Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to ask the Minister two questions. The first refers to his amendment. He has directed your Lordships to subsection 4(a) which requires the authority to have regard to all the circumstances, including the characteristics and personal circumstances of the applicant. Can the Minister help me and perhaps others of your Lordships by saying what is meant by the word "characteristics"? Is that something different from need? Secondly, as regards my amendment, I am still unclear--and perhaps the Minister can give me a short answer--how, if the authority is not aware of the address of a property, it can know that it is suitable.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, with regard to the first of the noble Baroness's questions, the characteristics and personal circumstances of the applicant are exactly what they are said to be, to repeat the advice of Alan Lennox-Boyd. He said, if I might transpose this, that the characteristics and personal circumstances of the applicant mean the characteristics and personal circumstances of the applicant. In other words, a person has certain characteristics; his requirements and needs

8 Jul 1996 : Column 96

are of a certain nature. I have used before as an example the extreme case of a person who may be a single parent with five children, and she has certain characteristics and certain circumstances to which the housing provisions have to be made appropriate. You can find other examples among those who may be disabled, mentally ill or tied down by children. These are all the characteristics of the applicant and they must be taken into account.

The property will be suitable if in practice it meets the needs of the applicant. I cannot go any further than that, and I am sure the noble Baroness will understand why. The purpose is to ensure that a housing situation meets the needs of a particular applicant, and the needs of one applicant are different from those of another. It is the characteristics of a particular applicant which determine whether or not the housing which is available is appropriate to that applicant.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I will think about this and perhaps put down an amendment at Third Reading to change "characteristics" to "needs". I remain concerned about this because if an applicant cannot find secure alternative accommodation he will re-apply, and so we are faced with a fast-revolving door. It would be churlish not to acknowledge that the Government have moved, even if not quite as far as I personally would have wished. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 174 [Persons from abroad not eligible for housing assistance]:

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 43:


Page 105, line 27, at end insert--
("provided always that no British subject shall be deemed to be, a person from abroad.").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, perhaps I may be forgiven if for a moment I thank the Minister for introducing the case of the late Lord Colyton, formerly Mr. Hopkinson. I remember it well: Mr. Lennox-Boyd was clearing up the mess it created. By coincidence, one of my academic colleagues happened to have read in the Public Record Office, where it is now in the public domain, the brief from which Mr. Hopkinson spoke. Though it did not say "never", the word "never" was written in the margin and he made the mistake of reading it out. The conclusion I have drawn from this story, and of which I become more and more convinced, is that "never" is a short time in politics.

This amendment deals with subsection (1) of Clause 174, which provides that a person from abroad shall not be eligible for housing assistance. My amendment seeks to provide that a British subject shall not be taken to be a person from abroad. One would have thought that that amendment might have been a tautology, but sadly at present it is not. Some of your Lordships may have noticed in the Independent a few days ago a report of the case of Mr. Hussein. Anyone who was aware of what was going on at Trent Bridge on Saturday must realise that "Hussein" (however spelt) is now a good English name. This particular Mr. Hussein is a British subject resident in Kuwait and

8 Jul 1996 : Column 97

married to a Kuwaiti by whom he has children. Mr. Hussein has been converted away from Islam. He has been found guilty of apostasy. He has been sentenced to separate from his wife and children and he faces the prospect of a death sentence.

As you might expect, British consular staff are involved in trying to procure Mr. Hussein's safety. In any normal circumstances, with any normal country with a dedication to protecting the interests of its own subjects, one would have thought that the advice given to Mr. Hussein might have been to go home to his own country where he has his own citizenship. But were Mr. Hussein do so he would not of course instantly be employed. Neither would he be able to obtain benefits because under the habitual residence test he would be found to be a person from abroad. To be found to be a person from abroad in your own country really is a peculiarly sadistic form of insult. It is entirely unnecessary, and deprives people of rights which everybody ought to have in a country somewhere. If by any misfortune one ceases to be able to enjoy those rights in one's own country, one ought to be able to enjoy them in another; but he has done nothing to justify being deprived of them in the country of his citizenship.

