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Lord Williams of Mostyn: The noble Earl has raised important questions. He has pointed out the difference in drafting between Clauses 107 and 108. I said that I would look again at subsections (1) and (2) of Clause 108 to ascertain whether asylum seekers with specific need to access services provided under those provisions will be able to access them in the same way in future.

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As I understood the noble Earl's questions, they were: why have you cast Clause 108 differently from Clause 107? Are you in danger of excluding those whom you do not really want to exclude? I believe that he has a legitimate point. I did not give any guarantee in that respect, but the reason I intervened early in the debate was simply to say that I thought it was a point that we ought to consider. Indeed, it is one that I shall be considering actively before Report stage.

Earl Russell: I thank the Minister most warmly for that response. I do not yet know whether I have received a welcome concession or a very welcome concession; in either case, I am extremely pleased. I look forward to hearing more about it on Report. For the time being--

Viscount Astor: Before the noble Earl withdraws the amendment, I wonder whether the Minister would like to respond to my points now or wait until we reach Amendment No. 187.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: Amendment No. 187 is included in this group. However, I thought that I should give way to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, on that point. I should remind Members of the Committee that this group comprises Amendments Nos. 186A, 186B and 187. I have dealt with Amendment No. 186A and the noble Earl has responded. Amendment No. 186B will remove the current prohibition on making an order under Clause 109(1) that would grant access to social housing to people excluded from support by virtue of Part VI.

I should point out to the Committee that I am dealing, first, with my amendment. I shall then turn to the amendment tabled in the name of the noble Viscount. The general intention is that those subject to immigration control who are here for a limited period should not have access to long-term social housing. There are some cases where we might want to relax that; for example, some universities lease spare accommodation from local authorities to accommodate students, some of whom may be from overseas and subject to immigration control. The amendment is designed to give flexibility.

I am grateful to the noble Viscount for raising his particular point and for giving me this opportunity to deal with it. I can tell him that I am aware that there is some concern that we have the drafting wrong; in other words, we have gone further than is necessary. Therefore, I undertake to think carefully about this and, if necessary, I shall come back with a further amendment on Report. Essentially, the Bill is about the support of asylum seekers during their asylum application. However, I can confirm to the noble Viscount that, in the devolution context, asylum is a reserved matter.

Earl Russell: I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 108 agreed to.

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Clause 109 [Housing authority accommodation]:

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 186B:

Page 67, line 36, leave out subsection (2).

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 109, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 110 agreed to.

Clause 111 [Other restrictions on assistance: Scotland]:

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 186C:

Page 68, line 33, leave out from ("person") to ("is") in line 34 and insert ("to whom section 106 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 (exclusion from benefits) applies").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 187 not moved.]

Clause 111, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 112 agreed to.

Clause 113 [Support for children]:

Baroness Williams of Crosby had given notice of her intention to move Amendment No. 187ZZA:

Page 70, line 5, at end insert--
("( ) An eligible person whose household includes a child under the age of 18, and his dependants, 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 asylum application by a person whose household includes a child under the age of 18 to the initial decision on such applications is not more than 2 months and that the average time from the lodging of such asylum applications to the determination by an adjudicator of the initial asylum decision is not more than 6 months.
( ) An eligible person whose household includes a child under the age of 18, and his dependants, shall in any event be eligible for any social security benefits to which he 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, if--
(a) 3 months have elapsed since the lodging of his application for asylum and he has received no decision on that application; or
(b) 6 months have elapsed since the lodging of his application for asylum and his appeal against refusal of asylum is disposed of.").

The noble Baroness said: This gives me the opportunity simply to say that I accept the Minister's assurances. I apologise for my attempt to try to say so too soon, when he spoke to this group of amendments. I am most grateful for those assurances and fully understand the points made by the noble Lord. I shall not move this amendment.

[Amendment No. 187ZZA not moved.]

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 187ZA:

Page 70, line 20, after ("families)") insert ("or section 22 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 (equivalent provision for Scotland)").

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The noble Lord said: We turn now to quite an extensive group of amendments relating to Clause 113. The grouping includes Amendments Nos. 187ZA, 187A, 187B, 187BA, 187C, 187D, 188 and 188A. As we have followed this procedure in the past, perhaps it will be helpful if I speak to these amendments now. I should, of course, point out that my remarks are not intended to pre-empt anything which Members of the Committee may wish to say. I simply seek to set out our view on this group; otherwise, we may find ourselves in something of a muddle.

The provisions of Clause 113 are a little complex, although necessary. These amendments give me an opportunity to explain the working of the provisions. Under the new support arrangements, it will be the Home Secretary, rather than the local authority social services department, who is ordinarily responsible for meeting the accommodation and essential living needs of families. Local authorities cannot generally provide for those needs. But in all other respects, local authority social services departments will have the full range of responsibilities towards children and their families--for example, if a child had particular needs resulting from a disability or where a child was at risk. So asylum-seeking families can expect the same level of assistance as any other family, albeit from two different sources.

