Lord Avebury: My Lords, I heard yesterday from an asylum seeker who contracted muscular dystrophy after arriving in this country. Will a person with a serious disease which everyone knows is not susceptible to cure be left to fend for himself? Will that person nevertheless be left with a nil income? Will a person who is seriously ill be ineligible for free prescriptions? What happens when that person needs medication and goes to the chemist? Are such people to be denied all kinds of medication because they failed to apply for asylum at the port of entry? If we are going to treat people who are seriously ill in such an inhuman way, we have come to a pretty pass. However, I understand that that is the meaning of the new clause tabled by the Government which, if we are not careful, your Lordships will allow to go through.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, in these three amendments, and certainly in the speeches that we have just heard, we are going right back to the basic principle. The divide between this side and the other
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side of the Chamber is perfectly clear. Members on the other side are quite content with the current situation and do not feel that we owe it to the British taxpayer, or indeed to the genuine refugees themselves, to try to contain the problems that we have in dealing with the very considerable number of people who come here and apply for asylum.
We are invited to consider streets full of people who are destitute and traumatised. I hear those two words from the noble Baroness week after week across this Dispatch Box about every single group in the country. I find it odd to square that with the fact that I am responsible for payment of something like £90 billion worth of benefits in one shape or form. Speaking on behalf of the British taxpayer, which is the pressure group I like to think I represent, it does not seem to me that we are mean minded or mean spirited when spending that kind of money on the social security system.
However, be that as it may, we have once again heard this picture painted about asylum seekers. There is one simple way that asylum seekers can obtain benefit when they arrive in this country: it is to be honest when they arrive here, and to say, "I have come seeking asylum". That is the way that they will gain entry into the benefit system until the first decision is made.
Earl Russell: My Lords, has the Minister read the judgment in the Kihara case? Is he aware that Mr. Kihara attempted to claim asylum at the port and was dissuaded from doing so by the customs authorities?
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I shall not trade special cases because I do not know the details of any. However, I have enough experience at the Dispatch Box to know that noble Lords--not deliberately--will perhaps report what they read in newspapers. However, cases are not always totally exposed by the people who wish to make a point and therefore I shall not deal with specific cases. If someone applies to a customs officer instead of the immigration officer, it could be proved and an adjudicator would be likely to accept that it was an application on arrival. I am clear that that would be the case relating to arrival.
People who come here seeking asylum can have access to the benefit system. However, noble Lords opposite wish to give access to the benefit system to people who come here illegally. That is one group. The other group are those who come here and say at the point of entry: "I have come here on business, as a visitor; I shall be no burden on the British taxpayer". On that basis, we let them in for a limited period of six months.
If people are so traumatised and if they have selected this country to come to; if they have decided that it is a safe country in which they will not be persecuted, I fail to understand, despite all the special pleading I have heard over many hours, why it is unreasonable to expect them to say at the moment of entry: "I am being persecuted in my country of origin and seek asylum". That seems to me a logical position. To depict it
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otherwise, as we have just heard, is false, as is the picture of the streets of Britain being full of refugees, traumatised and sleeping rough. All the work under the rough sleepers initiative in London shows that there has been a considerable decline, thanks to the Government's initiatives and a considerable amount of money spent on people sleeping rough in London. There is little, if any, evidence that those who are still sleeping rough are refugees. I am not persuaded by the arguments that have just been put.
It has also been suggested that we run a mean system here, meaner than a list of countries about which your Lordships heard. In that case, I ask: why do some asylum seekers come here from those countries seeking asylum? The applicant in the cause celebre of the Court of Appeal's judgment of 21st June came from Belgium. I ask and hope for an answer--
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I ask the Minister to consider this fact. So far, the Bill has not passed. We are talking about the situation when the Bill has passed.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, since February we have had in place the same proposals and principles that I am defending at the Dispatch Box. I have explained the result: there has been a decline. I notice that the noble Baroness did not answer my question: why should someone come from Belgium? I consider it to be as safe as this country. Why should they come from Belgium to seek asylum here? There must be some reason. If Belgium or France are so generous in benefits--and some asylum seekers came from France--why do not people ask for asylum there? I am puzzled. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, will explain.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, I did explain, if the Minister had listened to the case I gave. It related to someone who came here from France. The French had sent an Iraqi asylum seeker back to his country of origin where he was tortured. Therefore, when he escaped again from Iraq he did not wish to remain in France and came here.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, presumably he came directly here. I am looking at cases of people who went to France, Charles de Gaulle Airport. They were not being persecuted in France. I am interested to know that the noble Lord thinks that France is not a safe country. I would not take that view of the French, I consider France to be a civilised and humane country. Anyone coming from abroad would be as likely to gain refugee status and be as safe there or in Belgium as in this country.
