Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, can my noble and learned friend confirm that Clause 13(5) does not give a right to factual information?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, the provision places on the Minister a legal obligation to exercise his or her discretion in this respect. If he or she decides not to disclose the information, the applicant can appeal to the information commissioner. If the information commissioner rules against the Minister, under Clause 52 the Minister is entitled to override it. In another place my right honourable friend said that if possible he would introduce amendments to ensure that, as far as concerned central government, only a Cabinet Minister could override the decision of the information commissioner after a collective process had taken place.

Baroness Hilton of Eggardon: My Lords, does my noble and learned friend believe that a politician is the

20 Apr 2000 : Column 891

appropriate person to judge objectively public interest questions in relation to information within his own department?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, an objective conclusion is reached by the information commissioner who has to rule on whether the Minister is right in that respect. If the Minister overrides what is said by the information commissioner, he or she must explain why. The Minister must have the support of Cabinet colleagues and his or her decision is subject to judicial review. It is for this House to decide whether or not Cabinet Ministers would regularly overrule the information commissioner and persuade all their Cabinet colleagues to take a political risk in relation to this matter. I should have thought that, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said in relation to the way in which central government behaved--I appreciate that he had great concerns about other arms of government--that looked a pretty effective way of ensuring that it would be very rare indeed that a Cabinet Minister would reach that stage. I ask noble Lords to consider carefully whether that procedure is quite a good safeguard.

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that the tortuous procedure that he has just outlined is only the procedure to gain access to factual information, which our honourable friend in another place said could not be separated out? Does he not realise that the tortuous nature of this argument is exactly what is causing concern among his friends, who long to support him?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I would not have thought it was tortuous--

Lord Tomlinson: My Lords, it might not be tortuous, but it is difficult for a citizen.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, all that the citizen has to do is to make the application. If it is refused, he applies to the information commissioner. That does not look particularly tortuous to me. It is done in this way because in the process of making a decision a Minister will talk to other Ministers and take advice from officials, and perhaps from people outside, and this will frequently involve discussion of a mixture of fact and opinion, totally tangled up. It would be ridiculous that advice should be given in a way not designed best to assist the Minister, but designed to deal with a freedom of information regime. When taking decisions, one wants security that there can be a full and frank exchange of views and that collective responsibility will not be undermined.

At the same time, we want a sensible and clear procedure whereby after a decision is made any material which it would not cause harm to disclose will be disclosed. That is the effect of Clause 13. That is what noble Lords have said throughout this debate that they want: the protection of collective responsibility, the ability for there to be a full and

20 Apr 2000 : Column 892

frank exchange of views between Ministers and advisers, and at the same time disclosure of all material that would not cause harm. That is what the Bill has earnestly tried to do.

Before noble Lords attack the process, they should recognise that the balance that we are seeking to strike is precisely that which I sense the House wants. I earnestly ask noble Lords to think whether we have got it right.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, perhaps I may be helpful to the noble and learned Lord. If the problem is that every Member of the House except his good self is, because he or she is so tired after a long Session, or for whatever other reason, unable to follow this simple matter, would it not be sensible to send the draftsman on a quick course in writing simple legislation, and then let us see it in its simple form, which, if the Minister is right, we would then all understand and applaud?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I fully understand that noble Lords can often see better ways of doing something than has the draftsman in the Bill; equally, I can see that in a Bill such as this, which covers a wide range of matters, its meaning does not immediately leap out of the page. But once one has gone through it, one can see what it is trying to achieve, although, as I have said, if anyone can come forward with ways to make it clearer, we on the government side will consider them.

I hope that I have described what the Bill's processes are, and that upon reflection the House will see that it tries to achieve that which noble Lords, in the various points they have made, have sought to achieve. I do not think that we are as far apart in respect of the policy issue or the blanket exemptions as the House may think.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord accept that the Bill covers a very wide range of authorities? Is he suggesting that a similar system could be replicated within those authorities? As I said earlier, I am speaking particularly of local authorities, where for "the Minister" one must read "the leader and the cabinet". Is the noble and learned Lord suggesting that that arrangement should be available to a local authority as well?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, my right honourable friend in another place indicated that he would consider how he would insert "Cabinet Minister" in the Bill; and how he would ensure that there would be collective responsibility. He said that he would actively consider the position as regards local authorities. The material I have described in relation to the Cabinet Minister and collective responsibility may not be so easy to replicate in relation to local authorities. However, my right honourable friend in another place said that he would actively consider the position in relation to local authorities.

20 Apr 2000 : Column 893

A number of noble Lords supported a purpose clause. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, had subscribed unanimously to a conclusion of the ad hoc committee set up to consider the issue that there should not be a purpose clause. They had subscribed unanimously to the conclusion that there should be an extension to the Long Title. We accepted the advice of that same committee and changed the Long Title. If those noble Lords have now changed their views, they might indicate why that is and how it would help in relation to the balance of the Bill, having regard to their acceptance that the interests of disclosure, confidentiality and good government have also to be considered. That may be a rhetorical question for me to ask at another stage.

It is asked why the person who is the guardian of the data protection regime--in effect, that person is the guardian of people's privacy--should also be the information commissioner, the guardian of disclosure by the Government. As I think everyone recognises, from time to time a clash between an individual's privacy and the obligation to disclose will have to be resolved. One does not avoid that clash by separating the people who have to make the decision. One has to set up structures which ultimately involve someone balancing privacy against disclosure. An individual involved in both regimes' namely, Mrs France--I believe that she commands the respect of all sides of this House and another place--is a sensible person to do that.

