New Clause 9 - Late claim for asylum: refusal of support: appeals

Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee on 27th January 2004.

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'In section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 (late claim for asylum: refusal of support), omit subsection (10).'.—[Mr. Oaten.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Question proposed [this day], That the clause be read a Second time.

Question again proposed.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe Conservative, Broxbourne 2:30 pm, 27th January 2004

I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following:

New clause 10—Asylum support: back payments—

'In Schedule 8 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 (provision of support: regulations) after paragraph 12, insert—

''13 The regulations may make provision for the back payment of a regular support payment not received by the claimant''.'.

New clause 11—Termination of NASS support—

'For subsection 94(3) of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 substitute—

''(3) For the purposes of this Part, a claim for asylum is determined at the end of such period beginning—

(a) on the day on which the Secretary of State notifies the claimant of the associated termination of his or her support, or

(b) if the claimant has appealed against the Secretary of State's decision, and the appeal has been disposed of, on the day on which the Secretary of State notifies the appellant of the associated termination of his or her support, as may be prescribed.''.'.

New clause 12—Victims of domestic violence: recourse to public funds—

'Individuals who apply for indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom under paragraph 289A of the Immigration Rules (Refusal of indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom as the victim of domestic violence) shall have recourse to public funds while their application is being considered.'.

New clause 20—Late claim for asylum: refusal of support—

'For section 55(1) of the Nationality, Immigration & Asylum Act 2002 (c. 41) there is substituted—

''(1) The Secretary of State may not provide or arrange for the provision of support to a person under a provision mentioned in subsection (2) if—

(a) the person makes a claim for asylum which is recorded by the Secretary of State,

(b) the Secretary of State is satisfied that the person's claim for asylum is manifestly unfounded, and

(c) 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,

for more than a period of 28 days after the person is notified of the Secretary of State's decision.''.'.

New clause 21—Benefits to failed asylum seekers—

'(1) Save for the services listed in subsection (2), a person who is a member of a group listed in subsection (3) is ineligible to receive benefit in cash or kind at the expense wholly or partly of public funds whether nationally or locally raised.

(2) The services are—

(a) those services which are provided indiscriminately on a non-individual basis;

(b) treatment of infectious disease;

(c) treatment in response to a health emergency;

(d) care immediately before and after maternity; and

(e) such other services as the Secretary of State may by order designate.

(3) The groups are—

(a) those persons covered by section 7 of this Act; and

(b) in relation to any particular service or benefit, any EEA national—

(i) whose country does not offer a broadly equivalent level of service or benefit to a citizen of the United Kingdom in that country as is offered to a citizen of the United Kingdom in the United Kingdom; and

(ii) who has been resident in the United Kingdom for less than 12 months.

(4) The Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament guidelines on the interpretation of subsection (3) to which providers of services not exempted by subsection (2) shall have regard.'.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

Welcome back to the Chair this afternoon, Mrs. Roe. When the Committee adjourned I was about to explain the purpose of new clause 21, and anxious enquiries were made over lunch as to whether I would keep the Committee sitting until 7 o'clock. I assure you, Mrs. Roe, that I am not paid by the word or the hour, so I intend to move on as quickly as possible.

New clause 21 is born of the assumption, which many of us made when we first heard about the Bill, that all benefits to failed asylum seekers would cease. When we listened to the Minister and read the Bill in more detail we discovered that that was not the case. Therefore, I tabled the new clause to seek an explanation from the Minister as to why some benefits will remain available.

Subsection (2) of the proposed new clause consists of a list of benefits. Subsection (2)(a) refers to benefits that are

''provided indiscriminately on a non-individual basis'', such as the police, coastguard services, refuse collection and road maintenance. I wondered whether prisons constitute a service ''provided indiscriminately''. It would be impossible to deprive someone of such services simply because fall under subsection (3) of the new clause.

It is essential to provide people with certain benefits and services, such as ''treatment of infectious disease'', for the benefit of the rest of the community. There are other benefits that it is humane to provide, such as

''treatment in response to a health emergency'', or

''care immediately before and after maternity''.

I am sure that no one would argue that those services should not be available to people covered by clause 7, which outlines those people that the Government feel should receive no benefit. Therefore, I have included a

catch-all phrase in subsection (2)(e) to allow the Secretary of State to make other services available to people whether or not they fall under clause 7.

