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Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, we attend, as I asked noble Lords to do, to the language of the Bill. It states that the Secretary of State by the regulations may take into account,

When he is deciding that he may look at,

    “support (or assets) which ... are, or might reasonably be expected to be, otherwise available".

That seems entirely the kind of enabling provision which gives flexibility to the Secretary of State or the directorate when coming to its conclusion. I see nothing objectionable in it. One needs to establish fact; in this context that includes what is reasonably likely to be an outcome.

When one is talking about public funds, as one is, and contemplating our common objective to make sure that people have a decent--I have conceded many times that it will never be luxurious--opportunity of subsistence, this is a perfectly proper and prudent regulation on which to rely.

There were other matters of interest. For instance, the refugee arrival project gives initial reception facilities at Heathrow with Home Office funding. It is perfectly legitimate for anyone who has a decision to make to take that into account. That is not oppressive. Without reluctance or feeling aggrieved, we fund two charities. Other charities do not have that funding. But if they did and they used their moneys for the charitable purposes which the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, indicated, it is perfectly reasonable for the decision-maker to take that into account.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, specifically asked me whether persons would be forced to rely on charities. I hope that I reassured him in my preceding answers that that is not the case. The noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, with his enormous knowledge of local government matters, referred to property which is hard to let. I agree that some of the property he spoke about is in the category that he described. But some property is hard to let because of its poor condition, as the noble Lord described. Some of it is hard to let because there is no local demand. There is no doubt about that. Demographic changes demand changes. If the property is hard to let because of its poor condition, I agree that it would not be adequate. But where there is no local demand for otherwise perfectly good property, that would be perfectly adequate for the class of asylum applicants of whom we are speaking.

The noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, asked about the policy on uprating. We intend to review it annually. That is part of the inherent flexibility of the regulatory powers. I hope that I have made that assurance as plain as I can. We then come to the question of preferences. I agree that when one looks at the language of the Bill one questions why it is in that form. It is because it is not required to have regard to preferences, but we can have regard to circumstances.

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So we can look at the background circumstances of a group of asylum seekers to disperse all those with a common ethnic, linguistic or territorial origin to a place common to all of them. That is looking at the circumstances and not preferences.

The right reverend Prelate asked me specifically about uprating. The question was whether or not a proper balance of cash and vouchers would be kept under review. I cannot say what the outcome will be, but I am happy to confirm that the balance of cash and vouchers will be kept as part of the review.

We now turn to the question of legal services. The noble Baroness is not here. She asked a question of the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, about access to legal services. It was referred to on our resumption by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury. It is sometimes easy to overstate the problem. There are medical and legal sources across the country. When we look at the clustering destinations, obviously one matter we shall have in mind is whether or not there is a settled immigrant community which, because of that, already has expertise in that particular area of law. I agree with the noble Lord that it is not an easy area of law and one needs to have expertise.

There are quite a few communities throughout the country--even, I say to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, in West Wales--which have been well settled since 1945. I shall finish what I wish to say because I am going to treat myself to an anecdote. I believe I am entitled to do so. One of the first cases that I did at the Bar in West Wales was a right-of-way dispute--they always are. My clients had two languages. One was Polish, with which I am not familiar, and the other was Welsh, with which I am familiar. He could not speak English at all. There are well-settled communities out of London. There is life outside London. It is not the centre of the discovered universe. There are people with medical and legal expertise outside London, as I know from my experience of 13 years at the Bar on the Wales and Chester circuit.

We want people to have access to legal services. We do not want them to be troubled by long, expensive journeys. We have looked at the priorities and I am bound to say that in doing so my desire to accommodate was prioritised in what the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, told me about the victims of torture. I believe that there are many areas outside London--I could specify them, but it might be invidious and raise undue alarm or prospects--where local solicitors are well capable of dealing with these problems.

The noble Earl is about the incur the wrath of my noble friend Lord Bach. I shall sit down.