We can explore many points in Committee. However, I believe that we have got the balance right. The basic interests that we believe must be satisfied in the Bill do not seem different from those to which noble Lords have referred during the debate. The question is: how can we make the provision clearer? If we can do so, we shall. How can we give better effect to the balance which has been struck? We shall listen with an open mind; but I believe that we have the balance right. Far from it being a matter of criticism, it is a matter for congratulation that the Government have introduced a legally enforceable right for the citizen to find out what his Government are up to. I warmly commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

Asylum Support Regulations 2000

3.53 p.m.

Lord Dholakia rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the regulations, laid before the House on 13th March, be annulled (S.I. 2000/704).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, there is a dangerous schizophrenia at the core of asylum matters. During the passage of the Immigration and Asylum Bill Members of your Lordships' House were fortunate that the debate was handled with the utmost care and concern, and credit must go to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, and his team, the

20 Apr 2000 : Column 894

Bishops' Benches, and the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley. I hope that, by mentioning his name, I am not blocking his opportunities for promotion. I am delighted to see the right reverend Prelate here when, particularly at this time of the year, he will have other pressing engagements.

I do not doubt the sincerity of the Government's effort to tackle institutional racism, but the same Ministers are just as vigorously promoting asylum policies under the banner of fairer, faster and firmer policies, which are actually inciting hatred towards gypsies, eastern European refugees and others seeking shelter here. We are encouraging a policy of sweeping beggars from the streets and zero tolerance to so-called "quality of life" crimes. Where will they be swept to and why? What will it solve? In the public mind organised gangs begging on the streets of London have become synonymous with bogus refugee asylum seekers, the homeless, the dispossessed and anyone who seems to be foreign or different.

Perhaps I may just quote one matter. The barometer of racism can best be understood by the effect of hostile pronouncements. It is not to deny the right to free speech, but to understand the fear that it generates in minorities. It is no different from fears and hostilities faced by white Zimbabweans, by east Europeans or black and Asian minorities in this country. I do not argue with the need for a fair and firm immigration and asylum system. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said this week, a system that worked efficiently and swiftly would be great progress. The present over-burdened and chaotic system brings misery and dislocation to the family life of those concerned. Those detained are treated like criminals; those subsisting on vouchers are at the mercy of anyone ready to exploit them, and we foot the bill for all that misery.

I quote from The Times editorial of 11th April which stated:


    "There is little doubt that last year's surge in asylum applications--of which the forced expulsion of Kosovan Albanians by Serb forces was a significant element--almost overwhelmed the Home Office. But at no point can it be fairly said then or, especially now, that the system was really 'out of control'. In proportion to the population, Britain ranks but ninth in European terms of asylum-seekers. The social security allowances available are not attractive by continental standards. Under the new regime introduced this month, an applicant is entitled to the equivalent of 70 per cent of income support, mostly in vouchers rather than cash. It is not pots of gold that tempt bogus claims but the languid pace at which the forms are processed".

There is some evidence that the backlog is at last shrinking. The time taken to decide whether to award asylum has been reduced by seven months and record numbers of claims are being processed. A vast expansion in the provision of full-time adjudicators and the creation of a new tribunal centre with 12 courts should further cut the backlog.

Why then is it necessary to generate such emotion? I have had a flood of calls from black and Asian people who are being abused on our streets. I do not have to search for an answer. "Why", I say, "I went through the same process during Enoch Powell's 'river of blood' speech".

20 Apr 2000 : Column 895

It is not good enough for the Government to be content with reflecting the confusion now prevailing in their asylum policies. The Government must lead, show vigour and take risks, which is the same vision as the Heath government took when admitting 28,000 Ugandan Asians to Britain. The noble Lord, Lord Carr of Hadley, told me that it took only five minutes for the Cabinet to reach a decision to admit them to this country. There was the same hostility in the media and at the Conservative Party conference then, but that was leadership at its best.

We now have a proposal from the Leader of the Opposition that all new asylum seekers should be detained in reception centres, probably former army camps. Is that how we intend to treat 20,000 or so asylum seekers from Zimbabwe? Do we have to hold them in such camps until their patriality is proved?

I assure your Lordships' House that I decided to pray against the Asylum Support Regulations well before the criticism voiced by Bill Morris of the Transport and General Workers' Union and the Bishop of Croydon, the right reverend Wilfred Wood. I was moved by the position taken by Oxfam which has a long-standing record of work in relation to humanitarian protection. Its views ought to be taken into serious consideration because it has been developing work with asylum seekers and refugees since the setting up of the UK poverty programme in 1995.

On 3rd April, when the Government's new voucher scheme came into operation, Oxfam made a decision not to participate unless its shops were able to give change to asylum seekers using vouchers. That position is now publicly supported by a range of UK charities, including Save the Children Fund, Shelter and Marie Curie Cancer Care. Those key organisations believe that by refusing retailers permission to provide change when asylum seekers shop with them is unreasonable and unfair and discriminates against those people at a time when they are most vulnerable.

Asylum seekers are among the poorest people in our country. At present, the vouchers amount to 70 or 80 per cent of the basic income support offered to UK citizens. That is already well below the subsistence level. The £120 cash element is clearly insufficient to meet the additional needs of asylum seekers; for example, stamps, telephone calls, transport costs and so forth.

Given that the Government are not committed to uprating the level of voucher support, the related impoverishment and exclusion of asylum seekers will worsen over time. That is especially likely as the asylum support regulations specifically prevent charities, churches and individuals from topping up inadequate state provisions. If they do so, government support will be reduced. Throughout the passage of the Bill, we made clear our opposition to the voucher scheme. Vouchers are more expensive to administer than cash, but, more importantly, the separate support system will be inefficient to meet basic human needs.