The new clause covers two groups, both of which cause resentment when it is believed that they have better access to services than those who have lived in the country for a long time. I shall refer to an example from what I am sure is the Minister's preferred read: the Daily Mail. It refers to a person whose asylum claim was rejected in May 2002 and who suffered a road accident in November 2002. As a result of the accident, the North East Lincolnshire primary care trust spent £440,000, and ongoing treatment will cost £4,000 a week or £208,000 a year. I am sure that such examples are few and far between but they cause resentment. That it why I suggest that persons covered by clause 7 should be excluded from the provision of services that are not included in subsection (2) of the proposed new clause.

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Home Affairs

I do not understand the connection between the article to which the hon. Gentleman referred and the points that he is making. Does he believe that the individual who had the road traffic accident should not have been given care in this country?

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

The cost of the emergency treatment is exempt from ineligibility, as covered by subsection (1) of the proposed new clause. However, it is a matter of judgment for the Committee whether such people should benefit from services such as the ongoing treatment provided once the individual is stabilised and there is no emergency. Our constituents make that judgment every time they read the Daily Mail. I gave that example because all sorts of other services are available to people whether or not they have the right to be in this country. The belief was that the Bill would exclude them from the receipt of such services, but a close reading of clause 7 shows that it does not.

The second group worth discussing is nationals of European economic area countries who come to this country and benefit from our welfare services. They come from countries that do not extend to our nationals, should they visit them, benefits equivalent to those available to them in this country. That includes some European Union countries, and it is likely to extend when the eastern European countries join the EU later this year. I should like the Minister to justify why people should continue to receive that benefit on a very unequal basis.

Photo of Ms Annabelle Ewing Ms Annabelle Ewing Spokesperson (Social Security (SNP Shadow Scottish Minister); Education & Skills; Home Office; Law Officers; Work & Pensions)

I am listening with care. Are not various rights afforded to EU nationals coming here and to UK citizens going to EU member states, pursuant to European treaties and law? I should have thought that that would extend to EEA nationals who are not also EU nationals.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

The hon. Lady is right. That is why I put it in my new clause. It is wrong that we should offer to people who have come briefly to the country a level of welfare service that is far above that available to our

nationals should they go to their countries. I am happy for reciprocity of an equivalent level of service. I am unhappy, as are many of my constituents, when welfare services to which we have contributed for decades are offered to people who have neither contributed, nor lived in the country for a substantial period, nor offered similar services in their countries to our nationals should our nationals visit their countries. That is the argument for the new clause.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

We have had a wide-ranging debate on a number of issues concerning support and access to various benefits. I shall deal first with new clauses 9 and 20 because they relate to section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 in relation to support for people when they first come into the country.

Section 55 is part of a wider package of measures in the 2002 Act designed to create a more streamlined and cohesive asylum system. It was aimed, primarily, at tackling abuses that we were experiencing, and still are. I have mentioned some instances that intelligence shows us are still happening. We wanted to bring about a change in behaviour on the reasonable assumption that somebody fleeing persecution, or in fear of his life, would want to claim asylum in the safe country in which he had arrived as soon as possible. That would, surely, be as soon as he arrived on the UK mainland and came through a port. Why would somebody go through a port and claim some time later, in country? It was a reasonable assumption. It was also an attempt, through getting people to change their behaviour and claim at port, to break the power of the traffickers. The traffickers, the criminals who are paid to bring people in, say to them, ''Do not claim at the port. Go into the country, claim later and don't tell anyone how you came in. Don't tell anyone about me, or about the help that you had from me. Say nothing.'' In that way, their livelihood, their ability to charge large sums of money to get people into the country illegally, is protected.

We were thinking how to encourage people to claim at the port, and to be open and honest about the routes that they had used to get here and about some of the people who had helped them—people who are making big money. I received a briefing from another part of our security services about the work being done abroad. The extent to which people are put at risk on routes across northern Africa and various other places is horrendous. It is a wonder that the number of people dying and being placed in jeopardy by traffickers is not a national scandal. It is a serious problem, and we have attempted to get claimants to claim early by being open and honest, as it will help us to crack the power of some of the traffickers.