Earl Russell: My Lords, perhaps I may clear my name. I was by no means intending to impugn the

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multi-cultural character of West Wales, which I know well. I referred to the difficulty of rural Welsh transport.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I take that point, but it is part of a view, which is sometimes held and expressed, that the only provision of good medical service is in London and that the only provision of expert legal advice and service is in London, and that is simply not true. There are many communities from different parts of the world in, for instance, Bradford, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and Leicester, filled with people who have come from beyond our shores and who have good access to legal and medical services. Sometimes it is a shade disagreeable to overlook that.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way and for his kindness. I should point out the fact that I have a Welsh grandmother, otherwise I should not dare to intervene in what he is saying about Wales. I want to ask him one question. I understand that there are no franchises for legal representation in Wales. I do not know whether the noble and learned Lord can confirm that, but that is the basis of our concern. It is not that we do not believe that Wales is a wonderful country full of lively people; we do.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, there may well be no franchises in certain areas of the country. That is one of the significant points in what the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is doing. In insisting that there should be available legal services on a franchise basis, there is careful consultation with the Law Society. Cardiff is the capital city of Wales and there has, for instance, been a long established Somali community there for the best part of this century. Expertise is available outside London and I cannot restate that point firmly.

I have dealt with preferences. The question of the consequences of torture was reverted to and I have made that reasonably plain. I shall not trespass further on your Lordships' time. A specific question was asked about family premium. We believe that the level of support to be provided will be adequate for the needs of families and will not include the family premium.

Those seem to me to be the headline points raised in the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, was right in saying that it is a disparate group of amendments. They are not without importance, as I hope I have recognised in the length of my reply. The noble Lord said that one visit to a lawyer was frequently not enough. If he had said that one short visit to a lawyer was frequently not enough, after two days arguing against the unarguable in front of the Committee for Privileges, I can only say that I respectfully agree.

I indicated to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, that I should not move Amendments Nos. 123 and 124.

[Amendments Nos. 123 and 124 not moved.]

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Schedule 8 [Asylum Support: Interim Provisions]:

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 125:

Page 132, line 13, after (“authorities") insert (“or local authorities falling within a prescribed description of authority").

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Cope, indicated that the earlier group of amendments was long. This one beats it. It includes Amendments Nos. 125 to 144, 145A, 279, 312 and 312A.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, may I ask, with the leave of the House, that Amendment No. 279 be decoupled from these amendments, because it has nothing whatever to do them?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: Yes, of course, my Lords, although I am bound to say that the fact that one amendment in a group has nothing at all to do with the others has never been grounds for disqualification! When I come to Amendment No. 279 I shall therefore omit it from our present considerations.

The group is numerically fairly hefty. Perhaps I may just indicate how we are intending to move from the existing support arrangements to the future arrangements contained in Part VI of the Bill. The Asylum Support Directorate is well on track in putting into place the new support arrangements which will have effect from 1st April 2000. We are in discussion with landlords over the provision of accommodation, and intend to be inviting tenders soon. We are well on the way to establishing a system for the provision of vouchers. We are also well along the way to producing agreed plans to establish support arrangements with the voluntary sector and local authorities.

Generally, those people who have claimed asylum at the port of entry and are in receipt of social security benefits will continue until the first decision on their application for asylum, even after the new support arrangements are in force. If they stay in the country pending the outcome of an appeal after 1st April 2000, they will move over to the new support arrangements.

I believe that it is common ground that the present arrangements are close to breakdown, and we shall not continue to accept that. Schedule 8 therefore makes provision in the period between a date shortly after the Bill receiving Royal Assent and the main provisions coming into force in April 2000, in order to ease the pressures faced by some particularly hard-hit local authorities. That will provide legislative underpinning for the voluntary arrangements which the Local Government Association and the Association of London Government have been working on. I pay tribute to the work they have done in very difficult circumstances.

We need to replicate in Schedule 8 much of the substance of the provisions in the main body of Part VI. That is why--and I repeat the apologies given by my noble friend Lord Bassam and my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer--we have had to table so many amendments, many of which, of course, address mere points of drafting. I hope that the new draft schedule

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circulated by my noble friend Lord Bassam last week will have helped noble Lords find their way through the detail.

