Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill
Lord Rooker (Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister; Labour)
My Lords, I cannot answer the detailed point that the noble Baroness raised. If we had a large increase in the number of asylum seekers but not had accommodation available, we would have been rightly chastised. A degree of flexibility must be built into the system. I am not dismissing the costs that the noble Baroness quoted. Running the system costs more than £1 billion per year, which is the cost to the taxpayer. Some of those properties may have been held for a long time and rented on long-term contracts—which was the case when the national asylum support system started. As a result of dispersal and the potential collapse of social services in Kent, East Sussex and some of the London boroughs, there was a desperate need to spread asylum seekers around the country. Many emergency and quick-fix measures were taken, which the Government were duty bound to take, but I make no apology for that whatever.
I cannot comment on individual contracts, but there will always be empty properties simply because of the ebb and flow of the asylum list. The number of asylum applications has been cut in half and not every asylum seeker seeks accommodation. When a person claims asylum, we do not know whether he has accommodation in his community until he actually makes a claim. That is the reality. We cannot plan for what will happen when 70,000–80,000 asylum applications per year are being made. That figure has halved in the recent past so there is bound to be a surplus from time to time. I have given the noble Baroness a common-sense answer, without going into the detail of the 25,000 properties which she cited. It would not be possible for me to do that in any event.