I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 4—Accommodation: adequacy—
'(1) After section 97(1) of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 (c. 33) (Supplemental) there is added:
"(1A) Accommodation provided under section 95 will only be regarded as adequate provided:
(a) it is fit for human habitation as defined by section 604 of the Housing Act 1985 (as amended);
(b) occupation of the accommodation by the asylum seekers and their dependants (if any) will not constitute overcrowding as defined by sections 324, 325 and 326 of the Housing Act 1985;
(c) it does not constitute a statutory nuisance as defined by section 79 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990;
(d) the Secretary of State is satisfied that, if occupied by them, the asylum seekers and their dependants (if any) would be reasonably safe from personal injury or from damage to their property caused by a relevant defect, as defined by section 4 of the Defective Premises Act 1972.".
(2) After section 100(1) of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 (c. 33) (local authority and other assistance for Secretary of State) there is added—
"(1A) The Secretary of State may ask a local housing authority to take such steps as they are allowed by law to ensure accommodation provided under section 95 is adequate as defined by section 97(1A).".'.
New clause 17—Accommodation of unaccompanied asylum–seeking children—
'(1) All unaccompanied asylum–seeking children shall be offered the opportunity to be accommodated under section 20 of the Children Act 1989.
(2) Such children may be accommodated by any local authority.'.
Government new schedule 1—'Withholding and Withdrawal of Support—
Ineligibility for support
1 (1) A person to whom this paragraph applies shall not be eligible for support or assistance under—
(a) section 21 or 29 of the National Assistance Act 1948 (c. 29) (local authority: accommodation and welfare),
(b) section 45 of the Health Services and Public Health Act 1968 (c. 46) (local authority: welfare of elderly),
(c) section 12 or 13A of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 (c. 49) (social welfare services),
(f) section 17, 23C, 24A or 24B of the Children Act 1989 (c. 41) (welfare and other powers which can be exercised in relation to adults),
(g) section 29 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 (c. 36) (after-care),
(h) section 2 of the Local Government Act 2000 (c. 22) (promotion of well-being),
(i) a provision of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 (c. 33), or
(j) a provision of this Act.
(2) A power or duty under a provision referred to in sub-paragraph (1) may not be exercised or performed in respect of a person to whom this paragraph applies (whether or not the person has previously been in receipt of support or assistance under the provision).
(3) An approval or directions given under or in relation to a provision referred to in sub-paragraph (1) shall be taken to be subject to sub-paragraph (2).
2 (1) Paragraph 1 does not prevent the provision of support or assistance—
(a) to a child, or
(b) under or by virtue of regulations made under paragraph 8, 9 or 10 below, or
(c) in a case in respect of which, and to the extent to which, regulations made by the Secretary of State disapply paragraph 1.
(2) Regulations under sub-paragraph (1)(c) may confer a discretion on the Secretary of State.
(3) A reference in this Schedule to a person to whom paragraph 1 applies includes a reference to a person in respect of whom that paragraph is disapplied to a limited extent by regulations under sub-paragraph (1)(c), except in a case for which the regulations provide otherwise.
3 Paragraph 1 does not prevent the exercise of a power or the performance of a duty if, and to the extent that, its exercise or performance is necessary for the purpose of avoiding a breach of—
(a) a person's Convention rights, or
(b) a person's rights under the Community Treaties.
First class of ineli
4 (1) Paragraph 1 applies to a person if he—
(a) has refugee status abroad, or
(b) is the dependant of a person who is in the United Kingdom and who has refugee status abroad.
(2) For the purposes of this paragraph a person has refugee status abroad if—
(a) he does not have the nationality of an EEA State, and
(b) the government of an EEA State other than the United Kingdom has determined that he is entitled to protection as a refugee under the Refugee Convention.
Second class of ineli
5 Paragraph 1 applies to a person who has the nationality of an EEA State other than the United Kingdom if—
(a) his presence in the United Kingdom is not in reliance on a right under or by virtue of the Community Treaties, or
(b) his presence in the United Kingdom is in reliance on a right under or by virtue of the Community Treaties which permits residence in a member State subject to conditions designed to avoid burdens on social assistance systems or social security systems.
Third class of ineli
6 Paragraph 1 applies to a person if—
(a) he was (but is no longer) an asylum-seeker, and
(b) he fails to cooperate with removal directions issued in respect of him.
Fourth class of ineli
7 Paragraph 1 applies to a person if—
(a) he is in the United Kingdom in breach of the immigration laws within the meaning of section 11, and
(b) he is not an asylum-seeker.
8 The Secretary of State may make regulations providing for arrangements to be made enabling a person to whom paragraph 1 applies by virtue of paragraph 4 or 5 to leave the United Kingdom.
9 (1) The Secretary of State may make regulations providing for arrangements to be made for the accommodation of a person to whom paragraph 1 applies pending the implementation of arrangements made by virtue of paragraph 8.
(2) Arrangements for a person by virtue of this paragraph—
(a) may be made only if the person has with him a dependent child, and
(b) may include arrangements for a dependent child.
10 (1) The Secretary of State may make regulations providing for arrangements to be made for the accommodation of a person if—
(a) paragraph 1 applies to him by virtue of paragraph 7, and
(b) he has not failed to cooperate with removal directions issued in respect of him.
(2) Arrangements for a person by virtue of this paragraph—
(a) may be made only if the person has with him a dependent child, and
(b) may include arrangements for a dependent child.
Assistance and accommodation: general
11 Regulations under paragraph 8, 9 or 10 may—
(a) provide for the making of arrangements under a provision referred to in paragraph 1(1) or otherwise;
(b) confer a function (which may include the exercise of a discretion) on the Secretary of State, a local authority or another person;
(c) provide that arrangements must be made in a specified manner or in accordance with specified principles;
(d) provide that arrangements may not be made in a specified manner;
(e) require a local authority or another person to have regard to guidance issued by the Secretary of State in making arrangements;
(f) require a local authority or another person to comply with a direction of the Secretary of State in making arrangements.
12 (1) Regulations may, in particular, provide that if a person refuses an offer of arrangements under paragraph 8 or fails to implement or cooperate with arrangements made for him under that paragraph—
(a) new arrangements may be made for him under paragraph 8, but
(b) new arrangements may not be made for him under paragraph 9.
(2) Regulations by virtue of this paragraph may include exceptions in the case of a person who—
(a) has a reason of a kind specified in the regulations for failing to implement or cooperate with arrangements made under paragraph 8, and
(b) satisfies any requirements of the regulations for proof of the excuse.
13 (1) A person who leaves the United Kingdom in accordance with arrangements made under paragraph 8 commits an offence if he—
(a) returns to the United Kingdom, and
(b) requests that arrangements be made for him by virtue of paragraph 8, 9 or 10.
(2) A person commits an offence if he—
(a) requests that arrangements be made for him by virtue of paragraph 8, 9 or 10, and
(b) fails to mention a previous request by him for the making of arrangements under any of those paragraphs.
(3) A person who is guilty of an offence under this paragraph shall be liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months.
14 If it appears to a local authority that paragraph 1 applies or may apply to a person in the authority's area by virtue of paragraph 6 or 7, the authority must inform the Secretary of State.
Power to amend Schedule
15 The Secretary of State may by order amend this Schedule so as—
(a) to provide for paragraph 1 to apply or not to apply to a class of person;
(b) to add or remove a provision to or from the list in paragraph 1(1);
(c) to add, amend or remove a limitation of or exception to paragraph 1.
Orders and regulations
16 (1) An order or regulations under this Schedule must be made by statutory instrument.
