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Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I support the remarks of my noble friend Lord Sandwich and the Motion proposed this afternoon by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark. During our Second Reading debate, I raised the issue of how we treat children. The Minister's predecessor, the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General, was good enough

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to meet my noble friend Lord Hylton and me at the Home Office, with representatives from the Refugee Council. We discussed with them the level of support that would be provided for children under this legislation.

I was appreciative, and expressed my gratitude in Committee and again on Report for the way in which Ministers tried to respond in a practical way with regard to this vulnerable group. There is widespread agreement in the House that, regardless of what we think about other provisions in the Bill, we recognise that these are children first and asylum seekers second. Therefore, children are a special category and we must treat them properly as the vulnerable individuals that they are.

I was grateful for the assurances which the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General and the present Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, gave the House during the course of our deliberations. My disappointment has, nevertheless, been tinged by the failure to provide on the face of the Bill the kind of security for which the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, my noble friend Lord Sandwich and the right reverend Prelate asked this afternoon. That sadness has been underlined by the way in which, as my noble friend mentioned, the matter was dealt with in another place.

I am sorry that this has become yet another ping-pong battle. This is a very modest, belt-and-braces amendment which simply asks that the assurances that have been given for the interim period should be written on the face of the Bill. Certainly, if the Secretary of State were to make regulations under the new schedule to the effect that families should receive support in cash during the interim period, it would go a long way to reduce the concerns. When the legislation was introduced, Ministers themselves, not least the noble and learned Lord, made it clear they understood that some of the measures were harsh.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, who spoke about the extraordinary accretion and consolidation of powers within the scope of the legislation. We all understand the reasons for that. Some people have arrived in the United Kingdom to seek asylum status without legitimate reason. We also realise that there is a backlog, part of it inherited, with which the Government have had to deal and that real problems must be addressed. But in the accretion and consolidation of those powers, we also lose some of our liberties, rights and opportunities to question the way in which the system operates. Is it not always the case that, because of abuses that occur, the criminal law is changed to diminish the rights of the rest of us? I fear that in part we have witnessed that in the course of this legislation.

One of the assurances given was that the quid pro quo for the harshness of the legislation would be its short duration and that, in future, asylum cases would be dealt with so much more efficiently and effectively that there would not be the spectacle of people lingering, often for years on end, in many of our detention centres. Noble Lords will recall that at Third Reading

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I gave details of the cases of some genuine asylum seekers who had been tortured. Those details had been provided by the medical foundation which deals with victims of torture. Clearly, those individuals, who had already been in detention for over a year, were not bogus but genuine asylum seekers in every sense. I do not believe that anyone in your Lordships' House disagrees with that.

All of us want to see more expeditious arrangements and an end to lingering periods in detention. We recognise that there is some harshness in the new arrangements, but they should be mitigated by a willingness on the part of Ministers at least to recognise the special category of children. That is precisely what the right reverend Prelate has invited us to do in this Motion and in the amendment that he tabled previously. Your Lordships supported him on that earlier occasion and I hope that if he decides to press this matter to a Division this evening, he will continue to have that support.

4.15 p.m.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I join my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby in expressions of thanks for the courtesy and consideration with which we have been heard in this House by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, and the two noble and learned Lords, Lord Williams of Mostyn and Lord Falconer of Thoroton.

I am also aware that a claim of financial privilege by another place is one which we may under no circumstances resist or dispute. Nevertheless, the Commons reason on this amendment is something of a procedural curiosity. They have claimed financial privilege for an amendment which, as we understand it, would have had the effect of reducing, not increasing, public expenditure.

In the brief time available I took the advice of the Table on this matter. I was referred to page 798 of Erskine May from which it appears that it is perfectly in order for another place to insist on their right to spend more public money than we thought necessary or wise. However, only one of the precedents quoted by Erskine May has arisen since the Second World War; namely, that relating to the Water Bill. That Bill was so long that I hope I can be forgiven for not remembering every amendment made thereto.

