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Lord Burlison: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.50 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.47 p.m. to 8.50 p.m.]

Immigration and Asylum Bill

Proceedings after Third Reading resumed.

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 38:

After Clause 91, insert the following new clause--


(" . The Verification Project under section 19 of the Social Security Administration (Fraud) Act 1997 shall not be applied to the partners of asylum-seekers.").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, this amendment deals with a rather complex piece of interaction between immigration, asylum and social security law. On advice from the DSS, I tabled this amendment on both this and the Welfare Reform Bill. I am not certain--and it is not certain--to which Bill it applies in the first instance. What we are all certain of is that it creates a need for dialogue.

I shall explain a little of the background to this matter. Section 19 of the Social Security Administration (Fraud) Act is concerned with establishing the correct identities of benefit claimants. That Act requires that claimants should be prepared to produce their national insurance number. I confess, to my own shame as much as that of anyone else, that when we passed that Act we did not think about the effect on the partners of those required to produce national insurance numbers. Under the Income Support (General) Regulations 1987, a requirement for identification is binding on the partner of the claimant as well as on the claimant. Where there is a marriage premium, a partner's premium or a child premium, the identity must necessarily be established.

That creates a problem when there are asylum seekers in this country waiting for some length of time for their claim to be heard. As others do, they tend to

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marry and on occasion they have families. We are not arguing about the asylum seeker as regards this amendment--he is taken out of the social security network--but the British-born partner of an asylum seeker resident in this country. I cannot see any reason why, when any of these Acts was passed, anyone in Parliament should have imagined that such a person would be disentitled to social security because he or she had married an asylum seeker. It makes the status infectious in some kind of way.

But what happens when he attempts to make a claim, for example, for housing benefit? He is required to produce his national insurance number, which he can do and does. He is also required to produce his partner's national insurance number, which very often the partner does not possess and is not in a position to obtain. So, like the asylum seeker, the partner of the asylum seeker is disentitled to ordinary benefits. That is happening regularly in various housing benefit offices around London and the south east. I am aware of a considerable number of cases. When we passed the Social Security Administration (Fraud) Act, I do not believe that any of us intended that to happen, but it is what has happened.

I think it a good idea to do something to tidy up this matter. I am not quite certain what is the best thing to do. I am asking the Minister to put his head together with the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, and see whether between them they can work out a solution acceptable to all parties and compatible with the intention of Parliament. I beg to move.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Earl has been very economical in setting out the background to this matter. I believe that the same amendment was discussed at Third Reading of the Welfare Reform Bill. As the noble Earl has indicated, this amendment seeks to exempt all partners of asylum seekers from the requirement put on benefit claimants and their partners to provide sufficient information to allow their national insurance number to be traced or one allocated to them. If I have understood the noble Earl's amendment correctly, it is not limited to the exemption of partners who may be citizens of this country and is not referable at all to the country of origin.

The requirement was introduced under Section 19 of the Social Security Administration (Fraud) Act 1997. Benefit claimants have either to produce or to apply for a national insurance number. The aim of Section 19 obviously was to verify identity and to ensure that benefit went only to those entitled to it and those who could establish that they were the person they said they were.

I do not see that that is a harsh or unconscionable requirement on someone who is the partner of an asylum seeker. The asylum seeker himself or herself will have to apply. The noble Earl is troubled about the effect on the partner. I am sure that it is my obtuseness, but I cannot see any injustice or harshness in requiring the partner to do the same.

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However, he has put the matter very moderately. I believe that essentially his invitation is to raise the question and invite the Home Office to liaise with my noble friend Lady Hollis to see whether or not there is some resolution to a problem which he has identified. On behalf of my Home Office colleagues I am perfectly happy to say that they will raise these questions with her. I do not believe that I can go further than that this evening. Indeed, I am not sure that the noble Earl expected me to do so. I shall not trespass on the patience of the House by simply repeating the full explanation which my noble friend Lady Hollis gave in answer to the noble Earl a few days ago.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for that reply. Perhaps I may briefly explain where I do see an injustice. It is not in the requirement to produce a national insurance number, but in the consequent disentitlement of somebody otherwise fully entitled to social security for not producing something which he is in no position to produce. It is the infectious use of disentitlement extending to those whom the asylum seeker may marry. That seems to me to be contrary to what I imagine was the intention of Parliament.

The noble and learned Lord is quite right. I did not expect him to go any further tonight. I accept his point about the drafting of my amendment. It never was my intention to press it to a Division. I did not have--and I may never have--the necessary knowledge to work out how the amendment should have been drafted to produce the desired effect. If they wish to do something about this matter, I am sure that the combined resources of the two departments will be able to find a satisfactory wording. If I have induced a serious consideration of this matter, I have achieved all that I wanted. I thank the noble and learned Lord formally and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

9 p.m.

Clause 93 [Persons for whom support may be provided]:

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 39:

Page 64, line 23, at end insert--
("( ) Schedule (Provision of Support: Regulations) gives the Secretary of State power to make regulations supplementing this section.").

