Clause 43 — Accommodation

Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:00 pm on 29th March 2006.

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Votes in this debate

Lords amendment: No. 18.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

I beg to move amendment (a) to the Lords amendment.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment (b) to the Lords amendment.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

There has been a misunderstanding about Lords amendment No. 18 and section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. To make it clear what we are talking about, I remind hon. Members that section 4 of the 1999 Act applies to people who have had their asylum claims refused, who have lost their appeals, who have reached the end of the process and who have agreed that they will leave the UK when it is possible for them to do so, which is a condition of receiving support under section 4. In some cases, people have signed up to say that they will leave the UK when it is possible for them to do so, not because they really want to leave, but because that is the only way in which they can get any support. Nevertheless, the vast majority of people covered by section 4 are receiving support because the Home Office accepts that it is not possible to return them to their countries of origin at this time.

Last year, the number of people covered by section 4 rose to 7,000. Many of them were failed asylum seekers from northern Iraq, but there were also significant numbers of people who were originally from Zimbabwe and whom it was impossible to remove for obvious reasons—other countries that were heavily represented include Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia. Although the Home Office would say that people covered by section 4 are about to leave the United Kingdom, the reality is that people are and will be on section 4 for significant periods of time, so the provision is not necessarily just for a week or two.

The Lords amendment and my amendment to it address the issue of vouchers. Some of the discussion has not been clear, and some people outside this House have not realised that people who are covered by section 4 now are getting support in vouchers. Section 4 allows for accommodation and food, and if people are getting food that is not provided in their living accommodation, then they are getting it through vouchers. The Home Office accepts that that system has not been working satisfactorily—we debated that point in Committee—because it does not cover people's other essential needs.

I have seen people who were on section 4 and who could not get on the bus to see their solicitor, because they did not have any money or a voucher to allow them to travel on the bus. Other people have been issued with vouchers that can be used only at a particular supermarket that is two or three miles away from where they live, and they have no way to get there other than walking. The Lords amendment seeks to address some of those points, and there is no doubt that it would improve the current situation, because it provides vouchers that can be exchanged for goods and services as well as for accommodation and food. Will the Minister clarify whether, for example, bus passes will be included among those goods and services to allow people to travel?

We know that there are fundamental problems with voucher systems from our experience when all asylum seekers were expected to use vouchers. Expense is one such issue, because it is more expensive to distribute vouchers than money. Furthermore, vouchers ended up being sold for cash under the old system, and they often cannot be used in the most convenient places and cannot necessarily be used in the cheapest places. If I were looking to buy cheap food in the area of London that I represent, I would not go to the supermarket. I would go to Walthamstow market, especially towards the end of the day when the traders are trying to get rid of stuff cheap before the market closes. That would be much cheaper than going to the supermarket, but people who live on vouchers do not have that option.

The fundamental objection to vouchers is simple. The people involved may be failed asylum seekers, who are being supported until such time as they are expected to leave the country, but they are still human beings. We should therefore think about the simple issue of human dignity. Having to survive on vouchers is stigmatising and humiliating. I suppose that none of us has ever had that experience, but we should try to imagine what it would be like to try to exist for even a day or two without any cash—without a penny to buy a drink or newspaper. It must be humiliating to live like that for weeks and months on end.

I welcome the fact that the Government have responded positively to some of the problems that were identified in section 4 when it meant that people could get only accommodation and food. Amendment No. 18 includes the power for the Secretary of State to make regulations to allow vouchers to be exchanged for goods and services, and I hope that that will include travel. The amendment specifically forbids a regulation to be made that allows people to be supplied with money. The effect of amendment (a) would be to remove the word "not" in that provision. It is a modest amendment. I would prefer it if vouchers were removed entirely, but my amendment would not force the Government to give out cash, but allow them the option to do so.

I do not understand why the Government will resist my amendment. What will happen if amendment No. 18 is not amended and it then turns out that it is not possible to meet all people's needs through vouchers? The National Asylum Support Service says—as it did about section 4—that it will not work. If the Government wished to make a change to the system because it was not working, they would need more primary legislation. However, if the Government accept amendment (a) they would have the option. It would provide the flexibility to make changes through secondary legislation without having to resort to more primary legislation. The amendment would not do away with vouchers or force the Government to give out cash.

