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Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, that is not my experience of my noble friend Lord Warner. He is a man of enormous experience and expertise in these areas. I have never known him make wild assertions. I believe that the figure he gave is correct. Amendment No. 118 was carried against the advice that we sought to give. Without trespassing on ground that I should not enter into, my belief is that that amendment will be overturned in another place. I believe that it was a mistake to press that amendment and to carry it. I repeat: my noble friend Lord Warner has enormous and lengthy experience of dealing with the problems of young people and families. I believe that what he said is correct.
The schedule is a set of regulation-making powers and provides a framework. We put out the consultation paper in August and are currently drafting the regulations in the lights of responses we have had. It is fundamental to our thinking that we have relieved the pressure of over-concentration. I have not heard from any of your Lordships at any stage of our debates on the Bill that anyone disputes the fact of that mischief.
Some local authorities are having to cope with very high numbers of asylum seekers. This is taking up a huge amount of accommodation in the capital and surrounding areas. It is making it very difficult indeed for local authorities to discharge their statutory duties towards local homeless families under the homelessness legislation. It is idle, I say, to concentrate on one feature of a local authority's responsibilities and duties and to forget that they have other responsibilities and duties which they are finding it hard to charge. The Government and the Local Government Association are clear that there needs to be a dispersal mechanism to share responsibility. The LGA, to which I pay credit, is currently establishing new arrangements for the transfer of asylum seekers between hard pressed authorities and others who have spare accommodation capacity in different parts of the country. The interim arrangements provide the vehicle to bring that about.
I cannot emphasise this too strongly. We want to see dispersal achieved by agreement. The schedule contains powers that would allow the Home Secretary to set a maximum on the number of new asylum seekers that a hard-pressed local authority is required to accept. We hope that in practice it will not be necessary to deploy those powers. As I said a moment ago, we hope for voluntary agreements.
The schedule contains powers that would allow us to set limits on the number of asylum seekers who may be placed in a particular area by any or all local authorities. We have to bear in mind the small local authorities such as Thanet and Dover. The number of
We hope not to make use of the power. We hope for a co-ordinated voluntary basis of response. We want to give guidance to local authorities and hope to be able to commend the new dispersal arrangements which are being drawn up by the Local Government Association.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, if the Minister will allow me to intervene, perhaps I may ask a straightforward question. We fully understand the need for dispersal. Many of the powers of dispersal occur under Schedule 13. Can the noble and learned Lord say why the powers in Schedule 8 are necessary as well as those in Schedule 13?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I shall come to Schedule 13 in a moment. The asylum seekers affected by the interim provisions in Schedule 8 are those asylum seekers already accommodated under the 1948 Act and the Children Act 1989. Those asylum seekers will be deemed to be transferred on to support under the interim arrangements within the auspices of the local authority currently supporting them.
The interim arrangements will apply also in respect of all new applications for support by people seeking asylum before 1st April 2000. These are people who have applied for asylum in country, not at the port of entry, and those asylum seekers who apply for asylum at port of entry and therefore were initially entitled to social security but are staying in this country pending an appeal against initial refusal of asylum. Local authorities will carry on with the responsibility for such cases after April 2000 but on a declining basis.
The interim arrangements will continue to be led by local authorities who have already substantial experience of accommodation and support. I do not believe that there is any reason to conclude that they will result in asylum seekers receiving any less favourable treatment than they do at present. Indeed, with phased dispersal to areas better able to support them, we believe that asylum seekers will benefit from these arrangements.
The government amendments are of a technical nature. As drafted, Schedule 8 would allow regulations to place a ceiling on the number of asylum seekers that a local authority is required to accommodate so that it could refer those in excess of that ceiling to any other local authority. I repeat that we are looking for agreement rather than compulsion.
At the same time as we bring the provisions of Schedule 8 into effect by regulation, we shall also bring into effect Clause 115, which removes asylum seekers' access to assistance under the 1948 Act. Clause 115 relies in part on a definition of persons subject to immigration control contained in Clause 114. But Clause 114 will not be brought into substantive effect until the main support arrangements come on stream in April 2000.