I do not really believe that the concern of another place was simply with its right to spend more public money than we thought it should. I cannot help wondering whether this is something to do with the decline in the quality of Commons reasons to which I have previously referred and to which I alluded in passing last night. I was further taken aback when I read the remarks made by the Home Secretary in another place last night. In the short time available we have been unable to scrutinise those remarks with as much care as we might otherwise. The Home Secretary, to my intense surprise, claimed that the cost of the right reverend Prelate's amendment could be up to £500 million. He also claimed that the reasoning on

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which that was based had not been challenged. That reasoning rested on the alleged deterrent effect of the Bill on asylum seekers.

My honourable friend Mr Allan, who has had a very good Bill, immediately took up the point and brought a large number of witnesses to support his challenge. I should like to add more one. I refer to my own speech at Second Reading in which I queried at some length whether the alleged deterrent effect on asylum seekers--to make their conditions harsher when they arrived--was genuine or existed only in the Home Office's imagination. I am not for a moment so stupid as to suppose that the Home Secretary might have been persuaded by a single word of my Second Reading speech, but I should have liked to think that he was aware that it existed.

When we turn to the next page of the Home Secretary's speech, we see that his logic becomes interesting. He moves on from the hypothesis with which he began his speech to say:


    "there is no question that the costs would run to £400 million or £500 million".--[Official Report, Commons, 9/11/99; col. 979.]

Of course there is a question; I am asking one. In the next column, he says:


    "Implicit in amendment No. 135 is an assumption that the new support arrangements will be in some way inferior to the current arrangements; I do not accept that".

I simply do not understand how the Home Secretary can have both arguments. On the one hand, he insists on the virtue of his arrangements to deter and, on the other hand, he asserts that they are in no way inferior to the present arrangements. If they are in no way inferior to the present arrangements, why does the Home Secretary suppose that they will deter so many asylum seekers from coming to this country? That is a point to which I very much hope to receive an answer. I am tempted to ask him what one of my pupils once put to me: where are you right? It was a question to which I could not put up any credible resistance.

The Home Office's own asylum support document of last March said that the proposed provision was intended to be a safety net arrangement on a short-term basis and that it should be possible to live on these amounts for short periods only. The last three words are crucial to the department's case. We expressed scepticism about those targets the last time that the Bill was before this House. They are further off now than they were then. Even in the short period the Bill has been out of this House, the backlog has increased and the targets have receded. I believe that that justifies just a small amount of scepticism.

Some noble Lords may remember that Matthew Parris when an MP set out to live for a week on income support and reported that it was possible to do so but that because of the wearing out of durables--shoes and coats, for example--with every week that passed, the task was likely to become harder. As far as I am aware, Matthew Parris's observation has not been contradicted; indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, explicitly accepted it in this House. Therefore, for an arrangement which is justified because it may deter applicants, it is vital that it should

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be in place for a short time only and that nobody should have to live under it for too long, which I believe was the central point of the amendment. I do not see the Home Office going any distance to meet that.

There is also a good deal of misgiving about the arrangements for interim support. The Local Government Association and the Association of London Government were quoted last month in Housing Today as believing that, because of the increase in the number of applicants, the sum of money made available by the Home Office for the system of support is approximately £100 million too small. If that has happened it will not be for the first time in government arrangements for financial support. It could have the effect of making government arrangements a great deal harsher than was intended.

I turn to the right reverend Prelate's Motion. It is a good convention in British politics that, when we can avoid it, we do not penalise children for the action of their parents. For example, I remember that when, under the administration of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, strikers were restricted in their right to draw social security benefits, it was decided that the arrangements should not apply to the strikers' children. That was good reason. The right reverend Prelate will confirm that the text that the sins of the fathers are visited on the children was not intended as an instruction to politicians. If it is so used, it is contrary to its intention; it is contrary to normal practice.

In another place my former honourable friend Mr Parris once argued that he thought it impossible for a child to be a bogus asylum seeker. Without going into an argument about doli incapax--we have heard it exhaustively in this Chamber--I believe that children cannot be held morally responsible and penalised for the decisions of their parents, over which they have no control. Let us suppose for the sake of argument that the parent is a bogus asylum seeker--we on these Benches have never denied that such exist--that is no fault of the child. The child should not be reduced to a low level of support for that reason. The child has a right to a future and not to be penalised for its parents' actions. That is the central purpose underlying the right reverend Prelate's amendment. I hope that the Government will listen to it. We were all children once.


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