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Lord Cope of Berkeley: As the Committee will have noticed, I have added my name to Amendment No. 167. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say about it particularly in view of what he trailed a little earlier on this point and on assistance where children are involved. He also led us to believe that he has a few more favourable things to say. We look forward to that.
I did not take part at the appropriate place in earlier debates so perhaps I may use this moment to associate this Bench with the compliments that were paid to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and express our regret at his pending departure from our debates. However, I note in passing that, although he will be retired from this House, he will still be able to use some of its facilities. We look forward to seeing him from time to time on that basis at any rate.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: Amendment No. 162 give me the opportunity to clarify our position. I repeat that asylum seekers and dependants will be entitled to the full range of medical and dental services which the general public receive. If they are destitute they can get the appropriate form entitling them to free prescriptions, free spectacles, free dental treatment and free travel to hospitals in the same way as anyone else on income support
Generally, the provision of medical services is good across the whole country. We would expect that medical facilities in the cluster areas will be, with very few exceptions, fully equal to meeting the need for specialist medical treatment. That would be under normal National Health Service arrangements. We would not expect there to be a need for the asylum seeker to receive additional assistance in getting such treatment.
I can deal with legal representation quite briefly because I believe my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer made the position plain in response to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, on a number of occasions. I repeat what my noble and learned friend said. If the power is required to pay for travel expenses to arrange an interview with a legal representative, that is to be found already in Clause 86(1)(c).
The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, had a most helpful discussion a few days ago. I said that I would think carefully about what was urged on me. It seemed to me to be well founded. I hope that the noble Baroness will be as pleased as the rest of the Committee to hear that, in circumstances where a general practitioner concludes that an asylum seeker has been the victim of torture and local medical services do not fully deal with the particular nature of the case, so access to the specialised services provided by the medical foundation would be in the patient's best interests, we would arrange to pay the costs of travel by the asylum seeker to appointments with representatives of the medical foundation. I believe that is really what the noble Baroness and the noble Lord wanted. I believe that that is fair reflection of their concerns. I hope that they find that helpful.
Amendment No. 163 concerns matters arising from the anxieties of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. He and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, are quite right. We have come to a policy conclusion which is different from theirs. We have decided on a part-voucher system. The
The noble Lord also raised the question of "essential living needs" under Clause 86(1)(b). The provision is drafted in that way because it is intended to encompass the idea of support in kind--food, pots and pans and utilities-- as well as cash or vouchers. I take note of the noble Lord's concerns about user-specific vouchers. The benefit of them is quite clear: they provide asylum seekers with security of ownership. If they can only be redeemed by the asylum seeker to whom they are issued, they are of no value to a thief; indeed, they are useless. Similarly, they are of no value if someone attempts to bully or, as it were, blackmail the asylum seeker to sell the voucher in return for cash at a discount. Therefore, a new, discounted, black market is prevented. Those are important considerations.
However, I take the noble Lord's point that there may be occasions when, for example, the principal recipient is ill and where it may perhaps be necessary for another member of the family to use the vouchers. In specific response to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, I can tell the Committee that we are looking now at a means of introducing desirable flexibility into the scheme. I do not think that that will go as far as the noble Lord wants, but at least we will be looking for a degree of flexibility. Therefore, in exceptional circumstances, we could perhaps have a proviso that vouchers could be redeemed by a nominated person on the asylum seeker's behalf.
The Lord Bishop of Southwark: I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but as I have attached my name to this amendment perhaps I may have the opportunity to say a few brief words. As I mentioned earlier, I believe that much of the Government's proposal assumes that there will be co-operation from the voluntary sector. As we have drop-in centres for refugees in half of the London boroughs at present, we have a certain experience to feed in the debate on this amendment.
I should like to say a few words about the argument that the level of support for asylum seekers needs to be less because they will not need to replace items during the limited time in which they will be covered by these support provisions. We had the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury for three weeks last year. During that time, I had to return home twice in order to provide more sweaters and coats for Bishops and their wives from Africa, India and other parts of the world who were battling with the rigours of an English summer.
Our drop-in centres for refugees are constantly supplying clothing and household items all the year round. If noble Lords wish to see a voucher system working, we could perhaps visit a drop-in centre such as the one in Croydon. Each person who goes there is
In an earlier intervention, I asked the noble and learned Lord whether the voluntary sector had been consulted about being involved in hard cases of support and whether it had given its consent. The Minister answered "yes" to the first part of the question but I did not hear him say "yes" to the second part.
I believe that the voluntary sector is willing and wants to play its part in helping to bridge the gap between the support package on offer and the provisions that we feel are necessary for a civilised society. It is generally felt by those who are most closely involved with helping asylum seekers that the gap that is being created is just too wide.
