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I am not sure whether the provision in Amendment No. 152 should be a duty or a power. One must ask, what is the difference? I ask my noble friend what are the sanctions for an unreasonable failure to exercise a power on the part of the Secretary of State. Is there a major practical difference between the two consequences? Of course, there is a failure to exercise the duty, but, in practice, would a failure on the part of the Secretary of State to exercise a power amount to something similar? What rights would be conferred on the persons who would be prejudiced by that failure?
That is the major criterion here. Perhaps in practice we are not talking about two distinct issues. Perhaps the situation will be unnecessarily complex, but it is for my noble friend to answer that point.
In my view, the position in relation to Amendment No. 153 is different. The compelling arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, deserve careful consideration by the Committee and my noble friend.
Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: I shall be brief in my support for Amendment No. 153, which relates to a duty to ensure the welfare of children. I should like to bring a particular instance to the attention of the Committee. When people see Kosovar refugees begging, many become annoyed and say, "They are receiving fair benefits, so why should they be begging?". However, on numerous occasions I have seen such people dragging tiny, barefooted children who can hardly walk. They are in dense traffic, stopping at cars and certainly putting the children at considerable risk. They do so not only for a couple of hours but for the full length of the day. I cannot imagine that anything less than a duty on the part of those responsible would be acceptable.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: I am grateful for what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes. I, too, should like to turn to the argument advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. Perhaps we may go back into the history of the Home Office. The Minister and those associated with the Home Office will recall that at one time it was responsible for children's officers. They were an impressive part of the Home Office's responsibility at that time.
As a result of decisions made about the allocation of duties between that department and the Department of Health and Social Services, the children's officers were moved into the DHSS with a serious loss to the Home Office in terms of a balancing professional concern unconnected to services related to law and order. Many of the amendments are rightly concerned with how the asylum support directorate will carry out its duties and obligations, not least because for a generation that department has had no direct experience of running such a directorate. Many of us are concerned that the new directorate will not have the experience or awareness of
Like the noble Lord, Lord Alton, I was concerned about the remarks made by the Secretary of State in another place. He was right and fair to say that the concerns of taxpayers must be borne in mind. It would also be fair to say that a good deal of Part VI is about that. But that is not the whole story. I was particularly concerned with the statement he made in the Special Standing Committee, which examined Clause 99. He stated:
Amendment No. 152 balances the directorate's responsibilities in terms of administration and saving public money with a recognition that it also has a duty towards the welfare of asylum seekers. I understand that a power is enabling and that a duty is an obligation which cannot be left to discretion. It is a duty which must be carried out by the department in all circumstances. That is what we are seeking: that the asylum directorate will balance the welfare of asylum seekers against the other considerations that it takes into account relating to administrative convenience and taxpayers' concerns.
Finally, I strongly support what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, about the position of children today. One of the problems about our world is that increasingly children are used as weapons of war. The Minister will be familiar with the terrifyingly changed ratio on the loss of life of civilians and of soldiers in today's battles. We now know, for example, that in the Yemen children are regularly seriously mutilated as part of a political purpose.
In such a situation, we, as a civilised country, must put at the forefront our concern for the next generation. I believe that Amendment No. 153 would be in the best traditions of this country and would stand to the credit of the Government if they accepted it.
I am not a lawyer and in the detail of the Bill legal minds are most important. However, I chair the refugee sub-committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and I have spent most of my life working in humanitarian agencies. For those of us who are carrying out such tasks, the amendment is highly relevant. Perhaps I may underline why.
First, the noble Baroness made the point that there is a growing and deep concern among all of us in humanitarian agencies about the effect of conflict and repression on children. It leaves psychological scars for the rest of their lives. There is a need for counselling and psychological support, which do not exist. In that context and in the administration of this part of national policy, we should wholeheartedly fulfil our responsibilities by ensuring that the humanitarian dimensions of what we are trying to do are second to none and that our commitment to children is self-evident.