Lord Mishcon: My Lords, would it be so dreadful if we were known in the world, as we have been in the past, as a most liberal country for refugees and if our reputation were greater than Belgium's?
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, nothing we do will diminish our reputation for accepting
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refugees when they have proved their refugee status or for granting people exceptional leave to remain when they have not justified their refugee status. They may have come from countries in a fair degree of turmoil, such as I mentioned. Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and the former Yugoslavia are four of the key countries from where at the moment the majority come of those who are given exceptional leave to remain.
My point is that we give such people access to the benefit system as long as they apply on arrival. Many do--one out of three applies already on arrival. Last month that had increased to one in two. The idea that everyone who comes is traumatised to the extent that they cannot apply on arrival does not hold up. Last year's statistics show that the vast majority of the people who came from Afghanistan--one place in awful turmoil--who were quite traumatised applied at the port of entry on arrival. I do not believe that the Opposition can put that argument; logic is not on their side.
The amendments wish to draw a distinction between the vulnerable and the non-vulnerable. It is not an easy line to draw, as the noble Baroness knows. We wish to make regulations under which we seek to restore benefit. That is done on the basis of a clear distinction between those who claim on arrival and those who do not. As concerns vulnerable people--children or the elderly--the noble Baroness asks your Lordships to believe a false picture. They would be catered for under the Children Act and the care in the community legislation. Those duties remain. The picture which she painted in order to advance her case for the first amendment is totally false.
No one spoke to Amendment No. 13 but it is in the group and was included in some of the noble Baroness's remarks. The amendment takes us into the territory of some of the other benefits in the system. The Court of Appeal ruled on income support, housing benefit and council tax benefit. It left those regulations which exclude asylum seekers from other non-contributory benefits unaffected. DLA and SDA are two of them. Those benefits have residence and presence conditions in any case which are designed to limit entitlement to those people whom the taxpayers would wish to support. Until February, if they were able to satisfy the residence and presence tests, there was no further restriction on them claiming non-contributory benefits. We do not believe that taxpayers should be asked to support everyone who chooses to come to this country, regardless of where they come from, how long they have been here and the basis on which they have come here. The February regulations did not change the residence and presence conditions; they introduced a barrier to those who quite wilfully manouevre themselves round the benefit system in this country. The amendment therefore has no justification at all.
The third amendment, Amendment No. 16, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, spoke, is clearly intended to undermine the restoration of the February regulations. It will leave in place the benefits incentive for those economic migrants who come here and abuse the asylum process. The Court of Appeal spoke in dramatic terms about total destitution and so on.
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However, I have already explained that there is a simple way for people who wish to come here and claim asylum to obtain benefit. It is to apply at the port of entry.
I hate to keep saying that as it harks back to my days as a schoolmaster. But occasionally you have to keep saying things because the class does not quite seem to be paying sufficient attention no matter how many times you say them. People who apply at the port of entry can receive benefits. That message is loud and clear. The British taxpayer will help in that regard. So I really do not see any justification for us to go any further, as this amendment would have us do. It would require the Secretary of State to ensure that any arrangements he makes under the terms of the amendment will either not give rise to any extra cost for local authorities, or make provision by special grant if they do incur extra cost.
As the House knows, we made arrangements for a special grant to help local authorities with unavoidable extra costs arising as a result of benefit changes. If new arrangements of any sort are made, we will consider what sort of provision may be needed. As I indicated yesterday, their responsibilities under the Children Act, unaffected by this legislation, would be considered. However, it is not appropriate to specify a particular form of help for this one area and suggest expenditure on asylum seekers via the local authorities. I am sure the local authorities are very grateful to noble Lords and the noble Baroness for their concern about their expenditure. I am not entirely sure that the ordinary taxpayer would be so grateful. It is the ordinary taxpayer who would pick up the tab for any help that we were to give were we to replace the fundamental point, that people who come here illegally or under false pretences and say at the port of entry that they are coming for a limited period to visit or for business will not have any recourse to public funds. I do not believe that those people should be able to gain access to the benefits system a week, a month, six months, or more than a year in many cases, after they have entered the country on that principle. If they are genuine asylum seekers and are genuinely traumatised, the message from the parties opposite, along with mine, ought to be that they should apply at the port of entry, when they will be properly considered for benefit and properly helped.