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, this group contains a series of amendments and it is perhaps of assistance if I read it aloud. It contains Amendments Nos. 39, 41, 42, 45 to 57, 64, 65, 68, 72, 73 and 84.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, the noble and learned Lord claimed Amendment No. 73 as his own.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I did not claim parentage of all of the amendments in this group; I said that the group contained Amendments Nos. 72, 73 and 84. Not all amendments can conceivably be my fault.

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The government amendments stem from the undertaking we gave at Report to hold back a set of provisions which we felt the Select Committee should examine. The regulation-making powers are all contained in the new schedule introduced by Amendment No. 72 which would replace Clause 96. We held back the remaining amendments, as was indicated at the time, because they contained references to the new schedule and could not be inserted until that schedule had been approved. Many are consequential drafting changes.

I explained on Report that the new regulation-making powers to be contained in the new schedule had a specific nature; that is, to amplify the powers to make regulations regarding the resources to be taken into account in determining whether or not an applicant is destitute or with resources at his disposal. They also make provision for a period of notice when an asylum seeker is required to leave the accommodation made available to him under Part VI.

The committee raised a question in relation to the scope of the powers conferred by paragraph 2(2). That is the import of Amendment No. 73. That power does no more than enhance powers already contained in the schedule which have been found acceptable in discussions both in this House and in another place. These are contained in sub-paragraph (1) of paragraph 2 of the schedule.

The power to which the committee has drawn attention is subsidiary to the principal power. The intention is that the new power will enable us to treat a person with assets of more than a given amount as not being destitute, except in exceptional circumstances. We could achieve the same end result by using the principal power, but the subsidiary power provides additional clarity which allows us to set out in legislation the exact threshold at which we would not regard someone as being destitute. The underlying concern is that an asylum seeker with several hundred pounds in his pocket at the time he approaches the Asylum Support Directorate for assistance should not be treated as destitute until he has used at least some of those resources and thus put himself below the threshold for destitution.

I should make it clear that we do not propose to use this power to exclude broad categories of genuinely destitute asylum seekers from access to the new support arrangements. I hope on that basis that the House will find the new power acceptable.

Amendment No. 39 paves the way for the schedule. Amendment No. 42 deletes Clause 96 which is substituted by the new schedule.

Amendments Nos. 47 and 48 relate to Clause 116; Amendments Nos. 51 to 54 relate to Clause 119 and Amendment No. 55 relates to Clause 120. They all have a substantive effect. In each case, the effect of the amendment is to limit the extent to which the clauses on which they impact can exclude asylum seekers from access to various social services and health services assistance. At present, certain provisions in those clauses exclude a person who is subject to the restrictions under Clause 144--that is, someone who is

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subject to immigration control--from all access to the welfare services mentioned. We recognise that it is too broad an exclusion--a point made on a number of occasions by several noble Lords. Now, by virtue of the amendments, the restriction on access to those services would apply only where the asylum seeker's recourse to those provisions would be on the ground of destitution, and for no other reason. Thus, if an asylum seeker needs assistance under, say, the Social Work (Scotland) Act or the Mental Health (Scotland) Act by reason of his physical or mental condition, he will be granted access to those services.

The only effect of the amended clauses, therefore, is to prevent welfare legislation being used solely as a means of supporting destitute asylum seekers in preference to their having recourse to the arrangements under Part VI. The amendments mirror the provisions already contained in Clause 115 which the House has already accepted. I therefore commend them on that basis.

Amendments Nos. 64 and 65 are consequential, providing that the new support arrangements will commence when the first regulations have effect, which we intend to be 1st April 2000.

Amendment No. 84 extends to Scotland the free school meals provisions already in the Bill.

I am obliged to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for raising in her Amendment No. 41 the issue of asylum seekers who remain in the support system for more than six months. We are fully alive to the need for the speedy resolution of asylum applications, for the reasons I set out earlier this evening. We are taking a range of steps to speed up the process and clear the backlog.

As your Lordships are aware, we are not enormously entranced by the provisions in Clause 92, which was introduced on Report. But that is an argument that we have deployed substantially here and it may not find universal favour in the House of Commons.

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, raised the question of those persons who have not had a final decision, through no fault of their own, within six months. I am able to reiterate that we have decided to introduce a discretionary payment to asylum seekers who stay in the support system through no fault of their own for more than six months. I can give a little more detail which I hope is acceptable. We believe that this payment, which would help to meet the cost of replacing essential items that had worn out, should be £50 each for an asylum seeker and his or her dependants. It would be available as a "cash back" voucher, convertible into money, and would be in addition to the normal weekly support that will be made available to asylum seekers. If there is a small number of cases--I recognise that there may be--where a person remains in the support system for more than 12 months, a further payment will be made.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising that matter. I hope that my response now negates the necessity for her to press Amendment No. 41. I repeat

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my genuine thanks to her for raising the question and I hope that she is pleased that I have been able to give a more particularised response. I beg to move.

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