In a later amendment, the Government have accepted a similar argument in relation to section 9 of the 2004 Act. That amendment will give the power to introduce secondary legislation to repeal section 9. That is obviously intended to be used if it becomes apparent that section 9 is not working. I would therefore argue that my amendment's impact on section 4 would be exactly the same.

When we discussed this in Committee, the Minister said:

"I do not know if we can address the matter in the Bill, as it is more about practicalities than any point of statutory substance or import, but I am happy to consider it further."—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 26 October 2005; c. 234.]

I would suggest that my amendment is very practical and straightforward, and I do not understand why it should be resisted. It would not remove from the Government the option of doing what they intend, but would make it possible to move away from vouchers, which is what some of us would ideally like.

An early-day motion on this issue has been signed by 55 hon. Members, including 27 Labour Members. I suspect that there is no chance of the parliamentary arithmetic being with us on this amendment. However, I hope that the Government will give my proposal serious consideration, because it offers a way of dealing with some of the criticisms of section 4 and of the Lords amendment, but leaves them with the flexibility to change in future if necessary.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I am sorry, but I did not hear whether you said my name or Mr. Green's.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

It is a bit difficult for the Chair to decide who to call if everybody who wants to address the House does not stand quickly. I call Mr. Damian Green.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wish to speak principally to amendment (b), which stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend Michael Fabricant, but I also wish to comment on the arguments of Mr. Gerrard.

As our amendment is carefully modelled on amendment No. 6, which has been agreed between the two Front Benches in another place, I have high hopes that the Minister will accept it. He will agree that the argument over vouchers is a delicate one. I have been following his correspondence in various newspapers with those who are flatly against his scheme and his argument that it will not make much difference and will not be a voucher scheme. He has clearly failed to convince the hon. Member for Walthamstow, among others. I am sure that the House will be waiting to hear how he deals with that issue.

Although I do not agree with all the arguments of the hon. Member for Walthamstow, he raises valid points, particularly as regards people from Zimbabwe, who are in a very difficult situation. The Government, rightly, do not wish to return them to Zimbabwe even if they have failed in their application for asylum. That gives rise to practical problems as to how they are to continue living in a decent and civilised way in this country.

One of the questions that the Government have not answered adequately concerns the cost of such a voucher scheme. They have tried voucher schemes before and scrapped them before. A previous Home Secretary conceded that the voucher scheme that operated previously was unworkable and unfair. Having come to that conclusion once, it is incumbent on the Minister to explain why the current scheme is going to be workable and fair and, while he does so, what, in broad terms, he thinks that the costs will be.

That question may be impossible to answer because the Government have no idea of how long many people will be forced to wait until they can be returned to their own country. As the hon. Member for Walthamstow pointed out, the phrase, "about to leave", is a term of art that appears to cover not just days or weeks but in some cases months and years. Clearly, a system designed to cope with the needs of those who may be here for a few weeks will not serve those who might be here for years. The hon. Member for Walthamstow and the Refugee Council have made that point, which is central to the argument.

Nevertheless, I should make it clear that Conservative Members have no objection in principle to vouchers, provided that the system is workable and fair. However, we recognise the possibility of inefficiency and waste, which may lead to hardship for some vulnerable people. We have tabled amendment (b) to Lords amendment No. 18 in the hope that it gives the Government a decent escape route, not least from the criticism that the Minister is receiving from Labour Members. I am sure that he sincerely believes that the voucher system will not cause the unfairness and hardship that some Labour Members claim, so the Government should, at the very least, enable Parliament to receive a full report on its working in three years.

If the Minister will listen, I am about to praise him. A few moments ago, he made a sensible comment about parliamentary scrutiny and using the Bill to enhance Parliament's ability to revisit legislation that it has passed. He was right to say that the lack of that ability is a common failing of our legislation. That is why amendment (b) tries to give hon. Members the opportunity to debate whether the new system causes genuine hardship and to have the Government justify their actions if they need justification. The terms of the amendment allow that to happen earlier if there is an immediate crisis or if the Government want a convenient vehicle to enable them to change the policy.

