|Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill
Mr. Malins: The possible withdrawal of the support only option is highly significant. Some respected non-governmental organisations, including the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, the Refugee Council, the Law Society, Justice, the Refugee Legal Centre, the Refugee Children's Consortium, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the Immigration Advisory Service, have drawn attention to it in briefings. There could not be a more comprehensive or authoritative list of NGOs, all of which are worried about the proposal.
The clause allows the Secretary of State to make an order restricting the provision of essential living needs to those asylum seekers provided with accommodation by the Secretary of State, which seems to compel asylum seekers to accept dispersal. Taken as a whole, the clause would abolish the current option of applying for, and receiving, National Asylum Support Service subsistence support only, that is, without receiving NASS-provided accommodation on dispersal. The NGOs consider that unfair, unjust and counter-productive. In some cases, it could result in the undesirable separation of asylum seekers from friends or relatives able to accommodate them but not to support them financially, causing unnecessary distress to the asylum seekers concerned and increased accommodation costs to NASS.
In other cases, the provision could result in the denial of all welfare support to those asylum seekers who, for understandable reasons, prefer to stay with friends or relatives rather than being dispersed. For example, NASS does not make special provision for disabled asylum seekers, or those suffering severe illness. Citizens advice bureaux have reported being approached by individuals wanting to remain with friends or relatives rather than being dispersed. Nearly 40 per cent. of more than 65,000 asylum seekers and dependants currently supported by NASS have opted to receive subsistence support only. Accordingly, the number of individuals who would be adversely affected by the provision is substantial.
Justice is only one of the groups to have raised the issue. It said:
I hope that the Government will be able to respond helpfully.
Angela Eagle: I understand hon. Members' concerns, but we believe that taking a power to end the provision of subsistence only support in all cases is wholly consistent with our approach of developing a more managed asylum policy and better ways of keeping contact with asylum seekers during the process. That will facilitate speedier consideration and lead to what all Committee members have said that they want—a more effective end-to-end process
Column Number: 198for those who apply for asylum. We have made it clear that if the pilots work and accommodation centres prove to be a great success, we may bring an end to the dispersal system. If that happens, we intend to offer support only in those accommodation centres. The Bill is drafted for not only the pilot but any potential result of the pilot, which may see the emergence of a new system. That is partially what the clause is about.
Under current arrangements, asylum seekers may stay with friends or relatives and claim support to cover essential living needs. However, in such cases we have no control over where they live, which makes it difficult to maintain contact. Large numbers of those who take up cash only support remain in London and the south-east. As of December 2001, 17,000 of the 25,000-plus asylum seekers taking subsistence only support were living in London, which is 70 per cent. That frustrates the dispersal process, whatever the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) says.
Mr. Malins: I understand the point about keeping track of asylum seekers, but will the Government consider tabling an amendment on Report to grant the facility provided that the Secretary of State knows the address and the person continues to reside there throughout the process?
Angela Eagle: We want the enabling power in clause 34 to create the potential to move away from cash only support, but it is not our immediate intention. We would not do it next week, and it would not make sense to do it until we had managed to regionalise NASS, if we are dealing with the current dispersal system, and we had in place more effective mechanisms for reporting, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam mentioned. Although I cannot tell the Committee when it will be, we foresee a time, if the reporting system is running properly and accommodation centres are working effectively, when we may wish to cut off the cash only option.
Mr. Allan: Will the Minister clarify whether, under the current arrangements, when people want to stay in London or the south-east with family or friends—the 17,000 she mentioned—we simply withdraw cash only support and there is no power to force them to disperse? Do they simply live without the £29-odd coming into that family unit?
Angela Eagle: People are expected to co-operate with the asylum process. The only people who can apply to NASS for support—including the 17,000 who have chosen to frustrate the dispersal process and remain in London—are those who are destitute. If they decide that they do not want to apply for NASS support, or are not destitute and can afford to choose where to live, they move out of the system and are not offered NASS support.
There may be a point in the future—when reporting is up and running, accommodation centres are more often used than now or we wish to make dispersal more effective—when the power allows us to decide not to have a cash only option. We are nowhere near that point, but the provision will allow us to move that way as the system evolves. In deciding whether and when to exercise the power, we must consider all relevant factors. Some will be administrative and some
Column Number: 199will relate to how our systems have developed to facilitate more effective dispersal or use of accommodation centres. Of course, we also have to consider our obligations under the European convention on human rights.
We anticipate that any increase in accommodation costs as a result of withdrawing cash only support would be offset by savings delivered elsewhere by a more effective asylum system. We would not wish to move towards the cut-off of choice if we were not convinced that we could cope administratively with its effects. We cannot accept the amendment because it would take away our power to switch off cash only support, but I hope that I have given the Committee some idea of the Government's thinking on the use of this enabling power.
Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): I have listened carefully to the Minister, but I remain concerned about the provision. I understand that the intention is not to implement it immediately, but I am concerned about her description of people who take the support only option as having chosen to ''frustrate the dispersal process''. I should be grateful if she would provide evidence of that. I believe that the motivation of the overwhelming majority of people who take the support only option is to remain with family and friends in particular communities. Let us not attribute to them a negative motivation that is undermining policy.
Angela Eagle: I was talking about the effect of the choice and not saying that individuals were deliberately choosing to frustrate the process. Of the 40 per cent. of all asylum seekers who go for the cash only option, 70 per cent. remain in London. The dispersal system was introduced because of the enormous pressure on Greater London and the south-east, where asylum seekers were at that time deciding to stay. However, given those figures, the fact is that dispersal has been only partly effective in alleviating the pressure on the south-east and especially Greater London.
Ms Buck: I understand that point, but it is somewhat undermined by the fact that the proportion is falling. Clearly, if communities are created in places where they did not previously exist, and they take root, families will seek to unite and friends and communities will seek to gather around those new locations. That is precisely the point of dispersal. During the relatively short time for which that system has been operating, and despite the fact that it has been least effective in the first year or two because of teething problems, the proportion has fallen from 100 to 70 per cent., which is quite a hopeful sign.
I believe that the overwhelming majority of people who take the support only option will continue to seek accommodation with family and friends and to unite families—husbands and wives and so on—and will do so without financial support. Withdrawal of the option will increase the stress on refugee communities and the destitution in inner-city communities, with various
Column Number: 200consequences that we will find it extremely difficult to deal with.
The Minister advanced an argument about tracking individuals. What evidence is there of a disproportionate failure to comply with the asylum process among people who take the support only option? I understand that two communities in particular—Turkish and Sri Lankan—are most likely to take up that option, while members of the Chinese community tend to go to family and friends but not to take the cash support. Is there evidence—if there were, I would be influenced by it—that those two communities are disproportionately hard to track and fail to comply with decisions?
In this respect, as in so many others, we must continue to ensure that the decision-making process works quickly and efficiently. In the case of the Sri Lankan community, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State says is one of the two communities that are most likely to take the support only option, non-compliance has been a problem and a barrier to effective decision making, although the situation is improving. In the nine months up to September 2001, over 1,400 Sri Lankan refusals—claims that failed on non-compliance grounds—were overturned on appeal. If we could focus on the communities receiving support only and ensure that we overcome the non-compliance problems, we would be out of the woods. People would not stay for a significant period on the support only basis and we would be able to move them through the system quickly. The efficiency of the system is the heart of the problem.
I believe that I made the case last week, but I remain concerned that the provision will not have the effect that the Government seek. It will increase poverty and destitution, particularly in London. I ask the Minister to consider whether greater flexibility in the Bill is possible.
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