(2) An order or regulations under this Schedule may—
(a) make provision which applies generally or only in specified cases or circumstances;
(b) make different provision for different cases or circumstances;
(c) make transitional provision;
(d) make consequential provision (which may include provision amending a provision made by or under this or another Act).
(3) An order under this Schedule, or regulations which include consequential provision amending an enactment, shall not be made unless a draft has been laid before and approved by resolution of each House of Parliament.
(4) Regulations under this Schedule to which sub–paragraph (3) does not apply shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.
17 In this Schedule—
"asylum-seeker" means a person—
(a) who is at least 18 years old,
(b) who has made a claim for asylum (within the meaning of section 16(3)), and
(c) whose claim has been recorded, but not determined, by the Secretary of State,
"Convention rights" has the same meaning as in the Human Rights Act 1998 (c. 42),
"child" means a person under the age of eighteen,
"dependant" and "dependent" shall have such meanings as may be prescribed by regulations made by the Secretary of State,
"EEA State" means a State which is a contracting party to the Agreement on the European Economic Area signed at Oporto on 2nd May 1992 (as it has effect from time to time),
(a) in relation to England and Wales, has the same meaning as in section 105(3),
(b) in relation to Scotland, has the same meaning as in section 105(4), and
(c) in relation to Northern Ireland, means a health service body within the meaning of section 109(4)(c),
"the Refugee Convention" means the Convention relating to the status of Refugees done at Geneva on 28th July 1951 and its Protocol, and
"removal directions" means directions under Schedule 2 to the Immigration Act 1971 (c. 77) (control of entry, &c.), under Schedule 3 to that Act (deportation) or under section 10 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 (c. 33) (removal of person unlawfully in United Kingdom).'.
Amendment (a) to the proposed schedule, in paragraph 4(1)(a), after "abroad", insert—
'and is not otherwise seeking to claim support under a provision of European Union law, the European Convention on Human Rights, or any other international obligation and is not seeking to transfer his refugee status to the United Kingdom'.
Amendment (b) to the proposed schedule, in paragraph 4(1)(b), at end insert—
'and is not otherwise seeking to claim support under a provision of European Union law, the European Convention on Human Rights, or any other international obligation and is not seeking to transfer his refugee status to the United Kingdom'.
Amendment (c) to the proposed schedule, in paragraph 5(a), after "Treaties", insert—
'and is not otherwise seeking to claim support under a provision of European Union law, the European Convention on Human Rights, or any other international obligation'.
Amendment (d) to the proposed schedule, in paragraph 5(b), at end insert—
'and is not otherwise seeking to claim support under a provision of European Union law, the European Convention on Human Rights, or any other international obligation'.
Amendment (e) to the proposed schedule, in paragraph 6(a), leave out "and".
Amendment (f) to the proposed schedule, in paragraph 6(b), at end insert—
(c) he does not allege that his rights under the European Convention on Human Rights would be breached if he were removed and there are no outstanding appeals or judicial review proceedings in connection with that claim or his asylum application'.
Amendment (g) to the proposed schedule, in paragraph 7(b), at end insert—
(c) he has no other outstanding application for leave to enter or remain either before the Secretary of State or appeal before a Court, Adjudicator or the Tribunal'.
Amendment (h) to the proposed schedule, in paragraph 9, leave out sub-paragraph (2).
Amendment (i) to the proposed schedule, in paragraph 10, leave out sub-paragraph (2).
Amendment (j) to the proposed schedule, leave out paragraph 12.
Amendment (k) to the proposed schedule, in paragraph 13, leave out sub-paragraph (2).
Amendment No. 49, in clause 37, page 19, line 7, leave out paragraph (a).
Amendment No. 84, in page 19, line 18, leave out from "shall" to "House" in line 19 and insert—
'not be made unless a draft has been laid before and approved by resolution of each'.
Government amendments Nos. 217, 216 and 254.
Amendment No. 50, in clause 38, page 20, line 13, leave out "and" and insert "or".
Amendment No. 51, in page 20, line 14, at end insert—
Government amendment No. 255.
Amendment No. 52, in page 20, line 17, leave out "and" and insert "or".
Amendment No. 53, in page 20, line 18, at end insert—
Amendment No. 261, in clause 39, page 23, line 4, leave out subsections (3), (4), (5) and (6).
Amendment No. 54, in clause 43, page 24, line 35, leave out "may" and insert "must".
Amendment No. 55, in page 24, line 35, at end insert—
'(aa) give priority to meeting the person's particular needs'.
Amendment No. 56, in page 24, line 38, leave out paragraph (b).
Government amendment No. 218.
Amendment No. 143, in clause 45, page 26, line 3, after "appellant", insert "and any witnesses".
Amendment No. 144, in page 26, line 4, after "appeal", insert "or seeking legal advice".
Amendment No. 57, in page 26, line 4, at end add—
'103C Advice and assistance
(1) The Secretary of State may make a grant to a voluntary organisation which provides—
(i) advice or assistance to persons who have a right of appeal under this Part;
(ii) other services for the welfare of those persons.
(2) A grant under this section may be subject to terms or conditions (which may include conditions as to repayment).'.
Amendment No. 194, in clause 133, page 74, line 26, leave out paragraph (f).
Many Members will be aware of the situation faced by many of our local authorities, which are increasingly being presented with individuals and families claiming support who are at various stages of the immigration and asylum process and have a different status. I recognise that this issue may present some hon. Members with an acute challenge. None of us faced with such people in our constituencies likes to say no. Most MPs want to help other people, wherever they come from, and it rightly does not come easy to us to contemplate withdrawing support or sending people out of the country. However, we must recognise our responsibilities to other constituents and to people who are legitimately settled in this country. The provisions in the new clause deal with some sharp questions.
Should local authority funds appropriately be used to support people who have established refugee status elsewhere, and should they continue to support those whose claim in this country has failed? Should that support continue in the face of decisions by those people not to leave even when the means of leaving is provided to them? We have concluded that the answer to those questions is no. In balancing the interests of people claiming support with those of local taxpayers, local people settled here and local authorities, the balance ought to lie with the latter. Perverse incentives in the current arrangements enable people to claim one source of public support from local authorities when their status excludes them from other such sources. We believe that we must grasp that nettle.
I know that hon. Members will want to raise issues on this new clause, but I should be grateful if they would allow me to set out the ground a little. I am introducing this amendment to assist local authorities by providing legal clarity when dealing with applications for support from certain categories of new arrivals in the United Kingdom.
At the moment, different local authorities adopt different approaches to claims for support from European Union and European Economic Area nationals and from refugees from EU and EEA states. Local authorities are being approached for social services support, usually under the National Assistance Act 1948, or in the case of people with children, under the Children Act 1989, as individuals try to claim and fail what is known as the habitual residence test. Many hon. Members will be aware that the habitual residence test is applied to those seeking access to income-related benefits such as jobseeker's allowance and income support. It seeks to ensure that those eligible for benefits have sufficiently close ties to the United Kingdom. It was introduced to restrict benefits for people with little or no connection with the UK, and no commitment to settling here. The underlying principle is that UK taxpayers should not subsidise people with very tenuous links to the UK.
An increasing number of people are now arriving in the UK and seeking assistance from social services. The extra demand is placing great pressure on local authorities' social services budgets, and creating significant problems for them. We do not know the precise numbers with which we are faced, which is an indication of the problems experienced by some of the statutory authorities that are trying to cope with what has been a significant influx in some areas.
We have received reports from local authorities and, indeed, from some of our Government offices. The evidence suggests that in Leicester alone between 2,000 and 10,000 people of Somali origin—probably a number in excess of the smaller figure—have migrated over the past 18 months or so. Although the problem is highlighted by the arrival of Dutch nationals of Somali origin, there are reports of growing communities from other areas such as Portugal and Montserrat.
