|Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill
The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton): I understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns, but the amendments are unnecessary and perhaps unhelpful. The aim of the clause is to increase the flexibility with which the Home Office can reimburse local authorities, but the amendments would restrict it. The amendment would make payments in advance of need, yet we all accept that this sector has a volatile and demand-led population that is difficult to forecast. The amendment would make local authorities produce estimates of the number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children to be supported in the future and the likely costs incurred. As well as the inherent difficulties, it could result in large balances being held in local authority accounts that could not be used elsewhere, which would be an improper use of Government funds.
Following on from previous representations—I know that Opposition Members welcome this—the Government have already moved to making quarterly payments in arrears to local authorities to support adults and families, and we intend to extend the system to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. That will do a great deal to remedy the problems suffered by local authorities without the need for complex advance payment systems.
The second part of the amendment would fix grant levels for all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children
Column Number: 212to the same amount without taking into account the level of support required. Costs to local authorities are dependent on the actual support that they provide to children, assessed on a one-to-one rather than a crude age basis. For the first time last year, the grant regime recognised that by continuing the higher rate of support for older children whose initial assessment had shown that they required support under section 20 of the Children Act 1989. The higher rate for children under that section rather than on an age basis reflects the care costs required to meet children's needs as assessed under strict guidance issued by the Department of Health, the Home Office and the Department for Education and Skills.
It would be wrong, and possibly damaging to children, to pre-empt the assessment by prescribing levels of care based on age. That would not ensure that they received appropriate care and would not achieve best value for money. We cannot justify paying the higher rate to all, regardless of need and without assuring value for money.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that a thorough review of the grant mechanism is planned, and that the overwhelming request from local authorities has been for more flexibility rather than prescription. I hope that, with those assurances, he will not feel it necessary to press the amendment.
Mr. Allan: I am grateful to the Minister for her response and for the assurance about the quarterly payment system, which is welcomed by local authorities. She said that is was difficult to have systems for payment in advance. Could that be explored? There are other situations in which that occurs, such as when teachers go on to higher rates of pay. I have sat on local authority committees dealing with special grants, and I saw how the anticipated figure is calculated, paid in advance and then settled in the end. It may be more difficult to run that for asylum-seeking children, but I suspect that London boroughs have a steady rate of such children and having the cash up front would make quite a difference to their social services budgets. I suspect that the balancing up would not be too complex. In view of the difficulties for local authorities' social services budgets, I hope that the general principle is established that the payments should be made as soon as possible. There has been progress from an annual payment in arrears to a quarterly payment in arrears, and I look forward to continued progress. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.
Mr. Malins: I want to reiterate that the quarterly payment in arrears is an improvement. I recall a good debate on unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors a few weeks ago when the figure of 6,500 was discussed. That is an awful lot of young people. I also remember the interesting formula for the payments in the regulations, which, I remarked at the time, required a mathematical genius to assess. I have received a letter from the leader of Kent county council describing some of the problems it has in dealing
Column Number: 213with young asylum seekers. I hope that the Minister has taken those problems on board. We had a good debate on the special grant, and we welcome the provisions that came from it. We have no difficulties with the Government's proposals. Indeed, we welcome them.
I have referred in the past to assessing the age of a young asylum seeker. I moved an amendment to the effect that the Secretary of State should not inquire into a person's age until he is satisfied that that young person has had access to legal advice and assistance. It is a suitable point to raise again on clause stand part. I do not think that the Minister will undertake to do that, but I would be satisfied if she would accept the general thrust of my argument, which is that NGOs are sometimes concerned about the questioning of young people of about that age. It is a sensitive area and needs particularly delicate handling.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 36 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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