We therefore, at Report, made a supplementary provision in the transition in paragraph 4 of Schedule 14 to allow that definition to have effect, even though Clause 114 is not in full effect. The amendments to Schedule 14 within this group would similarly apply the definition in Clause 114 to the other restrictions on access to social welfare which we find in Clauses 116, 119 and 120. We do not believe at present that that interim provision needs to apply in Scotland or Northern Ireland simply because the pressure from asylum seekers in those areas is much less severe.
Paragraph 9 of Schedule 14 provides for a phased move from the interim arrangements and from social services support. Amendments Nos. 90 and 91 extend these provisions so that they apply equally to all support that may be provided under English and Welsh legislation.
After 1st April 2000, the prime responsibility for the support of asylum seekers goes to the Secretary of State; local authorities will have a residual duty to support certain persons who sought asylum before that date. But we also hope to see them actively, positively and willingly involved as contractors providing accommodation for the Home Secretary's scheme. Amendment No. 69 is intended to support this approach by commencing the provisions that allow local authorities to prepare contracts from the date of Royal Assent.
Particular matters were raised and I hope to deal with them all. I shall deal with Schedule 13 as I am giving my answer. Schedule 13 deals with dispersal powers under the homelessness legislation; that is, port applicant asylum seekers who become homeless. On the other hand, Schedule 8 relates to dispersal powers relative to in-country applicants.
It was suggested that the interim arrangements would be less good for families. No, the interim arrangements allow local authorities to continue to support families on broadly the same basis as now. They will not be worse; they will probably be better than the existing arrangements.
I mentioned the tribute which we need to pay to the local government associations. They are actively co-operating in establishing the interim arrangements. Officials were discussing this at a seminar with a local government association only today. In response to the questions asked by my noble friend Lord Sheppard, I repeat that the interim arrangements are a continuation of the existing arrangements of support by local authorities. They are not a trailer for the new Home Office arrangements.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark suggested that the interim arrangements are a mirror of the main scheme. In fact, they continue current local authority support; for instance, by way of Section 17 of the Children Act, which is not being done away with, but they allow for dispersal. I believe that we have an obligation to the London and south east authorities to which I referred earlier.
I mentioned earlier that interim arrangements do not cover port of entry cases but in-country cases in the way I suggested. Looking at what is being provide by Schedule 8 and coming to the determinative feature of the Bill as it now stands, everyone recognises that the present system is a shambles. If we do not make a determined start, we can have debates about this at 10-yearly anniversaries in the future. We are not putting people into destitution; it is not right to say that we are.
We are providing cash and voucher facilities, with furnished accommodation and utility charges fully found. That is not unreasonable for the limited period to which Jack Straw has referred time and time again. Family cases will not be introduced until we can meet the two to six months targets.
Some of the attacks on the Bill are based on a misunderstanding. I respectfully commend again the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Warner. We are determined to reform a system which serves no one well at present.
The Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, if anything, I am more confused than I was 10 minutes ago. The noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General made clear on Report that the proposed interim arrangements were meant to be a preparation for the main support scheme rather than a continuation of the present arrangements. I am rather confused by what he has said this evening.
Ministering in London, I fully understand the need for dispersal. But, again, I am disappointed that the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General did not, to my satisfaction at least, respond to the request of the noble Baroness to indicate exactly how the position of children under the interim arrangements would correspond with the clear assurance of the Home Secretary that the present arrangements will continue until the Government's time limits are met.
The noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General said that it is idle to concentrate on one aspect of a local authority's responsibility and ignore others. However, where that one aspect concerns the welfare of children and the possibility of children becoming destitute, I for one make no apology for focusing upon that aspect, even though the removal of the interim arrangements may have other difficult consequences.
I am still not sure that what seems to be a clear undertaking for family support by the Home Secretary has in fact been honoured in the Bill. Perhaps that will be discussed further in the other place where the promises were made. That being so, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.