Currently, when local authorities decide whether support in the form of accommodation or otherwise will be provided, they do not take account of the applicant's immigration status. That means that not just those with citizenship or refugee status in another EU or EEA state, but people who are unlawfully present in the UK, can receive support. Our proposals are intended to ease the pressure on local authorities, to clarify their legal position and to create a level playing field between one authority and another, while also giving individuals and their families the means to return to their home country or the country in which they acquired refugee status.
Two recent court cases have helped us. A very recent case, that of G v. Barnet in 2001, involved a Dutch national of Somali origin who asked for local authority accommodation for her and her child. Given the circumstances, the local authority offered her a voluntary place of care for her child, and the means for both to return home to Holland where support was available. The Court of Appeal decided that that was a reasonable offer, and that the authority was not obliged to house the family if they rejected the offer—although it would be obliged to house the child, and indeed was willing to do so. This year the cases of Ali and Mohammed v. Birmingham involved similar circumstances, and again the court found that the authority's approach was lawful.
As for those with citizenship or refugee status in another EU or EEA state, under the new proposals short-term accommodation may be provided for families with children, as well as a one-way journey to their home country. If the family do not take up the offer of travel, or fail to travel, all support will be withdrawn apart from an offer of support for the children under section 20 of the Children Act. For asylum seekers whose claim has not succeeded, who can go but who fail to comply with removal directions, all support will end. Local authorities will be able to offer support only to children, again under section 20 of the Children Act.
The Minister says that the local authority will provide support for children only, and not for their parents. In such cases would the children be taken into care, or would the traditional social services approach of supporting the whole family in order to support the children apply?
No, the children would be received into care under section 20 of the 1989 Act and given accommodation, but support for the adults would be withdrawn. That is the point of the measure. If, having been offered travel, the family refused to go or failed to comply, the arrangements would be offered to the children but not the adults.
Local authorities will be required to inform the Home Office about those resident in the UK unlawfully who are not asylum seekers, and who apply for local authority support, so that removal can be arranged. Again, local authorities may provide short-term accommodation to families with children until the date of removal. Should such a family fail to travel, all support will be withdrawn, other than the offer of support for children under section 20 of the 1989 Act.
We will ensure that children and other vulnerable persons continue to receive appropriate care, while allowing families to stay together by enabling them to accept the offer of travel home. In particular, those with special care needs will continue to have them met until the date of travel. If they do not travel, unless they have an acceptable reason for not doing so—for example, they are too ill, and a medical certificate supports that view—care will be provided at the minimum level, in compliance with the European convention on human rights.
These are difficult issues and no one should pretend otherwise. I shall give the Minister two examples that I am advised illustrate the unfair consequence of such a proposal. The first is that of an Irish citizen with a disability who has lived here for 30 years, who clearly has the nationality of another EEA state, and who is not seeking to use their Community treaty rights. As I understand it, under the proposal they would have to be sent back to Ireland, because they would be ineligible for benefits here.
The second and perhaps more acute example is that of a citizen of another country—say, Ireland—who is the dependant of a person with refugee status in another European country, such as the daughter of someone who settled in Germany 20 or 30 years ago. Does not the proposal imply that many people will be required to move from a place in which they have lived perfectly lawfully for decades, and go to a country where they may have no relatives and, in effect, no home? That surely cannot be right.
The hon. Gentleman rightly leads us into some technical areas. In cases where citizens of EU or EEA countries have rights under Community treaties of one kind or another, it is not intended that the policy will take away those rights. On the examples that he mentions, even the most draconian interpretation of the habitual residence test would regard someone who has lived here for 30 years as an habitual resident. Such a person would therefore meet the test and be entitled in the normal way.
In addition to the measures that I have outlined, we must accept the need to guard against those who may seek to abuse the support and facilities offered to them. For that reason, we are also introducing two new offences as part of the measures. First, it will be an offence for a person who has accepted the offer of short-term accommodation and/or a journey home to return to the UK to try to claim benefits again. Secondly, to help to ensure that local authorities have the best information before them when considering a request for support under these provisions, it will be an offence for a person to fail to mention—to fail to declare—any previous request for support under these measures. That is necessary to prevent people from going from one local authority to another and making claims.
I am also placing an obligation on local authorities, as I have mentioned, to report to the Secretary of State any person in their area whom they reasonably suspect to be unlawfully present in the UK or any failed asylum seekers who are refusing to co-operate with attempts to remove them. That will help the Home Office in instigating removal action against appropriate individuals.
These are technical and complex matters. What discussions and consultations have been held with the Local Government Association, the Association of London Government and other local authority associations? Can my hon. Friend the Minister advise me of the detail of any such discussions and whether those organisations support the measures that she is outlining today?
It is fair to say that the concern has arisen because of the situation that many local authorities have faced, the details of which they have brought to our attention. Some local authorities, including Barnet and Birmingham, have tested the case in law, as I mentioned earlier, but other local authorities—whose social security budgets are also very stretched—are unclear about the extent to which they can lawfully follow the example of those that have tested cases. The measures are in the spirit of requests from many local authorities to clarify the law and to make their position clear in legal terms.
When local authorities come to implement the provisions, we will need to provide guidance to them on some of the technical detail, and we will certainly do so. I am also satisfied that these measures comply with the requirements of the European convention on human rights and our other international obligations.
It has been established that those with refugee status in an EEA state or nationals of that state have entitlement to support elsewhere. Therefore, we have to come to the conclusion that for such people to claim support here is not an acceptable use of our resources and presents a considerable burden for local authorities and their social services budgets. We have to make it clear that local authorities will not be empowered to provide such support in future. That clarification will be helpful to local authorities, many of which have been uncertain whether, to what extent and in what circumstances they should provide support.
The Opposition have tabled several amendments to the new clause and the schedule. I shall reply on those amendments later, but I can tell the House in advance that I will not accept them. Many of them would undermine the whole principle behind the new clause. I shall be interested to hear what hon. Members have to say in their favour.
Government amendments Nos. 254 and 255 make it clear that a person is destitute if he or she does not have adequate accommodation and food, or other essential items. My hon. Friends listened carefully to the discussions in Committee and to the concerns that the original draft clause indicated a change in policy. While I am satisfied that the original draft achieved the policy aim and that we explained that point in detail to the Committee, we have taken the opportunity to amend the clause to take on board the points made.
Government amendments Nos. 216 to 218 are technical amendments that clarify the fact that support will not be provided to those outside the United Kingdom. Government amendment No. 216 amends the definition of an asylum seeker for support purposes and says that people must be in the United Kingdom if they are to fall within the definition. Government amendment No. 218 clarifies the fact that an appeal made under clause 45 against a decision to stop providing support, or against a decision that a person does not qualify for support, may not be brought by someone outside the United Kingdom.
Finally, Government amendment No. 217 is a small technical amendment related to clause 38. It has no effect other than to simplify the way in which the clause is presented. It does not alter the substantive arrangements.
As the Minister rightly said, Government new clause 10 is the method by which the proposals in Government new schedule 1 will be introduced. It is an enabling measure to which we cannot have objections in principle. However, we are concerned about the new schedule.
As I said earlier, this is complex territory. It is difficult for the House to do justice to such a proposal, given that it did not appear in the Standing Committee. It appeared only after the Committee ended. There is nothing new about that, but it is exactly the sort of proposal that should go before a Special Standing Committee, so that people can give evidence about it. It should at least be brought before the Standing Committee for detailed consideration.
