Azure Card — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:37 am on 20th November 2014.

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Photo of Lord Roberts of Llandudno Lord Roberts of Llandudno Liberal Democrat 11:37 am, 20th November 2014

My Lords, I rise to draw attention to the extreme humanitarian suffering being caused by the Azure card. A system that was designed to prevent short-term destitution has instead enforced long-term destitution on thousands of people.

We appreciate very much those voluntary organisations without which no humane response to certain needs could be found. For instance, I checked on the Whitechapel Mission in the East End of London, and last year 4,932 different people used its services; 15,712 people used the showers; and 105,136 breakfasts were served to homeless and other people. Without the voluntary sector, churches and other places, many people would be at a total loss. We thank all these organisations for the tremendous work that they do.

The Azure card—many people do not even know what it is—was introduced in November 2009. It has subjected thousands of refused asylum seekers to distress and discrimination. That need not have happened. My hope this morning is that the system can be looked at again this morning, and possibly even changed. I thank the Red Cross and Refugee Action for all their information and support.

The Azure card and Section 4 support do not allow asylum seekers to meet their basic needs and live in dignity. It creates unnecessary suffering for people who are already in desperate situations. Research found that 85% of the refugee support organisations felt that their clients were left hungry because Section 4 support is insufficient. Ninety per cent of those on Section 4 regularly miss a meal. Ninety-two per cent of the organisations surveyed felt that their clients on Section 4 support were unable to maintain good health. Just as worryingly, the organisations find that the card makes users a target for discrimination: 72% of Azure card users reported having their card refused during the past six months. Seventy per cent of clients have experienced poor treatment from shop staff, and users experience feelings of embarrassment and anxiety when using the card.

How did this situation come about? Until 1999 all asylum seekers had access to a reduced rate of social security benefits, in the form of cash. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 introduced two new separate asylum support systems. One—Section 95 support—was for asylum seekers still in process. The other—Section 4 support—was for refused asylum seekers willing but unable to return to their country of origin. So in 1999 cash support was replaced by a voucher system.

Asylum seekers were unable to travel; they could not get from place to place because they had no cash, only vouchers. So asylum seekers in, say, Vauxhall, could not travel to, say, Whitechapel, where there is a first-class used clothing store in the Whitechapel Mission. Often the services are there, but they are inaccessible. This leads to isolation and social exclusion of already vulnerable and marginalised people. It hampers their ability to engage properly with the asylum process. With regard to their efforts to return, they cannot even travel to where they have to make their inquiries, and they have no means to pay for travel to legal representatives or health services. I hope that this can be rectified, because we know that small problems can quickly snowball into unnecessary crisis.

In response to a recent Written Question of mine, the Government indicated that as of this month, 4,395 people had been living with the Azure card for more than six months. That means that 4,395 people under the protection and care of the United Kingdom were not even getting enough to eat, and were prevented from working their way out of this poverty—a poverty unnecessarily forced upon them. In October 2013, 1,228 people had been in receipt of Section 4 support for between two and six years, while 205 had been receiving support for more than six years. Therefore, 43% of people in receipt of Section 4 support in October 2013 had been living with Azure card payments for more than two years.

We must remember that people qualify for Section 4 support only if they co-operate with voluntary return, or if they can prove that they are unable, through no fault of their own, to leave the UK. They are not refuseniks; they are not criminals; they are not absconders. These are honest people who are co-operating with the system, and we are treating them inhumanely. The message from refugee support agencies is clear: refused asylum seekers have been forced to endure destitution and discrimination at the hands of a system that need not exist. The decision to replace the old voucher system with the card, instead of simple cash, has harmed the very people the Government were trying to protect. By not abolishing the card, the Government are refusing to recognise the humanitarian crisis that it is causing.

The reality is that the Azure card has solved none of the problems it was designed to address. As with the voucher system it replaced, the Azure card stigmatises refused asylum seekers and does not provide adequately for their basic living needs. It has led to the very people we are trying to protect going hungry, and it is singling them out for discrimination. This system need not exist.