Let me spell out my concern about the detail of some of the regulations. To a great extent, I am guided by the correspondence of the Medical Foundation for the

20 Apr 2000 : Column 896

Care of Victims of Torture with the Home Office. I shall deal first with Regulation No. 9(4)(e) which deals with toys and then Regulations Nos. 6 and 12. Is this a violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and interference with the principle of freedom of charitable giving? Let me quote the text of the Home Office letter to the medical foundation dated 30th April 2000.


    "The regulations do indeed point out that toys are not to be treated as essential living needs. The purpose of that provision is to ensure that families are not regarded as destitute simply because they cannot afford toys for their children. You will recall that the value of vouchers in respect of children of asylum seekers are set at the same level as social security benefits payable in respect of children for whom there is equally no special provision made for toys".

It does not mean that the provider of accommodation to asylum seeker families is forbidden from making toys available to them any more than the provider is prevented from providing a range of additional services which are not strictly defined as essential living needs. Nor does it prevent asylum seekers purchasing toys with the vouchers or cash. It certainly does not prevent voluntary and community organisations from providing toys to children of asylum seekers. Many of the youngsters with whom we are dealing as asylum seekers have lost their childhood. How on earth could we deny them the little joy that possessing toys could bring to them?

Let me explain the difference in the response. The value of vouchers for children is set at the same value as social security benefits. The value of vouchers for their parents is not. Leaving aside the Minister's comments about the level of income support, a UK family with two children will, from this April, receive £149.40 a week in income support. But a similar asylum seeker's family will receive only £110.57 a week overall. That is a significant difference of £33.80 every week. Moreover, the majority of the support is provided in vouchers. That limits the purchasing power of the family which, unlike other poor people, cannot shop in the cheapest outlets.

As I said, Oxfam, Save the Children Fund, Barnardos and a number of other charities running retail outlets have decided not to take the vouchers. The problem is increased by the decision not to provide change for vouchers, reducing the sums available to the families still further. The National Asylum Support Service told the Refugee Council that, leaving aside the £10 cash vouchers, the other denominations are £5, £1, 50p and a final voucher for odd pence. No further guidance has been given on that particular point.

It is inaccurate to speak of no special provision being made available for toys in respect of families on income support. With regard to the asylum support regulations, toys are expressly excluded. That is not the case with income support. Given that Regulation 9(4)(e) expressly provides that toys are excluded from essential living needs, asylum-seeking families will need their vouchers for cash to purchase baby food and toiletries. If they spend their vouchers on toys, they will have to go without those essentials.

20 Apr 2000 : Column 897

There is a ray of hope in that the Home Office has now accepted that voluntary and community organisations are certainly not prevented from providing toys for the children of asylum seekers. However, charities will have other important priorities, and the National Asylum Support Service cannot duck this particular issue. My noble friend Lady Williams will have more to say on this point and its relationship with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

I turn to other issues of concern in the regulations. Regulation 2(2) provides for a period of only 14 days' support following a final decision, positive or negative, despite the clear evidence given to NASS that it takes more than 14 days for successful asylum seekers to access alternative support while on state benefits. Thus, we shall see clients who are recognised as refugees finding themselves deprived of shelter and food. Nor does the regulation address the situation of those who are given a negative decision but are pursuing judicial reviews or further representation to the Home Office.

NASS has made it clear that the proposed hard-cases fund is designed only to support exceptional cases. It has not stated how big that fund is. It is clear that there will be a group of people left without rights to food and shelter. Are we, by our denials, encouraging begging? That, after all, would be the effect of this regulation.

I am particularly concerned to see recent letters from the Home Office telling asylum seekers that their application has been refused and that they will lose all support in 14 days unless they appeal. However, the letters do not give reasons for refusing the asylum claims and state that a decision, together with appeal forms, will be sent under separate cover. There is a clear risk that if a second letter is not sent within 14 days, the asylum seeker will lose all support, despite the fact that he may have perfectly valid grounds for appeal. The first letter appears to be a refusal for the sole purpose of terminating support. That breaches the rule of natural justice and it is in contravention of the convention on human rights.

Regulation 4 concerns interim arrangements. The NASS scheme was intended to replace the interim scheme from 1st April 2000. It is now the case that NASS will only deal with port applicants, those immigrants from Oakington and applicants from Scotland and Northern Ireland. The NASS and the interim schemes will run in tandem for a considerable period. That gives rise to considerable anomalies which have nowhere been addressed; for example, under this regulation a limited amount of cash must be given, but under the interim scheme there is no obligation at all to give cash. Under these regulations, support for essential living can be provided without accommodation. Under the interim scheme, support for essential living needs can be given only to those accommodated under the scheme. Those in the NASS scheme have a right of appeal to an asylum support adjudicator against refusal of support. Those in the interim scheme must challenge refusals on judicial review. The different entitlements for those in the two

20 Apr 2000 : Column 898

schemes are illogical, anomalous and unfair. They are a recipe for administrative chaos and the regulations are defective in not addressing them.

Regulation 8, relating to adequate accommodation, provides that accommodation is not adequate if an asylum seeker is at risk of domestic violence. Where does it deal with harassment, particularly of a racial nature? The regulations fail to reflect ministerial assurances that survivors of torture will be located adjacent to London; nor do they reflect ministerial assurances that those who have settled in a particular area in which they have formed links will not be dispersed, and that families will not be brought into the support system until time targets are met. The regulations should also reflect those assurances.