The House deals with new schedules, new clauses and amendments in a certain way, however. Liberal Democrat Members have tabled a set of amendments to new schedule 1, but the way in which Government business is taken means that they cannot be voted on. At the end of the debate, therefore, we will seek to divide the House on new clause 10 to register our disapproval of some of the matters in the package. They include the complex issue in new schedule 1 of what, in shorthand, is called the problem of benefit shopping.
Amendment No. 49 embodies our strong objection to the Government's intention to change the financial support system to prevent people who have the chance of gaining accommodation with friends or relatives around the country from getting the financial support that would allow them to do so. That option saves a huge amount of money at present, as the accommodation is provided free of cost to the Government.
When we debated the matter in Standing Committee with the Minister's predecessor, we talked about the National Asylum Support Service support system and registered our strong disapproval and the fact that we did not believe that the proposals in the Bill would be in the Government's interest. It must be cheaper if people who are willing and able to look after themselves do not ask the Government to pay for their accommodation but only for their necessary living costs over and above the cost of accommodation. That must be cheaper for the Government than if they have to meet the costs of accommodating people and of paying them benefits as well.
We therefore object to some of the details that emerged only last week, and to the idea that the chance of benefits will be taken away from people who, as asylum seekers, might otherwise be given accommodation.
My hon. Friend Mr. Allan and I accept that there needs to be a regime across the EU that prevents people from gaining a set of entitlements in one country and then transferring them, without any authority, to another country. There need to be rules about that. However, that is a much wider area than could properly be covered in this debate.
The Minister probably knows from her constituency surgery, as I do from mine, of people who are lawfully in this country because they have been given refugee status but who have no automatic right to travel to other countries. They are lawfully here but cannot visit their relatives in Paris, for example, because there is no European Union-wide recognition of the rights of people who have less than full rights in EU member states. I am aware that the European Parliament has debated this, and colleagues there have talked to me about it. It strikes me that the way to deal with such issues is to seek EU-wide agreement on the rights of people who have been accepted in one place but may need, for a short or long period, to go somewhere else.
I do not argue that people who, to take the Minister's example, might originally have come from Somalia and then settled in the Netherlands should have the right to come to the United Kingdom and claim benefits in addition to those they receive in the Netherlands. Of course that would not be right—European Union member states should pay only once. However, it may be perfectly proper to transfer such rights, on application, from one country to another.
This is the largest group of amendments, new clauses and new schedules to be debated today. Some have been tabled by the Government, some by the Conservative party, some by the Liberal Democrats, and Mr. Dawson has also tabled a new clause. I shall deal with these as speedily as I can and at least put the argument before the Minister. Inevitably, if the Government hold their supporters behind their policy, they will win the day today, but these matters will have to be revisited in much greater detail when they go to the House of Lords, because there has been no opportunity for parliamentarians to look at them in detail here.
I will take the proposals in order. New clause 4, tabled by the Conservatives and supported by the Liberal Democrats, would provide for tests of adequacy of accommodation. It is relatively self-explanatory; I support it and hope that the Minister will accept it. I should be grateful if the hon. Lady indicated in her reply whether a proposal along these lines is acceptable. It would ensure that those in the dispersal system have adequate accommodation and that they are not excluded from protection when it comes to the sort of decent accommodation that we would expect other people in poor circumstances to have if they were born in this country or were British citizens.
In new schedule 1, the Government propose that for those who have been given refugee status abroad, who are citizens of another EU state, who are failed asylum seekers, or who are unlawfully in the United Kingdom—each category may merit different treatment—a raft of potentially available benefits will disappear. We normally think of such benefits as coming under the National Assistance Act 1948 and being distributed through the social services.
Like the Minister, I represent an urban consistency and understand the pressure on all local authorities, particularly with regard to the social services budget. We know how councillors and officers have to juggle the budget and the huge pressure that they are under, to which the Government have, in part, responded. Our general concern—I am trying to be general as well as succinct—is that by taking away all such benefits, groups of people could, for periods of time, be without any recourse to benefit and have no practical alternative.
Our amendments to the new schedule would allow a continuing right to benefit for people with an outstanding human rights claim or appeal, those who might have another claim to support or social and medical assistance under the European convention on human rights, or those who seek to transfer their refugee status. To take the example given by my hon. Friend Mr. Hancock, if people had fled from a country in which there was civil war, such as Ethiopia, and come to Europe only to discover that their wife, child or parent was in another European country, they would seek to be reunited. That is the sort of argument behind the amendments to Government new schedule 1.
On our amendment No. 49, clearly the option of cash-only support should be kept open. The Minister did not deal with that. I have not heard any arguments from her or her predecessors to suggest that what the Government are proposing will be any cheaper. They are saying that support only is being used to avoid dispersal. When the National Asylum Support Service system started, 100 per cent. of support-only applications were in Greater London. The figure is now only about 70 per cent. If that is the case, support only does not stand in the way of dispersal. Indeed, if it were withdrawn, many people who are staying with relatives and friends in London and other parts of the country would be disadvantaged.
I understand that at the end of 2001, 25,000 asylum seekers were receiving voucher-only support and were not asking the Government to house them, whereas just over 40,000 were supported in NASS accommodation—a ratio of nearly a third to two thirds. I do not understand how it would be cheaper to get rid of that option. It would not, therefore, be in the Government's or our interests to do so.
On the figures for NASS and non-NASS supported cases, am I right in thinking that it is the longer-term asylum seekers, who have come back to London after being dispersed elsewhere and suffering harassment or whatever, who are non-NASS supported? They are often living in terrible poverty, supported by other asylum-seeking families who are themselves trying to survive on 70 per cent. of income support.
That is certainly my experience. Many of the asylum seekers in my constituency are not asking the state for a great amount of support. Often, they rely on their church or faith community and on a network of provision that would normally be sent to support family in the home country, and which is therefore not sent.
The hon. Gentleman is right: many of these people were sent out of London. They found it better to come back here to people who speak the same language than to live on their own in an estate in, say, the east end of Newcastle—that is one example that I know for a fact—with no one else from their national group anywhere nearby, and no one to converse with.
Indeed, it might be. The right hon. Gentleman knows that that is why we have supported such centres as an option. In many cases, however, dispersal was not satisfactory. He has made the case that it is working better, but it does not work better for everyone. Some people say that they are willing to take responsibility for themselves and stay with friends—albeit in dire, overcrowded accommodation—because it is more comfortable to be with people who come from the same place and understand their needs than to be miles from anywhere and from anyone who understands what they need.
On amendment No. 84, like Mr. Gerrard, we believe that there should be affirmative resolutions before we go down the road proposed in clause 37. It is important that social security matters automatically receive proper scrutiny from the House.
We do not object to Government amendment No. 217, as it tries to tidy up the legislation, which is what I suggested to the Home Secretary that we should do to the entire Bill at the end of this exercise. Asylum issues should be in one part of the Bill, separate from non-asylum issues.
We do not object to Government amendment No. 216. Clearly, the provision should relate to people who are in the United Kingdom, not those who are outside it. Nor do we object to Government amendment No. 254, which is for clarification.
In Committee we questioned what the wording meant, and we have tabled amendments Nos. 50 to 53, which would have had the same effect as Government amendments Nos. 254 and 255. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre has proposals that are along the same lines and has tabled amendment No. 261, which we support. I hope that he will have an opportunity to persuade Ministers that that amendment would be appropriate.
We are troubled by the Government proposals in clause 43, which would allow the Secretary of State to choose the provision by which the asylum seeker is offered support and, in effect, would not allow asylum seekers to suggest an alternative. Having taken advice, that is our interpretation of what the clause would mean. Under clause 43, people may have to take the support that they are told to take or they may have no support. For example, people may say that they are willing to stay with family and friends and that they would prefer cash support, but that is no longer an option. That is why my hon. Friends and I tabled amendment No. 54.