We are concerned to ensure that there is no gap in the sort of provision that may be made. We want the same arrangements to apply across the whole of the United Kingdom. Therefore, Amendments Nos. 187ZA and 187BA, which are government amendments, will extend the effect of the clause to Scottish law, on exactly the same basis as applies in England.

Perhaps I may now refer to Amendment No. 188, tabled in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Cope of Berkeley and Lord Alton. The reason for taking a regulation-making power in subsection (10) is to ensure that no gap can be opened up. This is a reserve power. However, if it transpires in the future that there is some essential service which is not being provided by the Secretary of State which a social services department is prevented from providing because it is classed as "assistance" under subsection (6) (which a local authority may not provide), we would want to make regulations removing that service from the general prohibition. As we ought to be able to have a seamless safety net, we thought that we should have this power available to us.

Amendments Nos. 187A, 187B, 187C and 187D, tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, address a different concern; namely, what happens when the Secretary of State withdraws assistance? I believe that the circumstances in which accommodation would be withdrawn from a family are very few and far between. If we are faced with a "problem" family, we would try counselling, support and supervision. As a last resort, the sanction may have to be to withdraw accommodation being provided.

In those circumstances, Clause 113 provides that it is only the social services department for the area in which the "withdrawn" accommodation was located that

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can provide assistance--in the form of accommodation or essential living needs support--under Section 17 of the Children Act, in England. The reason for this is quite plain: we do not want families to be able to bring about an eviction so that they can then go to a social services department in a completely different part of the country, demanding to be accommodated in that area. That is the point of this provision.

The amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, would apply the same restrictions on which authority would be able to provide assistance with essential living needs, if this sort of support were withdrawn. So it could be provided only by the authority in whose area the family had previously been living. I cannot think of circumstances in which assistance by way of essential living needs would be withdrawn, other than if the family had some other source of income; for example, getting assets transferred from overseas, or, as my noble and learned friend said earlier, perhaps winning the lottery.

The restrictions that Clause 113 places on areas of residence are, essentially, to prevent the drift of asylum seekers back to the South East, if they want to be accommodated by the state. It has always been perfectly plain that, if asylum seekers want to make their own arrangements for accommodation--for example, by staying with friends or relatives--and seek only assistance with essential living needs, we are content to provide that, wherever they live. During such period as accommodation is to be provided if needed by the Secretary of State, and he is providing essential living needs support, there is no role for local authorities in providing those forms of support. Subsections (7) to (9) of the clause relate only to which authority is to provide support where accommodation is withdrawn to prevent, as I said, a drift back to the South East.

Amendment No. 187C would amend subsection (8) of this clause. Subsection (8) provides that, if the Secretary of State withdraws accommodation from an asylum-seeker family, only the local authority in whose area the family was previously residing can provide assistance under Section 17 of the Children Act. Amendment No. 187C would limit this further so that the local authority in question could only provide such assistance to the family unit rather than to the child on its own. That would mean that any local authority, not just the local authority in whose area the family was already residing, could provide assistance to a child separately from its family, where the Secretary of State had withdrawn support from the family. We do not think that such an amendment is necessary. Under the Bill as it stands, any local authority--I am happy to confirm this--would be able separately to support the child under Section 20 of the Children Act.

I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for raising the question of inspections in Amendment No. 188A. In taking over the functions that local authorities would otherwise have for the support of asylum-seeker families, we are taking on a serious responsibility. I agree with the noble Earl that proper standards need to be maintained. I am happy to tell him--I think that this derives from part of our earlier conversations--that we are actively considering, along

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with the Department of Health, what role the Social Services Inspectorate might play in monitoring the activities of the new asylum support directorate in respect of families, and providing advice. We--or our agents--shall, of course, advise local authorities of families placed within their area, and liaise with them where particular services are required. However, the inspectorate has an interest in maintaining standards nationally, and we feel that its inspection or monitoring, rather than that of the local authorities, is the best way forward. I hope that I have met a concern and that the Committee has found my comments helpful. I beg to move.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Dholakia: I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation. He is right to say that Clause 113 is fairly complex. Therefore, we need to probe the implications of the four amendments in this group which stand in my name. The Minister has explained in what circumstances the provision of essential living needs in respect of a child might be withdrawn. The Minister has made it clear that there are few, if any, circumstances where the provisions of this clause would apply. However, will the Minister clarify whether--if such essential living needs are withdrawn--Section 17 assistance under the Children Act could be accessed?

My next point was mentioned in the other place. I refer to the circumstances under which accommodation might be withdrawn. Can the Minister give us any further information on that point? Will the Minister give an assurance that when access to Section 17 assistance is envisaged, this will be in respect of the child and his or her family, as provided for under Section 17, and that the child will be taken into care only as a last resort where that is deemed to be in the best interests of the child? As I say, I am grateful for the Minister's explanation of the amendments.

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