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Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, this surely is not retrospective legislation as ordinarily understood. Clause 9(1) does not confer any right to a priority for long-term housing. It confers merely a facility. That facility does not square with the amendment. The amendment does not bite on a facility; it bites merely on an entitlement which does not exist.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, in the amendment we are considering again what happens to people who are subject to immigration control as regards homelessness legislation. We are being asked to consider two cases. First, there are people who sought assistance under the homelessness legislation before Clause 9(2) of the Bill had effect, and who then find that they are outside the scope of an order continuing

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their entitlement under the homelessness legislation. We are also asked to consider the case of people who initially have entitlement under the homelessness legislation but who subsequently lose that entitlement when their immigration status changes.

I wish to make the Government's position absolutely clear on these points. We intend to align entitlement under the homelessness legislation with entitlement to housing benefit. For so long as someone is entitled to housing benefit by virtue of his immigration status--for example, by being a person who sought asylum at the time he arrived in this country--or, if he retains an entitlement to benefit as part of the transitional package associated with the benefit changes that will flow from what is now Clause 11 of the Bill, he will retain entitlement to assistance under the homelessness legislation. That is what an order under Clause 9(2) will provide for.

If your Lordships agree to Amendment No. 5, it will mean that persons from abroad who are here on limited leave--such as visitors and overseas students, who have not been entitled to social security benefits since 1994--would continue to be entitled to assistance under the homelessness legislation, and the entire cost of meeting that obligation would fall on the housing authority.

Your Lordships will be aware of the immense burden that this could impose on the few housing authorities which would receive most of those cases. It was in recognition of just that problem that we have been proposing to make a special grant available to local authorities to meet a substantial part of the cost to them that would have followed from the early withdrawal of housing benefit in February. That is no longer necessary. But it remains important that we are able to make the scope of the homelessness legislation consistent with the rules on housing benefit.

At Report stage the noble Earl argued that the provision was retrospective and would unduly affect people who entered the country before these provisions were in force and with no expectation that they would be introduced. In other words, they were relying on the safety net of the homelessness legislation. The Government have for many years had a clear policy that visitors and other persons who are given limited leave to remain enter the country on the basis that they will have no recourse to public funds. We are back to this difficult problem--it appears difficult for some people to grasp. People who apply in country have said when they enter this country that they are coming here for business reasons, to visit, study, or whatever it may be, and that they will have no recourse to public funds. That is the condition on which they are granted entry.

What the noble Earl says confirms what I have been telling your Lordships all along during discussion of the Bill; namely, that those people are saying one thing to the immigration authorities but mean something entirely different. They come here because they see the availability of these benefits. One of the benefits they see is that if they come into a category that falls within the homelessness legislation the local authority will help them to gain housing--albeit short term--in this country. Therefore we are doing no more than ensuring

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that the conditions of entry to which such people agreed when they walked into this country are observed in practice.

The noble Earl also raised the question of what happens to someone being accommodated under the homelessness legislation when his entitlement ceases as a result of an adverse decision on his application for asylum. The answer is that his entitlement under the homelessness legislation, as I have said before, will match his entitlement under social security benefits. They will cease at the same time. If that person wishes to remain in this country pending the outcome of an appeal--I need not remind your Lordships that only three out of every 100 appeals actually succeeds--it is for him to make his own arrangements for his continuing financial support; or, as many of them do, he may look to his own ethnic community for assistance.

The policy here has two related strands. It is not just a matter of ensuring that those people who enter this country on the basis that they will have no recourse to public funds do not receive benefit. It is equally to ensure that local housing authorities are not faced with further additional costs.

I am not sure whether the noble Earl wishes to pursue the matter to a vote. I hope that he will not, but will withdraw the amendment. However, if he does not do so, I hope that my noble friends will support me in the Lobby.

Earl Russell: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, will he clarify one vital point on which I hope that I have understood him accurately? Am I to understand that the alignment with housing benefit means that those who have entered the country and claimed asylum before 5th February will not be subject to this clause?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, those who entered this country and claimed asylum before 5th February are protected by the transitional arrangements which we agreed. If they claimed asylum properly, until the next decision is made they will continue to receive housing benefit and to be subject to the homelessness legislation.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister. That was the principal point that I wished to elicit from him. I am extremely glad to hear him say it.

Perhaps I may say cursorily to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, that one can have an entitlement to a facility. I am sorry that the noble Lord is not in his place to hear me say it, but if he wishes to apply for a facility to which he is not entitled he will soon discover the distinction.

On the point which the Minister has made repeatedly about public funds, one must see an asylum seeker entering the country as being in a position which is very much analogous to being under duress. I have already drawn the parallel and I make no apology for reiterating it, since the Minister repeated the point to which it was a reply. If one were to have a severe climbing accident and were asked, before being rescued, to undertake to

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pay the six-figure cost of the rescue, one might legitimately argue that the promise had been extracted under duress.

I shall not again quote Article 31.1 of the UN Convention. I believe that the Government are in breach of it, but I shall not pursue the point now and beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 10 [Entitlement to child benefit]:

[Amendment No. 6 not moved.]

Clause 11 [Saving for social security regulations]:

[Amendment No. 7 not moved.]

Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 8:

Page 8, line 28, at end insert--
("( ) This section does not apply to a person whose claim for asylum has not been determined by the Secretary of State within three months of the date on which it was made.").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the amendment stands in the names of myself and my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey. It proposes that if a claim for asylum status is not determined within three months, the claimant should be entitled to benefit. That would locate responsibility firmly where it should lie: that is, with the Government for having failed to determine the claim within three months. At the moment, there is a financial incentive for the Government to be inefficient, to delay determination in order to avoid paying benefit. That is bad public policy. What is worse is that it means that some of the most vulnerable and destitute people are starved out of their right to pursue their claim because they have no means of subsistence. Why should those seeking asylum be penalised because our systems are inefficient?

At the moment, it takes 19 months from the initial receipt of a claim to its determination. We still have unresolved claims going back to 1991. I believe that the figures are: 15 per cent. in 1991, 15 per cent. in 1992, 25 per cent. in 1993 and 25 per cent. in 1994. Over 10,000 asylum seekers, as at last February, have been waiting since 1991 for their claims to be determined. The current backlog which was 46,000 in 1993 is now nearly 68,000 and is rising by 2,000 a month.

The Government will presumably say what they said last night; that is, that many extra staff are being employed but that they are "being swamped by a rising tide" and such suitable metaphors. What one normally does with a moored boat on a rising tide is to loosen and lengthen the rope. The Government are failing to do that. As I understand it, the Government have appointed 500 additional caseworkers who heard just under 44,000 applications last year. That is a rate of 1.7 cases determined per week per caseworker. It means either that the decisions are difficult and time consuming because the claimants may well be genuine or that the competence of the staff and the Government is less than satisfactory. Such is not the case in other countries where they deal with asylum claims much more expeditiously than us.

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The amendment therefore firmly locates responsibility for delays and the refusal of benefit where it belongs: with the Home Office. Asylum seekers should not be put into a prolonged state of limbo because the Government have not got round to determining their claims. Just because the Home Office cannot get its act together, that is no reason for the DSS to deprive people seeking asylum the benefit on which to survive in the meantime. It is deeply unfair to make asylum seekers the victims of Home Office dilatoriness. I beg to move.

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