I accept that amendments Nos. 55 and 56 contain drafting errors. The Minister's advisers will have spotted those errors, and I apologise for them. Those amendments should have included requirements for certain things and not others, but they came out wrong, so I shall not pursue them at this stage. However, we want to make it clear that priority individual needs should be met.
I am coming to the end of the list. I apologise for its length, although the grouping of amendments was out of my control, but at least we can get rid of a lot of issues in one go.
We do not dissent from Government amendment No. 218. With such issues, it is proper that people cannot seek to appeal decisions involving benefits when they have left the country. That is entirely different from yesterday's debate on appeals to remain in the country. People should make those appeals when they are in this country; they should not be required to leave.
Under amendments Nos. 143 and 144, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats jointly propose that people should be able to receive expenses for the travel involved in putting their cases, that their witnesses—if they are needed—should be able to receive financial support, and that legal advice should be available.
Under amendment No. 57, we propose that the Home Office should be able to give grants to those voluntary organisations that help people with social security, benefits and welfare appeals. That proposal is strongly supported by the Immigration Advisory Service, which is based in my constituency and whose chief executive is highly regarded throughout the House. I hope that hon. Members support that amendment and that the Government will be sympathetic to it.
Under amendment No. 194—the last in this group—we suggest that the cash-only support removal proposal should be subject to a separate debate in the House under the affirmative procedure before we agree to it.
I apologise for going through all the amendments in this group individually, but I thought that proper as they cover many issues. Unless the Government give us considerable comfort, we will not feel able to support their proposals at the end of the debate, because they have not been argued fully, because Parliament has not had a chance to debate them fully, and because they will produce some apparently wrong decisions, among some that are perfectly justifiable and correct.
Unfortunately, we cannot separate the issues by voting on each amendment, as the Conservatives did yesterday, so we shall register our opposition. More importantly, we hope that the Government will hear the voices of hon. Members and those outside the House and change some of these unnecessarily draconian proposals.
I want to raise two issues briefly. First, I have a number of questions about new schedule 1. I must admit that I have difficulty in understanding all its implications; the schedule is complex and long.
I shall be generous: new schedule 1 has recently appeared on the amendment paper. Clearly, it will have a serious impact on the individuals who will be subject to some of its provisions, as they may lose all forms of support.
I well understand the argument that questions why a local authority should support someone who is entitled to be supported elsewhere. Why should someone who has perfectly normal rights to receive support in another EU country come to the United Kingdom, turn up at a local authority's offices and demand support? I understand the rationale behind such an argument.
I clearly understand the reasoning behind the proposals for children and families. Obviously, great pressure would be put on individuals who were told that they were to be removed from the United Kingdom, if the choice that faced them was either to comply with the removal directions, or for their children to receive support and be taken into care under section 20 of the Children Act 1989 while they themselves received no support.
I may be getting the proposal completely wrong because I have not had the time to understand all the details, but I find it difficult to see exactly how some of the provisions will work. Local authorities provided many but not all of the forms of support referred to in paragraph 1 of new schedule 1, including those under the National Assistance Act 1948, the Health Services and Public Health Act 1968 and Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968. There is a reference—I am not sure what it means—to section 21 of and schedule 8 to the National Health Service Act 1977. I hope that that does not mean that access to mental health services may be cut, if those services are relevant.
If those are the sort of benefits that may disappear and which people risk losing, it is fairly obvious that many of the decisions to remove such support will be taken by local authorities. A local authority will be faced with having to decide whether to give someone support under the National Assistance Act 1948, or withdraw the support that has already been given under that Act.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. When they make assessments for services, local authorities will have an opportunity to determine whether someone is eligible for assistance. What does my hon. Friend think will happen if someone already receives assistance? How will local authorities know how to implement Home Office decisions involving those who are receiving such services?
That is a very important point. Let us consider one or two examples. Let us suppose that failed asylum seekers who fail to co-operate with their removal directions have children and have therefore received some local authority support. Even though their asylum claims have been refused, they would still be eligible for support because they have children. According to new schedule 1, if failed asylum seekers do not comply with the removal directions that have been set, their support should disappear, except for that given to their children. I do not understand how that will operate or how local authorities will acquire the information necessary to decide that those failed asylum seekers should be cut off from support.
Let us consider someone who relies on rights under Community treaties. I have dealt with immigration and asylum casework for a good number of years, but when someone comes to see me at an advice surgery, I am often far from clear about the precise implications of Community treaties. Local authority staff who have to make decisions about whether to supply or continue support will need such knowledge. Perhaps I am getting all this wrong and there are simple answers, but I am bothered about new schedule 1 because of those concerns, although I understand the principle behind it.
I am also far from clear about how new schedule 1 relates to other parts of the Bill. How can those who are subject to decisions made under that schedule challenge those decisions? Suppose that someone is refused on the basis that they are a citizen of another EEA state and they are not relying on a right by virtue of Community treaties, but they claim that the decision is based on wrong information. Alternatively, a failed asylum seeker who had not co-operated with removal directions might challenge that by saying that they or their representative never received such directions. That is not unknown.
How will it be possible to challenge the decision? I cannot see how that will be done, unless it is through the mechanism of judicial review of the local authority decision. What happens to the person in the meantime if they try to go through that process? That is a complex matter, and it is difficult to comprehend quickly. I hope that we can achieve clarity with regard to those concerns about the new schedule.
I shall say a few words about amendment No. 84, which I tabled with other hon. Members and which relates to the removal of the support-only option from the present National Asylum Support Service arrangements. Simon Hughes has gone through the arguments about the number of people who currently receive support only, and the reasons for that. My hon. Friend Ms Buck and Mr. Allan raised the issue in Committee.
My hon. Friend Angela Eagle, who was then the Minister, provided some clarification. She said that the clause was intended as an enabling power that would create the potential to move away from cash-only support. She went on to say clearly that that was not the Government's immediate intention, and that it would not make sense to implement it until the Government had managed to regionalise NASS and put more effective mechanisms in place. She added that she could foresee a time when, if the reporting system was running properly and accommodation centres were working effectively, it might be possible to consider withdrawing the cash-only option.
A clear view emerged in the Committee that the proposal was long-term—that it would take effect only in the distant future when accommodation centres were up and running, accommodation was provided generally for all asylum seekers and there was no longer a need for cash-only support. I have always felt reassured by the then Minister's comments.
However, I found myself having to think again about the matter. Some hon. Members may have seen a document from Downing street that found its way into the press not long ago. It referred to ending cash-only support and commented that, among other things, that would create a risk of begging and destitution in London. It also included a comment about implementation in the autumn when NASS accommodation was ready. That worried me.
The document from Downing street may be totally inaccurate—I would much prefer the reassurances that were given in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey—but amendment No. 84 introduces a safeguard. Let us assume that there will come a time when clear evidence can be provided by the Home Office that accommodation centres are working, NASS accommodation is available and cash-only support is no longer needed. If we reach that point, it should be possible for positive resolutions to be put before both Houses, which would allow us to debate and agree on the evidence. Everyone would then be much more comfortable with the provision.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern not just about the numbers of places available in accommodation centres, but about the quality of those places? People often take cash support because NASS accommodation has been unsuitable. It would not be acceptable to withdraw cash-only support just because we have 80,000 units of accommodation and 80,000 asylum seekers, if those 80,000 units are not in the right places and of the right quality.
I take the hon. Gentleman's point. People would opt for cash-only support for a variety of reasons. I am merely making the straightforward point that, instead of a statutory instrument, both Houses should consider positive resolutions. We might all then feel much more comfortable about a future proposal to end cash-only support. That is the purpose of amendment No. 84, which I hope will gain support in the House.