As regards Amendment No. 152--and as we discussed a great deal in the Council of Europe sub-committee--we must examine legislation in the context of the culture in which it is being applied. We all know that the number of refugees and asylum seekers with whom governments are grappling is out of all proportion to anything imagined in the immediate post-war period. We also know that there is abuse. There is no argument about that. We also know that there is a responsibility to the taxpayers. There is no argument about that. But we also know that everything that the political leadership of post-war Europe was about was the humanitarian responsibility for refugees and asylum seekers. That is why we introduced human rights provisions and legislation in this area.
Because of the preoccupations with the other elements to which I have referred, when a Bill such as this is being debated it is very important to reassert the primary commitment to genuine refugees and asylum seekers. We should be sending that message strongly as a message of support to those in the front line who are administering the policy. They should understand that that is what Parliament wants: to see the issue dealt with generously and openly, while the other points are taken into account. My fear, which is shared by my fellow members of that sub-committee of the Council of Europe, is that in one country after another the more negative aspects which I have described are becoming so preoccupying that the primary purpose is overlooked. That is why anything that my good and noble friend the Minister can say tonight to help to strengthen and reassure us all, and to set the tone for what is being done in the name of the Bill, will be tremendously important.
Lord Cope of Berkeley: As the noble Lord has just said, this debate has turned into something of a Second Reading on Part VI of the Bill. I am not complaining about that. It has happened in a general sense. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to some general points relating to this part of the Bill at the start of his remarks. I shall not follow him into that matter. We have made clear our general position, which is that we want to see genuine asylum seekers properly looked after, particularly the children, but at the same time we recognise the Government's duty to deal with the problem of bogus asylum seekers which is, as the noble Lord said, generally accepted.
The only general point which I would make, as I do not believe that it is raised under any of the following amendments, is that I am not persuaded that the 300 proposed staff of the new support directorate will prove anything like sufficient to carry out the duties which the Committee seeks to place on them in this part of the Bill. I shall not develop that point.
I am sympathetic to the arguments advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and by the others in the debate, particularly on Amendment No. 153. Looking at the next few pages of the Marshalled List, I note that a number of other groups of amendments touch on the same point in specific ways, but it is made in a general way in Amendment No. 153. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, was quite right to say that, were Amendment No. 153 or a similar amendment to be tabled at the start of Part VI of the Bill, there would be far less need for the other, more specific amendments at later stages. I am not very qualified to judge whether the precise wording is correct or could be legally improved. However, I support the sentiment behind inserting a general provision to put the consideration of the child's welfare in the minds of everyone concerned with those matters.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: The noble Lord, Lord Cope, is right. The debate is in the nature of a Second Reading revisit to Part VI. I have no complaint about that at all. I should like to take slightly more time than is usual at this stage in dealing with the general questions, but shall not then return to the general questions on every specific subsequent amendment, if that is acceptable to the Committee.
I shall cover Amendments Nos. 152 and 153 in rather more detail in a moment. The scope of Amendment No. 153, which has had the general approval of a number of noble Lords who have spoken, is very wide. It states:
The approach of my noble friend Lord Judd is a correct one. We have no doubt at all of our obligations under the 1951 Convention on Refugees. I agree with him that the scale of recent, almost volcanic, movements is perhaps one which we had not anticipated. By "we", I mean all governments in different countries who are faced with those problems. We need and want to ensure that a person seeking asylum is not prevented pursuing the claim by virtue of destitution. Hence our commitment to provide support in terms of accommodation and essential living needs for destitute asylum seekers. We want to do that efficiently and humanely. We have not succeeded in that in the past. I repeat what I have said on a number of earlier occasions: delay and uncertainty are no friends to those who will, in the end, be successful; nor are they helpful daily companions to those who are going to fail.
I do not believe that anyone can dispute that we currently have ramshackle, incoherent, unstructured and unsatisfactory arrangements which have been developed over the years, significantly, on an ad hoc basis. The question of whose fault that is is utterly beside the point. The fact is that that is an accurate description of the present situation.