Implementation of that measure included safeguards to protect vulnerable people. For instance, families are exempt from section 55 of the 2002 Act, and support will be provided if it is necessary to avoid a breach of article 3 of the European convention on human rights. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) that human rights issues were considered from the outset. Some cases are

granted support immediately on that basis—for example, women who are obviously pregnant or who are willing to go through a process to confirm it, and those who are especially vulnerable and who clearly have no other means of support. Such matters are considered at the outset.

New clause 9 would create a right of appeal to the asylum support adjudicator. Under new clause 20, my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow would exclude the vast majority of cases—90 per cent. of them—from consideration under section 55. I cannot accept those new clauses. I would be the first to admit that, subject to the initial court cases, the implementation of section 55 has had a somewhat troubled history, but we have worked hard to rectify that. However, as a result of the changes that we announced in December, together with other measures on the reconsideration process, I hope to be able to assure them that the new clauses are not necessary. Although these are early days, the 72 hours provision and the reconsideration process are working well, and confidence is growing in our ability to manage the system.

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Home Affairs

Will the Minister explain what the Government meant when they promised that there would be a form of appeal for section 55? That was made clear to Labour Members in question and answer notes, and I wonder what has happened to that process. I thought that it was the Government's intention to include an appeal process.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism) 2:45 pm, 27th January 2004

I cannot clarify that, but there seems to be some confusion about it in the hon. Gentleman's mind. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow made it clear that he understood, when that was included in the Bill, that it would not include the normal process of appeal to the asylum support adjudicator. That was why we discussed the reconsideration process, and it has been further developed. I am not sure what the hon. Member for Winchester was citing, but it surprised me because I thought that most hon. Members understood that the normal route of appeal to the asylum support adjudicator in relation to section 55 would not be available.

As I said, the Home Secretary made clear on Second Reading that those who apply to the asylum screening unit within three days of arrival will normally be given support under section 55. That is already reducing the number of negative decisions. The figures for last week show that approximately 45 per cent. of applicants were granted support at the first application. That is an increase on the figures from some months ago.

One of the important issues is the reconsideration process, certainly from the point of view of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten). He was concerned about redress after the initial decision.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

I am interested in the statistic of 45 per cent. that the Minister just quoted, and would like clarification. The Minister said ''45 per cent. of applicants''. Does that

mean 45 per cent. of applicants or 45 per cent. of those whose cases are considered for a section 55 decision, because some applicants—the people who apply at the port—are never considered in relation to section 55? Am I correct that people who do not apply immediately at the port, but who are looked at by the asylum screening unit, might also never get to a NASS section 55 consideration?

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

The 45 per cent. figure is for those people who have asked for support and who therefore go through consideration under section 55.

I shall give the hon. Member for Winchester the latest figures that I have on reconsideration cases, for 19 to 23 January. In that week, 72 new reconsideration cases were received. Most reconsiderations are based on claims under article 3 and, in that week, 54 claims were made under that article. Of those, 24 were conceded and 30 were refused again. There is a balance in the reconsideration cases that are coming through. I hope that I have demonstrated that serious consideration is given to article 3 cases and to issues related to change of circumstance. When the criteria are met, caseworkers make the decision to reinstate the support.

If, in such cases, there were a right of appeal to the asylum support adjudicator, we could be in a difficult situation. At present, there is a reconsideration, which is given effective and genuine consideration and results in about half of the cases brought under article 3 being conceded. The speed at which reconsideration is currently given is also important—90 per cent. of cases that week were reconsidered within 24 hours. If, for some reason, a person cannot have their case reconsidered within that time, they will be housed in emergency accommodation until the reconsideration can be done, so they are not just sent away overnight.

I say to the hon. Member for Winchester, in relation to his amendment, that if we were to institute a process of applying to the support adjudicator, that would certainly be a much longer process, after which people would then have the possibility of judicial review. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is considering a process involving reconsideration, then appeals to the adjudicator, and then judicial review. We would be building into the system layers of reconsideration that I do not believe to be necessary. The model that I outlined would consist of a speedy reconsideration, with the sort of outcome that I mentioned, with the provision that if a case could not be reconsidered within 24 hours, we would house people, and with the bottom line of a judicial review if people were really unhappy with the reconsideration of their case. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that that is a better model, given the numbers of people that we are considering.

