earlier that if there are children, it is indeed the case that the Children Act can then trigger in and the local authority can come to their aid under the Children Act. If that is what the local authority decided to do, it could pay the rent. I made that perfectly clear in a previous answer. That is the position.

In case anyone asks the next question, I repeat the answer that I have already given: we are discussing with local authorities the costs which will arise. We have made it perfectly clear that we will be prepared to reimburse them on agreed costs up to 80 per cent.

Earl Russell: Before I reply to the Minister, I have, first, to make a Statement on behalf of the party. I hope that it will not take long, but it is, I think, of some importance.

We have decided that this Bill contains so much that is offensive to the freedoms of genuine asylum seekers that we cannot support any part of it. We would repeal it and replace it with such legislation as is necessary to reform and improve the system for processing asylum applications--a system which the present Government have grossly mismanaged and allowed to deteriorate into a state of crisis. We do not believe that any clause, or any line of the Bill, goes any distance towards meeting those objectives.

The Minister tempted me with his statistics to repeat myself. I heard his noble friend Lord Lucas on the last day in Committee. I shall not do so. He knows what my answer to that point is. I do not think that he needs to hear it again.

As regards his counts of rough sleepers, he ought to remember the sad case of the Irishman's pigs. The Irishman could not count them because they never stayed still. But if you are sleeping on a stone surface, you sometimes want to move in the middle of the night. Those counts of rough sleepers are notoriously unreliable, especially since some individuals tend to move as soon as they see anyone coming.

The Minister made a point about rough sleepers which tends more to illustrate our arguments than his. The rough sleepers' initiative was set up because so many people appeared on the streets. The Department of the Environment identified the significant factor in street homelessness as the removal of benefit from 16 and 17 year-olds and the fact that most people, being single, were not able to gain help from their local authorities. That is what we expect to happen again. In the light of that precedent, I believe that it is a realistic fear.

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I understand that Ministers are allowed to have imagination only when they are off duty. I do not blame them for that. But I cannot help regretting it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 107 and 108 not moved.]

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 109:

Page 7, line 7, at end insert--
("( ) No order under this section shall be made unless the Secretary of State is satisfied that no racial discrimination contrary to the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Local Government Act 1985 will result from the order.
( ) Before making any order under this section, the Secretary of State shall consult organisations appearing to him to be representative of the authorities concerned and other relevant organisations.").

The noble Lord said: The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that local authorities accept their responsibilities to promote good race relations when making orders under Clause 9 and to make sure that they consult with the relevant organisations first.

The fear is that this provision will lead to discrimination against our ethnic minorities and that a local authority will have to vet the immigration status of an individual to see whether he or she, or the family, qualifies for homelessness accommodation or whether the local authority has to reject the application under the terms of the Bill.

The likelihood is that a local authority will be far more concerned to vet and possibly refuse the applications of people whose skins are black because it will say, "It's much more likely that a person with a black face is not eligible under the terms of this Bill". The result is that people who may have lived in this country, who may have been born in this country and who happen to have black skins will be faced with a discriminatory process when they apply to a local authority for housing. That is surely an outcome which no one in this Chamber wants because it would lead to the most blatant forms of discrimination.

The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that before an order is made under this section,

    "the Secretary of State shall consult with organisations appearing to him to be representative of the authorities concerned and other relevant organisations",
having an interest. The Secretary of State must ensure that he does not make an order unless he is satisfied that no racial discrimination will result from such an order. It is a simple proposition. I beg to move.

Baroness Seear: I strongly support the amendment. It is not that racial discrimination will necessarily take place. But there is no doubt whatsoever that the ethnic minority community will believe that it is taking place. On the basis of my experience up to now, there are good grounds for it to expect that that will be the case. We need to take every conceivable step to ensure that there is no justification for those fears.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I begin by saying, as I did in an earlier debate although in different words, that we are alive to the need to ensure that the application of the housing provisions does not damage race relations.

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But while I appreciate the concerns behind Amendment No. 109, outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, I doubt that we need the provision envisaged in the amendment.

As the Committee may be aware, there are already restrictions in place on access to the homelessness legislation by certain persons from abroad. Twice today I have mentioned that the Department of the Environment issued a revised Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities in 1994. It was drawn up in consultation with the Commission for Racial Equality and contains advice on the subject of concern to the noble Lord and the noble Baroness.

The code suggests a screening procedure applicable to everyone applying for assistance under the homelessness legislation that allows a housing authority to filter down to people who have spent a significant amount of time abroad in the past few years. Only those people are asked further questions about their immigration status. That avoids the need for housing officers to make a preliminary judgment on whether to probe an applicant's immigration status solely on the basis of his ethnic origins, accent or the style of his name.

So far as we are aware, the procedure has worked well and given rise to no complaints. It is the kind of procedure that the Department of the Environment proposes to commend to local authorities in applying the new legislation. In preparing its guidance, the department consults, as a matter of course, the local authority associations and other interested parties.

The experience we have had of the Homelessness Code of Guidance for Local Authorities and the way it has worked over the past two years, as well as the consultation we shall have with interested parties and local authorities, give us confidence that we will be able to bring forward procedures for local authorities to follow. Those procedures will not give rise to the problems which the noble Lord and the noble Baroness fear. We have a good record of race relations in this country which we wish to preserve. We believe that we have the means of doing so in this case, with the code of guidance which has already been in operation for the related subject of homelessness. I hope that with that assurance and explanation the noble Lord can withdraw his amendment.

Lord Dubs: I thank the Minister. I am still apprehensive about the way in which the clause will work in practice, but I wish to consider what the Minister said in more detail. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

6.30 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 110:

Page 7, line 7, at end insert--
("( ) No order under this section shall be made unless the Secretary of State is satisfied that no disproportionate extra costs will be incurred by local authorities fulfilling their social services responsibilities under the Children Act 1989 or providing services as community care services within the meaning of section 46 of the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990 as a result of the order.

9 May 1996 : Column 256

( ) Before making any order under this section, the Secretary of State shall consult organisations appearing to him to be representative of the authorities concerned and other relevant organisations.").

The noble Lord said: This is a probing amendment because it is concerned with an issue which the Minister has already mentioned this evening: the reimbursement of the additional costs which local authorities will incur. In principle, we believe that transfers of responsibility from central to local government are good, but in this case, with geographical distribution, the responsibilities fall largely on a few London boroughs and a few other local authorities. That makes implementation impossible unless there is reimbursement. I emphasise the limited scope of the amendment. We are only concerned with the Children Act 1989 which deals with children at risk in terms of their health and development, and with the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990, in particular Section 67.

I recognise that the word "disproportionate" is not suitable to be put into the statute because it could mean anything according to one's wish. On 11th January, the Secretary of State, Mr. Lilley, said that unavoidable additional costs involved because of the homelessness legislation and the Children Act would be reimbursed. The Minister has confirmed that the reimbursement would be, he now says, up to 80 per cent., rather than 80 per cent.

The local authority associations, particularly the Association of London Government, already know that they must provide income sufficient to meet the rent and living expenses for families who find themselves in a difficult position. The figures from 5th February, when the regulations came into force, to 30th April are pretty low. I understand that in London there have been of the order of 300 claims. However, the trap which was set on 5th February has not yet been fully sprung because it needs the legislation to be complete. The Association of London Government expects there to be 7,000 claims in the current financial year. The costs could be of the order of £50 million, so it is important that, even though we shall not press the amendment to a vote, the Minister should agree with the second part of the amendment to consult with the local authority associations or,

    "organisations...representative of the authorities concerned and other relevant organisations".
I beg to move.

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