I return to the point made by my noble friend Lord Judd. He is quite right in saying that we want to promote the welfare of asylum seekers. We shall ensure that desk instructions to our own staff will make that perfectly plain. The obligations imposed on our contractors will lay emphasis on the need--I am happy to re-affirm that again to my noble friend--to have full regard for the welfare of asylum seekers. That means that they have sufficient support; proper access to medical and other facilities so that they are able to cope in a strange society; and that they are protected from harassment or other threats. We shall have a budget of £300 million to provide that support during the first full year.
I take the point made by the noble Baroness about people who claim to be from Kosovo--whether they are or not, I do not know in every case--who beg with small children in the street. When the point was last raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, I pointed out that most of us have had that experience. That point does not derive from whether or not the arrangements will put the interest of children paramount. Social services departments have a proper role to play in cases where children are at risk as a result of behaviour, some of which, without being uncharitable, is certainly questionable to many of us as to whether it is based on true need as opposed to organised begging, which sometimes comes close to intimidatory behaviour for some people. I do not believe that the noble Baroness and I disagree on that point.
Whether or not we reach conclusions agreeable to all Members of the Committee, we have been prepared to listen. I invite noble Lords to look at the letter to which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, was kind enough to refer. It is quite extensive and deals with concerns raised by him, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and Mr Kaye. We have replied to it in some detail. I hope we have been able to give some detailed replies to the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams.
I know that a good deal of concern was expressed at Second Reading and in conversations with colleagues on all sides of the House about the level of support. We shall consider support levels in more detail. Perhaps I should tell the Committee one or two of our developed thoughts.
We have decided, after listening carefully over a period of weeks, that the provision of spending power in respect of children under the age of 18 should be set at a level that is the current equivalent of income support personal allowance for children. At present values that would increase the spending power of a family of four--two adults and two children--from about £90 a week to £106 a week. Some of that will be paid in cash and the remainder in vouchers.
We propose that the provision for adults should be on the basis that there will be a combination of cash-- I mentioned the increase a second ago--and vouchers. However, we should not overlook the "in-kind" provision: accommodation that is furnished, fuel and power paid for; the full range of domestic utensils, linen, pots and pans and so forth. I can fairly say that that will broadly represent what those adults would receive on income support. Following what I have said, I do not think it will be easy to say that we are offering something less than comparable with what would be available on other support systems.
I repeat that we have listened carefully to what has been said in another place, here and in discussions with officials and colleagues. I do not want to be unkind or to be seen to be harsh. We cannot discharge any governmental duty--I hope that does not sound too pompous a phrase--to one section of those who are worthy, without considering the interests of all. We see others in our society begging in the streets, sleeping rough and close to destitution. Others in the community are near destitution and we have to consider fairly the cost of providing support. We need to ensure that the arrangements provided support those in genuine need.
Therefore, we are trying to secure that the asylum seeker will broadly be in the same situation as a local person who is similarly destitute and who is receiving income support and other social security benefits. I do not believe that that is an unreasonable or ignoble stance.
The different way of providing benefit to asylum seekers reflects our concern. To have a separate system of support for asylum seekers we have to cater--to take up the point made by my noble friend--for the particular needs of people who arrive in this country often with no possessions, and without the normal means of coping independently in a strange environment. I believe that to accommodate sensitively people from a particular linguistic, ethnic or cultural group in an area where there are others of the same linguistic, ethnic, cultural or national group is a generous step, rather than dumping them in anonymity, as has often happened, in a place where there is no local, friendly hand to be stretched out to them.
I cannot accept either of the amendments, but I am spending a little time--as I promised--giving the reasons. I do not think that Amendment No. 152 achieves the necessary balance between the welfare of asylum
In relation to Amendment No. 153, I respect the concerns, as always, of the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Dholakia, who tabled the amendment. The welfare of children should never be treated lightly. Of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, this is a reflection of what is found in the well known words of the Children Act. The paramount description in the Children Act is used in a specific limited context and refers to the considerations that the court must have in mind in making an order in respect of a child. That is the context and that is the derivation. That is quite different from the wide context which is proposed in Amendment No. 153.