Amendment No. 167 would in no way conflict with the Government's stated aims and I believe that it would make the support gap a little more manageable. It would enable those of us who are involved in the voluntary sector better to enter into the partnership which the Government desire.
I turn to Amendment No. 167. I shall try not to repeat what I said earlier. We are looking to provide a package of support that is appropriate to the needs of particular people. As I said, most asylum seekers have few possessions and limited knowledge of the requirements of daily life in this country. However, they will be in need of support for a few months only. We are trying to provide a focused package that addresses particular needs.
As I said earlier, for some single people that will comprise full board and lodging in a hostel with a cash allowance. In other cases, it will comprise fully equipped self-catering accommodation. We recognise that in the overwhelming majority of cases these people will not have brought with them domestic equipment such as bedding and pots and pans which we provide--we also provide gas, water and electricity--partly because they will be in the accommodation for a relatively short time and partly because they will not be familiar with the minutiae of arrangements in this country.
Single adults in receipt of income support currently receive about £45 a week. Under our support proposals, the intention is that they will receive spending power in vouchers and cash of about £35 a week. We are looking to be more flexible as regards the number and nature of retail outlets--to take up a specific point made by the right reverend Prelate--which are willing to accept vouchers. As I say, income support for a single adult is
I repeat what I said earlier this evening: we have listened carefully to the concerns about children. I said quite plainly earlier tonight that we have now indicated that children under the age of 18 will have a support level set at a level equivalent to income support personal allowances. We propose that the provision for adults should remain unchanged for the reasons I set out earlier; namely, the in-kind provisions.
Amendment No. 167 seeks to increase the value of the new support arrangements to at least 80 per cent of income support levels for adults, and to 100 per cent for children. I shall say no more about children. As regards adults, the provision is designed to provide a short-term safety net, whereas income support is designed to provide support on a long-term basis with all the costs that that implies. Some Members of the Committee take a contrary view, but having looked at all the arguments I think that that is a perfectly legitimate conclusion. A short-term safety net regime is different, and ought to be different, from a long-term basis of support. One has to bear in mind that we are developing a better position than exists at the moment as we shall provide a degree of advice and assistance provided by voluntary sector bodies working in the "cluster" areas. The asylum seeker will be relieved of the responsibility, which must be quite considerable in a strange land, of finding his own accommodation.
We want to work in close partnership with voluntary associations. Normally the criticism that I have to meet on these occasions suggests that we do not work closely enough with the voluntary sector or provide it with sufficient grants. Here I am wanting to work more closely with it and am talking about government funding for it--and the reception that I receive is not perhaps entirely overwhelming.
Amendment No. 168 seeks to delete subsection (6) of Clause 87 which would prevent support given under Clause 86(1)(c) from being taken into account in comparing support given under Part VI with income support levels. Clause 86(1)(c) is a supplement by allowing support to be provided for specific costs which an asylum seeker may incur in connection with his claim for asylum, such as paying for postage stamps, telephone calls and possibly travelling. We do not envisage a separate allowance for such expenses but we wish to retain the option to pay travelling costs in individual cases to enable asylum seekers to attend interviews at IND. We are still considering the basis on which to fix the level at which support is to be given.
We should look at all the heads of assistance that we give to an asylum seeker and we should consider the possibility of taking into account Clause 86(1)(c) support. By virtue of subsection (6) of Clause 87, such expenses are to be taken into account when comparing expenditure on essential living needs with income support levels, as is permitted by subsection (5).
I shall be as brief as I can because I realise that the hour is now very late. Amendment No. 169 would prevent the Secretary of State taking account of support available from faith groups in the voluntary sector. I have already said a word or two about that. We are looking to continue and build up the excellent work in this field, to which I pay ready tribute. We do not expect charities to deplete their resources assisting asylum seekers. However, where there is assistance and expertise it is sensible to take them into account.
There are many specialist groups set up precisely to assist the refugee community. They attract charitable donations for that specific purpose. It would be wrong to ignore what asylum seekers may receive from these sources. It is not necessary for an asylum seeker to be able to reject support offered by a third party and then look to the Home Office instead. We will not treat a charitable source as though it was available in its totality to every asylum seeker. We shall take it into account, as is proper, but it will be simply one factor among many; it will not be a determinative factor.
There is no intention of assuming or presuming that asylum seekers can avail themselves of particular sources of assistance where this could be in doubt. The drafting is quite clear; it is support which is or might reasonably be expected to be available. If there is a dispute, the asylum seeker can put his point of view to the asylum support directorate or appeal to an asylum support adjudicator where he has been refused support.
I see a developing, continuing partnership between the Home Office and the voluntary sector in providing support. We respect and value the charitable sector--not least because it brings a degree of independence and a degree perhaps of wider responsiveness than those who are engaged on a daily professional basis. So the daily professional basis has its virtues and value, as does the assistance we get--which we regard as complementary assistance--and with which we hope to work.
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