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Lord Dholakia: My name appears to this amendment, together with that of the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool. He has very ably dealt with the disability issues. What better champion could there be on that issue than the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, who has also put his name to this amendment? I do not need to develop the same arguments again.
I should like to concentrate on Amendment No. 185. If there is an area of serious concern in the Bill, it must be about the provision relating to children. We welcome the number of concessions that the Minister has already announced. But this particular amendment seeks to go a little further in trying to exclude certain people from the provisions of paragraphs (e), (j) and (k) of Clause 106(1). There was something of a heated debate last time when someone questioned whether we had the permission of the taxpayer on these matters. Perhaps I may put it another way. Throughout the world, this country has a unique record of supporting charities concerned with children. If this is one particular cause in which we should seek the approval of taxpayers, I have no reason to doubt that they would support what we are trying to do in this clause.
The amendment would take the asylum-seeker family with children out of the support scheme. Access to welfare benefits is currently restricted to asylum seekers who apply for asylum at the port of entry. The need for this amendment is particularly urgent because of the nature of the support that is to be provided for children and families under Part VI of the Bill. That may seriously compromise the welfare of children and their development. A lot of material has been produced by the Children's Consortium. Perhaps I may first of all declare an interest as a trustee of the Save the Children Fund. Other organisations, such as Barnardo's, UNICEF, the Refugee Council's children's section, and the Children's Society, are all concerned at the likely implications if we do not adequately support an asylum seeker's dependent children under the age of 18.
As I said earlier, we acknowledge the recent announcement as regards support arrangements for families with children. However, despite that concession, the legislation and the fundamental principle on which the asylum support directorate will operate still remain unchanged. As such, it will continue to appear that many of the provisions of Part VI of the Bill (on support for asylum seekers) clearly continue to breach Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights--relating to the right to family life--the Children Act 1989 and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. As it stands, the Bill's provisions on support arrangements for families will be detrimental to the welfare and development of children and inadequate for meeting their particular needs.
This is the first time in decades that support for an asylum seeker's children under the age of 18 is to be set at less than 100 per cent of the urgent cases rate of income support. The Government have justified that reduction in income support levels on the ground that a destitute asylum-seeking family will be dependent on the asylum support directorate only for two months while the asylum claim is being determined. The Minister in the other place stated that an asylum-seeking family will not have the same living expenses as a resident family. An asylum-seeking family will not have to replace long-term household items and utility costs will be met by the asylum support directorate while a one-off payment may be available to families after six months living on the asylum support arrangements.
Major concerns remain despite recent government announcements. Perhaps I may explain those concerns. Income support is designed to cover only day-to-day subsistence needs as opposed to additional long-term expenses ably identified in the detailed cases specified by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. Children and their families have the same basic daily living needs regardless of their immigration status and the time they are resident in the United Kingdom. There is a lack of public scrutiny regarding the detail of Part VI of the Bill, and a lack of empirical evidence to establish an irrefutable link between the incentive of income support payments and the arrival of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom. We need to concentrate resources upon achieving best value within the Immigration and Nationality Directorate as the most efficient strategy to reduce abuse of the asylum system.
I refer to the relative cost of supporting asylum-seeking families with children through welfare benefits as opposed to the arrangements of Part VI of the Bill. There is the incompatibility of the support arrangements of Part VI with the Government's commitments and obligations to safeguard the best interests of the child as set out in international and domestic childcare legislation. I point out the contradiction between the Government's policies towards asylum seekers and their commitment to eradicating social exclusion and poverty among all children, young people and families in the United Kingdom and the discrimination and daily difficulties faced by asylum-seeking families and their children who are obliged to use vouchers as the main source of income.
It is undoubtedly the case that the most effective disincentive to economic migrants would be to speed up the decision-making process for asylum claims. We welcome the Government's commitment to reducing the current length of time in making a decision on an asylum claim as this will prevent people abusing the system over the years. However, the priority given by the Government to creating a below-subsistence level support system despite the adverse effect on the development of children stands in disappointing contrast to their commitment to tackle child poverty and social exclusion.
