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Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, that is extremely generous and not unexpected. I am most grateful to the noble Lord. Had the matter been raised, that was to be my response. If the committee has a view we shall pay attention to it. However, I agree with the noble Lord that this falls into a rather different category from those amendments that the noble Baroness and I discussed earlier--namely, Amendments Nos. 123 and 124. I cannot over-emphasise how much I appreciate what the noble Lord, Lord Cope, has said and his general attitude.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, as possibly a more obstreperous Member of the House, perhaps I can ask whether the noble and learned Lord will agree to one slight compromise on what the noble Lord, Lord Cope, has suggested. I agree that it would be foolish for us simply to hold up large numbers of amendments in the critical situation that we face and to delay further the Government's ability to deal with that situation. We recognise, as the Attorney-General has said, that this is a critical area.

I have a question on three particular amendments: government Amendment No. 132, government Amendment No. 135 and government Amendment 136. In the first amendment regulations would allow local authorities to discontinue or suspend support during the interim period, which would mean that some asylum seekers would have no safety net of any kind. Amendment No. 135 allows the Government to prescribe areas in which local authorities may not place asylum seekers; and Amendment No. 136 lays down the maximum number.

We do not object to this group of amendments being put to the House on Report, but we would ask that the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation be asked for its view on those three amendments in time for any amendments to be tabled at Third Reading so that we can consider what the committee has to say. That would mean that we would not expect to hear anything further for at least 10 days because of the fortnight gap. However, I believe it would be helpful if, before we come to the final stage of the Bill in this House, we could have the views of the Select Committee on those three powers to regulate, which directly affect people's lives.

With that mild compromise, which I hope that the noble and learned Lord will feel could be conceded, and which I hope the noble Lord, Lord Cope will agree is sensible, we could accept the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Cope.

Before I continue, would the noble and learned Lord like to respond?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, certainly. The suggestion made by the noble Baroness is what I understood the noble Lord, Lord Cope, to say: that it was not within the letter of the agreement at which we

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had all arrived. I repeat my gratitude for that. Of course, speaking as a servant of the House, it seems to me that the more information we have about the views of the committee, the better. It seemed to me that the noble Lord, Lord Cope, said exactly that; that the matters would be moved tonight and if the Select Committee had a view we would be better informed to have our debate on Third Reading. That is how I understood the remarks of the noble Lord.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

The Deputy Speaker (Baroness Lockwood): My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord formally move Amendments Nos. 126 to 145A en bloc?

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, on a point of order, I gave way to the noble and learned Lord not because I had finished my remarks--I had not--but simply as a courtesy as I thought he would like to deal with that issue immediately. I apologise to the Deputy Speaker. I was merely yielding to the noble and learned Lord so that he could respond to my direct question. I am afraid that I have a few more questions. In good faith I said that I was giving way for the purposes of reply to that particular point and not, alas, that I was giving way on all the other points in this group of amendments.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Baroness had not finished speaking. She asked me for my help, which I gave and she is not in breach of any rule.

Lord Bach: My Lords, perhaps I can assist. If the Deputy Speaker were to put Amendment No. 126 now it may be that the noble Baroness Williams could speak to that amendment.

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 126:

Page 132, leave out line 14 and insert (“eligible persons.
( ) “Eligible persons" means--
(a) asylum-seekers, or
(b) their dependants,
who appear to be destitute or to be likely to become destitute within such period as may be prescribed.").

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I thought it would be for the convenience of the House if, like the noble and learned Lord, I addressed the whole group of amendments. It would obviously take a great deal more time if we dealt with each separately. Therefore, it may be helpful if I respond to the amendments in the same spirit in which he has moved and spoken to the government amendments. I shall do so as quickly as I can.

This whole group of amendments fundamentally concerns the role of local authorities in dealing with what is unquestionably a critical situation. The Government are seeking to take powers to deal with

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that critical situation which we have all seen exemplified over the past couple of months in Kent with the sudden arrival of a great many refugees, especially from Kosovo but also from other areas of the Balkans. It led Kent to have to deal without notice with a huge problem both financially and in terms of administration. I therefore understand and sympathise with the Government's desire to share the burden more equally among all local authorities in this country.

The issue I should like to raise with the Government goes directly to many of the Government's amendments. As I understand it, it is the view of the Local Government Association that the present voluntary arrangements are working reasonably well. It believes that that is a more effective approach to the whole difficulty of finding interim ways of dealing with asylum seekers than is the more heavy-handed approach of the Government. In its response to the Home Office consultation paper, it stated:

    “The Association believes that the most effective approach to interim arrangements for asylum seeker support is to secure and to develop existing voluntary arrangements. The dispersal of asylum seekers to parts of the country outside London and the major ports is in practice already under way and there is a need to support and to build on the progress which has been made to date".

The final sentence, which is the most important, stated:

    “The Association has serious concerns that the timetable for implementation of the [Home Office] proposals will obstruct such an approach".