Mr. Hussein is not alone in this case. The British have always been a travelling people. That has been in our interest, as it has from time to time been in the interests of the other places to which we have gone. One thinks of people who may be wishing, for example, to return from Liberia, where they may have been working as doctors or teachers; but if they return destitute--maybe turned out by the burning down of their house--to their own country where they should have been able to come in safety, they find they are turned away as persons from abroad. I really do not understand why the Government do this. I beg to move.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, may be pleased to hear that only this morning I telephoned the Kuwaiti Embassy on behalf of Mr. Hussein, about whom he was speaking. However, as somebody who was involved, with many others, in the development of housing aid and advice in the 1960s, both before and after the creation of the body known as Shelter, I read with some encouragement the terms of Clause 168. The clause provides that every local housing authority shall secure that advice and information is available free of charge to any person in its district. The clause goes on to repeat the phrase "any person" no less than three times. Therefore, it is a source of grave disappointment to read further on in Clauses 173 and 174 that the duties in respect of both homelessness and other forms of housing assistance are being whittled away from any person in the district and are being made subject to all kinds of tests and discrimination.

I should warn the Government that if they continue to make things so difficult for local housing authorities in respect of asylum seekers and refugees it will be incumbent on them to make proper housing provision for such people. This will become a function of central government, as it has been made almost impossible for local government to deal with the question.

8 Jul 1996 : Column 98

9 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, in this amendment in this part of the Bill we are not talking about asylum seekers or refugees. They have been covered in other parts of the debate, and we will probably come to them later. I remind the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, that anyone who seeks asylum on his arrival in this country is eligible for benefits and to be considered under the homelessness legislation. The noble Lord refers to advice which is available to any person. Under Clause 168 the advisory services are fully open to persons from abroad to help prevent homelessness. The difference is that assistance under the homelessness legislation--which means finding a house and perhaps providing one--is not available because that must accord with, and be parallel to, the person's eligibility for housing benefit. I know that the noble Lord does not agree with the Government as to that.

I believe that as a country the United Kingdom is reasonably generous to people seeking asylum. If they claim asylum at the port of entry most assuredly the benefits system will be open to them until a decision is made one way or the other by the Home Office. As far as concerns the habitual residence test, the noble Earl and I have been over this on a number of occasions. I suspect that we will never come to agreement. Although I normally obey the rule never to say "never" in politics, I believe that in this case it can be said with some safety. The noble Earl appreciates that United Kingdom citizens along with other people from the European Union are caught by the habitual residence test simply because of the rules of the European Union. Under those rules, we cannot differentiate between our citizens and other citizens of the European Union. To devise a rule to prevent people coming here and claiming benefits to which they have little or no entitlement we have had to introduce the habitual residence test. That must cover people from abroad. It applies equally to British citizens, EU citizens and settled immigrants. The noble Earl knows that that is the position. That was designed to combat abuse of our benefits system.

Listening to the noble Earl, your Lordships may have thought that we would turn people away at the front door. That is not so. Of course they are British citizens, but if they have not been habitually resident here should they be immediately entitled to these benefits just as if they had been here all their lives? I do not believe that that should be so. The noble Earl does not agree. He believes that if such a person comes here, regardless of how tenuous his links may be to this country, as long as he is a British citizen he ought to be eligible immediately for all the benefits that those of us who have lived in this country all our lives are entitled to. That is a point of view. It does not happen to be my point of view, and I do not believe that it is the view of the majority of taxpayers. I accept that there are some taxpayers, like the noble Earl, who have no problem

8 Jul 1996 : Column 99

about it and will happily pay a great deal more in taxes to allow people from abroad--asylum seekers and probably many others--to receive these benefits.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page