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The Earl of Sandwich: I wish to speak to Amendment No. 263ZAN in the form of a question to the Minister. Can he give an assurance that the asylum seekers of this country have not been excluded from this Housing Bill? Surely, under international law, under the UN convention, we have an obligation to house asylum seekers who are coming to this country for the time being or while they are applying for asylum under appeal. Can the Minister give an assurance that they are not regarded as stateless persons living on thin air and therefore not treated equally as citizens of this country?
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Both amendments seek to serve a similar purpose. I shall not enter a discussion with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, other than to say that my advice to the
Amendment No. 263ZAN would remove the Secretary of State's power to prescribe that asylum seekers are not entitled to be allocated housing. Amendment No. 263C would extend entitlement to anyone who is lawfully in the United Kingdom. If we have been around this particular course once we have been around it a fair old number of times. I shall resist the temptation to go back to basics and start the argument from scratch. Perhaps I may recommend to those Members of the Committee who missed my previous outings on the subject a visit to the Library and a reference to Hansard. That will remind Members of the Committee of what I have said on a number of occasions about the problem the Government have with asylum seekers and with the considerable growth in their number. They come to the United Kingdom from various parts of the world, many of them, in my view, perfectly sound and safe places in which to live. By comparison the number of asylum seekers in many of the countries of our European partners has diminished.
I shall not go into that matter in any great detail. Perhaps we shall address it on a number of occasions today and I have no doubt that we shall return to it in our Report stage discussions on the Asylum and Immigration Bill on Monday when we consider two similar clauses in that Bill--a Bill which already contains provisions removing the entitlement to social housing from certain immigrants. The regulations under Clause 144 will carry those restrictions forward into the new legislation and extend them to certain European Union nationals and persons failing a habitual residents' test.
It is our very firm view that social housing is a valuable asset which should go to those people with the greatest long-term needs. I emphasise "long-term needs". There is no case for saying that people who are in this country for a limited period--and on the understanding that they should have no recourse to public funds--should be entitled to such housing. That is the principle that I have stated on a number of occasions and it is the principle which underlines our position on the benefits arrangements.
Perhaps I may say to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, that that is perfectly consistent with our international obligations. I refer to our international obligations as to how we treat asylum seekers from the point of view of the rules by which we arrive at a decision to grant asylum. If asylum seekers apply at the port of entry they will be eligible for benefit and eligible to be treated under the homelessness legislation. However--and this is the important point--they will not be eligible for access to long-term council housing. Frankly, we do not know whether they will have a long-term need. As my noble friend Lady Gardner pointed out, the majority are found to be neither genuine asylum seekers nor to justify being given exceptional leave to remain. Approximately 80 per cent. fail both tests. Therefore, it seems wrong to allow 40,000-odd people, which was the number last year, access to the housing list. It is not 40,000 people spread around the country; it is 40,000 people
The position is clear. We are saying to the Committee, as we are saying in other legislation, that asylum seekers registering their claim at the port of entry will receive certain benefits inside the UK. They will be eligible for social security benefits and they will be eligible to be considered under the homelessness legislation. That will continue until a first-instance decision is made by the Home Office. If they are granted asylum or exceptional leave to remain they will then be in a position to go on the housing waiting list because, clearly, they will have some long-term rights to be here and therefore some rights to be considered for long-term housing. It would be a little impractical if every asylum seeker were allowed to join the list immediately on arrival. The housing list would become cluttered. The position is clearer if we wait until they have established their long-term right to stay in this country.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, asked where people lived while they sought asylum. He suggested that if we walked down any street in London--for instance, the Strand--we would be stepping over people sleeping out at night. Although he retreated a little, he appeared to imply that they would be asylum seekers. I believe that the rough sleepers initiative has been very successful in reducing the number of people sleeping rough in central London. On the last count--not a government count but a count undertaken by the voluntary sector agencies which work with such people--there were some 270 people sleeping rough compared with estimates of more than 1,000 before the initiative began. There is no evidence that those still sleeping rough in London include many, if any, asylum seekers. Many will be increasingly difficult to place and perhaps some do not want to be placed. However, there is no evidence that they are asylum seekers.
I believe that the position at which we have arrived as regards the benefits system and housing is perfectly fair to asylum seekers. What we are making clear today, and what the amendment would deny us, is that asylum seekers ought not to have the right of access to the list which leads eventually to long-term housing. We believe that that ought to be kept for those people with a long-term right to be here.