Even if the scheme proves perfectly practical and the Government want to continue with it, the requirement to report back on its day-to-day workings will act as a spur to Ministers to check what is happening. The Minister knows that many bodies that object to that sort of scheme concentrate precisely on which shops can take the vouchers and the range of goods to which they apply. The nitty-gritty, day-to-day details will make the difference in some cases between fairness and unfairness and hardship and lack of hardship.

I agree with the Minister that reporting back on the scheme is important. I hope, therefore, that he will accept the amendment in the constructive spirit in which it is offered. The long-term solution is not to have a system that keeps thousands of people in limbo for years. Since that happy prospect is many years away, I commend amendment (b) to the House, as a modest improvement to managing the current failing system, and I hope that it will satisfy hon. Members from all sides of the debate.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East 4:30 pm, 29th March 2006

I commend the passionate and articulate speech of my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard, who has spent many years considering the relevant issues. Few of us have as much experience as he. The way in which he presented the argument was correct.

The amendment is about the practical implications of the scheme. I am against the voucher scheme and I commend the trade unions who fought so hard to get the Government to reverse their decision to reintroduce vouchers. We did not need to reintroduce them, but they are there. The Government will not be pilloried in the Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday or The Sun if they give in on the point. That is sometimes a consideration for those in government, though happily not the Minister.

Amendment (a) will cover the practical complaints that have been made to me in my surgery by many hundreds of people who provide anecdotal evidence of what they face when they use the vouchers. I have never been in a supermarket queue when someone has had to produce those vouchers—indeed, I have never seen one. However, like other hon. Members, I hear every Friday about the practical difficulties that people face. Treating people as human beings, with dignity, is important, especially given the current climate.

I appear on a website that states that I am a Member of Parliament who hardly ever rebels and that I am a serial loyalist. However, I shall support my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow if he presses amendment (a) to a Division and, if he does not, any party that wishes to do that. In all conscience, it is the right thing to do.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I, too, welcome the speech made by Mr. Gerrard, which he pitched exactly right. Lords amendment No. 18, which forms the basis for this group of amendments, is a welcome move. It extends the provision of support and, in normal circumstances, we would be hanging out the flags for that reason. Unfortunately, however, the provision is flawed by the decision to offer that support only through the voucher system. We know what vouchers do; we have gone through all that already.

The Government have made it clear that the voucher system, when used for a large number of people, was ineffective and uneconomic and, more importantly, that it had a serious effect on the recipients in terms not only of the range of opportunities that it offered for buying goods and services but of the stigmatising effect that it had on the individuals presenting the vouchers in a local shop or business. That presents considerable dangers for community relations, because it clearly labels people—

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Yes, and we are against it existing now, but it does. I have not said, as some have done, that this provision would be a reintroduction of the system. We know that it is not a reintroduction but an extension. However, we now have the opportunity to provide a better route for the growing number of people who are in this position. I accept the contention that they will be leaving the country after a short period, but the practical fact is that sometimes they do not. We have to accept that they are often stuck here for a considerable amount of time, for reasons beyond their or the Government's control.

I am struck by the modesty of the proposal of the hon. Member for Walthamstow, to which my hon. Friends and I are happy to put our names. It would not require the Minister to move to a cash system; it would simply give him the opportunity to do so. The alternative amendment tabled by Damian Green would provide some benefit in that it would allow the situation to be monitored and reported on, but it would not provide a vehicle for the Government to change their mind in the face of the evidence that had been collected. There would be no primary legislative ability in the Act to enable the provision of cash rather than vouchers—indeed, that is specifically prohibited by the Bill. If the hon. Member for Ashford feels that his amendment is sensible, in that it gives the Government the ability to reflect on the performance of the scheme, he should logically also support amendment (a), which would give the Minister the capacity in primary legislation to correct any error in order to meet the requirements.

I hope that the hon. Member for Walthamstow will press his amendment to a Division, because this is an important issue of principle on which the House should have a voice. If he does not wish to do so, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I make it clear that we do? We shall object to any proposal to withdraw the amendment and we shall seek the opinion of the House on this matter, because it is a matter of principle. It relates to how we should deal effectively and humanely with people who are in our care in this country, and this is not an argument that we should run away from.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

The speech of Mr. Gerrard was inspired by compassion and delivered with eloquence. I do not want to embarrass him unduly, but this is one of those occasions on which people can come together, because we are agreed on the principle at stake. I, too, in common with Mr. Heath, hope that the hon. Member for Walthamstow will press his amendment to a Division, and if he or others do, I am strongly minded to support it.

