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Perhaps the most important and clearly necessary of these amendments is Amendment No. 171 which deals with travel costs. The right reverend Prelate has mentioned the problem of dispersal. It is a specialist field of law and those who are expert in it are overwhelmingly concentrated in a few firms in London. Almost all the great legal victories of which one reads are won by those firms of lawyers. I once had to advise a correspondent from Colchester--not an area that Christopher Hill used to call one of the dark corners of the land--who had fallen into the hands of an incompetent adviser. My correspondent's case was good, but it was not until I put him in touch with Bates Wells and Braithwaite in London that anyone was able to develop the case for him to any satisfactory conclusion. Once I had done that, the case was strong and successful.
Someone on the level of support that would be given to asylum seekers under the Bill might have to come down from Newcastle to consult a lawyer in London. The vouchers may be redeemable in many places, but I do not think that they will be redeemable at rail ticket offices. If Amendment No. 171 is not accepted, I do not see how deserving clients will be put in touch with competent lawyers. If that does not happen, injustice will. I hope that the Minister, who has done so much to help us already--that is much appreciated--will sympathise with the amendments.
Lord Warner: I rise to speak against Amendments Nos. 154 and 170. It seems to me that they are based on a misconceived view. As far as I am aware, in this country we do not give people who may or may not be entitled to social security benefit access to legal advice about their entitlements. The amendments relate to Part VI of the Bill, which deals with support for asylum seekers. They are not about legal advice connected with people's entitlement to stay in this country.
It is a longstanding principle of public administration that the agencies responsible for particular services make explanatory leaflets and materials available to those who might be entitled to their services. That is how the housing benefit system operates in relation to our own citizens, and the same is true for relief from council tax and access to social security benefits. Indeed, for social security benefits, we print the leaflets in different languages so that people have access to them. As far as I recall, before the 1996 Act, asylum seekers did not have access to legal advice about their entitlement to social security benefits. The amendments would be a change of direction that would be out of kilter with the way we run support arrangements for our own citizens.
The Lord Bishop of Ripon: May I also add the point that one of the responsibilities of the new asylum support directorate will be to deal with benefits and to handle the dispersal of asylum seekers? The point about access to legal aid is directly related to the dispersal policy. Therefore, it is right that the directorate should bear some responsibility.
Lord Hylton: I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Warner, will appreciate that the positioning of Amendment No. 154 is precise. It comes before Clause 84, which is the interpretation clause, and before Clause 85, which deals with support. It is a free-standing amendment that deals with legal advice that can determine the whole future of applicants, and whether they are allowed to remain in this country or are deported to another country where they may easily suffer persecution and even death.
Lord Cope of Berkeley: It may be that the wording of the amendment does not achieve what we seek. What I had hoped to achieve through Amendments Nos. 170 and 171, and what I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, has achieved in Amendment No. 154, is access to legal advice on all the issues that arise under the Bill. Money for travelling will be provided under Part VI of the Bill, but the legal advice will not be limited to questions arising under Part VI. The point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon about dispersal is important.
I point out to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that not all legal wisdom resides in London. I recall a case that went on for a large proportion of my time as a Member of Parliament. A constituent in Chipping Sodbury took local legal advice that unfortunately did not make the best of the case. He went to a big firm of London lawyers to sue the Chipping Sodbury lawyer and ended up suing the London lawyer. When he acted as a litigant in person, he succeeded where the local firm in Chipping Sodbury and the well-known firm of solicitors--I shall not mention the name--had failed. That demonstrates that one cannot anticipate the outcome of legal actions, even if it seems that the legal situation is clear.
Lord Clinton-Davis: I am proved wrong three or four times a day. Why cannot this matter be dealt with in the more informal way that I have suggested? Is it absolutely necessary to impose a legal obligation in the Act? Could not the Minister accept my suggestion that the issue could be dealt with by way of ministerial advice to those who deal with asylum seekers to the
Lord Alton of Liverpool: I strongly support the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, and spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley. I agree with the comments made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon about the problems that will be posed by dispersal. The more that we spread the load of asylum seekers around the country, the more that people will have to travel to centres of excellence to get legal advice. In my years as a constituency representative in Liverpool, people frequently used firms of solicitors in Manchester who specialised in such issues. Even within a region, there are well known firms that specialise in such matters and people have to travel to see those solicitors.
In Amendment No. 171, the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, picks up the issue of travel expenses. I make the practical point that although I welcome the Minister's earlier comments about dependants, the position of under 25s remains the same. Under Part VI of the Bill, a person under 25 would receive £27.90 a week, of which £10 would be in cash and the rest in vouchers. As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, pointed out, vouchers are hardly likely to be accepted at railway stations so the person would be left with £10 a week for travel. Put another way, that is £1.30 a day. No doubt many of your Lordships use public transport. It has been much in the news in the past few days, not least in the constituency of Eddisbury, where the Secretary of State, Mr John Prescott, used it. Everyone has been trying to wear their public transport credentials on their sleeve and I welcome that. But a bus ride from Pimlico to Westminster--a route which I know many noble Lords take because I see them on the bus from time to time, will cost £1. If only £1.30 a day was allocated to you, you would not have the money to make the simple return journey from one part of London to another, let alone from one part of the country to another.
In practical terms, we need to improve the level of support. That again relates to the arguments about vouchers and the wider issues which we explored in the earlier debates. I shall not trespass into those territories because I, too, am happy to adopt a self-denying ordinance on that. However, there is a specific point to which the Minister ought to reply and the sooner I stop speaking the more quickly he is likely to do it.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: Perhaps I may make one final point. In many ways, Amendment No. 171 supports the Government's policy of limiting the number of legal representatives to which asylum seekers and refugees should have access. That limit is likely to mean that in some parts of the country there will be no one on the registered list. There will be a great temptation for asylum seekers to be approached by some
If the asylum seeker or refugee has no means of travelling to the people on the registered list, or to the refugee legal centre or the IAS, both of which have limited numbers of offices, the temptation to be represented by someone who just comes by, whose name they will not know is not on the list, will be very great. I beg the Minister to bear that in mind when replying to the amendment.
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