We come now to financial support for asylum seekers. I am conscious that, as a consequence of the guillotine constraints under which we are working, we have only a quarter of an hour to debate the amendments, and this House has not previously had an opportunity to deal with these matters because the measures were introduced in the House of Lords when the Bill was recommitted to a Committee. The Government produced these amendments, after the summer, at the end of the Report stage, and they are tightening the rules at the eleventh hour. In our view, those changes are unfair and likely to result in considerable hardship and lack of redress.
XThe Secretary of State may not provide or arrange for the provision of support to a person under a provision mentioned in subsection (2) if...the person makes a claim for asylum which is recorded by the Secretary of State, and...the Secretary of State is not satisfied that the claim was made as soon as reasonably practicable after the person's arrival in the United Kingdom."
Amendment (b) would change the balance, so that the Secretary of State would have to be satisfied that there was undue delay in making the claim. There are many people who, through no fault of their own, do not immediately make an asylum application. It is not only Liberal Democrat Members who believe that; hon. Members on both sides of the House who deal with asylum cases know that there are such people, and current and previous Labour Front Benchers have said so in proceedings on earlier legislation. Mr. Straw said so when he was Home Secretary. Mr. Smith sought to pray against orders that would have had the same effect as the Lords amendment because he was unhappy about them.
Most persuasively, the very good Committee of Members from all parties in both Houses, which we set up to deal with human rights issues, said of the Lords amendment that
Xthere is a significant risk that the new clause could lead to a violation of Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in cases where the circumstances did not amount to a violation of one of the Convention rights as defined in the Human Rights Act 1998... it is difficult to envisage a case where a person could be destitute without there being a threat of violation of Articles 3 and/or 8 of the ECHR. We reiterate that the Secretary of State has a duty under section 6 of the Human Rights Acts 1998 to avoid that risk. We draw this to the attention of each House."
My experience is that people who come here who are ignorant or frightened of the system may well not come to the attention of the authorities for days or months. They are afraid to do so because they do not know what the consequences will be. The danger in the Bill—although, I hope, not the intention—is that many of those people will be ruled out from receiving financial support and from the ability to appeal against that decision because the Secretary of State could say that he was not
Xsatisfied that the claim was made as soon as reasonably practicable".
Xas soon as reasonably practicable" means at the first available opportunity, which should be objectively defined. There should be an objective test, based on when the person knew that they were required to make a claim. I shall give the House one parallel. In civil litigation, where there is a three-year limit for action, people are entitled to start the clock not when they sustain the injury for which they are entitled to make a claim but when they become aware of their entitlement.
I hope that the House accepts that the Government should have to satisfy themselves that any delay is undue, unreasonable or unjustified. This case is simply put, but it has huge implications because, in the long term, the Secretary of State may be in breach of the convention. In the short term, however, I am more concerned that many deserving people who will otherwise be destitute will not be entitled to the support that we, as a rich country, must give them when they come to us looking for asylum.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the number of people who will become destitute. Is he aware that there are already thousands of asylum seekers who, having been dispersed to other parts of the country, have removed themselves to London from a place of safety and are sleeping on people's floors? We have a situation, mainly in London, in which the very poor are trying to house the desperately poor in their rooms.
I agree. My experience from my constituency is that there are many people who do not claim support, do not receive it or are appealing against a decision so they are dependent on the charity of others in pretty much the same situation. The bigger danger is for people who have no one to look after them, because they are likely to be out on the streets and open to abuse and exploitation. If we are trying to keep refugees and asylum seekers out of the hands of criminals, traffickers and exploiters, we are going the wrong way about it. I hope that the House will support amendment (b).
I ask the House to reject the amendment on the very precept put forward by Mr. Hughes. He gave an example based on civil litigation, saying that the clock should start when we presumed that people had become aware of their condition. I presume that people who come to this country to escape from death and torture do so to claim asylum, and I presume that they will claim asylum when they get into the country.
There are people who fulfil other immigration and visa requirements and who remain here, sustaining themselves, for a long time, until they run out of money or their course finishes. They then claim asylum so that we may sustain them for a further period. We all agree, I hope, that they should be ruled out from receiving that support.
The question is how reasonable we are regarding people who come here but do not claim asylum at the port of entry. We need to be reasonable and to take into account the trauma that people experience. We need to allow a reasonable period before we presume that people have come into the country for another reason and have been sustaining themselves, then when they can no longer do so, have decided that the asylum system would sustain them, being more generous than the equivalent something-for-something welfare to work system.