Regulation 9 deals with essential living needs. Essential living needs take no account of personal preferences. What about preferences arising out of the need to follow religious or personal practices? Regulation 9(4)(d) excludes from the definition of essential living needs travel expenses other than the initial journey to a dispersal location. No provision is made for other travel. The regulations are defective in that they fail to reflect the assurances given during the passage of the Bill that travel to the medical foundation will be paid.

We are concerned also that no provision is made for travel to legal representatives. The effect of that is to deny asylum seekers the ability to travel to see their legal representatives either in the dispersal locations or at a distance from them. Where there are no legal representatives in the area, the problem is further compounded. If such expenses are not met, the asylum seeker will be denied the possibility effectively to pursue the application.

Regulation 10 is concerned with the provision of support to those with special needs. Again, it is left wholly unclear in the regulations whether essential living needs are addressed by reference to individual circumstances or whether it is intended as a one core set of essential living needs which are regarded over and above that as exceptional circumstances.

Regulation 11 deals with the additional single payment. It is derisory to pay £50 after six months. It will not purchase a winter coat and a pair of shoes, let alone a pushchair and other items mooted in Parliament during the debate on the Bill. However, we are further concerned, under Regulation 11, that the payment will not be made automatically. The asylum seeker must apply for it. That seems to be designed to decrease the uptake of essential payments.

Regulation 14 is concerned with education and development. The regulation states that education, including English language lessons and sporting and other development activities, may be provided as support to asylum seekers only for the purpose of maintaining good order among such persons. That is the aim behind it. Does it appear that English lessons cannot be provided for the asylum seeker who wishes to be able to make his own way in integrating into society.

20 Apr 2000 : Column 899

That places extremely onerous requirements all the time on asylum seekers with regard to notification and matters relating to changes in circumstances. No provision is made for that to be explained to the asylum seekers in a language they can understand. It is perhaps a measure of the extent to which reality has failed to impinge on these regulations that Regulation 15(2)(i) obliges the asylum seeker to notify the National Asylum Support Service if he or she dies. I may be good at revealing the secrets of the Indian rope trick but I cannot see how a dead asylum seeker can meet that particular provision!

There are other issues of concern with which I shall deal very briefly. The application form for support appended to the regulations demands that it be completed in full and in English. That will cause problems. No obligations are placed on the national asylum support services to be able to assist in that exercise.

On the inclusion of utilities under the provision of fully furnished accommodation, we should have expected to see the NASS placed under an obligation in that regard. No provision is made in relation to NASS's obligation adequately to assess the needs of the individual and to respond to them.

In conclusion, assurances were given throughout the passage of the Bill as to how the support system would operate in practice. Those are not reflected in the regulations. The medical foundation submitted 10 pages of detailed comment in response to the consultation and it was not the only organisation to do so. Requests were made for clarification and an indication as to measures which were wrong in principle and unworkable in practice. They do not appear to have been taken into account in the drafting of these regulations.

It is right that we should go back to the drawing board and look at these concerns. I plead with the Minister, with whom I have shared a platform a number of times, on television and in audiences, who has a decent grasp of this subject, to consult widely with the key organisations and submit suitable regulations in due course.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Regulations, laid before the House on 13th March, be annulled (S.I. 2000/704).--(Lord Dholakia.)

4.14 p.m.

Lord Judd: My Lords, not for the first time I rise to thank the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, for having taken this initiative and to support warmly much of what he has said. At the outset of my remarks I should declare an interest in the sense that I am a member of the association of Oxfam and I am also national president of the YMCA. Both organisations are greatly involved in work with asylum seekers.

If there were no other reason for the initiative this afternoon, the issue of vouchers would be enough. I say only that there is deep concern among all those working with asylum seekers in the voluntary sector. It

20 Apr 2000 : Column 900

has been said that we should recognise that the vouchers are not all of the same denomination; that some are for only 50p. But for people living at that level 50p is quite a lot of money. The change from 50p, which they are not entitled to claim in the stores in which they are allowed to exchange the vouchers, can add up to extremely significant amounts for people living at that level. Furthermore, it is absolutely absurd that people living in such straits should be denied the opportunity to shop where it is most economical; for example, in the street market.

Perhaps most important of all is the issue of stigma. There is absolutely no doubt that there is a stigma attached to being compelled to make essential purchases with vouchers. There is already evidence that abuse is mounting towards asylum seekers when they are identified in that way.

To evaluate the regulations we must be honest about their purpose. Are they designed to ensure that those who have suffered intolerable oppression and persecution and who are at risk are welcomed, accorded full dignity and enabled to feel secure and confident; or are they designed as a disincentive, which, together with all the other travel and administrative hurdles, is intended to deter? Put another way, are they primarily about fulfilling our longstanding moral and legal commitments to the rights of the asylum seeker or are they above all about deterring those who, however dismal their plight, will not qualify as asylum seekers?

If, as it should be, they are about the rights of asylum seekers, how do we know until a case has been reviewed and appeals have been heard whether the applicant will qualify? By the regulations, what kind of indignity, further suffering and uncertainty may we be heaping on those who will qualify and who have already suffered too much? Is it not a travesty to suggest that an overwhelming majority of applicants will not qualify? Is it not a fact that a significant proportion do in the end qualify? How can we justify a policy that prolongs the indignity of those who will be accorded asylum?

In that context, is it not the case that, for example, in proportion to population, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Ireland, Sweden and Denmark all take considerably more asylum seekers than we do ourselves; and that in other parts of the world the number of refugees taken by some of the poorest countries such as Iran, Pakistan and Tanzania puts our problem, as a wealthy, successful nation, in the shade?

