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Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 155B:


Page 55, line 6, leave out ("of his, or of his spouse,").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 155C:


Page 55, line 7, leave out ("dependent on him") and insert ("a dependant of his").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 84, as amended, agreed to.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon moved Amendment No. 156:


After Clause 84, insert the following new clause--

ELIGIBILITY FOR SOCIAL SECURITY BENEFITS WHILST AWAITING ASYLUM DECISIONS

(" . An asylum-seeker, and his dependants if any, shall be eligible for any social security benefits to which they would have been entitled if neither Part VI of this Act nor Schedule 1 to the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 had been in force, until such time as the Secretary of State has placed a report in the Library of the House of Commons giving details of the average process times in the determination of--
(a) initial asylum decisions; and
(b) appeals to adjudicators against initial asylum decisions,
and certifying that the average time from the lodging of an application for asylum to the determination of an adjudicator of the appeal against the initial asylum decision is less than six months.").

The right reverend Prelate said: This amendment has an obvious and clear purpose. It proposes that the voucher system will not be triggered until the Government's target of six months for initial application and appeal is met and certified by the Secretary of State by means of a report placed in the Library of the House of Commons. We owe a debt to the parliamentary adviser to the Refugee Council, Mike Kaye--I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Alton--who has provided a good deal of explanation to many of us. However, this amendment is tabled with the support of the Immigration Law Practitioners Association and the Asylum Rights Campaign.

The Government have already indicated that they would trigger the voucher system for families with children only when the target is met. This amendment extends that trigger to all families and single people. In support of the amendment I put forward four arguments. First, under the Government's proposal that the trigger should extend only to families with children, there is a great danger that their applications will be processed quickly while all others will be left on the slower track. That has happened in similar circumstances in the past. For example, under the 1993 Act all new applicants were processed quickly but those already in the system were left to languish for an average of six and a half years for initial decision. Although I do not suggest for a moment that that will apply in the present case, there is necessarily a strong possibility of a slower track for those without children. Under present arrangements, they will be on the voucher system for the whole of the waiting period.

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Secondly, there is a stigma attached to vouchers. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, has already spoken to this matter, to which we shall return later in Committee.

My third, and perhaps strongest, argument relates to cost. The cost of the asylum support directorate will be considerable. The additional cost of the voucher system is substantial. To what purpose? The Government may well argue that it is to keep out economic migrants who want to take advantage of our benefits system. There is no evidence that the changes which have already been made have affected the number of asylum seekers. The Government believe that the drop in asylum applications during 1996 was the consequence of the removal of benefits from in-country applicants, but the drop in asylum applicants began three months before the benefits were withdrawn. There was no last-minute rush to get in. The fact that 1995 saw the second highest number of asylum seekers ever received in the United Kingdom made it highly likely that the figure would drop in 1996.

Moreover, the pattern of applications has not changed. In-country applications still represented some 49 per cent of all applications made in 1997 and 1998, despite the fact that in-country applicants did not have access to benefits. If benefits in cash were an incentive, port applications would be expected to increase. There would also be an expectation of an increase in asylum applications in Scotland where cash benefits continue for all applicants, including in-country applicants.

Is it not likely that most asylum seekers are unaware of the complexities of the scheme which is hard enough for some of us to grasp even when we are not under pressure and have the benefit of considerable advice and support? For what purpose is the asylum support directorate being established? I realise that its purpose is wider than simply the administration of the voucher scheme. It will manage dispersal as well as support. But if it does not keep asylum seekers out, what does it do? Does it reassure the natives? That is us. If that is the purpose, the comment of the noble Earl, Lord Dartmouth, is relevant here. Do we wish to bear the cost of such reassurance? It seems to me that the interests of asylum seekers and taxpayers coincide at this point.

Is there not a much better use for many of the resources that are being put into the asylum support directorate? Could they be used by the asylum directorate? I find this language very confusing. I understand that the asylum directorate is that part of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate which deals with asylum applications. But it is confusing to have a term so similar to "asylum support directorate". I hope that I have indicated their responsibilities in the correct way.