Let us be clear. As the Minister who is engaged in the public debate well knows and has already acknowledged, vouchers are not new. They are not only not new in the sense that they have applied to a certain category, section 4 recipients—failed asylum seekers—since April 2005—they are not new in another sense, in that, as he will acknowledge, they have applied before. I believe and, in fairness, the Minister believes—I raise these issues in a positive spirit—that the Government were right to remove vouchers across the piece in 2002. It is relevant to the public debate to recall what was said at that time, by the then Home Secretary, Mr. Blunkett. Announcing the intention to remove vouchers for asylum seekers more generally, he said that those vouchers were

"too slow, vulnerable to fraud, and felt to be unfair".—[Hansard, 29 October 2001; Vol. 373, c. 627.]

He was right.

Yes, the debate has moved on since then, and the Government have decided, for reasons that I think are scarcely intelligible let alone defensible, that voucher provisions should apply to a very limited category of persons—the section 4 cases, people whose applications for asylum have failed and who are destined eventually to go back to the countries from which they have come. They are not going back at this stage, because there is an impediment to them doing so—it would not be safe for them to travel. That might be because the country to which they would have to return is unsafe and they would be at risk of imprisonment, torture, death or a grisly combination of all three, or it might be that they cannot travel for the more prosaic but equally important reason that they are unwell or, in the case of a woman, pregnant.

In those circumstances, it is true that for virtually a year now those people have received voucher support to the tune of £35 a week. We all know the cases of people who have been affected. My anxiety about what the Government are doing is that it seems to me that Ministers are unnecessarily closing down the options. I am always ready to joust with the Minister of State, as he knows, and to listen to the points that he makes, but I have not yet heard a persuasive argument. I found the case made by the hon. Member for Walthamstow and the Refugee Council compelling.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Science, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's speech. He is becoming increasing liberal on these issues, which is good. May I urge him to have a word with his right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron, because surely this is the sort of issue on which all the Opposition parties should be encouraging the Government to change their position if we are really to have a Conservative party that has changed and to put the maximum pressure on the Government?

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

The hon. Gentleman is being unduly cheeky at this hour of the day. Rome was not built in a day. I yield to none in my admiration for the scale of the transformation of the Conservative and Unionist party that has already been brought about, in a very short time, by my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron. If the hon. Gentleman seeks to egg me on, he must be mindful that he will be tempting me to stray from the disciplines of order. I would incur your wrath, or at any rate your furrowed brow, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I am not minded to do so, even when tempted so sedulously by the hon. Gentleman.

I have three simple concerns. First, to cut to the chase, the hon. Member for Walthamstow is right that the use of vouchers has a stigmatising effect. To try to decide whether we think that that argument is correct, let us for a moment imagine ourselves, as Keith Vaz did, in the position of someone using the voucher, standing in a queue in Tesco. If hon. Members ask me whether I have seen that myself in Tesco in Buckingham, I admit that I have not. I am conscious, however, that there will be right hon. and hon. Members throughout the House who have witnessed it.

I do not want to be discourteous, but, with great respect to Mr. Mahmood, it is a very serious point. For those people in those queues, experiencing stigmatisation, feeling embarrassed and anxious and finding themselves on the receiving end of hostility, it is not a laughing matter. They are waiting to pay for goods. Use of the voucher can lead to delay and, not surprisingly, that causes irritation among other people who are waiting. What could send a more obvious signal that someone is different than the fact that, unlike everyone else who is paying by cash or card, the failed asylum seeker is having to use a voucher?

That is very unfortunate and undesirable. Whether it actually constitutes a breach of human rights is, I accept, arguable. What I would say to the Minister is that it is a very notable and unnecessary unkindness and it reflects a meanness of spirit that is unworthy of the Government. Although the Minister of State has long been determined to prove himself the Labour party's answer to my noble Friend Lord Tebbit of Chingford, the truth is that on these issues he is a humanitarian. I do not want to embarrass him—I know that he is always embarrassed when he is complimented by a Conservative Member—but at heart he is a humanitarian on these issues. He has championed the cause of fairness in immigration and asylum policy over a long period. Although I think that there are serious weaknesses in aspects of government policy, he is not fundamentally a bad guy on these issues, and I ask him to think about those individuals in that queue.