Why do we not hear more about those realities? Why do we not see the highly professional communication expertise at our disposal deployed to concentrate on explaining the grim realities of war and tyranny from which refugees and asylum seekers are fleeing? Why have we not concentrated our debate on the causes of refugee movements rather than allowing it to become neurotically and totally preoccupied with the consequences? Indeed, the flow that preoccupies us today and to which the regulations refer will become even more pressing if we fail to tackle the effect of insensitive liberalisation of the global economy and of

20 Apr 2000 : Column 901

global warming and climate change on the already impoverished world. We advocate the global market economy but set our faces against the free movement of labour. That is a contradiction which I fervently hope has been addressed at this week's meetings in Washington.

We speak a good deal about our leadership role in the world. But do we really accept, as we should, the responsibilities of leadership? Will history see us as determined to strengthen the cultural and value base of our society, or will it see us, because of some inexplicable lack of self-confidence, playing into the hands of the myopic, the racist, the little minds and the mean?

A multicultural society cannot be built by law alone. It requires unequivocal, courageous leadership and a vocabulary of decency, concern, tolerance, vision and courage. For too long our talk has been of bogus asylum seekers and of how many applicants have been sent home. In talking about the rights of asylum seekers there have been too many "howevers" and "buts".

No responsible person suggests that an open-door policy is possible or that there has not been wicked and cynical exploitation of the poor and vulnerable, exploitation that should be dealt with severely. But, forgive me, this is Easter week. Tomorrow is Good Friday, which brings with it lessons of betrayal and of supreme sacrifice for principle.

These regulations are unworthy. Even at the eleventh hour why cannot we think again? Why cannot we say, for the whole world to hear, that our overriding commitment is to the human psychological and physical needs of the oppressed and that everything that we do will be demonstrably about exactly that, rather than repeatedly seeming to say, "Yes, of course, we have an obligation in relation to asylum seekers, but our overriding concern is with abusers and those who exploit the system".

4.21 p.m.

Baroness Richardson of Calow: My Lords, I am grateful to be able to add my voice to that of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. I do not intend to make a long speech because I feel that he has spoken comprehensively and has taken note of the concerns held by many people. I have two points to make.

First, it is a long time since I was involved in arguments that were about the deserving and the undeserving poor. That seems to have gone out of the window and we regard poverty as poverty, however it has been caused. However, I believe that when we talk about those who seek asylum, that kind of understanding is returning to our language.

Whether there are valid reasons for those people being in our country, whether they will be given the right to live here long term, they are in need now. Their needs are similar and must be addressed with dignity. As a country with the resources to meet those needs, it is a great shame that we are not able to do so.

20 Apr 2000 : Column 902

Secondly, we have had reason to feel good about the kind of partnerships that there are between government provisions and those good-minded people who are willing to work alongside in partnership. The churches and other agencies have done, and are willing to do, a great deal, but they are being deterred from that course by the provision that their work is not to be considered as an add-on or as filling in the gaps. I believe that we are losing some understanding of what is the most needed resource--friendship. Churches find it hard to offer friendship if they cannot also offer practical support which may be used against the provision made for asylum seekers.

I had to ask what "Prayer to Annul" means. I was told that it may not make much difference but that it is a way of stamping one's feet. I am stamping my feet very loudly although noble Lords cannot hear me. I stamp my feet along with a great number of people up and down the country who feel that these provisions are unworthy of a country that can afford to support, and ought to be willing to be more generous towards, those among us who are in need.

4.24 p.m.

Lord Elton: My Lords, we conduct this debate in a difficult atmosphere. The media has focused national attention on aspects of the asylum-seeking problem which quite rightly give the public great anxiety. The numbers are alarming; the cost is considerable; and we are led to believe that a large number of those coming here are not entitled to stay.

I should like to question the criteria on which the judgment of entitlement to stay is made. As I said in a debate which I initiated on 1st March on the need for effective and humane treatment of asylum seekers, we are applying criteria devised at the end of the last World War to cope with the disturbance of populations that resulted from it; we are applying them unaltered except that they have been narrowed in various conventions; and we are applying them as though they were moral imperatives. But in the narrow confines of a prayer to annul regulations, one cannot go beyond the terms of the regulations and the situation that we find.

Within those terms, we still ought to look for something which is both effective and humane. Perhaps I may remind your Lordships of what I said in opening the debate on 1st March:


    "Efficiency means swift decisions"--

that is not what we are looking at today;


    "and humanity means right decisions and good treatment".--[Official Report, 1/3/00; col. 557.]

I join the noble Lords, Lord Dholakia and Lord Judd, and the noble Baroness, Lady Richardson of Calow, in asking whether what we are giving is good treatment. After such a complete statement as that used by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, to introduce this debate, I can only say that I support almost every word he said.

Turning to the regulations themselves, in subparagraph (3) of Regulation 3, we find that the application for asylum must be made,

20 Apr 2000 : Column 903


    "by completing in full and in English the form for the time being issued by the Secretary of State for the purpose".

Let us for a moment try and dismiss from our minds the threatening horde of asylum seekers that we are asked to look at as though they were collective, typical, all the same and had no right to live here; let us look at a family of two or three who come into this country genuinely in fear of their lives, genuinely without other resources and find themselves in the midst of that "threatening horde", if that indeed is what it is. It is to them as well as to the others that these regulations are addressed.

