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The Lord Bishop of Ripon: I thank the Minister for his earlier intervention in dealing with a discrete issue. I apologise to him for failing to respond to remarks made at the end of the debate on Amendment No. 156. He commented on the work that he and I did in the context of human rights. I thank him for his very careful consideration of our concern. My memory is that the concern had been expressed originally by the Conservative Party, but I was also able to express it on behalf of this Bench. That matter gave rise to considerable confusion among the Liberal Democrats at the time. We were extremely grateful for the concession, which was perhaps somewhat unexpected, in relation to that particular Bill. I am grateful to the Minister for his willingness to listen on so many occasions and assist this House in every possible way, and also for his kind remarks about myself.
The Earl of Sandwich: My noble friend Lord Alton needs absolutely no support from me. Therefore I follow the example of the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, and sit down, having said that the reasons given by the Minister when we went to see him appeared to be rather technical. I hope that he will be able to expand on those reasons, particularly in view of what I am sure will be his general sympathy for the observations that have been made.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: I dealt with Amendment No. 166 in an earlier intervention. Therefore, in this debate we are concerned with Amendments Nos. 160, 161, 164, 164A and 165. I respect the concern expressed for the welfare of children in Amendment No. 160. There is no inherent reason why shared accommodation should not be adequate to meet an asylum seeker's living needs, bearing in mind that his stay in this country as an asylum seeker will be for a relatively limited period when we have new support arrangements in place and faster asylum decisions are delivered. Sharing is not the same as overcrowding. Shared facilities may be acceptable, for example where they are shared by only two or three adults. That is by no means uncommon in houses in multiple occupation in the country generally.
I agree that as for families we may need to consider different criteria in respect of such matters as access to bathroom and kitchen facilities. I confirm that the Government would not regard arrangements that prejudiced the health and welfare of a child as adequate for the purposes of Clause 85. To respond to one point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in my view first-floor accommodation without a lift is not adequate for a person in a wheelchair.
We have not formulated the details of the scheme by which we shall assess people for destitution and then provide the appropriate support. I assure the Committee that we are alive to the questions that have been raised relating to regulations to be made under Clause 85(8). I do not believe that we need to reflect that by way of amendment to the primary legislation. I hope that I am being helpful in acknowledging that within the secondary legislation we may well wish to reflect the need for the welfare of families to be properly taken into account in making judgments about accommodation.
I hope that I have dealt with the spirit of the concerns about "suitable" raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. One of the problems is that, as he knows better than I, in the context of housing legislation there is a mass of judicial adjudication. We need to be careful not to confuse the two. Housing legislation is essentially concerned with people who are established in this country. Many of them have extensive possessions and settled lifestyles, and, therefore, their needs are different.
We want to provide asylum seekers with accommodation that is adequate for their needs: shelter and facilities for the proper preparation of food, sleeping and personal hygiene. But that accommodation must also reflect their circumstances. I do not believe that we need another definition that may be inappropriate for the reason that I mentioned. I undertake to consider carefully whether there is a need to use the regulations under Clause 87 to give a more precise meaning to the new concept of "adequate".
I turn to Amendment No. 164. I have already indicated our general approach. I doubt that we need to detail matters in primary legislation. Some of the points may well need to be covered in regulations to be made under Clause 87(1)(c); others will be a matter for the Secretary of State's scheme and the desk instructions that go with it. I undertake that we shall consult on the content of the regulations later this year. We shall also publish a revised version of the process manual which sets out the way in which an asylum seeker's case for support will be processed. We shall be asking asylum seekers whether they have any special needs at the time we consider the initial application. If there are special needs--such as physical disability; to take one illustration further--we should want to take those into account in deciding what sort of support to offer and in what location.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: I appreciate the tone of the Minister's reply on these points. Can the noble Lord give us any indication of when the regulations to which he refers might be published? Shall we have sight of even a draft version before Report stage?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: I am not sure about the time-scale. I shall write to the noble Lord before we break for the Summer Recess, even if it is to say that my uncertainty remains the same and I cannot give more than an indication. However, I shall do the best that I can by next Thursday.
