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Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, as noble Lords know, my primary concern about Part VI of the Bill has been and remains the administrative problems of the system of support for asylum seekers proposed in the Bill. However, I believe that it is now dawning on the Home Office exactly what it is taking upon itself. Lords Amendment No. 135--a similar amendment was proposed on Report by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark--has helped to lead them to the light, at least in some respects.
My evidence for that proposition is that the Home Office slipped out last Friday a Written Answer saying that the number of staff required for the support system was now estimated at 512--it compares with an estimate earlier in the year of 100 to 200 staff--and is,
However, there has been another change since we discussed the amendment. The Home Secretary has agreed to a modest recognition of those who find themselves on the new support system for longer than six months. Yesterday in another place it was confirmed that that recognition will occur for each six months that they are on the new support system.
We all want a system which admits genuine asylum seekers. Both compassion and our longstanding international obligations require that we should do so. In addition, our country has benefited immeasurably over many years from the contribution of immigrants and their families and continues to do so. But the system is under severe strain because of bogus asylum seekers and the problems of sorting out the genuine from the bogus. The right honourable Gerald Kaufman spoke yesterday in another place of how the system is even now clogged with bogus asylum seekers, and he was quite right.
The Government made the situation worse by their early actions and they are now trying to claw it back. We are anxious that they should succeed in mastering the problem, but the first essential is that they should recognise it. The amendment has helped them to do that.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, spoke of the Commons reasons and the introduction of the financial aspect in discussion on Lords Amendment No. 135. I believe that the figures used yesterday by Ministers in another place were wildly exaggerated. They rest on the proposition that cash benefits by comparison with vouchers described by the Home Secretary as of equivalent value would cause an extra 40,000 applications a year. The noble Earl made a strong case that there would be no increase in applications as a result of the temporary change proposed in the amendment. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that argument, the estimates given by Ministers are simply not believable. It is not without interest to recall that the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General did not use such figures, or any figure approaching them, in his efforts to dissuade your Lordships from passing such an amendment on Report.
On the question of whether the estimate has been challenged in the past, if I recall correctly, it was mentioned briefly by the noble Lord, Lord Warner, on Third Reading. I challenged the estimate he quoted and poured doubt on it within a few minutes of his doing so. I agree that that was not in detail because it was entirely out of order to refer to it! Nevertheless, I challenged the estimates at that time.
However, today the right reverend Prelate has again done us a service by highlighting the pledges made by Ministers on a number of occasions in respect of support of children. No doubt the Minister will reaffirm the pledges today and add his own authority to those of the other more senior Ministers who have
Having reflected on the position and, judging by the new figure of civil servants required, having taken some administrative actions, the Government will no doubt wish to stick to their course. I do not think that it would be wise for us to stand in their way today. However, the right reverend Prelate has concentrated the minds of the Home Office on the problems that it is creating, and we must now all hope that it succeeds in solving them.
Lord Bassam of Brighton : My Lords, before replying in detail, it would be churlish of me not to pay tribute to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark for the way in which he has conducted the debate and to other noble Lords for the sincerity with which the provisions have been spoken to. I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for her kind comments and the warmth with which she has approached the matter. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cope, for the plain-speaking way in which he has dealt with an extremely complicated set of provisions, a difficult piece of legislation and hard-fought arguments. Many noble Lords have played a very important part in the debate by reminding us of the difficulties with which the legislation attempts to wrestle, including difficult personal circumstances and the situation of staff in the Immigration Service who have to deal with the problems presented by immigration and asylum matters.
I fully recognise the concerns behind the right reverend Prelate's amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, reminded us of the value and importance that we should place on families and children, a sentiment that was echoed by the noble Earl, Lord Russell.
It is only proper that families should receive the proper level of support to enable them to maintain their children. That is why in Committee we confirmed that we would be increasing the allowance made available in respect of children to a sum equivalent to the full rate of income support payable for children. This is fully in line with what is currently payable for the children of asylum seekers by way of social security benefits.
We have said on a number of occasions that there is not a direct equivalence between social security benefits and the kind of support we were providing under Part VI. I remind noble Lords that under Part VI, we shall be providing as part of the accommodation package certain facilities that an asylum seeker on social security would have to finance out of the benefits available to him. In particular, we
All of these items add up. Although we can put a notional cost on them, there is no direct cash equivalence, and it would be exceedingly difficult to provide the kind of certification suggested in the amendment of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark. There would always be grounds for contesting how the assessment of a particular set of items has been constructed.
The amendment proposes that a comparison should be made of all the components of the Part IV support package and social security benefits. That is deeply problematic: although levels of support for essential living needs are set nationally, rent levels vary very widely on a local basis. If there were to be a higher proportion of such families in the North, the costs of accommodation may be lower, even though the accommodation would generally be better. Comparisons of that kind do not stand up.
We believe that we are providing a decent level of support for families in what we are committed to making a short-term stay in our accommodation. We have already made the commitment that families with children will not be brought into the new support system if their initial claims cannot be resolved within an average of two months and any appeal within a further four months. Those are average times and clearly they will be longer in some cases. In such instances, we are providing for a grant of £50 per person for anyone who, through no fault of their own, has remained on the support system for more than six months. This will allow for the replacement of items that wear out in the medium term. It will take the form of a cash-back voucher.
Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I did not understand the argument about average times. Either we are saying that there should be no further extension than that contemplated, or otherwise it is meaningless. How does one introduce average times into the situation?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for making that point, but we clearly have to consider average times. We make evaluations based on average times, but we are committed to having targets because we believe that people should be able clearly to understand how long the process will take.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I should like to follow up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis. If a group of cases was dealt with very quickly, within eight weeks, but another group of cases, with the average still at six months, took 10 months to deal with, the average would still be met,
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