I wonder what the Government's reaction would be if a Member were to table a new clause saying that any asylum application must be decided within two days of its being made, and that any appeal must be lodged within 24 hours and decided within a further 24 hours. I imagine that their reaction would be, "Don't be silly: people need time to prepare," and that there would be a nodding of heads all around the House. If that is the Government's attitude, God bless them for giving us what Mr. Gerrard described as a complex new schedule and telling us that we have far less time than we would have under my fictitious new clause on asylum cases, and only a matter of hours to prepare all our arguments and to take advice from various non-governmental organisations outside the House. I am making a serious point. It is a tragedy that new, complex material is presented to the House without any of us having an opportunity to sit down and study it carefully.
I want to speak briefly about new clause 4, which I tabled with several hon. Friends. For accommodation provided under section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, it defines what will be regarded as adequate. I shall not read through my new clause, but its purpose is to ensure that the accommodation provided meets the basic standards that we all expect of accommodation in this country. Furthermore, it ensures that certain landlords are not able to exploit asylum seekers to make profit at the public's expense by renting out properties that cannot be rented out to the general public. A reasonable, decent standard of accommodation is important.
The new clause cannot be thought objectionable, and I hope that the Government are prepared to accept it. They need to focus on the issue of the standard of accommodation. It is not many weeks since the controversy about the absence of sprinklers at Yarl's Wood, and there is a continuing problem with companies running removal centres and trying to negotiate insurance cover with various underwriters. All existing centres that do not have proper safety attributes, as suggested in my new clause, should be looked at carefully with a view to closure. I put the new clause out as a feeler, but, behind it, there is a strong point in relation to the adequacy of accommodation.
We also tabled amendments Nos. 143 and 144, which relate to witnesses and costs. Proposed new section 103B of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 says:
"The Secretary of State may pay reasonable travelling expenses incurred by an appellant" and amendment No. 143 would add the words "and any witnesses". Most witnesses in asylum appeals are other asylum seekers and they are often relatives who are living close to destitution. The Government accept that access to justice is important, so the expense of getting to an appeal could and should be paid for.
The money would be well spent because it would reduce the need for the adjournment of appeals or subsequent appeals to the tribunal resulting from the fact that, through no fault of appellants or their lawyers, witnesses could not attend. It would not cost much to pay expenses to witnesses who may be destitute, and it could save money in the long term. I hope the Government will consider that suggestion carefully, as points of principle and efficiency are involved. The amendment would enable the Government to have a better and more efficient system.
Amendment No. 144 also relates to clause 45, which says:
"The Secretary of State may pay reasonable travelling expenses . . . in connection with attendance for the purposes of an appeal".
The amendment would add the words "or seeking legal advice". Again, that might be money well spent. As I have said, many witnesses in appeals are other asylum seekers, and access to the appeal and to the legal advice necessary for the appeal are important. If access to justice is important, the expense of getting to lawyers to prepare the appeal could and should be paid for. That would reduce the need for the adjournments that result when appeals are not fully prepared.
It is important for lawyers to take proof of evidence from witnesses, but I am told that that cannot always be claimed as a disbursement from the Legal Services Commission, or is not financially viable. That is especially so in Scotland where the Legal Services Commission does not operate and attendance of a person under the supervision of a solicitor is paid for at the rate of only £21 an hour.
These small amendments are not dramatic. They would not alter the Bill in any great way, but they would ease some of the mechanisms, and at little cost to the public purse. They would probably make for more efficiency. That is the view of Conservative Members and, the Government might like to know, of several respected non-governmental organisations. I hope that Ministers will have listened carefully to my arguments on the important new clause defining the adequacy of accommodation and on the two relatively non-controversial amendments. I hope that they will take them on board.
For once, and probably for the only time in the debate, I agree with something that Simon Hughes has said. It is regrettable these substantive proposals were not before us in Committee. That is unfortunate, because it means that we are not able to give proper consideration to their merits.
I wish to draw attention to the reasons why we may need some of these measures. I do not know whether any other Member saw the "Dispatches" programme on Channel 4 at the weekend. It used a hidden camera to show a Romanian man who had been removed from this country. When he was at Sangatte, he made it very clear that he would return to this country with a false identity. He acquired a family and managed to return to this country after several failed attempts. The programme reported that he was living in Manchester.
If people act in that way, it is necessary to think about how we deal with the problem. I shall not betray any confidences from my advice surgery or mention individual cases but, in my 10 years in the House as a London Member of Parliament, I have dealt with hundreds if not thousands of cases involving immigration, asylum and nationality matters. We come across a significant number of cases in which we know we have not been told the full story, and we know of occasions when people have been abusing the system.
In the past few weeks, I have been dealing with the case of a Russian woman who applied for asylum and whose daughter came here as a visitor without revealing that she had any relatives in the UK. The woman, who had previously wanted to bring her husband into the country, divorced him and then married another man in this country so as to spin out her case for staying here. We have a corrupt immigration advice system in many areas that enables people to play the system and spin things out. As well as sorting out the legal system, we need to consider the way in which our social security and housing benefits systems are abused.
I have fought racism and intolerance throughout my life, and many of my constituents have parents and grandparents who came here as refugees. At Valentines mansion in my constituency, there is a plaque commemorating the Belgian refugees who lived there until 1919, after they fled Belgium in the first world war. They were sheltered in Ilford. Many Jewish people live in Ilford and many people in my constituency have fled from the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.
I have very many Somali constituents. It has been suggested that the introduction of the measures in the Bill will mean that people will resort to begging. I have never seen a Somali begging. Somalis do not stand at traffic lights on the north circular road with dolls or babies under their arms and intimidate motorists for money. They do not go round door to door knocking to ask for money from my constituents. That is done by organised gangs of criminals who are not asylum seekers. It is important to make that distinction, because sometimes the Daily Mail and other publications equate the issues in such a way as to create great tensions.
I want to introduce measures that will make it possible for the Iraqi Kurds who are fleeing a desperate situation and the Somalis who need our support to receive support without the system being abused by others who come from countries in central and eastern Europe and even from countries that are applying to join the European Union and claim political asylum when we know that there is absolutely no justification for it. There may be arguments about other human rights issues and about the level of law enforcement and criminality, but political asylum is not the issue in those countries.
It is time that those of us on the left who believe that we should be open, welcome immigration and have a diverse multicultural society were able to say loud and clear that we will not tolerate abuse and people exploiting our housing benefit and social security systems.
I share the concerns expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) about the level of competency and knowledge in council departments when it comes to making judgments about housing benefit and the habitual residence test. I want to be confident that the system will be applied properly.
Will the measures apply purely to new applications or will they apply retrospectively? I realise that we are dealing with difficult matters, but some people have been exploiting the system for years and we need to address that. If some families have been housed because they have children and we change the rules, will we face the serious problem of breaking them up? Many of my Asian constituents voice such concerns. I want to be able to tell them and others that the system will not be abused. I want to be able to reassure them that people will not take money or be housed to the detriment of those who have been waiting on housing lists and living in bad conditions for many years. However, I also want to be able to say that the measures will be applied sympathetically, carefully and, above all, accurately. I hope that the Home Office will rigorously improve the procedures within all its sections.
I apologise for missing some of the debate, but I have been in a Select Committee.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but he has not explained what is wrong with the current system. What aspect of it has failed that allows him to depict such a graphic tale of woe?
I suspect that I would be ruled out of order if I went into that. It would certainly take longer than the time available to give a litany of what is wrong with the way in which the immigration and nationality directorate and housing benefit departments have dealt with individual cases in the past 10 years. All of us whose casework involves many immigration and nationality problems could produce dossiers, perhaps lorry loads, of cases that have not been dealt with adequately.
