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I do not think the certification proposed in the amendment is the right way forward. In Committee my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General made a commitment to the effect that the level of support for children from April 2000 will be equivalent to the level available by way of child benefit and therefore we have effectively discharged the obligation that the amendment seeks to impose.
We shall be reviewing the level of support available to asylum seekers annually. This will allow us to take account, as necessary, of changes to the prices of goods that asylum seekers require. I should expect these levels of support to be set out in the regulations governing the support scheme that we shall be making early next year. That being the case, they will need to be amended on a regular basis following the outcome of any review. That will provide Parliament with the ability to monitor the level of support we are giving to children on a continuing basis.
I understand that in some instances the level of support families receive from local authorities is significantly less than the amount we are proposing to provide under the new support scheme. Those who are currently on social security benefits tend to congregate in London and the south-east and therefore impose a wholly unsustainable burden on the host local authorities. I do not think that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark would want to see families continue in those circumstances. We shall be providing something that is better and more effective.
I believe that the commitment given in Committee by my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General in regard to the level of support for the children of asylum seekers effectively delivers what the right reverend Prelate is seeking. To that extent, we could make the certification shortly after Royal Assent. However, to the extent that the right reverend Prelate believes that we are not in a position to do that, the effect of the amendment would be to delay the commencement of the new support arrangements for families.
We are committed to removing the magnet that the current social security benefits appear to provide for certain groups of rather doubtful asylum seekers. Continuing to make social security available for families would leave that incentive in place, thereby increasing yet further the number of people using asylum as a vehicle for gaining entry to, and remaining in, this country. For those reasons, I ask the right reverend Prelate not to press the Motion.
Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for giving way. I apologise for intervening again, but it is an important matter. The consultation may be difficult because of the forthcoming Christmas period and Recess. What will be the period within which the consultation will take place? Will it be extended appropriately into January or perhaps February in order to take account of the break? I do not expect my noble friend necessarily to reply immediately, but it would be helpful to the various organisations to know that fairly soon.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his question. He is right in saying that I cannot give him an off-the-cuff answer; it would be wrong of me to do so. I am happy to write to him, placing a copy in the Library in the usual way and distributing it widely to Members who express an interest.
However, I am told that we expect that the consultation will run to a minimum of six to eight weeks, probably from the middle of November. I trust that that answer is helpful and I am happy to confirm it in writing.
Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I hope that my noble friend will take into account the fact that the period we are approaching is most unusual in terms of people being able to begin work on the issue. Perhaps the department would be a little more generous in allocating time for a response.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, again, I am grateful to my noble friend for his comment. I shall reflect further upon it and we shall be as helpful as possible in seeking to maximise the time available for consultation. I recognise that this is a complex area. We shall take full account of my noble friend's comments.
The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, asked about the quality of the support available under the interim arrangements. It is open to local authorities to continue their current practice of providing support. There may well be cases in which support in kind is needed in order to ensure that support reaches the children. That is an important point. Many Members of your Lordships' House have said that we must ensure that children fully receive the benefit that is intended for them. We give an important pledge in that respect.
Therefore, we shall not prescribe how local authorities deliver support or how much, but they will be under a duty to meet essential living needs. Again, that is important. I reaffirm the commitment which we made in Committee that the level of support for children in the first year of the new scheme will be equivalent to the level of income support in respect of children--
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I apologise for interrupting, but the Minister is dealing with an important point. Will he say that although local authorities may deal differently with children, during the interim period the Social Services Inspectorate will ensure that no local authority will be allowed to go below the equivalence of 100 per cent support?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for asking that question. It is one on which I should like to reflect. However, she raises an important issue to which we would expect the inspectorate to have due regard. I should like to address the point at some length, but I cannot give an absolute commitment to the House today. It is an important and valid question and I shall undertake to write to the noble Baroness about the arrangements which will be made. Primarily, they will be at the discretion of local authorities, but we have expressed concern about the different levels of support. We recognise that they must be more than adequate for the purpose.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark also asked about the interim arrangements. I can only repeat that at present a choice is open to local authorities. We are not aware that they are failing to provide adequate support, but, clearly, we must monitor that. We must ensure that we and they get it right.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked about cash for families during the interim period. I am happy to confirm that the regulations relating to the interim arrangements will allow local authorities to support the living needs of families wholly by way of cash, if that is their policy. Flexibility is important and we believe that that will preserve the current position under the Children Act 1989.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, asked how the new scheme can be no worse without increasing incentives. That is an interesting point and our response is straightforward and simple. The difference is the way in which support is to be delivered. The quality of accommodation and other support will be broadly equivalent, but we believe that the fact that it will involve limited use of cash payments will help to reduce the incentive effect. There was evidence, particularly after the previous legislation in 1996, that the removal of the cash incentive will have a depressing
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am happy to rely on the statistics which were produced as a by-product of the change in the legislation. I am happy to provide those figures to the noble Earl by way of correspondence.
Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, will the Minister also recognise that the 1996 legislation did a great deal more than create the change at issue? Therefore, the change in the number of asylum seekers after that was the result of a whole series of different factors.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am happy to acknowledge that that is the case and I am sure that the legislation made a valid contribution. However, in this piece of legislation we are seeking to strengthen and improve the quality of the regulatory framework surrounding immigration and asylum. That has been widely acknowledged from all quarters of the House.
The noble Lord, Lord Cope, asked about the number of staff and the fact that figures have varied. Simply, the number of staff needed for the Part VI purposes has risen as our prediction for the number of asylum seekers has risen. It is simply a reflection of that. We want to ensure that we get it right; that we reduce waiting times; and that we deal effectively with the caseload. I am confident that all Members of your Lordships' House will want to support that overall aim.
This has been a long debate. The discussions and reasonings on the legislation have taken place over many months. The arguments have been well researched, rehearsed and argued throughout, and have benefited greatly from the scrutinising nature of your Lordships' House. At times, the message that we are seeking to get across is hard, but it is important. We seek to strike the right balance using firmness, fairness and a fast-tracking processes. That is the right objective for this difficult piece of legislation which, in broad terms, your Lordships want to see on the statute book.
I ask the right reverend Prelate not to press his Motion. I believe that we have addressed his issues of concern and those expressed by other Members of your Lordships' House tonight.
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