Lord Simon of Glaisdale: The Minister has helpfully proposed to resolve my doubts about the different widths and separate impacts of the two amendments by rejecting both of them. Would he care to comment about my other point which rests on the structure of the clause? I refer to the oddity of providing under subsection (1) that the local authority may allocate only to qualifying persons but providing under subsection (3) that subject to the regulations the local authority itself will determine whether or not a person is a qualifying person.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I always listen with care and some trepidation to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, when he makes such points. Of course I will discuss the matter with the draftsman. I may be subject to correction and it may be foolish even to try to give the noble and learned Lord my thoughts on the matter, but I would have thought that one might consider that subsection (1) is the principal provision and that subsections (2) and (3) are the subordinate provisions. However, that is the tentative view of a mathematician.
Lord Dubs: Perhaps I may first comment on the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, in relation to the two amendments which interact with different parts of Clause 144. I agree with the noble and learned Lord that Clause 144 is somewhat circular, and it is difficult to insert amendments into a circle. Therefore, the two amendments deal with different points in the circle. I shall be interested to know what is the outcome of the Minister's mathematical deliberations about the circular argument in relation to subsections (1) and (3).
I turn to the substance of the amendments and what the Minister said. First, it must be stated that only a small minority of asylum seekers is ever eligible for local authority housing. That will be confirmed by one of the later clauses in the Bill. But even present practice will exclude the majority of asylum seekers--single people, couples without young children. That will cover the majority of asylum seekers and, therefore, we are talking about only a small number. The sweeping statements which the Minister makes about all these asylum seekers are at variance with the facts.
I was not making the point that asylum seekers are currently sleeping in the streets. But if they have nowhere else to go, that will be their only option. The fact that more asylum seekers are not on the streets today is because churches, voluntary organisations and other bodies have put themselves out to provide temporary accommodation. It is a tribute to the many groups up and down the country that we do not have asylum seekers, or perhaps only small numbers of them, sleeping on the streets at present.
The Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, asked why asylum seekers do not disperse themselves around the country, particularly to those areas where there is less of a housing shortage than in inner London, for example. Asylum seekers tend to go to those areas where there are other members of their own community. They may be organised through refugee organisations which provide support for them. In case any Member of the Committee is doubtful about that proposition, it should be remembered that when British people settle abroad, not as refugees but in other capacities, the tendency has been for them to congregate together because that provides support, social relationships and all the other factors which make life better.
Because asylum seekers need help and support, in the first instance they seek it from members of their own community with whom they have an affinity because of language, religion and culture. Those are so important that it is members of refugee organisations who have been here longer who provide the support which reduces the responsibility on social services or voluntary organisations. That is why asylum seekers tend to go to those parts of the country where other members of their community happen to live.
In relation to the other question which the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, asked, according to latest statistics, in 1995, 23 per cent. of asylum seekers were allowed to stay in this country, and in the year before it was 25 per cent. That is both with full refugee status or with exceptional leave to remain.
I was disconcerted to hear the Minister say that some of these refugees come from countries which he knows to be safe. The problem with that argument is that government Minister after government Minister makes decisions from the Front Bench in this Chamber or the other place about whether or not people are in fear of persecution without knowledge of individual circumstances. The UNHCR advises that asylum claims should be decided individually, not on the basis of some sweeping statement about which countries are safe. There are many exceptions and I regret that the Minister felt that he had to say that.
The Minister talked about people on the housing register being there because they have long-term housing needs. On the present basis, in view of the time which it takes for asylum claims to be decided and for local authorities to provide housing, accommodation would not be allocated until claims had been decided. But this amendment gives them the opportunity to be considered and treated on the same basis as anybody else. If it so happened that the Home Office speeded up the process of deciding claims, and in the unlikely event that the people involved had to leave the country because they were found to be ineligible, then the accommodation would be available for somebody else.
Finally, the Minister talked about people not being entitled to housing when they had no right to public funds. Surely that argument does not apply to asylum seekers. If asylum seekers come to this country and apply in the proper way, then the public funds argument does not apply, although I concede that it applies to other people to whom the second amendment may refer.
There is a different model for an approach to this problem introduced by the Government. When they agreed to accept in this country several thousand Bosnians, who had been detained in Serb camps, under a scheme which the Home Office introduced and which the Refugee Council and other organisations helped to implement on behalf of the Home Office those people were not even given refugee status, in the main, but granted limited leave to remain. Arrangements were made for them: temporary accommodation was provided, and temporary reception areas were made available before they moved into longer-term accommodation. That is a model of how people can be treated differently rather than having to take pot luck
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