The Local Government Association went on to make detailed comments to the effect that the timetable for the implementation of the interim arrangements is so constraining that the advantages of early action will be outweighed by the practical difficulties. Therefore we have a more substantive basis for concern than might be shown immediately in opinions being expressed in this House.

The Local Government Association, we know, is under great strain. If the Financial Times of Saturday is correct, it already believes that it is being obliged to dip into funds intended for uses other than to support asylum seekers. That, of course, is an argument for the Government's proposals and not against, because those proposals will enable a more equal sharing of the financial burden to be borne among many local authorities. But the Local Government Association responded to that in an eminently sensible way by suggesting that regional consortia should try to deal with the issue of how best to settle refugees and asylum seekers. In saying that a region should deal with a certain number of asylum seekers, the Government should consult closely with the regional authorities in that consortium as to how it might best be done, and they should all share the costs of doing that.

What troubles me--I shall not keep the House long--about the interim arrangements and this group of amendments is that they almost exclude local authorities from being able to bring to bear their own knowledge and experience. In my view, they have great knowledge and experience. The noble and learned Lord has already thanked them for their co-operation

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so far in what has been a very difficult endeavour. I hope that the Government will be able to say that they will consult. I hope that they will give careful consideration to the idea of building up regional consortia which will then take their share of the asylum seekers and refugees who come to this country and who will no doubt continue to come under the EU arrangements, although we hope that the burden sharing will then be yet wider. However, I am troubled by the degree of what one can only describe as “bureaucratic overlay" in the proposals made by the Government.

I have a certain amount of absolutely direct and first-hand experience of the particular situation which the Government face. When I was Minister of State at the Home Office, which is a long time ago now, one of the problems that we confronted, which is identical to the one faced by the Government, was the sudden arrival of 30,000 East-African Asian refugees--who incidentally arrived at extremely short notice; indeed, within a matter of weeks. It had been agreed that the promise made by Iain Macleod had to be abided by. The noble Lord, Lord Carr, who is not in his place at the moment but who knows that I am going to make these remarks, very courageously took the decision to take those asylum seekers and did so within a matter of a few weeks of the problem arising.

The problem arose because Mr Idi Amin of Uganda proposed to drive these people out or to kill them if they would not be driven out. That problem was dealt with--30,000 people in a matter of about a month or two--by the setting up of something called the Uganda Resettlement Board, with which I was closely involved. It took the decision to approach local authorities, which in a matter of weeks resettled 30,000 Ugandan refugees. It was done with eminent success and, if I may say so, without any government orders at all and provided the necessary emergency funds to enable those refugees to settle down. They went on to become among the most successful group of immigrants ever to reach this country since the great Jewish immigration of the turn of the century.

I strongly commend the experience of that Uganda resettlement system to the Government. It was cheaper; it was less bureaucratic; it required no primary legislation that I can recall; and it managed to deal with 30,000 in a very short time. I commend it to the Government. It is the reason why I have very grave doubts about the approach that the Home Office is taking. It seems to me to be over-centralised, over-didactic and over-prescriptive. With those words, I conclude my comments on this full set of amendments.

10 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Carr, has left the Chamber because, not for the first time, I am happy to say that it is to the ever-lasting credit of Mr Heath's government and the present noble Lord, Lord Carr, that they dealt with the problem which the noble Baroness identified so humanely. That was a discrete problem and it was dealt with quickly.

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We welcome the co-operation of the Local Government Association and the Association of London Government. As I said earlier, I particularly welcome the work of the LGA in building up consortia, to which the noble Baroness referred, both for the interim arrangements and for the longer term. But it is possible that we may need to act quickly. Not all local authorities are of equivalent excellence. That is why we are looking at the statutory powers. However, even if they are used, I am happy to reaffirm our view that the LGA will still be in the lead on dispersal, not least because it has the knowledge, the expertise and the facilities.

None of these provisions is in contra-distinction to what the noble Baroness said. If all works well with, for example, the consortia, that will be fine: the Home Office's burden would be lessened. Perhaps I may take just one short example from Amendment No. 136, which says:

    “The regulations may make provision for the determination by the Secretary of State--

(a) for local authorities generally, (b) for prescribed descriptions of local authority, or (c) for particular local authorities". It seems to me that that precisely meets the noble Baroness's point about consortia of local authorities in some circumstances being able to do well.

At present, and in the past few years, it has been very difficult for London local authorities and authorities in the south-east to deal with such problems. They feel--not without justification--that they have been overburdened by questions which are national and which ought to be dealt with on a national basis. These are regulations which give opportunities to the Secretary of State. I repeat: we would much prefer it if the local authorities were able to determine these matters themselves, but they do not have the power to set limits at the moment. They do not necessarily have the power to say, “We have done our reasonable bit. We have carried our fair share of the burden. Someone else must also assist". That is what these regulations are for. Without being, as the noble Baroness would say, unduly obstreperous, we are by and large in agreement.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

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