The asylum directorate is concerned in the making of initial determinations. Surely support put towards it would meet the earlier point of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, that good initial determinations are a key to reducing the backlog, and to ensuring that the later stages of the process referred to by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, are not invoked.

The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents about 2,000 of the Home Office officials in the IND, has estimated that the switch of resources from

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the asylum support directorate to the asylum directorate would enable an additional 51,000 initial determinations a year to be made. That is a huge number and would begin to make credible the government claims that that will reduce the period of initial determination and appeal to six months in all cases; or at least to an average of six months. At the moment, it is difficult to believe that those targets will be achieved. The backlog of applications awaiting initial determination rose by 13,000 in 1998, and by a further 13,515 in the first five months of 1999. The backlog of initial determinations has risen every month from March 1998, when it was 50,590, to May 1999, when it was 78,285--an increase of almost 30,000.

In its evidence to the Special Standing Committee, the Public and Commercial Services Union has described the proposed targets of the Government as wholly unrealistic. It estimates that there will still be a backlog of nearly 50,000 initial applications by April 2001. That is the date by which the Government hope to clear the backlog. In the face of that evidence, on what further evidence do the Government claim that their figure is achievable?

The point is important because the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, argued that the new support system is fair if it is applied for only a short period. In Hansard of 29th June 1999 at col. 251 he said:


    "I do not pretend that that is a wealth untold, but it is not unreasonable ... if we can deliver on the two-month and four-month targets".

Is not the corollary that it is unreasonable if the Government cannot deliver on those targets? I suggest that the evidence points to the possible, indeed probable, failure to do so.

I return to my original argument. The costs of the asylum support directorate could be very considerably used to enable the Government to deliver on these targets by reallocating at least some of the resources to the IND for use within the asylum directorate for making initial determinations. The case seems overwhelming, especially as it is likely to get the Government out of a very considerable difficulty. The Home Office Minister in the other place, Mr Mike O'Brien, recognised that,


    "increasing the speed at which decisions are taken is a key to resolving problems in the asylum system. That is the best deterrent and the best way of resolving the appalling shambles that is our current system".--[Official Report, Commons, 18/5/99; col. 1599.]

Provided that that is done with a proper attention to good initial decisions resulting in fewer appeals, we should all say "amen" to that.

The amendment would not do away with vouchers, but it would considerably reduce the responsibilities of the asylum support directorate, which the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, has already claimed will be greatly under-resourced for the responsibilities that it will have to undertake. Instead of the directorate being invited to perpetuate a system that is inefficient and that will do nothing to achieve the Government's objectives, the amendment will reduce its responsibilities and enable some of the resources to be used more efficiently

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and effectively to decrease the backlog. A smaller bureaucracy will be all that is necessary to deal with the situation that will then pertain.

I recognise that my argument builds largely on the claim that the resources directed to the asylum support directorate could be directed elsewhere and that that might be considered slightly wide of an argument for the amendment as it stands. I wish to end my remarks with an argument that is directed precisely to the amendment. Before doing so, I shall summarise my first three arguments, which are the dangers of the two-track system--one for families with children and one for families without--the stigma attached to vouchers and the cost of the asylum support directorate.

I suggest a fourth argument. If the Government are confident of meeting their targets, what is their difficulty in accepting the amendment? By doing so, they would be expressing their confidence in their judgment that the targets will be reached, so triggering the reduction of benefits. On the other hand, if the Government resist the amendment, they will clearly signal that they do not have confidence in their ability to reach the targets. Let the Government clearly send the opposite signal that they believe the targets will be met and the new support system will come into being. Let them avoid the situation that will pertain if they fail and, if this amendment is not accepted, the result that large numbers of asylum seekers will be left on a system that will provide them with support that--by implication from the words of the Minister in the other place--will be unreasonable for the long period that they will have to survive before their applications will be heard. I beg to move.


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