I hope that anybody outside this Chamber who is listening to this debate will not think that we have forgotten the problem of the vast numbers. The Government should be supported in their humane efforts to control it and to return whence they came those who have no entitlement--in many cases with a heavy heart.

I should like to change the confines of this debate; I should like to question the criteria that the Government are enforcing. But that is the law; we accepted it; and the Government should be supported in upholding it. I believe that those on these Benches are prepared to do that.

However, we should also look at how we treat those who are being "sorted out"; the process of separating those who are entitled from those who are not. Can they, in the state of anxiety, fatigue, confusion and poverty in which many of the genuine cases arrive, be expected immediately to put a full and sufficient case, which can be referred to on appeal as the basis of appeal, in good English? That is not a requirement which can be easily met unless there is also a requirement on the authority to provide them with a means of doing it when English is not their first language.

To take a quite different point which I raised in the earlier debate, having noticed something said by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. It seems to me to be elementary that people coming to this country for asylum should be told what their entitlements are. These are small enough, and if they do not get them all they will not survive. It was suggested that every asylum seeker should be given a statement in his or her language stating his or her entitlements.

Only this afternoon I received a copy of a letter from the Minister, Barbara Roche, to David Harker of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, and I am grateful for that. It starts off by appearing to be a rebuttal of the idea that all 16 million non-British EEA passengers and 11.5 million non-British non-EEA passengers subject to control should be issued with the literature in question. That is an absurd idea. What I was suggesting, and what I still suggest, is that when somebody claims asylum it is clearly the duty of the host country to advise him of his rights in a language he can understand.

The Government have now instituted a process of dispersal. That has implications of the same sort, because nobody who knows our system can expect

20 Apr 2000 : Column 904

anybody else to understand it without legal advice, and to get legal advice one has to go to a lawyer. But if someone is dispersed to Hull, I am advised that that person now has to go to, I think, Leeds or Sheffield--I will save your Lordships the time it would take me to look that up--to get the advice, and that because the solicitors there are so overloaded there is a waiting list.

Regrettably, travel, except for travel to the dispersal point itself, is not accepted under these regulations as being necessary expenditure and so the money for that must be found from outside the small amount of money given to asylum seekers for maintaining their lives here. Is that good treatment? If, for good but disputed reason, an asylum seeker declines to be dispersed--perhaps because there is a relative from whom he does not wish to be separated who lives elsewhere--he would forfeit the right to the benefits in vouchers and to £10 in cash--I would put it another way: he forfeits the right to accommodation. That is as I understand it. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong. I cannot find that in the regulations, but we have been told about it and I think the Minister gave us an assurance during the debate on the 1st March. In such cases asylum seekers will have to find the cost of accommodation out of their voucher and cash allowance. And then we are surprised if they come to begging! But how else can they support themselves?

I hope I am wrong in this, but it seems to me to be a totally unjust and uncharitable treatment of people, some of whom are in dire need and have every claim on our charity. As the noble Lord, Lord Judd, has said, this is not a bad time to think about those things. Therefore, I am distressed, first, by the criteria which we are forced to apply because we are observing a treaty as if it were a moral duty; and, secondly, because we only consider people who are in fear of their lives due to tyranny and not because of a famine. As I have said before, we need another debate about striving for a world in which we cannot have a surplus in one part and starvation in another without moving the population to the surplus.

I am unhappy about these regulations. I have drawn attention to two aspects on which I hope to be enlightened, but I feel that we are being churlish to those who deserve our charity as well as to those who seek to exploit it.

4.34 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, I am very grateful, as are others, to the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, for raising this crucial issue. First of all, I recognise that the Government are faced with a very real dilemma in trying to adjudicate fairly and speedily between well-founded claims and those that are not well founded, particularly given the very large backlog of cases.

Secondly, as I am sure is the case with everyone, I strongly support what the Prime Minister recently said about the need to take very great care in the language that we use. This week reminds us how easy it is to inflame mob violence. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, mentioned a notorious speech. I, too,

20 Apr 2000 : Column 905

remember that speech. I was running an open youth club in north London, and for days and weeks afterwards young people used to arrive at the club chanting a particular name repeatedly. We need to be very careful in the way that we speak and write about this issue.

I should like briefly to mention Regulation 2(2), which provides that once a decision has been made, a person loses all support after 14 days. This presents difficulties both for those who are accorded refugee status and for those whose applications are refused. Those who have been accorded refugee status have only 14 days in which to find an alternative means of support. Most people who know the system recognise that it usually takes more than 14 days to make the system work and to obtain that support.

Many of those whose applications have been refused will want to appeal. Contrary to popular opinion, quite a few applications on appeal are successful. Indeed, the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture has referred to the fact that in 1998--the last year for which figures are available--47 per cent of appeals from Sri Lankans were successful, as were 38 per cent of appeals from Turkish people.

People may be allowed to appeal, but it is likely to take a good deal more than 14 days for all the bureaucratic machinery to work to enable them to lodge their appeals. I ask the Minister to look very carefully at the fine tuning of what is proposed because that 14-day clamp-down may very well work harshly both on people who are successful and on those who are unsuccessful in their first application.

I must echo what the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said so powerfully. All voluntary organisations are very uneasy indeed about the voucher system. You only have to imagine yourself shuffling forward towards a check-out point in a supermarket. Your basket is full but you notice that the basket of the person in front of you seems to be strangely empty, with very few items in it. When the person reaches the check-out point, he or she brings out something that you have difficulty in recognising, as does the girl at the till. It turns out to be a voucher, but by this time all eyes in the queue are on that person. Given the inflammatory nature of so much language in the public debate at present, it is highly likely that people will immediately be thinking suspicious thoughts about that person; for example, is he or she a genuine refugee?

