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The Lord Bishop of Liverpool: I support the amendment and the reinstatement of the means-tested benefits. There is a worrying movement by which a growing number of claimants are being excluded from the basic means-tested benefits which exist to protect people from destitution or to provide essential housing costs. That is not questioning what the Minister said about there being an end of the road when an appeal was turned down. These are asylum seekers.
I believe that we are crossing a line by introducing a regulation to remove the whole safety net from a sizeable group; namely, those asylum seekers. The phrase has been used "people without a proper case". That is arguing in circles. The point is that someone is appealing, hoping to prove that there is a proper case. The steady proportion of those who appeal does prove that they have a proper case.
In autumn last year I led a delegation from all the Churches to see the Home Secretary when the removal of benefits was only an idea. I asked him how someone should expect to live while they were appealing. He said that a person could pursue an appeal from outside the country. In the reality of the situation, that is no right at all.
Those regulations would have serious consequences on the health and welfare of some of the most vulnerable people in the world. I give as an example pregnant women and babies left without financial support, or with inadequate financial support, or who receive financial support from local authorities which is far lower than the payments of income support.
An Afghan refugee arrived in this country on 9th February this year and applied for asylum on 14th February. He had received no advice at the port of entry that there was a requirement to apply there. The family consists of a couple. The woman was pregnant, the baby being due on 14th April. They were placed in a hostel by Ealing Council and were refused assistance by social services. With the intervention of an advice
Your Lordships' House has another interest in the matter. During debates on the Social Security Bill 1986, Lady Faithfull, moved an amendment providing that in urgent cases income support should be payable. From the Government Front-Bench, the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, accepted that some of the needs should be met by the social fund but others should be met within the weekly benefits system. As a result of that undertaking, the amendment was withdrawn. Will the Minister tell me what is happening to that undertaking, which was of some importance in your Lordships' House?
How effective is such an Act in achieving what it set out to achieve? After all the publicity about the withdrawal of benefits, the number of applications for asylum increased from 2,900 in February to 3,145 in March. People are not coming to seek asylum because of the benefits that they might receive. I believe that a high proportion are coming out of desperation and our regulations will not change that.
Lord Hylton: I support what has been said by the right reverend Prelate about the practical difficulties of conducting an appeal from a third country against a decision given in the United Kingdom. How on earth are such appellants supposed to obtain adequate advice in order to present their case in the best possible light? How are the problems of interpretation and translation of documents to be overcome? Surely it is completely illusory to expect that in Holland or Denmark, for instance, such experts will be available. The right reverend Prelate made a most important point.
Baroness Rawlings: Having read the amendment with great care, I wonder whether it would not destroy all the previous legislation and, in reality, support the statement made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, before withdrawing Amendment No. 106?
Earl Russell: No. The effect of the amendment is simply to withdraw the power to prescribe the nil applicable amount for refugees. It allows the 10 per cent. deduction which existed under the previous law and restores the position to what it was before 30th January last. That is all it does.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: That answer from the noble Earl to my noble friend Lady Rawlings means, "Yes, it does destroy the legislation we passed at the end of January by secondary legislation". I make no complaint about that. Ironically, it does not destroy it in the way in which the noble Earl intends because it attacks only the income support part of the regulations. It leaves the housing benefit and council tax part as we agreed on 30th January. I am sure that that is more of an oversight on the part of the noble Earl than a deliberate policy.
The regulations which came into force on 5th February were widely debated in this House. I apologise to Members of the Committee if I repeat some of the arguments tonight. If the amendment, which is narrowly drawn to income support although not in cost terms, were accepted, the taxpayer must continue to find more than £100 million a year in order to provide social security benefits for people who come to the UK claiming to be asylum seekers. I return to my argument about the numbers because the huge majority are found not to be asylum seekers.
Perhaps I may say to the right reverend Prelate that I would be more concerned about the validity of his argument if the statistics were not so clearly in favour of the case that most of the people who come here do not succeed either in obtaining refugee status or being given exceptional leave to remain. It may be that the right reverend Prelate, the noble Earl and the noble Baroness will argue that what is fundamentally wrong is the fact that we do not recognise those people as refugees the moment they knock on the door and say, "I am a refugee". Given the attacks which are made on the way in which we deal with asylum seekers, I remain a little puzzled about what would be put in place of our immigration and asylum-seeking procedures.
The Lord Bishop of Liverpool: The Minister asked what might be put in place. No one on either side of the House is saying that there should be no regulations. Strict regulations have been in place for a very long time. The noble Lord argued about percentages. Last week I had the percentages at my fingertips but tonight I have not. However, I can tell him that what is now a 79 per cent. rejection of applications for exceptional leave to remain and for asylum was of the order of 20 per cent. or less under the same Government with their regulations a few years ago. What has happened is not that fewer legitimate asylum seekers have come but that the regulations have been changed and tightened.
Lord Hylton: Perhaps I may make a point in support of the right reverend Prelate. The fact is that the onus of proof has been shifted since 1987. A far greater burden has been put on the applicant in a climate which has been totally changed by disbelief and the minute questioning of every single assertion in an application.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: The figures are quite simply that in 1995, the Home Office decisions resulted in 5 per cent. being granted refugee status and 16 per cent. being granted exceptional leave to remain. Therefore, 79 per cent. were refused either. That was the outcome after careful consideration.
The problem is not just those statistics. If Members of the Committee had their way, it would seem that the people coming here should receive all our benefits while they stay here, right to the end of their appeal hearings which can sometimes take quite a long time--and I shall return to that. Therefore, they can come here and do that, but at the same time they are clogging up the procedures which we have in place to deal with asylum seekers.
Members of the Committee need to address the serious figures in relation to what is happening in the rest of Europe. Most of our friends in the European Union, have, over the past two or three years, tightened their procedures. In the main European countries, the numbers have shown a very steady and quite dramatic decline over the past four or five years. In our case, it has been the opposite. Our figures have actually shown a considerable increase. No matter how hard we try to deal with applications as quickly as possible--and that is our objective--if we receive even more applications, we will literally be trying to run hard in order to stand still.
For example, the Home Office has increased the number of case workers since 1988 from 100 to 700 and £37 million has gone from my budget to the Home Office and to the Lord Chancellor's Department in order to expand their work. We are making every attempt to speed up the procedures, but every attempt, including that extra expenditure and those extra people, is being confounded by the increases in the numbers of people here and claiming asylum. There were 57,000 last year as opposed to 42,000 the year before. That is a 10-fold increase over the numbers 10 years ago. Over the 10 years to 1994, our share of all European asylum claims trebled.
In a recent report, Amnesty International said that the truth of the matter is that since 1992, immigration controls and asylum procedures, particularly those applied at the border, have been tightened far more in some European countries than in the UK. It added that no doubt that works to make the UK a more attractive destination than some other European countries for would-be asylum seekers.
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