There is a related point affecting someone with a voucher in the queue. In the operation of the vouchers to date, there has been ambiguity over what the voucher can purchase. If the Minister can assure me that that will not be so in the future, I shall be delighted, but I shall want firm guarantees and explicit details. In many cases, in given stores it has fallen to the check-out assistant to judge whether the voucher can be used to purchase, for example, nappies. My view—and I hope that I command assent for this proposition in all parts of the House—is that it is unfair on both the failed asylum seeker and the check-out assistant for that situation to arise.

In so far as the Government have said that they want to introduce greater flexibility, recognise the need for additional support and can see that the operation of the system over the past 11 months has contained flaws, I welcome that, but I want to know what particular commitments they will make. It is wrong that someone using vouchers who is on section 4 support should have to make the invidious choice whether to use a voucher for travel—if that opportunity will exist—or for purchasing food. We need to be sure that the vouchers will be sufficiently flexible and adequately generous to allow for all the necessities of life on which those people, no less than ourselves, depend.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 4:45 pm, 29th March 2006

The hon. Gentleman says that, if the vouchers are the only method of obtaining goods or services, they should be required to be sufficiently flexible. However, they cannot be sufficiently flexible to be used, for instance, in a coin-operated machine in a launderette. The amendment tabled by Mr. Gerrard, which simply allows cash to be given in certain circumstances, would deal with that purely practical problem.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

The hon. Gentleman is right. I was trying to be as fair to the Government as possible, but I agree with the purport of the amendment, as I said at the outset. Cash should be an option. As he will know and others can testify, a further weakness of the system is that it is not possible—consistent with the principle of not allowing failed asylum seekers to have cash—to obtain change for them. That means, to be blunt, that the failed asylum seeker, who is often poor to the point of destitution, is literally and calculatedly short-changed by the existing system. Moreover, although I am happy to champion the cause of legitimate capitalist enterprise, I see no reason whatsoever why a big or store—or even, for that matter, a small one—should effectively profiteer at the expense of a failed asylum seeker who has scarcely two brass farthings, to employ the old-fashioned expression, to rub together.

I want to conclude on the very practical point that the Government have often raised. Ministers have said, "Well, we've got to be clear about this. Yes, people need to be supported, but on the other hand we cannot allow scope for a pull factor that will draw people to this country." The suggestion from Ministers—not, in my view, evidence-based—has been that the ability to use cash in this context would constitute a pull factor. My response is as follows. First, in 2000 and 2001, when the Government used the previous vouchers, applications actually went up, so the notion that the use of vouchers is itself a deterrent factor likely to conduce to a reduction in applications is not supported by the empirical evidence acquired to date.

Secondly, by virtue of the section 4 criteria themselves, it simply cannot be true that possessing cash constitutes a pull factor bringing people here. It has already been decided of people in receipt of section 4 support that they are unsuccessful applicants, and they have accepted the reality that they will have to return to their country of origin in due course. The notion that having cash can cause them to stay, and that the absence of cash would prevent that eventuality, seems logically flawed.

I say to Ministers and colleagues in a constructive spirit that we have a view from another quarter on this subject in the 2000 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. On the pull factor, the high commissioner has declared, on the record, that in deciding whether to come here as asylum applicants, people are more likely to be swayed by the presence of their own communities than by reception conditions or benefits. The Minister said earlier from a sedentary position—I am being very fair, because by mentioning his sedentary I am making it more audible than it would otherwise have been—that the high commissioner was talking about the old vouchers. If, when the Minister winds up, he can provide a compelling thesis in support of his policy, I will be happy to be influenced by it. I have not seen anything so far from the Government to suggest that that is very likely. He knows that I agree with other aspects of Government immigration policy, a good deal of which is thoroughly sensible and measured and in the national interest. So far, this measure has not been well crafted. I much prefer retaining flexibility and I applaud the noble spirit behind the amendment of the hon. Member for Walthamstow and the very welcome remarks of Mr. Heath.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Conservative, Hornchurch

It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend John Bercow, although I hope to be much briefer than he was to allow the Minister time to conclude this part of the debate.