The interim provisions in Schedule 8 achieve two things. First, they provide a sound legal basis for the provision of support to destitute asylum seekers by local authorities. They replace the duties under the National Assistance Act 1948. Secondly, they are a means of assisting hard-pressed London boroughs and certain other authorities in the South East to disperse their case load. They do that in a number of ways. The Secretary of State can set a ceiling on the number of asylum seekers which certain types of local authority are required to support. Once the prescribed maximum is reached, they can be transferred to another local authority which has not reached its maximum.

There is a power to prohibit local authorities placing asylum seekers in areas already overcrowded with asylum seekers. One sees significant problems which inure to no one's benefit when one looks, for example, at the overload of asylum seekers in the Dover area. The provisions further allow the transfer of case responsibility between two local authorities on a voluntary basis. The Bill allows for the dispersal of any asylum seeker who makes his claim for support to the Secretary of State at the same time as making his application for asylum at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate.

When the interim arrangements come into effect, local authorities' responsibilities under the National Assistance Act 1948 and the Children Act 1989 will end, and those persons will be deemed to have been accepted for support under the interim arrangements. That does not mean, I repeat, that people with a need for mainstream social services support will lose that protection. Amendments to paragraph 11 of the schedule, as your Lordships will have seen, provide for regulations which could specify that children who are in need--for example, because they have been the victims of abuse--would still be entitled to help from local social services.

The period of consultation has just finished. We are reflecting on the comments received and obviously we want to take them into account. In particular, we want to work closely with local authority associations to ensure that the dispersal of asylum applicants away from pressure points is carried out in an orderly and decent way. There has also been severe pressure--quite apart from that experienced by the south-east local authorities--on homeless persons units.

I deal now with the specific amendments. The Local Government Association and the Association of London Government have asked us to broaden the scope for the dispersal of asylum seekers under the voluntary arrangements. Amendment No. 312 is designed to facilitate that request. It allows the Secretary of State to modify the provisions of the homelessness legislation in respect of applicants who are persons subject to immigration control during the immigration period.

We shall be looking to achieve three things. First, we are providing a power to enable a local authority to transfer asylum seekers to another authority by

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agreement with the other authority. Secondly, the provision can be used to enable local authorities to have regard to the fact that accommodation is to be temporary, pending resolution of the asylum claim, and to enable local authorities not to have regard to any preference of the applicant as to the location of the accommodation. Thirdly, there is a power to modify the existing provisions on out-of-area placements so that an authority will not have to consider whether accommodation is available in its own district if it has the agreement of another local authority to place the applicant in the accommodation of that other authority.

We are establishing voluntary arrangements with the consortia of local authorities. As I said earlier, that is one of the building blocks for the new arrangements to be operated after 1st April 2000. It is quite impossible for the new directorate to take on board all existing local authority cases on that date. The transitional arrangements in Amendment No. 312A provide for the phased transfer from local authorities to the directorate over succeeding months. Therefore, we hope to be able to ensure that proper cover and support remain available to existing cases and that the accommodation and support arrangements created for one cohort of case remains available for the next.

There has been far less pressure from asylum seekers in Scotland and Northern Ireland. At the moment, we do not envisage a need to apply the interim arrangements in those areas. Instead, Amendment No. 312A makes provision for a phased move from support under social services legislation to the new support arrangements as appropriate.

It may be helpful if I deal with the Opposition's amendments as we see them. I put on one side Amendment No. 279, which is now decoupled. I simply say for your Lordships' assistance that that is an amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, relating to Northern Ireland and to which he referred a moment or two ago.

Those are the matters within this clutch of amendments, excluding Amendment No. 279 to which I shall speak later. I beg to move Amendment No. 125.

9.45 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, I draw attention to the fact that in this group of amendments there are quite a lot of powers to make regulations of one sort or another. Nevertheless, to some extent they replace powers which are already in Schedule 8 and which in some detail are of a similar character. Therefore, it is my opinion--subject to what other noble Lords may say--that there is no need to regard this as part of the undertaking. However, I believe that it would be wise for the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation to look at the new amendments, given the considerable changes that have been made to the powers. But I do not believe that that should be part of the undertaking. I believe that it would be tidier to insert these amendments into the Bill at this point rather than to hold them back for a later stage,

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particularly as they deal with interim provisions where obviously it is necessary for the Government to make even more urgent preparations than is required for other parts of the Bill.

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