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Earl Russell: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord most warmly for that. He might also want to consider ensuring that he does not inadvertently give that impression to casual readers such as myself.
That leaves me with government Amendment No. 124. There is an awful lot in that. I agree with what my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby said. It strikes me that these are very unrestricted powers. Ministers talk about flexibility. This is flexible to the
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, perhaps I may say to the noble Baroness that this is the fourth thank you that the noble Earl meant to give, but I was not going to move Amendments Nos. 123 and 124. I intervened to be helpful. I believe that the noble Earl is dealing with Amendments Nos. 123 and 124 now.
Earl Russell: My Lords, I beg the noble and learned Lord's pardon; I had misunderstood what he said. I imagined that when he said he was not going to move it he meant that he was not going to press it to the vote. I had imagined we would have a debate now, as we would have had in Committee, and raise issues which might give the Minister warning of points which might be made when the issue comes back.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am in your Lordships' hands, but I understood it to have been agreed that we would debate the matters when we had the benefit of the comments from the Committee. I believe that that is so.
The Lord Bishop of Lichfield: My Lords, because I judge this to be a point of such great importance, I want to thank the Minister for his assurance under Amendment No. 152 that there will be access to mainstream education.
I am thinking of two actual groups of asylum seekers who have made asylum applications this year. I refer to several hundred Rwandan and Burundian children and their families fleeing the terrors of genocide in that region. For such children who have suffered a fearsome experience access to education as mentioned in Amendment No. 152 is essential. A good primary school can be the beginning of stability and a place where children, having undergone such ordeals, can begin to make sense of a new country.
As the West Midlands, where I live and work, is already designated as a new cluster area for asylum seekers, I want to underline how glad we are that there will be access to our schools for that very needy group.
Having thanked the Minister, perhaps I may try something on him as a second point. Assuming that he is persuaded that providing for a basic uprating will be proper and reasonable, will he consider making the total value of such upratings available to families with children in the form of an increase in the cash element of what they receive? A small reduction in the proportion of vouchers to cash at each uprating would be a judicious way of effecting an improvement to the lot of asylum-seeking families, especially those with children.
I believe that the noble and learned Lord is going to look again at the wording of Amendment No. 153. I certainly misread it. I understood that he was saying that Clause 92(2) would be taken by the asylum seeker to mean, Stay put in London". At the meeting last week, I asked the Home Secretary about the Government's programme for dispersal. I received an answer which was more or less that given by the noble and learned Lord this evening, but I am not sure that that is what that subsection actually says. I wonder whether there will be any regulations incorporating the admirable policy which the noble and learned Lord was himself giving this afternoon. Certainly, it is important that in this cluster policy the asylum seeker should be able to go where there are people who speak his own language, from the same background, where he can feel as much at home as he can anywhere in this country. That is the matter to which I took the subsection to be referring.
The noble and learned Lord's answer on Amendment No. 156 was satisfactory, but I wonder whether it is going to be incorporated in regulations. I did not quite hear him say that. It may be government policy, but I should like to see it written down somewhere, because I am sure that that policy is correct. If it is not to be incorporated in the statute, will it be incorporated somewhere so that his successors can follow his excellent views on it?
I support Amendment No. 157. I believe that there can be an abuse of charities and churches, where local authorities should actually be paying, but they pass the buck. The local authority should repay to the charity or church what they are disbursing. I should like to see something more strongly along those lines in the Bill.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I refer to the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, and supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, about the effect of dispersal. Clusters of people may be created who will not have access to proper medical and legal representation. In particular, I confirm what the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, was saying about areas such as Merseyside and the unavailability in Liverpool of some of those specialist services.
I recognise that there have been unreasonable demands placed on the south-east of England, as the Minister himself told the House earlier on. However, we should be extremely careful, as the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, has just rightly reminded us, about the dangers of using Clause 92(2) in ways which will prevent any immigrant or asylum seeker from being able to express a preference about the area to which he will go if those support services are there.
I particularly want to raise a concern with the Minister about the over-reliance which I believe he is placing on what he described as empty properties outside the south-east of England. Even if people have no preference about the property which they may be allocated, the Minister should consider carefully at least excluding properties which have been designated by local authorities as hard to let.