My hon. Friend Angela Eagle, the former Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, and my right hon. Friend Lord Rooker, with whom I had the privilege to work, have done much to improve the situation, but a great deal more needs to be done to sort out the mess in those organisations.
Surely one of the problems with the new schedule and the proposals is that we are making local social services authorities an extension of the Home Office immigration service. They are already overstretched and understaffed, and have great difficulty in coping with their work load.
I do not agree. The Children Act 1989 and the National Assistance Act 1948 place an obligation on local authorities to do certain things. We need to have a seamless system. The problem does not lie with the Home Office alone. All Departments, including the Department for Work and Pensions, operate on the same basis to achieve consistent decisions so that we have results that are not arbitrary, adverse or foolish. But I do not want to stray from the terms of the debate.
The proposal is politically necessary. It is right to question the mechanisms. I have much sympathy with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow about how Parliament should scrutinise measures. I hope that when the Bill returns from the other place—no doubt after the Tories and Liberals have ganged up to decimate it, as they do with everything that the Home Office introduces to improve things—we will have another opportunity to discuss the merits of these measures.
I tabled two amendments in the group, new clause 17 and amendment No. 261. The new clause would allow us to take a small but important step forward, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister accepts it. When young unaccompanied people come to this country, they are initially assessed by a local authority's social services department and should be offered accommodation by a local authority, although not necessarily the one that carries out the assessment.
Hon. Members referred to the 6,000 unaccompanied children who are under 18 and seeking asylum. That could be considered a considerable number, but it is 10 per cent. of the 60,000 children who are looked after by local authorities and a mere fraction of the 11 million children who live in the UK. We live in the fourth richest country in the world, and we are enjoying economic success and well-being for the first time in many decades. Surely, it is not beyond our capabilities to offer good care and support to such a small number of children who arrive here alone and destitute. In many cases, they are traumatised and in a terrible condition. Too often, we offer those children bed-and-breakfast accommodation, indifference and neglect. We make them vulnerable to trafficking and further abuse.
In the last few months of 2001, some hon. Members and I had the privilege of participating in a programme organised by UNICEF—the United Nations Children's Fund—Save the Children and other children's organisations, called "Journey of a refugee child". It followed a visit that some of us made to Angola, the worst country that I have been to, and which certainly fits the description of the worst country for children to grow up in.
As part of the programme, we visited some excellent projects in London. I am sure my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard will recall our visit to the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. Unfortunately, it took place on Guy Fawkes night, so rockets and bangers were going off all around us while we sat in a room with many young people who had gone through the worst experiences that any human being could—
Order. May I remind the hon. Gentleman that there is limited time for this debate? I am not sure that I can connect his reminiscences directly with the new clause to which he is speaking, which refers to asylum-seeking children rather than those who might potentially seek asylum.
I endorse everything that my hon. Friend said about the Medical Foundation, which does fantastic work in supporting unaccompanied children seeking asylum. Is he not concerned, however, as I am, that support for asylum seekers increasingly comes from charitable and voluntary organisations that receive public funding that is insufficient to deal with their casework? The problem with new schedule 1 is that it will probably increase the pressure on the charitable sector because the state will be withdrawing from provision.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That is precisely the issue that I try to address in new clause 17. If young people were offered accommodation under section 20 of the Children Act 1989, instead of the limited support available to them under section 17 of that Act, they would experience a good level of public sector care. They would undergo proper and thorough assessment by professional people, and they would be properly looked after, as children who come to this country should be. There is no reason why every local authority should not tackle this issue.
In the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, the Government strengthened section 20 of the Children Act, making even more powerful the argument that young asylum seekers should have the benefit of support up to the age of 21. Indeed, the experience of many who work with young asylum seekers is that they are hungry for the education opportunities that are available. Having demonstrated resilience in undergoing dreadful experiences, they should benefit from the support provided under the 2000 Act for people in higher education up to the age of 24.
During the proceedings on the Adoption and Children Bill, I tried to strengthen section 17 of the Children Act. I was assured by the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend Jacqui Smith, that more work was being done to ensure that local authorities carry out proper assessments under section 17. I accept that that is true for children from the United Kingdom who, even if their links with their birth families have broken, may have links with an extended family, with their community or with friendship networks that can support them.
However, Section 17 provisions are not appropriate for unaccompanied children who arrive in this country without any of those forms of support. We should offer them the opportunity to be looked after properly by local authorities. So often in the Chamber we hear criticism of local authorities and the care system, and in many cases it is justified, but there are good parts to the system. There is good foster care and good residential care, and a great deal could be offered to young people from abroad. We should have the confidence to deliver that.
Amendment No. 261 relates to measures to deny families with children the protection offered by section 17 of the Children Act. Frankly, that is deplorable. The issue was discussed in proceedings on the Immigration and Asylum Bill, and an amendment was passed to prevent such a provision being implemented. Section 17 is a fundamental building block in the support and care that we offer families with children in particularly difficult circumstances. It goes far beyond the provisions of asylum Acts and mere financial benefits. As an hon. Member said earlier, children are children, wherever they come from, and we should not exempt the children of asylum-seeking families from the Children Act.
We have had a wide-ranging debate, although I accept that, judging by the comments made by some hon. Members about new clause 10 and new schedule 1, it has not been as wide ranging as they would have liked. No doubt additional points will be made in another place and again when the Bill returns to this House.
Simon Hughes did not go into detail about his amendments to new schedule 1, but I should like to comment on them for the record. Several of those amendments seek to ensure that the rights of individuals and rights granted by the European convention on human rights and EU law are safeguarded. When the hon. Gentleman has time to look at the new schedule in some detail, he will see that it specifically safeguards those rights.
As I said earlier, most of the amendments seek to reinstate the support that the measures propose to withdraw, so they are simply in complete opposition to the Bill.
The hon. Lady will accept our concern, which we tried to express earlier, that although we understand that the Government want to deal with a specific instance—that of an individual with refugee status who comes to live in a community in the UK—we believe that the issue goes much wider. When we are talking about the rights of every citizen of every other EEA state, we are talking about social security legislation that should be dealt with in the round, but it has been inappropriately tacked on to immigration law. We have tried to express that general concern in our amendments, but it was difficult, in such a short time, to deal with the generality of EU social security law, which is a huge and complex subject.
The hon. Gentleman may take that position. However, I take him back to a principle that I outlined earlier. We have to consider whether it is perverse to allow people who cannot draw on central Government sources of support because they have support in another country, they have reached the end of the road in our procedures for assessing asylum seekers, or they have illegally entered the country, to get support from other sources at a local level. The issue is a difficult one, and I know that if the measures are implemented, all hon. Members—including me, as a constituency MP—will face difficult constituency cases. However, I still feel strongly that we cannot duck the difficult issues. There are important points of principle to be dealt with and we as MPs have to represent many different constituencies of people.
Having made those general comments on the proposed amendments to new schedule 1, I acknowledge that we have to work through a great deal of the detail of the implementation of the new schedule. My hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) and others asked about those details. The law surrounding these issues is complex and the operation of the measures will, to some extent and in some areas, also be complex. I anticipate that when the measures are enacted, whatever form they take, considerable guidance and regulations will be required to help local authorities to implement them. However, I do not accept the view that the measures are about foisting on local authorities decisions that should be made by the immigration service, as one of my hon. Friends said they were. The decisions will be made by the Home Office, the immigration service and the immigration and nationality directorate, but implementation, in so far as it has implications for local authority support, will clearly and rightly be for the local authorities to carry out.
