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Immigration and Asylum Bill

9.1 p.m.

Further consideration of amendments on Report resumed on Clause 90.

Debate resumed on Amendment No. 123.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, I should like to return to the grouping, which carries with it such a wide range of amendments, and speak to Amendment No. 157, which stands in my name. However, I should like to remain able to move it formally when the time comes.

The noble Lord, Lord Renton, in a masterly understatement, said earlier that a rather important matter has been left in a state of uncertainty. I have the feeling continually in this debate that we are dealing with a good many important matters, but we are being swept away by the great galleon of government. I am a small cabin cruiser sailing across the bows just to warn the Government that there are very important issues disguised in these amendments.

The noble and learned Lord said that he did not want to be harsh on asylum seekers and that he did not want to be harsh on non-governmental organisations. We take that point and the noble and learned Lord's great sincerity. But, equally, we must re-emphasise the

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fact that the NGOs and the voluntary agencies are concerned only with genuine asylum seekers. There is no question of them being concerned with the wider number of immigrants which is sometimes implied. So I return to the subject of Clause 93--organisations which assist refugees, including young people among refugees. Those organisations are very concerned about the Government's intentions in this clause. I realise that the subject is now being moved to Paragraph 5(b) of the schedule and we may need to return to it later.

When I worked in the voluntary sector in the 1980s we saw the growth of government support for NGOs and we welcomed it. We recognise that there is informal co-operation with the NGOs at every level. But NGOs and voluntary agencies are not agencies of government. They are there to top up inadequate support and provision and to reinforce what the Government are not able to do. They are not a substitute for it or for the lack of it. I should like to quote from a note I received from the Children's Consortium which represents all the children's agencies in this campaign for refugees. It states:


    “The purpose of the work with asylum seeking families with children is to make good some of the gaps in statutory provision, to try to ensure minimal damage to the lives of such families in a difficult period of transition and uncertainty, and to offer prospects of hope and personal development which can best be provided by the staff and volunteers of voluntary projects".

In some cases the refugees themselves are the voluntary organisations. There is no one to support them except their own communities. They set up community organisations and ad hoc committees to meet particular circumstances. I do not need to remind noble Lords or the noble and learned Lord that the voluntary sector already carries this heavy load. It genuinely feels that it is again being coerced and co-opted into becoming service providers, not alongside government but somehow within the great panoply of government. That has been the trend over the past few years. NGOs are not surprisingly concerned and they raise the matter again and again. This is another such occasion. We have heard the reassurances. The Minister in another place, Mike O'Brien, seemed to be genuinely aware of this problem, but it was an inadequate assurance. I just hope that the noble and learned Lord will have some more encouraging response to make today.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, I support what my noble friend Lord Sandwich has said. I should like to put a specific question to the Government. Can they confirm that their new schedule, which may result from Amendment No. 124, will not by its paragraphs 2 and 5 force destitute people to rely at least in part on resources coming from charities and NGOs? It would be wonderful if the noble and learned Lord could reply to that point this evening. If he cannot, I hope that it will be seriously considered.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, this is a large group of amendments, starting with Amendments Nos. 123 and 124. I am not sure whether I am allowed to do more than express gratitude to the noble and

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learned Lord the Attorney-General for agreeing to withdraw those two amendments. They are extremely important. They represent a rewriting of Clause 93, as has been explained. But it is obviously a very careful rewriting. There are some small changes which make one wonder why they have been made--whether it is merely for the purpose of tidying up the English, or for some other reason. We shall have an opportunity to return to them later.

The next amendments in the group are government Amendment No. 146 and Amendment No. 147--which has already attracted some debate as to whether it is adequately covered by Amendment No. 146. I have nothing to add to the comments already made.

Amendment No. 148, moved by the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, has attracted a great deal of attention both at this stage and previously. The first part deals with expenses for specialist medical care. The noble Duke was correct in saying, in a slightly abbreviated form, that the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General had said that such expenses would be payable through the National Health Service under ordinary arrangements. So presumably we do not need to trouble ourselves about that.

But the position remains difficult with regard to the second part of the amendment, which deals with the costs of travel to appointments with legal representatives. Like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells, I too have heard of the controversy in Somerset regarding the school that is being considered for conversion. I am not sure exactly how many miles it is from Bristol--25 or 30, I believe. Travel by public transport over that kind of distance in that kind of area is expensive. If one does not have a car, it is difficult; and of course the journey is expensive by taxi. It is not something that people in this kind of situation can be expected to do.

I am not sure whether Bristol, or for that matter Bath, has the necessary number of sufficiently qualified legal experts who are able to deal with the kind of specialist cases about which we are talking. As we have heard at some length, it is not just any solicitor who can deal with these cases. A whole section of the Bill is devoted to the exclusion of a large number of persons who might otherwise be considered immigration advisers. So the Bill acknowledges that this is a specialist matter. I do not know how many people are regarded as qualified in this specialist way in either Bristol or Bath. Even assuming that there is a sufficient number to deal with the individuals concerned, it is still an expensive business, quite apart from people having to travel right across the country to London. It is relatively local travel, but it is still expensive. It has certainly been my experience that one visit to a lawyer is not always sufficient to deal with a problem. It is sometimes necessary to go a number of times before one arrives at a solution. So that is a difficult aspect at local level, quite apart from the points that have already been made regarding wider travel.

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I have added my name to Amendment No. 152, and I share the concerns that have been expressed. However, the Minister's words were somewhat reassuring.

Amendment No. 153--in regard to which I was grateful for the support of the noble Earl, Lord Russell--relates to preferences being expressed as to where a supported person would like to be accommodated. Like the noble Earl, I thought that, without this amendment, if any supported person was unwise enough to express a preference, it might make matters difficult for the Secretary of State. A brief intervention from the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General appeared to be of a reassuring nature. However, I should like to hear slightly more about why he thinks it so incredibly damaging as to require a law against it, and why an unfortunate person who finds himself in this position should be debarred from expressing a preference for one town rather than another because he has relatives or compatriots there, or feels that he has a connection with that town, or merely wants to go with his compatriots who have arrived with him. That seems a draconian position. I understand that the Secretary of state will not always be able to fulfil such requests. There is no question of that and we do not argue for it. But it seems extremely unreasonable that they should not be allowed to express a preference, even if it is not held against them afterwards.

On Amendment No. 154, I was grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for his support. However, as he rightly said, Amendment No. 155 seems to move in the direction of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers which the amendment concerns. I am glad to see it and grateful for it. Like the noble Earl, I was reassured by the reaction to Amendment No. 156.

That brings me to Amendment No. 157 which is the most difficult in the group to dismiss or be reassured about. There were some careful words from the Attorney-General at the beginning of our debate some time ago but they did not seem to me to take us far. I can think of no other instance where, if a charity gives money to a deserving person, that person then has their social security or other benefit taken away from them. But that is contemplated here. I admit that it is not set out in the Bill that it should happen but it is open to the Secretary of State to interpret the Bill that way.

In the re-write of Clause 93, which is incorporated in the new schedule--


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