Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Warner: This amendment contains a major flaw. The speeches seemed to be an attempt to re-open the whole issue as to whether or not the asylum support directorate should be established to run a more comprehensive and integrated system of providing support, including accommodation, to asylum seekers. This does not seem to me to be the place to conduct that debate.

The fundamental problem with Amendment No. 156 is that, if passed, it would effectively require the Government, and the Home Secretary in particular, to organise two systems of support for asylum seekers alongside each other. It would not change the requirement to continue with establishing and putting in place the asylum support directorate and all that goes with it. But it would require the Government to put in place, through the Benefits Agency, arrangements for

21 Jul 1999 : Column 1095

social security benefits to be paid to asylum seekers in this narrow group of circumstances. That puts further costs on the Government and a further set of arrangements which are unnecessary. I suggest therefore that we do not support the amendment.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: I shall limit myself, as was agreed earlier, to the amendment.

This clause is trying to focus on the commitment to reduce the time taken to reach an initial decision. I repeat what my right honourable friend Jack Straw said on Report in the other place. He confirmed that asylum seeker families with minor children would not be taken into the new support system at 1st April 2000 unless he was satisfied that the target of two months for a decision time in those cases could be achieved.

I recognise that that may mean, at the outset of the new support arrangements, that the average waiting time and hence the average time spent on the new support scheme may be a little longer. But continuing with the current support arrangements, as my noble friend Lord Warner indicated a moment ago, is unsustainable. Asylum seekers will receive a fairer deal under the new support arrangements, which is why we want to give effect to them as soon as possible. I cannot agree therefore that it is appropriate to delay the commencement of Part VI in the way suggested.

I am sorry that the right reverend Prelate is to leave us soon. He and I had helpful discussions which we both found productive, in particular on the Human Rights Act. I had not realised that he was to leave until the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said so and I share his personal regret.

Earlier this evening we spent a great deal of time with various Members of the Committee urging that we ought to have a two-track system for those, in particular, with children; that is what it came to. Now the two-track system, as it is alleged to be, is said to be utterly wrong in principle. It is said that vouchers are a stigma. But all this amendment does is put off for a time the intermediate period up to the time when asylum seekers would all be on a voucher system. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, mentioned cost and the level of benefit across Europe was spoken of. I find those comparisons of limited use. Many countries provide more generous benefits to their own citizens, but do not give the same level to asylum seekers. Many countries have quite separate arrangements.

I was asked about delay by the right reverend Prelate. We are putting in an additional £120 million over three years to achieve our targets. We are recruiting 2,000 additional caseworkers. Decisions at the moment, in terms of case resolution, have been running at an average of about 900 decisions a week. We have to invest money in casework. We have to provide funding for support in any event. If we look at the overall arrangements in the Bill, they will be more cost effective.

It is said that benefits are not a magnet. I have to disagree. It is difficult otherwise to explain rationally the large number of applicants from Eastern Europe--

21 Jul 1999 : Column 1096

I am not talking about the noble Earl's knowledge of those who live in the back streets of Jaffna. A large number of applicants are from Eastern Europe. They have a very low success rate; they make every effort to apply for asylum at port of entry and therefore receive benefits. They generally congregate in the south-east.

If I inadvertently said an additional 2,000 case workers, I am very sorry. I thought I had said 200. If it was heard correctly or misheard as 2,000 I correct myself immediately. I am obliged to my noble friend Lord Burlison for jogging my arm on that.

It is said that changes in application rates in 1996 were not as a result of benefit changes. I believe that they were. It is very difficult to resist the conclusion that the withdrawal of benefits, draconian though it was, did not have an effect.

In summary, therefore, we have come to a policy decision. We have given the undertaking which I have repeated and which Jack Straw made about families with dependent children. Being realistic, as I say, there may be a slightly longer time than average spent when the new support scheme starts. We are intent on starting it. I am not going to re-traverse the dispute about vouchers, whether families with children should be treated differently and whether the cost is going to be affected. I believe that we shall deliver something which is efficient, effective and humane. Therefore, I ask the Committee not to agree to this amendment.