It is useful that the Minister recognises that there will be additional tasks for local authorities. Will she give the House and, more importantly, local authorities an assurance that the Government will resource local authorities properly to pick up that obligation?
No. In fact, if the hon. Gentleman thinks though the implications of the measures, the points I made at the start of my speech and those made during the debate, he will realise that local authorities have been providing support—and some continue to do so—to people whom the measures that we are dealing with will say are no longer entitled to that support. The measures are about removing that responsibility and the burden that that responsibility generates for local authorities, thereby considerably reducing the cost. I understand that before it took forward its recent case, Birmingham estimated that it had spent £2.6 million—I hope that I have remembered that figure correctly—on providing support that the measures before the House will allow local authorities legally to claim is not their responsibility. They will be able to say that, for specific reasons, it is not legal for them to give support. Therefore, the cost and the burden for local authorities will be reduced. None the less, I accept that the technical detail of the measures' implementation at local level will require local authorities to be given guidance and regulation, and we intend to provide that.
Simon Hughes raised the question of non-NASS-supported asylum seekers who are sent to another part of the country but then return to London—it is usually London—to live. They receive no housing support but vouchers only, and they often live in terrible poverty with other similarly destitute families. Is there any discretion for local authorities to give such people any support?
Under the measures that we are debating, that would depend on the immigration status of the individual. That is the provision that the measures introduce into existing arrangements. Currently, local authorities do not take immigration status into account; the measures will require them to do so.
New clause 4 deals with the standard of housing of asylum seekers who are currently within the NASS system. Hon. Members expressed concern about substandard accommodation. If there were to be substandard accommodation, I would share their concern. Such issues are the reason why contracts with both private and public sector accommodation providers already require that the accommodation provided must be fit for human habitation as defined by the Housing Act 1985, or in Scotland by the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987, and that it must meet all the regulatory requirements.
It is reasonable to expect the Government to take reasonable steps to ensure that the accommodation they use is satisfactory, but to do as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey seems to want—that is, to place a requirement on the Secretary of State directly to ensure statutory compliance—is neither reasonable nor feasible, given the large amount of housing that is needed and the fact that it is obtained under contract from both the public and the private sector. It is reasonable that the first route to achieving good accommodation standards is through contractual arrangements and the enforcement of those requirements where it is shown that they have not been met.
NASS carries out property inspections. Its contract managers carry out technical surveys of properties and they can get outside professional surveyors to do so as well. When accommodation is found to be below standard, the provider is required to take steps to remedy the problems; otherwise, they risk being found in breach of their contract. Local authorities, too, have a general duty under section 605 of the Housing Act 1985 to keep housing conditions in their area under annual review. Although we accept the spirit of the new clause and what the hon. Gentleman intends to achieve by it, the mechanisms proposed are not reasonable or feasible, and its aims can be accommodated within existing arrangements.
New clause 17, tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Dawson, deals with the arrangements for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. My hon. Friend has great expertise in and a strong commitment to all matters relating to children, so I understand why he has raised the issue. However, he will know that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are currently supported under the Children Act 1989. That means that, in practice, they are the responsibility of the local authority where they first present themselves and are accepted as children in need. It also means—I know that he is aware of this, as it is the point of his new clause—that there is currently no legal framework through which any other local authority can be compelled to accept responsibility for such a child, although authorities can voluntarily transfer cases between themselves.
My hon. Friend will understand why it is not in those children's interests for us to have the power to compel other local authorities to take them. We would need to ensure first that those other authorities had the necessary infrastructure and experience to provide good quality care. However, the Department of Health and the Home Office are working extremely hard with local authorities to negotiate voluntary arrangements, and I hope he agrees that that is the best way to proceed. Compelling local authorities could result in children being placed in areas that provided a range and quality of care that did not serve the children's best interests. I hope that he will not press his amendments, with the assurance that I understand the spirit of what he is trying to achieve. I hope that he accepts that although we are not changing the legislation, we are working to try to achieve what he seeks.
If the hon. Gentleman will not intervene on me any further, I shall try to deal with all the issues that have been raised.
I shall be very brief. I entirely accept the point that my hon. Friend makes and I am very pleased with the information that she has given to me. However, there is the further question of encouragement to use section 20 of the Children Act 1989 rather than section 17.
My hon. Friend needs to understand that the vast majority of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are about 16 and 17, so they are not very young. There is certainly no intention to deprive children of section 20 support if they need it. The fact is that for the needs of many, if not most, of those older young people, section 17 support is more appropriate, because they do not want to live in children's homes and supported accommodation. As he will know, young people's wishes are an important element in the overall assessment of need. It is that assessment that determines the level of support, and when section 20 support is appropriate it will be provided.
My hon. Friend also spoke to amendment No. 261. If he will forgive me, I shall not dwell on that amendment, in view of the time. The substance of the proposal was debated extensively in terms of the procedures in the 1989 Act. I know he feels strongly about the point of principle that is involved, but with the establishment of a new system of support for asylum seekers, it was felt to be more appropriate that that system also provided for asylum-seeking children in families.
Mr. Malins raised issues in respect of amendments Nos. 143 and 144 that were debated extensively in Committee. I understand his concerns in tabling the amendments, but between the Committee stage and now, we have not changed our view or become convinced that asylum seekers who are appealing against refusal or early termination of their support need access to legal advice or assistance and representation. I can tell him, however, that amendment No. 143 is unnecessary, because the current arrangements already allow for the provision of forms of support other than those specified in section 96(1) of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 when circumstances are exceptional. The power is a permissive one. It would not be reasonable to pay witness expenses in every case, but the legislation contains a power to do so where necessary.
The substance of amendments Nos. 54, 55 and 56 was also debated in Committee. I think that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey knows we believe very strongly that, although personal preference will be one factor in placing asylum seekers in one place or another—accommodation centres or other forms of dispersal—it will not be the predominating factor. He received assurances in Committee about the factors that the Secretary of State will take into account.
Amendment No. 49 concerns the power sought in the Bill to enable the Government to remove the opportunity for cash-only support. As my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow said, this is an enabling power. We do not envisage taking the power in the short term. We want to see how the Bill's reforms impact; there may be no need to mobilise the power at all, so I ask the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey not to press the amendment.
I asked the Minister not only about the time scale, but about the cost that would be involved if the support-only option were removed. Can she share with the House any information on costs to show how it will be cheaper for the Government to spend the money on support and accommodation, instead of only on support?
That brings me to amendment No. 84. As my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow made clear—there was an extensive debate in Committee about this matter—we would consider the evidence on all sides if any proposal were made to exercise the power in the part of the Bill with which the amendment deals. I am persuaded by him that if the Government decided to bring forward the power, it would be right for the matter to be debated through the affirmative procedure. I hope he will accept that the wording of his amendments needs to be checked by parliamentary counsel, but I assure him that we will table a suitably worded amendment to the same effect when the Bill comes before the other place.
With the exception of the issues on which hon. Members have said that they want a Division, I hope that they will agree not to press their amendments.
With the leave of the House. I am grateful for the Minister's indication that there will be a further opportunity to vote on the removal of support and that we can return to the debate on that matter. For the information of the House, I should like to point out that we hold to our view that for reasons of time and detailed policy, we are not persuaded that we should support the new clause and the new schedule that goes with it. When the time comes, not least because there are new clauses that we have not debated at all, such as new clause 13 and others, we will ask the House to divide on the rest of the Government new clauses, because they contain certain provisions that we cannot possibly accept.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
It being after Seven o'clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker put the remaining Questions required to be put at that hour, pursuant to Order [
Question put, That Government new clauses 12, 13 and 16 and new schedules 1 and 2 be added to the Bill:—
The House divided: Ayes 454, Noes 62.