I understand perfectly well why it is introduced in Amendment No. 153. However, if that is to be construed, as it must be, in the ordinary meaning of words, the child's welfare, irrespective of all others, must be the paramount consideration. We could not deliver that. We have to have sensible regard to cost; we have to have sensitive regard to the legitimate, sometimes competing, often distinct demands of others, who are not necessarily all well off and who have financial deprivation to deal with as part of their every day existence.
I turn to a specific point, which I hope has not been overlooked. Clause 113 places a clear duty on the Secretary of State. I turn to some of the themes developed by my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis. Subsection (3) of Clause 113, on page 70 of the Bill, states:
I believe my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis is quite right. We are looking at different concepts. We say that we have the power and we have the obligations under Clause 113, but we cannot have a duty which is as widely put as this because that would mean there would be enforceable sanctions on the Secretary of State irrespective of other considerations. I repeat, I hope not harshly or with any hard feeling, that no government could operate on that basis.
Again my noble friend Lord Clinton-Davis is quite right in respect of the difference between a duty and a power. The exercise of the power, or non-exercise, would be subject to judicial review on the usual basis of rationality or irrationality. We want to exercise our powers in a decent and sensitive way. I hope that some of the things that we have done, even the announcement that I have been able to make to the Committee this evening about the difference in support, reflect that we have been listening.
I cannot accept any amendment that would require the Secretary of State to give primacy to one consideration, even the welfare of a child, above all others. I repeat that I am not aware of any government that can deliver on that.
We are making the provision because we want to make sure that children and families are properly and decently cared for. I repeat the commitment--I hope at not too great a length--that if the average time for processing the initial application for asylum by a family is not down to an average of two months by 1st April 2000--that is not far away--we shall not bring families into the new support arrangements at that time.
In future, families will rely and will need to rely on the new support arrangements for a fairly short period of time. Within that time period we shall make arrangements to ensure that families with children will be entitled to the full range of support and assistance, including education, free school meals, milk vouchers, healthcare, free prescriptions and access to social services. In other words, we shall take full account of the welfare needs of the child.
I go back to my noble friend Lord Judd. We shall want to reflect those matters in the guidance that we give to case workers and those providing services on the ground. I can go no further than that. It is a reasonable point to have arrived at. I am perfectly happy, as always, to consider detail, but I repeat, I hope without discourtesy, that we cannot go further than that.
Lord Judd: Before my noble friend sits down, perhaps I can say that some of his remarks go a long way to meeting my point. I thank him for that, though we shall want to see the guidance and the spirit in which he spoke put into words. However, I hope my noble friend will forgive me if I pick up on two points.
The first is a specific point dealing with what the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said. The complaint is not whether in the aggregate vouchers and money reach the same level as would be available to destitute people in this country, though that is a pretty minimalist approach. My noble friend talks genuinely about the "real" refugees and the "real" asylum seekers. We have to recognise that people who have been through that situation are looking for security. They are desperately affected by the stigma of vouchers. They do not have the cash in their hands to the same extent as an English person would to give them even that degree of confidence. Their vulnerability and insecurity are accentuated. That is why there is concern on that issue.
The second point is more about presentation. My noble friend is someone I greatly respect and I am glad he is in the work he is in. But I wonder whether he will read some of the comments he made tonight. He is inclined to say, "Yes, we will do this. Yes, we have this commitment. But we must remember that we have other responsibilities". Some of us would say that that is exactly what is wrong. We should be saying, "Of course we have responsibilities to the taxpayer. Of course we have responsibility for dealing with people who are abusing the system. But we must remember that we have our commitment to the refugees and asylum seekers and that must be the guiding principle".
It is a balance of language and I ask the Minister, as a friend, to look at some of the things he said tonight to see whether in the future the balance of language can be changed.
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