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Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, I should like to ask the Minister a question relating to Amendments Nos. 183 and 184. I have in mind the facilities which will or will not be available for HIV and AIDS treatment. I believe that everyone in this House knows that Africa is ripe with HIV and AIDS. Many asylum seekers may be HIV positive but not know it. I should like to know what happens when such people become ill. Can the Minister tell us what the facilities for testing and for drugs will be? Can he also say what facilities will be available for the children who may also be HIV positive? Indeed, some of the women who have been raped may become HIV positive.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, when we discussed Part VI of the Bill in Committee, my noble friend Lady Mar and I moved a number of amendments which dealt with some of the questions that have been put before the House today. I am happy to support the noble Lords, Lord Graham of Edmonton and Lord Swinfen, and the right reverend Prelates the Bishops of Lichfield and of Southwark in the amendments to which they have spoken. They are good amendments which should commend themselves to the House.

Linked with these amendments are Amendments Nos. 149 and 150 which are tabled in my name. I heard what the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said earlier about taking the path of moderation, but perhaps I may for a moment lure him away from that path. These amendments are designed to go right to the heart of the voucher system. I make no apologies for saying that I believe it to be a bad system and that I would not wish to see it in the Bill.

I know that we are pressed for time and for that reason I shall be brief. However, I have some questions for the Minister about the voucher system. My understanding is that it will be run by an asylum-version of Camelot; in other words, a private company. I have no objection to this in principle if we can be told what the profit margins and the costs will be; and, indeed, the number of employees who will be running the system. Would it not be a better use of such personnel if they were to deal with the backlog of

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asylum cases, rather than setting up what is effectively a new counter-currency in the country? Frankly, on the basis of our experience in recent months with the administration of the passport system, I think that the Home Office probably has other administrative priorities on its mind without entering into these unknown waters. Of course, these are not entirely unknown waters because we know of the experience of the county of Kent, which does not stand well in this respect. Indeed, on the basis of their experience with vouchers, those concerned would recommend against the use of such a system.

I should like to raise a few practical points with the Government about the use of vouchers. Can the Minister say whether they have thought about the effect on people who will be vulnerable in any event of standing in queues and holding vouchers which will be available only to people who are asylum seekers? They will immediately be identified and, therefore, capable of being discriminated against and stigmatised. Have the Government thought about the bureaucratic business of being at a till in a supermarket and handing over vouchers and about the effect on those running the tills; and, indeed, the effect on the people waiting behind them in the queues? Have they thought about the practical consequences in that respect?

Moreover, can the Minister say whether or not change will be available from these vouchers? It has been put to me that they will come in denominations and that no change will be available when handing in such vouchers. If that is the case, it will reduce yet further the total level of support being given to asylum seekers. It also means that the very places where poor people would go to do their shopping--for example, street markets, stalls on roadsides and very cheap shops--will probably be out of bounds for those using the voucher system.

There are a number of other points that I could make in this respect. There is much evidence to show that vouchers do not act as a deterrent; indeed, we are told that cash is a pull factor. I do not think that there is any evidence for that--the Scottish experience certainly does not suggest that that is so. There are certainly administrative problems with a voucher system and there is the point about the stigma. For all those reasons, I should like the House to reconsider the question of whether we should be embarking upon this experiment which, frankly, I believe to be foolhardy.

6 p.m.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, I support all the amendments in this group which have been either moved or spoken to. I wish to discuss in particular Amendment No. 149, to which my name is also attached. Clause 91 deals inter alia with non-legal expenses. I wish to give some examples of such expenses which an asylum seeker almost certainly will have to bear. I refer to stationery, stamps, telephone, fax, the cost of interpretation and translation of documents and travel not only to access legal advice

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but also to case hearings. It seems to me essential that all these matters should be covered either by a cash payment or by a kind of voucher which is instantly exchangeable for cash. I commend Amendment No. 149.