Members made important comments on the stigma that can attach to asylum seekers in the operation of a voucher scheme. My hon. Friend said that vouchers are vulnerable to fraud. That comment struck me, because if vouchers are vulnerable to fraud, cash is even more vulnerable. Indeed, asylum seekers dealt with under section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, if they are in possession of cash, could become even more vulnerable. They could be preyed on by those who are aware that they have cash and who might seek to exploit that situation. In addition, this is an emotive and sensitive matter, as cash payments could be exploited by those wanting to stir up and magnify racist feelings in this country.

A balance has to be struck in respect of the scheme's operational practicalities. I think that it is right to keep cash out of the scheme, but the review of its operation should determine whether the anomalies pointed out by hon. Members of all parties arise. That is why I support amendment (b) to Lords amendment No. 18, tabled by my hon. Friend Damian Green, and not amendment (a).

Photo of Tony McNulty Tony McNulty Minister of State (Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality), Home Office

Whether or not I agree with them, there have been some excellent contributions to the debate. With due respect to the last speaker, I shall deal with the comments made by the grown-ups. What he said was not helpful and without substance one way or the other.

I shall begin by clearing up a couple of canards. It is not true that some people covered by section 4 would be tortured if they were returned home. By definition, they are failed asylum seekers and, whatever the reasons for their removal, there is no reason to fear that they would suffer torture or any other mistreatment specified by the refugee convention. John Bercow mentioned that there might be difficulties with the safety of the removal process, among other things, and I accept that. In addition, I agree with my hon. Friend Mr. Gerrard that problems may arise in connection with people who suffer under section 4 for a long period of time. Initially, section 4 was designed to cover people pending removal and to apply for a day, a month or some other period, but the details of that provision are not germane to this debate.

There has been a good deal of background noise to this discussion. It is fundamentally wrong to conduct a disingenuous debate about the reintroduction of vouchers, and bodies such as Oxfam, the T and G union and the Refugee Council should know better, as that is not what the Government propose. I concur 100 per cent. with the reasons behind the decision some years ago by my right hon. Friend Mr. Blunkett to get rid of the universal use of vouchers by all asylum seekers. That matter belongs to an entirely different debate. The Government believe that the cash-based regime applicable to all people going through the asylum process should be distinct from the process endured by those receiving section 4 support, as such people have exhausted all the legal processes, including appeals, and have no right to remain in this country.

The starting point is that vouchers have always been a feature of the support for people covered by section 4, but we should go back to first principles. Where possible, section 4 support consists of the provision of full board and accommodation. It is not true that the people involved get a mere pittance in vouchers, and no more. The hon. Member for Buckingham suggested that destitution awaited them otherwise, but that is not the reality. The fact is that, when people covered by section 4 cannot get full board and accommodation where they are located, the difference is made up by means of vouchers.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow said, the law provides for vouchers to be given in lieu of full support and accommodation only when that entitlement cannot be provided. The vouchers also cover the bare essentials when it comes to toiletries, but that is not enough. I come bearing gifts, albeit perhaps only in one hand rather than both, recognising those points and extending the system in response to the serious concerns expressed. We are broadening the system to provide things in kind, which are not currently allowed under the regulation, such as the bus pass to get to an urgent medical appointment, to which my hon. Friend referred, and broader goods and services.

Concern has been expressed that the narrow definition of food and essential toiletries could be extended to cover everything possible. The definition will be made clearer in regulations, but it will certainly cover nappies and other essential goods for new mothers, where there has been confusion, about which a fair point was made. However, apart from that specific context, it is wrong to apply the worst elements of the previous universal voucher system to these proposals. That is absolutely wrong. Those who provide section 4 support give vouchers as part of their contract when they cannot provide full board and accommodation, so there is no further cost—to answer the point made by Damian Green. To ask for regular reports on costs and on what constitute wider goods and services is entirely redundant. The asylum statistics already include quarterly reports on costs and numbers, so all the elements under amendment (b) that he set out so eloquently are utterly unnecessary; they are already being done or are about to be done. Amendment (b) is unnecessary.