Photo of Gwyn Prosser Gwyn Prosser Labour, Dover

Before we move on, I should like to say that I appreciate the need for and rationale behind section 55, and I know that it has been effective in the areas at which it was aimed. However, we were always concerned that there would be hard cases at the margins. The recent changes that have been implemented, such as the 72 hours and

reconsideration, are helping. However, I still experience serious issues in my constituency. Just yesterday I received a note telling me that the local church had to be opened up to take in three absolutely destitute people who had knocked on the church door. For those hard cases that have fallen through all the safety nets, what advice can I give to my local minister, or even to the asylum seekers to help them?

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

I am not aware of those cases. If my hon. Friend wants to send me any information I will of course investigate them.

People do not just get one reconsideration—they can ask for one at any time. If their circumstances change, or if they really are destitute and could be regarded as coming close to the article 3 threshold, they can ask again for reconsideration. To asylum seekers, and to people trying to support them, the advice is: go back to the immigration and nationality directorate and ask for reconsideration. I have given a guarantee that that will be done within 24 hours, and if it is not, people will be put in emergency accommodation while it is done.

New clause 20 contains a very ingenious formulation. I know there is serious intent here, which I do not intend to diminish, but this formulation was very impressive, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow found a very neat way of effectively excluding about 90 per cent. of the people who might otherwise be considered under section 55.

At present the 'clearly unfounded' certificate, which his amendment refers to, is mainly applied only to claims from people entitled to reside in the 24 states designated under section 94 of the 2002 Act. Only around 10 per cent. to 15 per cent. of asylum claims are made by such persons at the moment. Clearly some of those people would be able to demonstrate, as people do at the moment, that they had made their claim as soon as was reasonably practical within 72 hours. We would expect that number, which is 15 per cent. at the most, to diminish, so I reckon only around 10 per cent. of our current applicants would be eligible to have section 55 applied to them.

On a more serious note, my hon. Friend will probably not agree with me, but I simply ask him to accept that this is a serious measure, designed not to make people destitute, but to get them to change their behaviour by claiming at port, and helping us to investigate the traffickers by getting us information. It would be worthless if we could apply the measure to only 10 per cent. of cases.

New clause 10 relates to back payments of asylum support. The effect would be to express power for the National Asylum Support Service to pay back payments of asylum support where a claimant has not received a regular support payment. From a legal point of view, we do not need that amendment. Where we consider it is necessary and appropriate to make payments, we are satisfied that we have the legal power to do so.

The hon. Member for Winchester drew our attention to an important policy issue in this area and wanted some comment on it. Since last summer, we have not made any back payments of asylum support, and I shall take this opportunity to explain why, what has been happening, and when we expect the situation to be resolved, which, I accept, needs to happen quickly.

NASS-supported asylum seekers make claims for back payments in a wide variety of circumstances but there are two broad categories—first, where a payment was missed because of a mistake on the part of NASS, or secondly because of a mistake, or a failure to collect, or a failure to give information, on the part of an asylum seeker, although the actual range of circumstances can go beyond those. In any case, the key question is not whether NASS can make a back payment but whether it is required to do so.

When it was instituted, asylum support was meant to be paid out to relieve destitution week by week. In the interests of managing the asylum support budget as best I can, as it is now more than £1 billion, I am bound to ask the following question: so long as the payments have been switched back on and the asylum seeker is no longer in any risk of destitution, is it necessary to spend public money going back and ''filling in'' missed payments from previous weeks? I have asked officials for further advice, including legal advice, on that question. The key question is whether, and in what circumstances, asylum support payments must be regarded as a legal entitlement. I am trying to clarify that.

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Home Affairs

I will say more later, but I am troubled by the direction in which the Minister is heading. She makes the assumption that a person—through no fault of their own—does not need the money because they survived without it for a couple of weeks. There must be circumstances in which individuals have borrowed money from charities on the assumption that it could be paid back. Just because the Minister believes that somebody has survived on nothing, one cannot assume that they have had no money, which they may need to return, from other sources.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

I am sympathetic on that point, and I had considered making a decision on that question today. However, because the legal advice from counsel is imminent—it is due in the next two weeks—and because I should be able to make a decision on the matter in the round by the end of February, I do not want to prejudice other options that might be available to me in relation to different circumstances in which asylum seekers themselves may be responsible. I do not want to go further than that today, but I am very sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's point.