Quite simply, the voucher system is demeaning to people. As the noble Lord, Lord Judd, asked: what is the purpose of it? If the purpose is deterrence, I suggest that it has no hope at all of working. Will people in countries all over the world suddenly get the message that we are operating a voucher system in the UK that will work to their disadvantage? I do not believe for one moment that it will work as a deterrent. If we are serious about deterring economic migrants as opposed to people who have a well-founded fear of persecution, the only adequate deterrent, presumably, would be that those whose claims are unfounded would be recognised fairly quickly and speedily returned home. That is the only form of deterrence that will work;

20 Apr 2000 : Column 906

vouchers will not work as a deterrent. Moreover, they are having a stigmatising and demeaning effect on all refugee applicants in the country at present.

I suggest that from a humane point of view, as well as from a cost point of view and every other point of view, asylum seekers should simply use the other voucher system that we all use, which is called money. Bank notes in denominations of £5 and £10 are the vouchers that we use; let the asylum seekers also use those vouchers.

4.39 p.m.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, I support the Prayer of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. Although there are few of us present we must remember that the measure represents the views of many organisations outside this House. The Minister and others may not remember my amendment on the subject of charities to Clause 93 of the then Immigration and Asylum Bill last summer which stated that the Secretary of State must take into account,


    "any other support which is available ... or might reasonably be expected to be available".

That amendment was taken to a Division. Somewhat to my surprise, it was not carried because the Conservatives, led by the noble Lord, Lord Cope, were in full support of it. I believe that it was an all-party amendment, but perhaps we discussed it rather late in the evening. Unfortunately, the measure I sought to amend passed into legislation and is now echoed by Regulations 6 and 12.

Charities and organisations which assist refugees are still concerned about the measure. To an extent they feel let down by a Labour Government who in so many other ways demonstrate their support for voluntary organisations. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, will not mind if I quote what he said when we discussed the amendment. He said,


    "I can think of no other instance where, if a charity gives money to a deserving person, that person then has their social security or other benefit taken away from them. But that is contemplated here".--[Official Report, 20/10/99; col. 1196.]

This is not firmly enshrined in law, but I think that noble Lords may agree that it is still contemplated in the terms of the regulations.

The noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General said that he saw no difficulty here. In January, the Home Office Minister, Barbara Roche, said,


    "It would be wrong to ignore what support an asylum seeker might receive".

I can understand that it would be wrong to ignore other support if it is the kind of regular support given by some charities which are in a quasi-statutory role of service providers to a given local authority or government department. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord had that in mind. It is true that over the past 10 to 15 years the more recognised and consistent charitable support has been, the more likely it was to be taken up by government in areas or sectors where government services may be weak or have failed. That has been a trend, but it is not true of the mainstream of charitable work.

20 Apr 2000 : Column 907

It would be quite wrong for the Government to insist on a strict interpretation of the clause or regulation because much of the support given to asylum seekers is unpredictable and dependent on a charity's funding. It is unimaginable that the valuable work done by the refugee communities themselves in providing spontaneous support or collecting materials for refugees could count against support. I seek some reassurance on that point.

I have other concerns with regard to vouchers and other matters that have been mentioned. However, I mention just one other point under Regulation 9(4) on information in support of claims. I believe that I echo much of what the noble Lord, Lord Elton, has said in this regard. To exempt the cost of copying facilities and travel expenses for legal appointments will, in effect, remove the right of asylum seekers to legal representation and a fair hearing. I have written to Home Office Ministers on this point in respect of detained asylum seekers, but I had not expected these expenses not to be treated as essential living needs of asylum seekers being met by the NASS. I should like some assurance on that point. There is no way that the living allowance will cover those costs. I urge the Government to think again and to reflect that these regulations, in these and many other ways, deny genuine asylum seekers--in the present climate we must be talking about genuine asylum seekers--no less than a means of survival.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Joffe: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and other speakers have said everything that I intended to say in relation to these regulations. As chair of Oxfam, I wish to make only one point. On the one side we have the hysteria being created by the media and by certain right-wing groupings; on the other side there is a large body of caring people who are disillusioned and despondent that this Government could frame regulations which harass and humiliate refugees who come to this country seeking political asylum. Some of them will be granted political asylum, and they will think back on the welcome that they received when they arrived in this country.

4.46 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, perhaps I may add another voice to the debate. Like many noble Lords who have spoken, I am profoundly concerned about the nature of these regulations.

The noble Lord, Lord Judd, referred to the fact that today was Maundy Thursday. Having listened to the words which have come down to us over the centuries from the person we are recognising over the next few days--who suffered the greatest sacrifice of all--we have to accept that we are in no way living up to that teaching.

Nor are we on a more secular level living up to the words of the many treaties that we have signed. Those treaties enjoin us--we signed some only as recently as

20 Apr 2000 : Column 908

last year--to respect the human rights of other people; to respect the rights of the child; to respect the rights of refugees; and to accept our obligations as a wealthy and civilised country. One of the things that most feeds cynicism among the citizens of the world is to see the signatories of treaties themselves bending and changing the meaning of those treaties.

It is almost impossible to find compatibility between these regulations and the provisions of the treaty of the United Nations, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the noble Lord, Lord Judd, referred. It is also difficult to see how the regulations can be squared with the European Convention on Human Rights, which we signed as recently as last year. That specifically indicates that the detention of someone who is not known to have committed any crime is against the terms of the convention.