Viscount Brentford: My Lords, I have one question for the Minister on the voucher system. I have been told that 300 new staff are being recruited to operate the new voucher support system. If they were employed to take decisions on outstanding asylum applications they could take an extra 51,000 decisions a year, which would seriously reduce the backlog. I would be grateful to receive confirmation of that. On the matter of being stigmatised--I support what the right reverend Prelate said about that--I am concerned about the children because I understand that they are likely to be stigmatised as “voucher kids" which will make life more difficult for them.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I too support this group of amendments. I must apologise to the House for not declaring my interest on Monday evening. I am a member of the Immigration Appeal Tribunal. If the tribunal was run efficiently, there would be no need for Part VI of the Bill. Cases would be dealt with quickly and there would not be the drain on social security and housing benefit resources. Like the noble Viscount who has just spoken, I feel that if the machinery for hearing cases was improved, that part of the Bill would not be necessary.

Lord Warner: My Lords, I enter a slightly discordant note in this series of speeches in support of this group of amendments. I speak as someone who has been involved in social security for 10 years of my life. It is worth bearing in mind that social security is based on some principles. Some of those principles comprise residence in the UK and having the contingencies which require entitlement to a benefit. I suggest that the Government are quite entitled to take the view that UK asylum seekers do not meet either of those requirements and are quite entitled to shape the support arrangements in accordance with the needs of those asylum seekers. This is exactly what they are doing in this Bill. They are making a benefit available in kind in the form of accommodation and support for housing goods. They are providing money, part in cash, part in vouchers, for day-to-day living expenses. That seems to me an approach which is perfectly defensible. I remind the House that previous governments, Labour and Conservative, have used vouchers when it suited them, for example as regards beef and butter. They gave vouchers to pensioners and other people on low incomes when that was thought appropriate as a matter of public policy.

It is worth recalling those circumstances. It is also worth recalling that there is nothing in this Bill which prevents asylum seekers having access to the NHS and the kinds of services that they require if they have particular illnesses or other conditions. I suggest that

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the Government have gone a long way to provide support for asylum seekers in an appropriate form, have listened to some of the complaints that have been made and have enhanced levels of support for children and for families with children who enter as asylum seekers. I suggest that we are fretting about nothing and that we would do well to go with the flow and let the systems be introduced, as has been proposed in this Bill.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, he mentioned previous governments giving vouchers for beef and butter. Does he not agree that that was done to reduce the beef and butter mountains in Europe and was not a case of vouchers being given for normal day-to-day or weekly maintenance?

Lord Warner: My Lords, I was simply making the point that as a matter of public policy governments of all persuasions have used vouchers where that was deemed appropriate in the circumstances. This Government are doing nothing different in these circumstances. They are using vouchers where that is an appropriate part of the arrangements for the support of asylum seekers.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, your Lordships will have noticed that my name also appears on Amendment No. 118, to which I wish to speak. We accept the introduction of the new support system, including the vouchers, provided that it can be properly implemented. The proposed short timescales for the introduction of the system that I have seen worry me a great deal. Some of us who have been in government have experience of the gap that can arise as between ministerial wishes and aspirations and the actual operation of policies on the ground. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, mentioned the dreaded letters “CSA". All of us who were in another place during the previous parliament have them engraved on our hearts as a result of our experiences in constituency surgeries and so on. I see some of my former colleagues nodding their heads in support.

This new system will comprise a large, bureaucratic task to be set up from scratch all over the country as people are to be dispersed as part of the policy. It will be a difficult task to get the system running smoothly and it will be made impossible if there are large and increasing numbers of claimants, as there are at present. Last year once again more applications were made for asylum--about one-third more than the previous year--than in earlier years. Fewer applications were processed. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark reminded us, the situation continues to worsen in this respect. More people are waiting and more people are applying. As far as we can see at the moment, fewer people appear to be having their claims processed.

I believe that the Government must get on top of the asylum applications backlog before they start to introduce this other policy. Otherwise the support

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system will not work well and it will not work humanely. We all want it to work humanely for all these people, and particularly for the genuine asylum seekers and refugees who seek refuge in this country. Other provisions of this Bill are designed to help the Government to get on top of the problem. It is not that the Government are not doing anything about the problem; this Bill forms a big part of doing something about it. The Government have a worthy target of six months for processing asylum applications. The amendment suggests that we should take the Government at their word and say, “Introduce this new support system once you have achieved the target and then you will stand a much better chance of being able to introduce it humanely and efficiently in the interests of all those concerned and in the interests of the good name of our country". Therefore I support Amendment No. 118.

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