Many asylum-seeking families will ultimately settle in the United Kingdom. The initial impression gained while they wait for the decision will have a lasting effect on the emotional attitude of children and young people towards their host country while the support arrangements are likely to have a negative impact upon their physical and social well being. It is not conducive to the long-term settlement of asylum-seeking families to place them in a system which will not enable them to meet the children's basic needs. I hope, therefore, that the Government will look sympathetically at the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others.
Lord Hylton: I support this group of amendments. The first three of those proposed by my noble friend Lord Alton refer to the removal of disability benefits from asylum seekers. We have to look at the context in which it is proposed that this should happen. We know that there is a backlog of some 75,000 cases stretching back to 1993, perhaps a little further. The Committee will recall that that was the year of the Act previous to the last legislation on the subject. So we are faced with a number of disabled people, some severely disabled, who will be deprived of what they currently receive.
I shall be grateful if the Minister will reply to this question. If the Bill is passed as drafted, will asylum seekers suffering from disabilities be placed in a worse position than other immigration cases which happen to be pending?
Viscount Brentford: I support the amendment. However, I wish to ask the Minister a few questions. The clause seems somewhat oddly structured. Subsection (1) deals with the jobseeker's allowance. What is the thinking behind the drafting of the clause? It does not matter how the individual's disability arose. Some people become disabled in the course of the flight from their country to avoid persecution. Others were disabled earlier in life. It is important that in either case people who are disabled are properly looked after in this country.
There is a great deal of anxiety among those who have the practical care of asylum seekers that only about 70 per cent of the value received--whether in vouchers or cash--will be available for the asylum seekers as opposed to those who are in this country. The exclusion of the allowances will make carers of asylum seekers even more concerned. I am sure that many Members of the Committee are receiving papers, letters and memoranda expressing concern about the situation. If the Minister rejects the amendment, I look forward to an assurance from him as to how the extra financial provision will be made by the Government or the local authority to ensure that those disabled people are properly looked after.
The Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells: I begin with an apology. I was unable to take part in earlier discussion of the Bill, although I am grateful for the diligence shown in amending it. I am grateful to my colleagues on these Benches for the important contributions they have made.
When I first saw the Bill, I was unfortunately ill and therefore unable to give it my whole attention. However, I was shocked at the treatment that the Bill implied and threatened. Having worked for 13 years as the Bishop of Stepney among immigrant communities and being involved many times in disputed cases, the unamended version of the Bill suggested to me a nation which, in its desire to deter economic migrants, was committing itself to laws which not only added to the suffering of genuine asylum seekers but which were also insensitive to the needs of the extremely vulnerable families involved.
I have vivid memories of the lives of children shut up for months, indeed, years, in one room. I have memories of the illness and neurotic disorders involved. I experienced that not only in east London, where families often became submerged in the difficulties which already existed for others, but also in a new town where the victims, so to speak, were considerably isolated by being so different from the rest of the community.
I therefore want to express appreciation for the way in which the Government and Ministers have listened to the debates and amended the proposed legislation. There have also been many consultations outside your
Sadly, I come to the debate late in the day, but I want to pay tribute to the progress made. However, today I hear substantial anxiety and a hope for further change. There are more questions still to ask. I shall not repeat the evidence given by the noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Dholakia, but, in case the Committee thought that by my silence I did not support what they said, I wish to stand and support them.
There appears to be a distinction between the Government's policy towards asylum seekers and their commitment to eradicate social exclusion and poverty among all children, young people and their families in the UK. We all realise the enormous difficulties in the situation which the Government face and we want to encourage them in their determination to be fair and just to such families as they come exposed and vulnerable to our society. I want to emphasise the great importance of the cohesion of families. If, through all the harrowing events which have brought a family here, they manage somehow to stay together and to support each other, they are different from the isolated people I have seen during my ministry who crack up under the pressure of the society around them.
One proposal which distresses me, and which was noted by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, is the use of vouchers. The voucher system was described by the Government as expensive, cumbersome and not very useful, and I do not know why it is necessary now. Will the Minister attend to that detail because there is something discriminatory about trying to live with vouchers? They are discriminatory in terms of available shopping facilities; other people see the vouchers being used at the check-out; and the system is difficult to control.
On the one hand, I want to thank the Government for what is being done, but, on the other hand, I believe that there is still more to be done. Finally, will the Minister more fully explain the voucher system and how people are expected to survive on them in their own setting?
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