I vividly recall the period when Vietnamese boat-people were coming to England. I was chairman of the housing committee at that time. The immediate instinct--which was a good one--of saying that we should provide accommodation was immediately followed by the suggestion that we had empty properties which were hard-to-let properties into which we were not prepared to put our own residents and which could be used instead for those asylum seekers.
I regret to say that as recently as within the past 12 months in the local authority on Merseyside precisely the same thing has happened again. When there was a possibility of Kosovars coming to their district, it was suggested that some high-rise blocks of flats which had been empty for years and out of which local residents had been decanted because they were unsuitable for people to live in might be set aside for refugees. Of course, they were also seen immediately as potential sources of income for the local authority.
We must guard against that outcome and look carefully at the wording of Clause 92(2) which states that people may not have preferences. I hope that the Minister will at least be able to give the House an assurance that it would not be the wish of the Home Office that designated hard-to-let empty properties, already set aside as hard to let by local authorities, should be used for asylum seekers.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I should like to speak briefly to Amendment No. 148 and then to Amendment No. 157 which is tabled in my name together with those of the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark and the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley.
First, perhaps I may briefly say on Amendment No. 124, which I understand is not being moved tonight, that there are major issues around the amendment and it would be useful if some sort of dialogue could be established between now and the next stage of the Bill to address those matters.
I declare an interest relating to Amendment No. 148 in that my firm has a legal aid franchise for immigration and asylum work. I believe that the Government are about to score something of an own goal unless they heed this amendment. If the solicitor has to go to the client in order to take proper instructions, the time taken has quite rightly to be compensated for by the Legal Aid Scheme.
If the Government are quite properly concerned about the related expense, frankly, a far cheaper and better way of contending with the problem is to allow the asylum seeker to go to the solicitor in his office.
I need hardly remind the Attorney-General that Amendment No. 157 has been debated in this House and in the Commons at some length. The fact that it is now back on the Marshalled List is an earnest of the importance which the voluntary sector attaches to it. I speak in particular on behalf of several of the major aid charities which have bent my ear.
One needs to reflect upon the relationship between the Government and the voluntary sector, which has been put together with extreme care. That was done, first, by Alun Michael when he was Shadow Minister at the Home Office. He spent two years trawling with admirable care the voluntary sector to find out what sort of relationship would be best for it and for government if and when the Labour Party came to power, as it did.
Tony Blair has made clear that he supports the compact, as one might call it, between the Government and the voluntary sector. A key element--indeed, I would say almost the fundament of it--is that government and the voluntary sector should maintain a certain distance, each recognising the proper concerns of the other and neither trying to trample unduly upon the legitimate territory of the other.
One of the major concerns of the voluntary sector in its relationship with government--not this Government; all governments--is getting too close; being too directly and closely drawn into the government's policies and projects. I believe that it is for that broad underlying reason that there is real alarm about the provisions in the Bill. Clause 93 states that the Government are permitted to make regulations which can take account of assets and income of those who are detained and who are destitute. As your Lordships well know, it defines assets and income as not only actual assets and income but income and assets which,
I refer to the words used earlier today by the noble and learned Lord. He said that almost without exception the voluntary sector should not be put in a position where all its assets are depleted. Those were the noble and learned Lord's words. Indeed, it should not. It should not be put in a position where any of its assets are depleted against its wishes. Although it is fair to say that there is nothing in the Bill which allows the Government to raid the assets of any charity, it comes close to a sort of blackmail situation if, when considering the assets of destitute people, the Government can have regard to what they believe a charity might do by way of alleviating their misery. That pulls the charities directly into the legislation in a
Another comment made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams, was that government do not see why destitute people should be supported by them if that person could be supported quite adequately by the voluntary sector. I return to that point. What is the definition of adequacy"? Why should the resources of the voluntary sector be looked at at all? It is for the sector to decide where the resources should be disposed of, where best they are used and where the demand is greatest. I believe that presents a shifting of liability from the Government to the sector. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, made the same point in reverse. He asked why the voluntary sector should thrust those responsibilities on to government. On this side of the House we say that it is the Government's responsibility and it is quite wrong, directly or indirectly, to impose those obligations on the voluntary sector.
I urge very strongly that, however difficult this point is, it should be reconsidered because I believe that the House would accept that the voluntary sector as a whole does not act foolishly and is in business to do everything that it can to make the best of the extremely difficult problems with which it and the Government, in their different ways, are contending. I hope that the matter may be reviewed.
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