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Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, perhaps I may briefly address Amendment No. 135C. I hope that the House will bear with me if I say a preliminary word or two in thanks. It would be churlish not to thank Ministers for the patience they have shown and for their willingness to listen to, if not always to hear, the many submissions made to them during the passage of the Bill. I express my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, and to his colleague, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, for the way they have so carefully taken into account the arguments we have advanced.
Perhaps I may also say how delighted I am that three of those who have been most engaged with this amendment, and the long debates that led to it, particularly regard to the children of asylum seekers--namely, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Lords, Lord Swinfen and Lord Hylton--have been elected to remain in this House. I place on record my great gratitude for all the work they have done so carefully and thoroughly on the Bill.
Before addressing the amendment, I do not hide from the House my belief that the Bill is a profoundly troubling one. It carries with it huge powers which presently apply to asylum seekers but which could extend more widely to the liberties and well-being of our own citizens. Therefore, it is vital that this House carries out its duty, following the report of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation, to examine carefully the regulations that will come before it, including those relating to the support system, as a result of the adoption of affirmative procedures.
I turn to the amendment. The right reverend Prelate referred to some of the pledges made by Ministers, one of which I shall quote. It is plain that for several months the Government have been aware of their pledge that children should not suffer as a result of the change in these important arrangements. If they meant those pledges--and I do not doubt that they did--they must have taken into account any financial consequences that may flow from them. Therefore, whatever objection there might be to the original amendment tabled by the right reverend Prelate, it cannot possibly apply to this amendment; otherwise, it would indicate that Ministers did not recognise the consequences of their own promises.
Why then is it necessary to have this amendment at all? It is necessary because there is no such reference in the primary legislation. There are many pledges by Ministers, and in the next few weeks the Home Office will lay detailed regulations which the House has not had an opportunity to see regarding support arrangements for the families, including children, of asylum seekers. The intention of the amendment is therefore to elicit from the Government a clear statement that the commitment made repeatedly by Ministers through the course of discussion on the Bill will be embodied in regulations so that it has the force of law.
The proposal is the more important because, in giving evidence recently to the Home Affairs Committee, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, with his usual candour, made clear that he rather doubted that the targets that the Government had set themselves would be reached. I do not criticise the Government for that. We understand that they are facing an increase in applications, and we understand the difficulties involved in dealing with them. However, we underline once again the implications that families may have to live not merely for weeks but for months on a level of income support which, for single refugees, amounts to between 70 and 80 per cent of the minimum income support level. The figure depends on how one rates, for example, the provision of household utensils, sheets, utility bills, and so on.
Is it the case that under the interim support arrangements children will be supported in line with the pledges of Ministers? Will local authorities be encouraged to maintain the best practice in respect of that support? Finally, in April 2000, when the long-term support arrangements come in, will children be protected in the way that the right reverend Prelate
In concluding, I make no apology for having explained matters at a little length because we are talking about the most vulnerable people in our country, the test by which the quality of our civilised standards and generosity are now to be judged. I am honoured to support the right reverend Prelate's Motion.
Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, at the outset I should repeat my declaration of interest. I was a former chairman of the Refugee Council and I have kept in touch with it, not only on these salient issues but also on many other matters. My noble friend Lord Dubs, now a Minister, was the executive director when I served in the capacity to which I have just referred.
I have lingering doubts about the way in which the Bill (and the Act) will work in practice. For that reason, I believe that the points made by the right reverend Prelate--I have been here a long time and I hope that I have the nomenclature right--are good ones. He served an important and distinctive role in addressing many important issues which affect the way in which the legislation will operate in practice. He and the noble Baroness illustrated that again today.
However, while paying that sincere tribute to them, I believe that the issues raised today will have to be observed in practice. The Government are on notice: they must work out regulations to cover the issues. I hope that my noble friend who will reply to this debate will indicate how the Government propose to go about the process of consultation on the regulations with interested organisations. I fully support the plea made by the noble Baroness, subject only to the caveat which I have just registered.
I declare another interest: a number of my relatives were refugees. My grandparents were refugees from oppression at the beginning of the century. There were refugees in my family from Nazism. So it is no accident that I came to be involved with the Refugee Council and the invaluable work which it and like-minded organisations undertake.
It is right that we should scrutinise the practice, the evolution of the legislation. I know that the noble Baroness and others will do so, as I shall. However, I hope that the Motion will not be pressed to a Division today. I am assured that the Government have given, and will continue to give, careful consideration to the representations that have been made from many sides of the House.
I do not like certain aspects of the Bill and I do not hide that from the House today; but I believe that Ministers have listened carefully to the concerns and anxieties which have been expressed. I have confidence
The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, I strongly support the right reverend Prelate's Motion. I shall try not to show too much grief at this late stage about the losses suffered during the passage of the Bill. The grief will be borne by thousands of people not in this Chamber. However, those of us who have supported or moved amendments over the past few months have had backing from all sides of the House. We were dismayed to see the degeneration last night in another place of the all-party support. I thank the noble Baroness for her kind remarks and all my peers who supported me.
Having been reprieved at the 11th hour last week as a Member of this House, it is perhaps churlish to complain about the system in Parliament. However, Front-Benchers in another place were reduced to pointing fingers at one another. The spirit of compromise which we saw again today in the right reverend Prelate's final Motion has all but vanished. Perhaps it is inevitable that at this stage the only amendment before us is based on the Minister's promises to the children of asylum seekers. If that cannot carry, I am not sure what will. It is imperative that the target for families with children is met before April, if the Home Secretary is not to go back on his own commitment in the summer to maintain the present support arrangements for them during the interim period, as well as in future.
The right reverend Prelate's amendment in lieu no longer makes the link with targets but simply asks for a continuation of support, as if the new Act had not come into force. I am nearly sure that the Minister will have no quarrel with that. I go away unhappy with many aspects of the Bill and am unsure whether asylum seekers will benefit from it. They certainly will not under Part VI.
It remains, however, only to say "Thank you" to the Government for the amendments which have been genuinely accepted and to hope, without too much lamentation, that the right reverend Prelate's Motion today will not have been in vain. We all want to see the computers working and the backlog reduced but equally none of us wants to see competition between local authorities for fewer asylum seekers in the interim period, or a bogus reduction of the numbers through over-hasty decisions.
Finally, I ask the Minister for that reassurance. The best way forward is surely to improve the quality of processing in the earlier stages of a claim, rather than speeding it up simply to ensure a superficial reduction of the numbers. I support the right reverend Prelate's Motion.
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