If the Government will not listen to the moral argument for abolition, perhaps they will consider the financial one. Since its inception, the Azure card has already cost the Exchequer £1.5 million to administer, with the annual costs currently estimated at £200,000. The voucher system was scrapped in 2002 because the then Home Secretary, the right honourable David Blunkett, believed it to be too slow, vulnerable to fraud and unfair to both asylum seekers and local communities. Despite this condemnation in 2002, it was reintroduced in 2005 for those on Section 4 on the basis that cash would be an incentive for them to remain in the United Kingdom. In 2007, the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights declared that the Section 4 voucher scheme to be “inhumane and inefficient”. I repeat: that was the opinion of the Joint Committee on Human Rights of this Parliament. It went on to state:

“It stigmatises refused asylum seekers and does not adequately provide for basic living needs”.

It is the same story again. There is no evidence that the voucher system encourages refused asylum seekers to leave the UK. In 2013, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee concluded:

“Section 4 is not the solution for people who have been refused asylum but cannot be returned”.

The Azure payment card was introduced in November 2009 and implemented in the UK in February 2010, when once again the voucher system was deemed not fit for purpose. As things currently stand, people on Section 4 support have no access to cash and they are not allowed to work. They receive £35.39 a week via a prepayment Azure card. Accommodation is provided under the section. We are delighted with that, but it is not of their choice. The card can be used to buy food, essential toiletries, clothing and credit for mobile phones. Single people with no dependants are not allowed to carry over more than £5 at the end of each week, or it would show that they were making a profit out of the system. In fact, because of the unjust carryover limit, from November 2009 to December 2010, the estimated amount of unspent credit recovered from the Azure card during the first year of its operation was £650,000. The total value at the moment, for 2011 to 2013, is around £100,000 every year. That is money which is unclaimed and unused. It is just like taking food from the mouths of the hungry.

The card is accepted by only a limited number of retailers who have been persuaded by the Home Office to join the scheme. They are Asda, Boots, the Co-op, Sainsbury, Tesco, the Early Learning Centre, Morrison’s and Mothercare. The card can also be used in charity shops which are organised by the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. There is a great difference in price when you buy food. You can buy it in a budget shop or at one of the main stores. There is a massive difference in the prices. The Daily Mirror last Monday highlighted the difference in the price of groceries that could be purchased in various supermarket chains. It cost nearly twice as much in one store to buy the same items as in another—£47.04 as against £27.84. I will not name the shops involved. Also, the card cannot be used in a street market, bargain shop or discount store. As I said, it cannot be used for travel. Refused asylum seekers who are supported under Section 4 are prohibited from accessing public transport at all but the most limited times.

I suggest that it is time to withdraw this part of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, which prohibits the provision of cash under Section 4. It causes asylum seekers to feel discriminated against and unworthy. We are trying to give people dignity. We are trying to make people feel that they belong, even though their circumstances are not our circumstances. We need to provide them with funding that will meet their basic needs and to recognise that support must often be provided for much longer than the current system has envisaged.

In 2009 the benefit was £35. It has not increased. Asylum seekers are still trying to meet their needs with the cash that they would have received in 2009. There has not been any notice taken at all of the increase in prices. I speak to my noble friend the Minister a lot about these things. Would it not be much better to give someone cash in hand that they were able to use as they wished, rather than spend £1.5 million on administering the scheme.

Can we abolish the Azure card this afternoon? If we cannot go all the way, I suggest—and I just have a wee bit of time to do it—that we must conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the Azure card programme and make a comparison between the cost of the card and the cost of the cash. We must conduct an annual audit of the impact of the Azure card on its users and report to the Home Affairs Select Committee. We must try to expand—I know this is not always easy—the network of participating retailers to include smaller budget shops, charity shops, chains and, if possible, some market stalls. I do not know how one would do it. It will need some thinking through.

We should abolish the restrictions on what can be purchased using the Azure card—although alcohol and tobacco should remain things you cannot buy with it. We should abolish the carryover limit, which prevents people saving for larger or more expensive items. At the moment, if you want to buy a winter coat, you cannot do it because you do not have enough, although you might have £5 extra you could pay towards it next week. Could we look at that?

We must provide access to simple and up-to-date information to those who handle these cards—retailers and advice agencies—to train the staff so they do not refuse people who are have a legitimate use for their card. We must translate the information so that those who speak other languages know what it is all about. If the card fails, we must provide emergency vouchers that can be used if there is a technical problem. Possibly we could have a helpline, free from both landlines and mobiles, that can be used for other systems to help people when the system goes wrong. People should be able to check the balance of their online accounts by telephone or some other way.

There is much that can be done. I am convinced in my bones, as a fair-minded Welshman, that we could do something today to make the system more humane, to make people feel this is not undermining their dignity. I look forward with great interest to the contributions in this debate.