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The Earl of Sandwich: The amendment seeks an assurance from the Government that asylum seekers, especially the vulnerable groups, are not treated on a different basis from our own citizens. It can be fairly stated, but today we have heard evidence that asylum seekers need to be treated more generously than our own citizens because of the afflictions they have endured.
I have visited refugee camps in Thailand and Sudan where refugees or asylum seekers are treated better than the local population. The local population feel resentment, but that is not the case in the United Kingdom. However, the organisations are most concerned that we should consider these vulnerable groups on an equal footing, if nothing else.
The question then arises: do the Government intend that under the provisions of Clause 85 those needs of asylum seekers will be met? If the answer is "yes", the question arises: will that be by benefits or will the costs of disability be recognised as essential living needs within the meaning of Clause 85(7)? If the Minister can answer "yes", we have a further question to discuss. If he cannot answer "yes", he must accept the amendment. Those costs exist and, one way or another, they have to be dealt with.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: I want to refer in particular to Amendments Nos. 185 and 187ZZA on the supplementary Marshalled List. Sometimes when I listen to debates on the Bill in this House I am reminded of nothing so much as a brilliant pianist dealing with a broken-down piano and a very bad composition. No one who has sat through our days of debate in Committee could be other than extremely impressed by the ability, compassion and responses of Ministers. The trouble is that the composition is frightfully bad and however brilliant their handling of the instrument, the Bill is appalling.
No part of it more clearly demonstrates that than Clauses 106 to 108. They are invested with a mean-spiritedness which is not within the mood or spirit of this country nor of this debate. Distinguished contributions have been made. I shall not name everyone because it would take too long, but what we heard from the right reverend Prelate, from the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, from the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, and others bears out the fact that there is a strong spirit of humanity in this country and that the Bill falls very far short of it.
I shall not go on, except to say that in Amendment No. 185 some of us have tried to deal with the position of families which include children under the age of 18. In Amendment No. 186, the noble Lords, Lord Graham and Lord Clinton-Davis, have tried to deal with the victims of torture. We have tried to exempt those particularly vulnerable groups from the sheer harshness of the decision that benefits relating to people's needs over and above the basic level of income support cannot be met because the people concerned are subject to immigration laws.
As the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, said so forcefully, it is troubling that we seem to be relegating the most vulnerable groups to deliberately less favourable treatment than ourselves, despite the situations they have confronted and experienced. None of us would argue that there need not be proper controls. We have discussed that in other parts of the Bill. However, that cannot explain the discrimination against the disabled, those who are mentally ill and, above all, those who are in need of our mercy and understanding.
Because of the shortage of time, I shall direct myself to only two amendments in a little more detail. Amendments No. 185 and 187ZZA relate in particular to the position of children. As my noble friend Lord Dholakia so eloquently said, Amendment No. 185 relates to the attempt to re-establish the right to child benefit, housing benefit and council tax benefit for families which include children. It would go some way to restore their position from what has been laid down elsewhere in the Bill.
Amendment No. 187ZZA--I apologise for the complicated nomenclature of the amendments--relates more directly to what the Government have said. I want them to explain the present position. Earlier in the Committee proceedings, we strongly welcomed the statement made by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, about a decision to restore to children 100 per cent of their benefit entitlement in certain clear situations. Those situations related in particular to families waiting for procedures to be completed and appeals to be heard for a period longer than average expected as a result of the speeding-up of the process by the Government.
Amendment No. 187ZZA attempts to put into more legal phrases promises made from the Government Benches as regards the position of families where the average targets at which the Government themselves are aiming cannot be met. The Government have used the phrase "average lengths of time". They have also said, "When it appears that those lengths of time will have been accomplished". However, the phrases used so far are not precise. Amendment No. 187ZZA attempts to set out in precise detail the situations in which families with children would continue to be entitled to the present support system up to the introduction of Part VI of the Bill. Therefore, the provisions would be the same as they have been until now for children in families, and support would not be reduced in any period in which the targets were not met.
Amendment No. 187ZZA seeks to provide that persons whose families include children under the age of 18 will continue to be eligible for the social security benefits to which they would have been entitled if Part VI of this Bill or Schedule 1 to the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 had not been passed. In short, the amendment seeks to hold the Government to their promise that families will not be subject to the support system and will not have their existing right to benefit withdrawn until the targets have been met.
In the second part of the amendment we specify the targets. I believe that they are directly in line with those at which the Government are aiming; namely, three months from the lodging of an application for asylum if no decision has been received and six months from any appeal if it has not yet been disposed of. This is an attempt to ask the Government to set out in more detail the nature of their commitment; for how long the full support system set up under existing legislation will be maintained for families with children; at what stage families with children would fall back on Part VI of the Bill--namely, the new support system--and whether
Baroness David: I rise to express my support for Amendments Nos. 185 and 187ZZA, so ably moved by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby. I support very much what has been said by the right reverend Prelate. Furthermore, I should like to support what he said on vouchers. The Government have gone some way to improve the Bill, but it could do with a great deal more improvement. I hope very much that the Minister has listened to the concerns that have been expressed. I have a special interest in those involved with children. I hope that the Minister can be of real help when he comes to reply.
Viscount Astor: The amendments relate to Clause 106 which refers to the allowance under the Jobseekers Act and other benefits. Rather depressingly, I note that the Jobseekers Act was passed in 1995. I remember piloting the measure through your Lordships' House. It seems a long time ago, but there we are.
I should like to comment only on Amendment No. 185, which was spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I do not want to add anything except to say that we welcome the concessions made by the Government. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked questions which I believe deserve careful consideration by the Minister. I am sure he will give that. I hope equally that the Minister will not be drawn into a debate on the principle of vouchers. We have already had that debate and it is not necessary to go over it again. In any case, the principles do not relate to these amendments.
We are all concerned about children and how asylum seekers with children should fit in. My only concern about Amendment No. 185 relates to council tax. I am not sure whether an asylum seeker would ever pay council tax, so that provision seems rather unnecessary. However, the issue of children is important. I look forward to the Minister's reply.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: I shall take a little while to respond to the amendments because the debate on them has lasted about an hour. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I reply at some length. I believe that the noble Viscount is right. Last week we had a very extensive debate about vouchers, the principle of them and so forth. I think that the topic has now been sufficiently addressed. I realise that different views have been expressed, but there must be a limit to how many times we discuss the same topic, especially as these amendments do not focus on vouchers.
Despite the right reverend Prelate's experience in the past of children living together in one room, in some cases for years--we all deprecate that--perhaps I may say quite gently that that is the kind of vice that we are trying to avoid in the Bill. A family with dependent children will not live in a single room for years. They will be given proper, furnished accommodation. They will have pots and pans and the necessities of life; they will have their utility bills paid as a part of the
As the noble Viscount pointed out, my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer and I have sketched out on many occasions our policy approach to the scheme behind the Bill. It would better assist the Committee this evening if I focus on the amendments before us.
I do not know anything about a report in the Sunday Times; that is, any secondary report. I read the report myself. Whether it was accurate, I simply do not know. There has been a suggestion, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, pointed out, that some "French officials" were making financial payments or giving free tickets or similar benefits to encourage people to come here. I do not know whether that is true.
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