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,
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.