Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 6th July 2004.

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Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Regeneration and Regional Development) 3:45 pm, 6th July 2004

My Lords, there was one phrase used by the noble Lord which I wish he had not used. My response to it is this. The British taxpayer is forking out over £1 billion a year for asylum seekers. To say that we are short-changing asylum seekers is just the kind of thing that plays into the hands of those friends at the Daily Mail, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord McNally—because they will twist it. To say that we are short-changing asylum seekers, when we are spending over £1 billion by way of taxpayers' support, is extravagant language in the extreme and sends out all the wrong signals regarding the policy we are trying to address.

On the other hand, the noble Lord is right to come back on the issue at Third Reading. I have no complaint about that. However, we are not prepared to accept the amendment.

In the letter dated 30 June which he wrote to my noble friend Lady Scotland the noble Lord made a number of points, and I am grateful to him for making these known before the debate. He has not yet received a written response from the noble Baroness, and I do not say that the response is winging its way from the Home Office, but it is being put together. I will now try to answer those points.

The first point the noble Lord makes is about the arithmetical equivalence or otherwise of the benefits available to asylum seekers in NASS accommodation, as compared with UK nationals. As has been said in the exchange of letters, the Government's assessment is that the difference is on average 4 per cent. In the debate on 29 June on the Asylum Support (Amendment)(No. 2) Regulations, the noble Lord set out a calculation which concluded that the difference is 7 per cent for a married couple with no children.

The Government will happily set out the assumptions by which they have arrived at the figure of 4 per cent. I will not go through them line by line, but the Government do not wish to make a point of disputing the noble Lord's detailed calculations. It so happens that we have used slightly different assumptions and have come up with a slightly different conclusion.

At the risk of falling foul of the noble Lord, I have to make the point clear. The fundamental difference between the Government and the noble Lord is not whether the answer is 4 per cent or 7 per cent. The question is whether any difference is acceptable at all. That is implicit in what the noble Lord said, and I see that the noble Lord agrees with me. In the Government's view, a difference of 7 per cent, such as is estimated by the noble Lord, is acceptable. However, we do not say that the numbers add up exactly. Our argument is that the two regimes are broadly the same in material effect. We are not arguing about the percentages.

I also make the point that access to income support opens up another avenue completely. I said at an earlier stage of this legislation that, in the long run, it might have been cheaper not to have had NASS support in the first place. However, I repeat that we are running a system that is costing over £1 billion in support of asylum seekers.

The noble Lord also said in his letter that we have ignored asylum seekers who have opted for subsistence-only support, and those denied any support at all by virtue of Section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. Neither of these groups will have had any support in kind from NASS. If those in accommodation are out of pocket to the tune of 7 per cent, those on subsistence only will be out of pocket to the tune of 30 per cent, and those denied support altogether to the tune of 100 per cent. We have not ignored these cases.

In so far as Article 23 may be relevant, the Government's view is that it requires only that the treatment of refugees and nationals be broadly the same in material effect, not identical. Mainstream benefits are intended as a basic safety net to ensure that the poorest have a roof over their heads and sufficient money on which to live. Asylum seekers on subsistence-only support will have this.

Applicants who do not claim as soon as reasonably practicable after entering the UK are still able to access National Asylum Support Service support in the usual way, if they do not otherwise have means of support available to them.

In Clause 12 the Government are proposing to abolish a discredited and retrospective system of back payments, which rewarded time spent stringing out the asylum process. I have explained today how advisers sometimes become involved in that process. We are seeking to stop that.

In Clause 13 we are replacing this with a new, forward-looking system of refugee integration loans. The Government are satisfied that this is within both the spirit and the letter of the Refugee Convention, and we hope that it will result in a better deal for refugees.

As I have said, a proper response to the letter from the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, will be on its way but I hope that, in the light of these explanations, the noble Lord will not press his amendment.