We think that the current position under section 4 is about right in terms of expanding and broadening support. By the way, it is not the case that thousands of people are languishing under section 4 support. Many of those who have returned voluntarily—principally, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow suggested, to northern Iraq—were on section 4. About 700 northern Iraqis have already left the UK under the voluntary return scheme. I could not swear for every one of them, but the core of them were under section 4, so it is wrong to say that section 4 support locks people in limbo and that they cannot go anywhere, in any way, shape or form, and that they live in penury and destitution. I do not pretend that the regime under which they live is terribly pleasant—it is meant to be temporary, although I take the point about longevity. Although we accept the Lords amendments, we understand the limitations due to the narrow focus of the current regulations.

I do not take my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow's point, as suggested in his amendment, that we may have the option to take the cash route under section 4. We do not think that is appropriate, because we want the narrow, narrow cohort of failed asylum seekers to be controlled and managed under the existing regime. Yes, we want to broaden the scheme, not least to take into account his comments about the need for proper support, but amendment (a) goes too far.

Due to the limitations of the regime that has been in place since April, I commend to the House the broadening of support to cover things in kind and goods and services, as defined in regulation. I assure the House, and certainly my hon. Friends, that that will cover things such as bus passes for serious and necessary appointments and all the points made about lack of definition such as where essential toiletries finish and other elements begin. However, for the robustness and integrity of the system, it is right and proper that people on section 4 support, who have exhausted all avenues and have no substantive legal right to remain in the country, should, as a prelude to their departure, be on a different regime to those who are still going through the system. The new targeted contracts, under the National Asylum Support Service, will afford people support and dignity while the section 4 regime prevails and we concentrate more on their removal.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham 5:00 pm, 29th March 2006

I welcome the broadening of support, but still feel that the rather arbitrary prohibition—for that is what it is—on the use of cash is unnecessarily restrictive. Will the Minister explain precisely how the use of such a small sum of cash could constitute a pull factor?

Photo of Tony McNulty Tony McNulty Minister of State (Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality), Home Office

The hon. Gentleman will know that I have been very careful in my words and I have not discussed pull factors in the context of the Lords amendment. I would turn things around to say that it is desirable for our asylum system to have a distinct regime of support for those who have exhausted all the elements—appeal, legal process and everything else—and are ready to go at whatever stage of readiness, as hon. Members have suggested. We do not demur from the fact that there must be such support—in a past life, not the hon. Gentleman, but the Conservative party would have demurred even from that—but it must be right that the preparation for departure and removal involves a different regime from that used for those who are still going through the system. That was the substance of the objection to vouchers for everyone that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary so rightly got rid of in the terms that were suggested. We think that the regimes should be different.

I am not convinced that adding cash beyond the extension of support that we are already offering goes any further to provide the support that section 4 applicants need while they are waiting between the exhaustion of all their appeals and their departure. I repeat that the starting premise is that, where possible under the NASS contracts, they get full board and accommodation. Some hon. Members—not the hon. Member for Buckingham or my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow—have suggested that those people somehow start in penury and destitution and that, as a sign of good will, we should give them a few bob and a voucher. That is not the case. A proper, comprehensive support mechanism is in place, as there should be, for those individuals. It is not their fault that, for whatever reason, they have exhausted the application process and no longer have legal rights to remain, but they must go and they should not be in penury just because of that. We suggest that such support, added to by vouchers where full board and accommodation cannot be provided, is far too narrow.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

I want to place on record the fact that many hon. Members on both sides of the House are concerned. We understand the Government's argument. We understand the way that the Minister has handled the issue and the concessions that have been made and we are grateful to the Government for them. The Minister has taken a thoughtful approach, but we are concerned about why the Government are closing down the option at this stage. To be honest, most of us have found from our surgeries that the minor things display dignity or the lack of dignity and humanity or the lack of humanity: the child who cannot take in 50p for the school trip, or the parent who cannot buy their child a cup of tea when they are out shopping, because they have not got the cash. Such things will not be covered by vouchers and the other means of support. I realise that the system may apply for a limited period before people leave the country, but we cannot understand the Government's attempt to end that expression of humanity to those people and not to offer them that opportunity.