Earl Russell: Before the Minister again speaks in that slightly dismissive way about the low rate of successful applications from eastern Europe, I ask him to look at the Refugee Legal Centre's hearings on the claims of the Roma who landed at Dover. I believe he will find that it is not quite as simple as he suggested.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: I set the facts before the Committee.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon: I am greatly warmed by the gracious words of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool. I particularly liked the way in which the noble Earl phrased his impression of the distinctive contribution which came from these Benches and which we hope that we shall be permitted to continue. I also very much enjoyed the humour with which he made his points about benefit levels. I know the back streets of Jaffna having lived on the island of Sri Lanka for some years. Indeed, it was my perception of the mismatch between what was happening there and the perception in this country of what was occurring there which first drew me to be concerned with these issues. I am glad to support the remarks the noble Lord made about the inadequacy of the support proposed.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, made points about the exclusion which will be induced by having to produce vouchers and the way in which it will be easy for asylum seekers to become targets for the resentful. As regards the major flaw which the noble Lord, Lord Warner, mentioned, it seems that there will have to be two systems because of the concession which has been made

21 Jul 1999 : Column 1097

for families with children. Therefore, regardless of whether this amendment is accepted, or something like it, we shall be operating with two systems.

The Minister did not address the issue of the Government's confidence in their own ability, even with the additional resources he mentioned, to meet their own targets. It seems to me that in refusing this amendment the Government effectively are having to admit that they are covering themselves in the event of their targets not being realised. I do not believe that it was a satisfactory answer. I hope that we shall return to this matter at Report stage. As has already been mentioned, I shall not myself be present in the House then as a Member. I shall sadly miss not only these debates but those which I have shared in your Lordships' House over the years concerning many matters.

I was encouraged yesterday to train young Bishops in the issues of immigration and asylum. I mentioned to my colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark, that I had received some encouragement to do that. I believe that he was flattered to be considered a young Bishop. In any case, he will be the lead Bishop on the issues of asylum and immigration in your Lordships' House in the future. I know that he will perform that role with great confidence and success. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 157 not moved.]

Clause 85 [Persons for whom support may be provided]:

Lord Alton of Liverpool moved Amendment No. 158:


Page 55, line 23, leave out ("may") and insert ("shall").

The noble Lord said: This amendment is grouped with Amendment No. 159 which stands in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley. The purpose of this amendment is to give the Secretary of State not only the power but also the duty to provide support under the scheme in Part VI.

I would draw the attention of Members of the Committee to the debate which took place in the Special Standing Committee in another place on 4th May of this year. I cannot really better the words of Mr James Clappison, the Member of Parliament for Hertsmere, who spoke on behalf of the official Opposition during those proceedings, when he said:


    "I was curious because the choice of the word "may" rather than the word "shall" seems to envisage asylum seekers or their dependants possibly being destitute according to the conditions described in subsection (1). They could have become destitute, but the Government might choose to withhold support because they are under no duty to provide it. The subsection seems to contemplate a situation where support is withheld. The Minister needs to clear up that curious feature of this Bill".--[Official Report, Commons, Special Standing Committee, 4/5/99; col. 1272.]

This amendment gives the Government the opportunity to do just that. By definition, the support scheme is a final safety net whose recipients would otherwise be destitute, with nowhere else to turn for food or shelter.

21 Jul 1999 : Column 1098

It is therefore necessary that the provision of support under the scheme be a matter of duty imposed on the face of the primary legislation. That is why the amendment seeks to leave out the word "may" and to insert "shall".

Nothing short of that will do, not even assurances from the present government of an intention that the power will always be exercised. To rely on that would be to take the risk that some future Secretary of State will withhold support from the destitute. This is a theme that we have returned to time and again during Committee. It is not the good faith of the present Government or of the Ministers who sit on the Government Benches which is in doubt; it is the possibility that others who follow them, in some future incarnation, may not be prepared to act in the same way. It also ought to be said that if it is unthinkable that any Secretary of State would ever decline to exercise the power, there can be no reason not to make it a duty. That seems to me to be the most powerful argument of all. If it is unthinkable that all this will not be exercised as a duty, why not put it on the face of the Bill?

In addition to the humanitarian consideration which destitution should always inspire, it should be remembered that some asylum seekers will, in due course, be recognised as refugees to whom the UK owes international duties (not favours) under the 1951 convention. The reason given in another place for rejecting this amendment was that there was a need to retain "flexibility"--again, that word has mentioned a great deal in our debates. I understand the reason why Ministers would want to leave themselves some room for manoeuvre, but it was stated that there would be less flexibility if support were, "an entitlement in the formal sense". Those arguments were not fleshed out and they do not stand as either principled or practical objections to denying recognition of a duty on the Secretary of State to make provision for asylum seekers to receive food and shelter. They are matters of acknowledging responsibility for meeting the basic human rights that anyone is entitled to and should be placed on the face of the legislation.

The Minister may well say that it is his aim to prevent destitution, rather than waiting for it to happen. However, the issue here is not about "Waiting for Godot", and it is not about flexibility; it is about what duty we ought to impose. It would cost the Government little to put it on the face of the Bill. Not to do so will, conversely, raise serious questions about the Government's reasons for not acting in that way. With those words, I commend the amendment to the Committee. I beg to move.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page