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Earl Russell: I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, for the trouble that he has taken over this amendment. I do not think he would believe me if I were to say that I agree with everything that he said. But I agree with practically everything he said that related specifically to local authorities. This is, after all, a matter of all-party concern. It is something which we all have to make work and we all experience common difficulties.

The noble Lord made the point that the burden fell on a small number of local authorities, mostly in London. It is a point of considerable substance. For some local authorities that burden can be very heavy. My own local borough of Brent is one of those affected, as are Westminster, Lambeth and Southwark. What may be quite a small burden for the Exchequer when spread over the whole of national resources, may be very heavy indeed if it is all concentrated on one point in Southwark or Lambeth.

On 4th March I asked a Question on this subject which was sympathetically answered by the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege. She came up with the formula that the Government would meet 80 per cent. of the costs above a certain threshold. I appreciate that the Minister may not be able to tell me tonight, but I should be interested to know the threshold and the reasoning by which it was settled. No matter how much practical help a local authority receives, it will depend very heavily on the level of that threshold.

I also want to know why it has been decided that it is necessary to have a threshold. One would imagine that the theory was that the local authority had a certain amount of spare fat. But that is not true of most local authorities now. Most of them, faced with an additional financial burden, will have to do things like sacking teachers. One would have thought that in an election year the Government might possibly wish to avoid such a consequence. Indeed, we might all wish to avoid it.

I should like to have answers to two specific points. First, I should like to know whether obligations under the National Health Service and Community Care Act will be recognised as well as obligations under the Children Act. Secondly--this is a question on which I have received representations from the London Borough

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of Sutton--what exactly will be the position in relation to school meals? There has recently been a Written Answer to my noble friend Lord Tope which, on the whole, was reassuring. But we have all had Answers which were, on the whole, reassuring. Government Answers need to be looked in the mouth. We need something specific because in the diet of those people, and therefore in the capacity of the children to learn and keep the school running, the school meal will be very important indeed.

It has been quite a long time since 4th March. I am very glad that it seems that an announcement will not now be long delayed. I hope that it is genuinely imminent. I should be grateful for an assurance that, when it comes, it will be retroactive to 5th February when that burden took effect, because quite a lot of money has been spent already.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I shall try to respond to the various points made in relation to the amendment. My noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding looked ahead to the amendment in the name of himself and some of his noble friends; namely, Amendment No. 123.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: Perhaps I may intervene for a moment. That amendment will be separately debated. It raises a separate point about the procedures. I hope that I shall be allowed to move that amendment later.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I suspected that my noble friend would move the amendment. However, there is quite a considerable overlap between the two amendments. I expect that I shall address some of the same points again later tonight.

We recognise that our reforms to social security benefits for asylum seekers result in some additional costs falling on local authorities and, indeed, on certain local authorities. We recognise that aligning the scope of the homelessness legislation with the benefit rules will result in a further shift of some of those costs to social services authorities. That is why we have announced our intention to make special grants available to local authorities for 1995-96 and 1996-97.

I hope that that answers--I suspect perhaps indirectly--one of the points about 1995-96 put to me by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. Clearly, I should only say that if it were going to cover the time between the coming into force on 5th February of the social security provisions and the end of the financial year.

The special grant for housing authorities will end when we use the order-making power in Clause 9 to align the scope of the homelessness legislation with the rules on housing benefit. However, in recognition of the fact that social services authorities will still have to bear costs, the special grant for social services authorities will continue for the remainder of the year. We shall also consider how we should support any such expenditure by social services authorities in the future.

Officials from the Department of the Environment and the Department of Health have been discussing details of the grant with local authority associations. As

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my noble friend Lord Jenkin said, they plan to hold a further meeting on 20th May to consider the draft grant report and hence the full details of the grant. We expect to see that report approved before the Summer Recess.

On a number of occasions I have mentioned that reimbursement will be at 80 per cent. of the additional unavoidable costs. I say again to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that local authorities will be expected to act in the most cost-effective manner when deciding what to do with children who come within the ambit of the Children Act. I believe he is asking whether it will be cheaper for the local authority to put the children into care or keep them where they are. That will be for the local authorities. Part of the reason for their having to fund the 20 per cent. is to concentrate their mind on the matter. It will be for the local authorities to find the most cost-effective manner in which to fulfil their obligations under the Children Act.

Lord Avebury: Will the local authorities be obliged to act in the most cost-effective manner irrespective of the needs of the children?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I did not say that they would be obliged. I said that we would expect them to act in the most cost-effective manner, taking other factors into account. They will take them into account. I hope that that answers the noble Lord. They will act sensibly as one would expect them to do. But, obviously, one hopes they will not opt for the most expensive solution if there are no great merits in it. That is the point that I am trying to make to the noble Lord.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, raised a point about school meals. I should prefer to write to him rather than give him an answer this evening in order to make sure that I am correct in my reply. He also asked about community care. That is not covered because there is no evidence of any need of community care legislation by asylum seekers. The cases put to us largely seem to have involved families of young children who would fall within the Children Act and not within the community care Acts.

As with so much of this debate, painting of a black nature has been placed on the canvas about what will happen when people find that their application to the Home Office has been turned down and they are no longer eligible for benefits and the cover of homelessness legislation. But, as I said when we last discussed this matter, currently more than three-quarters of those who apply for asylum end up at the end of some road or other being refused. So, three-quarters of all those who apply already have to face the kind of problem--if it is a problem--that noble Lords predict will happen as a result of this legislation. I ask rather rhetorically: what does happen to them? They seem to manage. There is no great evidence that the people turned down after appeal form a huge pool of people sleeping on the streets or whatever the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, thinks they do. They appear to be able to look after themselves. It is to be hoped that most of them return to their countries of origin. They do not seem to cause the problems that noble Lords have conjured up in their imagination about these issues.

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Therefore, we can reasonably assume that the arrangements that those people make at the end of their appeal they will also make at the end of the Home Office decision if they receive a negative answer. They will be able to do whatever it is they do now to look after themselves.

7 p.m.

Earl Russell: The Minister has a great deal of confidence in those counts of rough sleepers, but his evidence does not accord with what many others involved find. Does he expect everybody who is afraid of proceedings under various immigration legislation to hoist a notice saying, "I am an asylum-seeker"?

The Minister talks about the National Health Service and Community Care Act. I was disappointed by that answer. He has considerable experience of mental health problems among those who have escaped from great hardship, which is common among victims of torture but can occur with other forms of hardship such as where family members have been killed in their presence and situations of that sort.

This is not something that should be dismissed out of hand. I beg the Minister to allow it to be at least considered in the negotiations with local authorities. In regard to the 80 per cent. threshold, the Minister talks about concentrating the minds of local authorities. If they are any more concentrated than they are, they will be invisible.

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