The Home Office has surpassed itself. I now have the intelligence that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, wanted. We shall consult in October, and the regulations should be available in the new year (February). At the end of February, I know that the noble Lord will be asking me where they are, but that is the information I have.
It is important to reiterate what my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer and I have said on many occasions: children of asylum seekers will continue to enjoy the full protection of the Children Act in all essential respects, and their accommodation and essential living needs will be provided under the Part VI arrangements. In particular--I am going further than the point raised this evening--if there is a particular need to protect children--for example, if they are likely to be victims of abuse--I am happy to confirm that they will be able to continue to rely on the good offices of local authority social services departments.
On public health, those seeking asylum at port of entry would normally be subject to a health screening for infectious or similar diseases. We shall consider what other steps need to be taken in the cluster areas (as I believe that I can call them) to maintain good public health given the influx of asylum seekers. We expect--it is the point of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia--that legal services suitable to the needs of asylum seekers will develop in the areas where we are relocating. That is part of the continuing discussions with the Lord Chancellor's Department which my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer mentioned earlier.
I shall revert in more detail to this point on a later amendment, but touch on it now. A small number of asylum seekers require specialist services to address conditions which result from torture. I pay tribute to the very fine work of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. Where it is clear that someone needs specialised services which cannot be delivered other than through a body of that sort, and the location of that body does not fit in with our normal cluster arrangements, we shall consider the possibility of finding accommodation adjacent to those services. It is a limited number of cases, but that does not make the point any less important. I shall retain for the next amendment the further good news arising out of our conversations so that we can all go to bed content, if not happy.
We have to look to landlords who can provide quality accommodation on a suitable basis and who will be willing and able to rehouse those who have been granted asylum. I stress that we are talking from our experience. The Bosnian resettlements exercise about five years ago showed that if you put enough effort into it, and people are settled alongside others from a similar background, it can be effective.
Amendments Nos. 164A and 165 involve an extremely neat piece of drafting. They turn the point of the Bill utterly on its head. For that reason, if for no other, I am unable to accept them. One of the problems at the moment is that some London authorities and their
Other parts of the United Kingdom have a surplus of spare housing. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, that some of it is not good, but some of it is perfectly suitable. In fact, there were more than 75,000 vacancies in local authority housing outside the London area.
We want to try to house people from the same background in the same areas wherever possible and we shall do our best to do so. At the risk of being rebuked for being Mr Scrooge yet again, I may say that the homelessness legislation, which is the nearest parallel in this context, does not envisage any choice of accommodation for the person being assisted. Most asylum seekers being accommodated at the moment by virtue of judicial intervention--as the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, said--under the National Assistance Act 1948 are not given any choice about location of accommodation. If we succeed in our aim of having a relatively short period of accommodation, anyone who is granted leave to remain in this country will have the ability to make whatever arrangements they wish.
I think that I have covered most of the questions that have been raised. I hope that the Committee accepts that I have been reasonably helpful. I stress, as my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton said earlier, that we are having a meeting with interested parties tomorrow. We are willing to approach questions in an open-minded way as long as they are consistent with the general spirit of the Bill. I hope that I have demonstrated that with this clutch of amendments.
Lord Cope of Berkeley: I am grateful to the Minister for his reaction to Amendment No. 166 and for his pre-emptive strike. I remain puzzled by the fact that the Government, as the Minister reiterated, propose to ask the supported people what their special needs may be but will include a statutory ban on the Secretary of State taking any notice of any preference they might express about where they wish to live. That is an odd provision.
Amendment No. 160 was the main amendment in this group, and I have been reassured by what the Minister said and by the provisions of Clause 113(3) and (4), to which the Minister, had he wished to extend the debate, could also have referred.
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