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Lord Alton of Liverpool: The Minister has performed an intriguing pre-emptive strike by having the good fortune to place his Amendment No. 175A at the head of this group of amendments and therefore, even before debate, he has given us the opportunity of hearing his reply to them. However, he has done that in an adept manner and has certainly dealt with a number of the misgivings that I had when I tabled Amendments Nos. 176 to 180. It will be for the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, to comment on his remarks concerning their amendments.
I have tabled these amendments because of the way that the cards all appear to me to be stacked against the asylum seeker. Where there are concerns about the way in which bureaucracy or the administration operates, or the way in which officials can behave sometimes in an antagonistic or even vindictive manner, it will be difficult indeed for the asylum seeker to establish his or her position. I was concerned to hear the Minister talk of--when he made his pre-emptive attack on these amendments--the dilution of the force of provision. He seemed to imply that everyone who attempts to come here under our asylum arrangements is someone who is trying to cheat the system. Once again the argument of withholding information has been placed before the Committee as though this was a deliberate act and that every asylum seeker would be involved in some deliberate attempt at subterfuge in order to gain admission to the United Kingdom.
As we all know and have discussed many times already in Committee--I shall not therefore labour the arguments--many people come here with documents that by definition are bound to be falsified or information has become obscured because that is the nature of trying to flee and escape from countries and regimes where there is persecution. Ironically, if there is not some kind of subterfuge, it is unlikely that the
Earl Russell: Like the noble Lord, Lord Alton, I found it an intriguing experience to hear the answer to my amendment before it was spoken to. The Minister said in effect that he did not know what I was going to say but that he disagreed with it anyway! I heard here Whitehall at its finest--the internal referencing system entirely without any reference to the outside world.
I take the Minister's point about the Social Security Administration Act 1992. I am familiar with provisions of this kind; a great deal more familiar than I would like. I am also already familiar with trying to amend it in the way the noble Lord, Lord Alton, suggests. Before we come back to this matter at Report stage--as I am almost sure we will--may I suggest that the Minister takes advice from the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux? That body is particularly concerned about the impact of provisions of this kind for it says that most people do not understand the detail of social security law. That is clearly the case even if one talks to a Minister outside the Chamber; he certainly does not remember all of it and I would not expect him to, nor would I. Therefore many people make errors unknowingly.
Earl Russell: If a question arose whether the person was genuinely married or whether he was obtaining entry by deception. Such questions arise. It is also well known that when you give power to a minor official he
I come to Amendment No. 180A which is in my name. It proposes to delete provision for a fine. I understand the point about a crime requiring a punishment but here we are dealing with an almost cashless economy. The Minister mentioned a fine of up to £1,000. Will this fine be payable in vouchers, and how many weeks' vouchers would be required to pay it?
Baroness Williams of Crosby: I wish to speak to Amendment No. 180B. I was grateful for what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, had to say about it. I accept that he spoke with sincerity and with understanding of why I raised the point in my amendment.
The two issues which underlie the amendment are, first, that it is not totally unreasonable for people to ask that there should be on the face of a Bill the assurances that the Minister gave. I appreciate the good faith of the Minister, and indeed of his noble friend, and I do not question them in any way. However, a Bill of this kind when it becomes an Act will be interpreted long after both of them have moved onto higher things--one hopes--and it will continue from government to government. The problem that one always encounters as regards assurances given in good faith which then appear in Hansard is that the extent to which they can have the force of law is somewhat limited. I think that many of us therefore have sought to give these restraints and constrictions on the clause something of the force of law.
My first point relates to why the Minister takes exception to the wording of phrases such as "without good cause" when he has agreed that the true meaning of the clause as read would include a recognition of words such as "knowingly", "reasonably" and "with good cause." Many of us would feel happier and more content if such words were on the face of the Bill.
My second reason for raising the matter concerns those who are required to advise asylum seekers and refugees of where they stand. My noble friend Lord Russell has pointed out that there is a great deal of misunderstanding of these complex legal points. From the advisers' point of view, and from the point of view of other bona fide advisers of people who come to seek their help, the more that can be clearly stated the better it will be for everybody. It is unlikely that advisers in CABs in, say, Sheffield or Liverpool will look up the report of this debate in Hansard and be able to quote back the Minister's assurances.
I take the Minister's point. However, the gravamen of what I have to say is that I do not see why there should be an objection to these words. I know the Minister says that they are not necessary. But if we on this side of the Committee believe that they are necessary--perhaps because we have less faith in the mechanisms of government; the Minister is, after all, a member of the Government--it is not unreasonable to ask what is the objection to these words appearing, given the additional safeguards they provide for the individual applicant.
As the Minister rightly surmised, yes, I did have in mind the possibility of someone who, in good faith, had agreed to sponsor an asylum seeker or a refugee family and had then lost his job--or perhaps the owner of a small business which had gone bankrupt--and, therefore, for reasons beyond his control, was simply unable to maintain that sponsorship. Again, the phrase "without good cause" seems, to us at least, to cover such contingencies. While we accept the Minister's good faith when he says that he cannot imagine a situation where such contingencies would not be taken into account, many of us who have been engaged over many years in making laws would feel a great deal happier if he was willing to say that such wording would appear on the face of the Bill.
Lord Avebury: Perhaps I may ask the Minister a question. He put to my noble friend Lord Russell that there was no provision in this part of the Bill to require a person to produce love letters. But it is not merely information or documents in accordance with any provisions made "under this Part" of the Bill; it is "made by or under this Part." Therefore the requirement to produce that information would not necessarily be on the face of the Bill. Does the Minister accept that under the rules made by the Secretary of State in pursuance of the powers given to him under Clause 95, there may well be a requirement on a person to produce information of a particular kind, the nature of which is not ascertainable until the rules have been published?
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