That is my first point: we cannot joyfully go on signing and taking credit for our support for international and European conventions without accepting that that carries with it a very heavy obligation in law.

My second concern is that we are all flying much too easily before the terrible words that Britain is "a soft touch"--words which have been used throughout the media to damn almost anyone who tries to speak up for compassionate and reasonable behaviour towards asylum seekers and refugees.

As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford said, we all recognise that there are those who arrive in this country as a result of the operations of extremely sophisticated and extremely wicked organisations which trade in human beings, in human hopes and in human fears. None of us for one moment condone that. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Elton, so eloquently said, the strange thing about these regulations is that they make it even harder for the genuine asylum seeker or refugee to prove his case, and thereby throw people more and more back on those sophisticated agents, who are seen by some of them to be the only resort they have.

Let me take two examples, one of which has already been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Elton. It is perhaps a trivial example if one has enough money; a desperately significant example if one does not. Stamps, faxes, telephone calls will none of them count as essential needs. But how does the asylum seeker arriving in this country who is not part of some scheme ever have a chance to prove his or her case if they are not even able to communicate with the officials who will make decisions on their case? Coming from Algeria or Ethiopia or Kosovo, how can they possibly hope to make their case if they have no legal help at all?

Frankly, they cannot get that legal help in many of the parts of the country to which they have been dispersed, as the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said. It is even more cruel that they cannot hope to get support for travel to the nearest legal centre able to assist them. Again, that would appear to have to come out of their own meagre means of support. To put it bluntly, they may have to choose between a meal for their child and the chance to make out their case properly and legally via the correct channels.

20 Apr 2000 : Column 909

The third thing that troubles me is that many of the assurances made to this House by Ministers whom we trusted and believed are not reflected in any way in the regulations. I shall give the House a couple of examples. It was specifically said that the new support arrangements would apply only in the event that refugees were here for a short period of time. Ministers said that they hoped to deal with their cases within two months or, at most, six months. That was the basis on which the beggary provision was offered as acceptable. All of us know that those figures will not be met and that many refugees will be in fact trying to live on NASS for much longer than a couple of months.

We were given specific assurances that those who were dispersed would have access to lawyers. Barbara Roche, the Minister, repeated that on a "Newsnight" programme in the autumn of last year. There is nothing in the regulations to indicate that there will be means to enable people to reach lawyers if they do not have one in the area to which they have been dispersed. The Minister said that people would be dispersed to areas where there would be people of their own kind--in other words, diversity would be taken into account in dispersal. That, too, appears to have disappeared, laying many asylum seekers at great risk of racial attacks in some parts of the country.

Ministers assured us that victims of torture would have support to reach medical help--it has to be specialised medical help--in order to establish their claim to have been tortured; the most persecuted refugees of all. That, too, appears nowhere in the regulations. I hope that it is still being sustained. I recall still the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, specifically thanking the Government for the way in which they accepted commitments to victims of torture.

Finally--I could continue for a good deal longer but I will not--I recall the words of the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General. I shall quote them because they are worth quoting. I certainly took them very seriously. He said:


    "The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, specifically asked me whether persons would be forced to rely on charities. I hope that I reassured him in my preceding answers that that is not the case".--[Official Report, 20/10/99 col. 1200.]

It is not just where persons rely on charities. But where charities help them, that figure is to be taken into account in whatever level of support they are granted.

I shall conclude with that because in many ways those seem to be the saddest regulations of all--regulations 6 and 12. Those people who give to charity do so after having paid their taxes, the taxes out of which public funding comes. It is one of the most splendid instincts of human beings that some of them at least are willing to be altruistic, to help their neighbours and to enable those who are down on their luck to have a new opportunity and a new chance. Specifically to say that charitable help will be taken into account is to discourage charitable giving. Which of us is going to give to a refugee fund if we know that that will simply come off the levels of support?

20 Apr 2000 : Column 910

Let us suppose that the Government said that the money we give to Action for the Blind should be deducted from benefits for the blind. Let us suppose that the Government said that the money we give to Age Concern should be deducted from the pension. I promise noble Lords that every last tabloid in the country would be marching upon Westminster. Unless I misunderstand, that is what the Government are proposing for asylum seekers and refugees. I very much hope that the Government will be able to tell us today that we do misunderstand this and that it is not so. I hope that they can give us that assurance.

4.54 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, it is an accident of the arrangement of business in this House, but it is not at all inappropriate, that we should be discussing this matter on Maundy Thursday, and that it should take the form of an humble Address to Her Majesty, who has today been distributing Maundy Money. Nor is it inappropriate that this element of our proceedings should be designated as a Prayer. We all want to thank the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, for introducing the debate. I thank the noble Lord for his kind remarks about my efforts earlier. I shall sustain any damage with equanimity!

The noble Lord and other speakers have raised important points. I do not propose to go over all of them. I did not intend to discuss the general questions of asylum today, as we have done so at length on various occasions. But we all believe that Britain has a legal and moral duty to help people who are fleeing for their lives.

However, the present position is that public support has been eroded by a perception that our traditional national hospitality is at present being abused. It is not a wholly inaccurate perception, although the balance of it may be wrong. It is common ground that rackets have grown up, providing for would-be economic migrants to pay large sums to be helped to claim asylum to which they are not entitled. I agree with the remark of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, that this is "wicked and cynical exploitation" and should be dealt with severely. I may have a little more sympathy than some noble Lords with the Government's efforts and with their difficulty in trying to distinguish between genuine cases and those who should not be allowed asylum. I believe that the Government inherited a difficult situation with regard to asylum, but they have made it worse.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page