Photo of Tony McNulty Tony McNulty Minister of State (Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality), Home Office

Again, I would reverse the argument. Under the NASS contracts, a substantive package of support is provided to those who find that they require section 4 support. Such support is supposed to be all-embracing—and to the extent that it can be, it is—for the duration of the time before people depart. The fact that that cannot always be so led to vouchers and some additional support for food or essential toiletries. Given not least the remarks made in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, a range of issues have been raised about such support being far too narrow, even in the context of the broad package of support under section 4. That is why we have moved to providing support in kind, as well as by vouchers, with goods and services, rather than using the narrow definition of food and accommodation. That basket of support is available. That is right and proper. Equally, underlying that—

Photo of Tony McNulty Tony McNulty Minister of State (Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality), Home Office

I will give way in a moment. It would be useful to let me finish the sentence.

Equally, underlying that, we are trying—again, this is outwith the Lords amendment—with the new targeted contracts to get far more direct contact with individuals on section 4 support and to get them involved in the NASS contracts. It is no longer simply the case that someone can be sent a letter in the hope that they will receive it so that they will know exactly what they need to do and in what circumstances. The whole contact management operation is getting far more sophisticated within NASS, but all those support mechanisms and contact processes relate to the departure and removal of people who have exhausted all their claims and no longer have a right or any legal locus to remain in this country. I will now give way to the hon. Gentleman—and do not make me regret it, please.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Science, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities

I fear that I cannot guarantee the Minister that. We all appreciate the concession that has been made, but the hon. Members for Buckingham (John Bercow) and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) were asking what the justification was for the Government to rule out cash. The Minister said that it was not about a pull factor, but in his letter to The Guardian and The Times, he said:

"Support for failed asylum seekers is limited and temporary to ensure that it does not act as an incentive to remain."

If he is not saying that that is his view, why is he ruling out cash full stop?

Photo of Tony McNulty Tony McNulty Minister of State (Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality), Home Office

The hon. Gentleman has half made me regret giving way, but his intervention gives me a chance to look at the letter again. The letter goes to exactly what I was saying. It is perfectly right and proper that there should be distinct support mechanisms for those applying for asylum in the normal fashion and for those who have exhausted every element of the processes, legal and otherwise, and have absolutely no legitimate right to be in this country. They will not be people who fear torture following removal, otherwise they would not have section 4 support. The regime can and should be—taking into account the points that I made about its temporary nature to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow—distinct from the process that everyone else is going through in the normal fashion.

That goes to the heart of the criticism and dispute about everybody being on vouchers in the first place. That was seen as penalising people who were applying for asylum in the normal way, because of the ineffectiveness and impracticalities of vouchers. We accept that point and I do not demur one ounce or jot from the reason that my right hon. Friend the then Home Secretary suggested for moving away from vouchers in the first place. However, it is not enough to pick up one little bit of an overall package for those on section 4 support. That is the point. There is an overall package—it is not just the vouchers. That package is temporary and it is about a prelude to a removal. With the extensions to the support mechanisms, for the critical reasons that hon. Members have suggested, it is right and proper to expand that provision to support in kind in goods and services. That gives us a broader sweep in relation to the gaps where a full support package of full board and accommodation cannot be provided. In that context, we will be in a far happier position in relation to the support mechanisms put in place under section 4 if we accept the Lords amendment. I offer that to the House and commend it.

For the reasons that I have suggested, we will resist amendment (a), which extends the support to cash, and we will certainly dismiss, or resist—I have dismissed it already—amendment (b) from the Conservatives about the report and so on. In substance, all those elements are being carried out in various ways by accepting the Lords amendment and by our regular reporting on the asylum statistics.

The matter is very sensitive. I concur with what people said about the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow. I was going to make a nice joke about Walthamstow market, but I will pass on that because we are too serious. I commend most of the other contributions, save that of James Brokenshire, who really should not have bothered, in what is a very serious debate. I commend the Lords amendment to the House and ask it to resist amendments (a) and (b).

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

I listened carefully to the Minister's reply, but I have to say that I do not understand his reasoning. I will withdraw the amendment purely on the grounds that I do not believe that parliamentary arithmetic suggests that it will be carried. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Hon. Members:

No.

Question put, That the amendment to the Lords amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 89, Noes 308.

Division number 205 Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Bill — Allow failed asylum seekers to be given cash rather than vouchers — rejected

Aye: 89 MPs

No: 308 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Absent: 245 MPs

Absents: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Lords amendment No. 18 agreed to [Special Entry].

Lords amendments Nos. 19 to 40 agreed to [One with Special Entry].