We are saying to people, XIf you have been here some time, by all means tell us how you got here, what your circumstances are, the means of entry and what you have been doing since you reached this country and we will provide you with support." That is what our proposals provide, and I think that that is reasonable. People with families will be sustained and those with special needs will be supported. That is in the proposal. People who have been in this country for some time and have decided to claim asylum can continue with that claim, but there is no reason on God's earth why we should sustain them. We should remember that those who choose to take part in the dispersal system receive not only sustenance, such as food and heating, but accommodation, equipment and other materials. As we do not automatically do the same for the indigenous population, it is not a lot to ask that we put these people on equal terms.
I listened to the right hon. Gentleman's explanation of this provision and its apparent reasonableness, but if it is so reasonable why was the proposal introduced at the eleventh hour?
One reason was that the number of people who have been in the country a long time and have cottoned on to the new social security system has grown exponentially. The in-country claims are substantial.
I am listening carefully to what the Home Secretary has to say on this point. He will understand that many of us are concerned that the proposal will lead to destitute asylum seekers. We want to be assured that there is sufficient flexibility in the system to cope with the hard cases that arise. Is my right hon. Friend able to offer any reassurance on that point? I acknowledge all the points that he made, but I would still like to be assured that those who fall through the system for whatever reason do not end up sleeping on the streets.
I think that our proposal to respond if people give us a complete and accurate account of their circumstances covers the point that my hon. Friend rightly makes. People are right to be concerned. Given the sparsity of time owing to the previous votes, I shall just show one commitment of good faith.
Considerable concern has been expressed about the amount that we provide to sustain mothers with young children and small babies. The Minister of State and I are announcing tonight that, from February, we will increase the amount by #3 for mothers with children between the ages of one and five, and by #5 for those with children under one, so that they can have healthy food and milk on the same basis as the Department of Health provides elsewhere. If new mothers can show that they cannot breast-feed, we will introduce their top-up immediately. We are desperately trying to provide a sensible balance.
In the past, I have heard my right hon. Friend make comparisons between an intentionally homeless local authority case and the circumstances in these proposals. He asked if we do not offer this provision to the indigenous population, how, we can justify giving it to asylum seeker. I put it to him that if someone is intentionally homeless—every hon. Member will have had an intentionally homeless case in which the decision has been wrong—a number of possibilities are open to him. First, there is an appeal or a review. The briefing that some of us have received advises that there would be an appeal. Can my right hon. Friend clarify whether there would or would not be an appeal? Secondly, if I am an intentionally homeless person given that decision and I lose my appeal, I have the right to claim housing benefit and income support. The comparisons that my right hon. Friend made between the intentionally homeless member of the indigenous population and the destitute asylum seeker who is refused support do not hold up when we look at the facts.
Under our proposals, we are presuming that the people who claim late are accommodating themselves or are accommodated by others. They are not turning up as people who are homeless by dint of being thrown out would turn up and ask for accommodation. We are dealing with late application for asylum, not destitution per se.
When this proposal was debated in the House of Lords, consideration was given to cases in which the situation in the country from which the person was fleeing had changed dramatically and they made a late application that could be considered. Could the Home Secretary explain to us under what circumstances such late applications would be acceptable?
If the in-country circumstances had changed, perhaps because there had been a coup, the individual presenting an asylum claim would legitimately believe that he was at risk of death or torture if he returned to his country of origin. It is the change that has taken place in-country that makes the difference in respect of the judgment. I think that that is fair and reasonable. If someone's home country has been taken over or the regime has changed to one that would threaten them, we do not intend to send them back. They would automatically have a legitimate right to claim asylum and to be supported from the moment they made that claim.
I was interested in what my right hon. Friend said earlier about the fact that the number of people applying late is increasing exponentially and that is why something had to be done. I tabled two written questions that were answered earlier this month, one of which asked about the dates at which people applied—less than three months, six months or 12 months—and was told that the information was not available. I was also told that there were no statistics available on the length of time asylum applicants have been in the United Kingdom before making an application for support. I am not sure where the evidence comes from. If we do not have an appeal as well, what will actually happen is that appeals will take place and they will be—
Question accordingly negatived.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, pursuant to Order [this day], proceeded to put forthwith the remaining Questions necessary to dispose of the proceedings to be concluded at that hour.
Lords amendment No. 84 agreed to [Special Entry].
Lords amendment No. 99 disagreed to.
Lords amendment: No. 86.
Motion made, and Question put, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.
The House divided: Ayes 291, Noes 55.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I inadvertently gave the House the wrong age groups when I addressed the issue of new additional family support for healthy eating and milk. I was correct in saying that we are going to provide an extra #5 for babies under the age of one, but I should have said that the extra #3 was for those between the ages of one and three, not one and five. My apologies to the House.