In the case of an NASS mistake, it is unreasonable not to make back payments, but I would rather get the complete legal advice before making my decision, which I hope to do in the next four to six weeks. We have developed operational plans to resolve the backlog of back payments within four months; those

payments have been stopped during the last few months because we have been seeking clarification on the legal position.

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Home Affairs

I do not want to put the Minister in a tricky situation; she is obviously considering the matter in some detail. I think that she said that she does not intend to stop back payments for cases in which the error was caused by NASS rather than the asylum seeker, and that she is taking legal advice on what happens when the error is caused by the asylum seeker not giving the right information.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

The key question hinges on whether asylum support payments are a legal entitlement. Although I am sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's point, which goes in a direction towards which I would naturally gravitate myself, I need to get advice on it. I do not want to compromise my ability to take a different position on cases in which there is no NASS mistake, but someone else has absconded or whatever. I hope that he will give me the benefit of the doubt. I will write to him about the position when I have the legal advice and when I come to a decision.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow 3:00 pm, 27th January 2004

That point interests me. I have seen cases in which NASS payments are not made directly to the asylum seeker, but to local authorities as payment for their rent. There have been problems and delays in such cases. If rent were involved, I hope that the money would always be made up. A person left with rent arrears through no fault of their own is in an impossible position.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

I accept my hon. Friend's point. I shall look at all the issues in the round shortly and I shall take cognisance of his comments.

New clause 11 aims to ensure that, following a final decision on their asylum claim, NASS-supported asylum seekers receive at least 28 days' notice—or, if their claim has been refused, 21 days' notice—of the termination of their NASS support. Again, I hope to give hon. Members some reassurance based on the work that I have initiated.

The difficulty perceived by hon. Members is that, legally speaking, the clock starts ticking when the decision letter arrives. Their point is that notification of the termination of NASS support follows the decision letter, so asylum seekers and refugees might not pick up from the letter the fact that the clock has started ticking, and some of the notice period will have been eroded by the time they receive the NASS 35 letter.

We have been working on this issue. Although I recognise that successful asylum seekers face considerable difficulties when leaving NASS support and entering the mainstream benefits system, I do not want to change the legislation so that the grace period commenced on receipt of the letter terminating NASS support, because that would simply elongate the process. Instead, we have concentrated on improving existing processes and working with the Department

for Work and Pensions to make more effective use of the existing statutory period. Let me say a little about what we have done and what stage we have reached.

When we analysed the issue, we found that the main hold-up in accessing mainstream benefit before NASS support runs out arises from the issuing of the national insurance number by DWP. We have conducted a feasibility study in partnership with the DWP and the Inland Revenue and we have developed a process, although we have not yet rolled it out universally because we have only just got the results. As part of that process, however, successful asylum applicants are given a national insurance number with their decision letter. In that way, we eradicate at a stroke the problem of people not understanding the situation until they get their NASS 35 letter.

Our study covered applicants who were interviewed Liverpool and was a considerable success. We are in the process of drawing up a plan to roll the process out through the whole system. I hope that the hon. Member for Winchester will understand that doing things that way and ensuring that people receive the necessary information and their national insurance number with their positive decision letter will give people the full benefit of the 28 days so that they can quickly take advantage of mainstream benefits and other provisions, be that jobseeker's allowance, the new deal or whatever.

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Home Affairs

That is helpful in terms of applicants who are successful, but will the Minister comment on those who are not? What is the process for them?

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

The main focus has been on successful claimants, because they can transfer to other benefits or into projects and processes that can get them quickly into work. Unless they are eligible for section 4 support, those whose claims are refused will have no other support available to them, because their NASS support will end. They will have also been refused permission to stay in the country and must think of returning home.

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Home Affairs

In the circumstances that the Minister describes, would someone who had agreed to voluntary removal not be removed for a certain period? One would want to ensure that proper support was in place at least until they were removed.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

We certainly want to ensure that people who receive a negative decision are told at the same time that their NASS support will end. In that way, they will have the full 21 days. That does not mean that people can receive benefits, but they can have the maximum period in which to leave their accommodation, if it is NASS accommodation, and work with us to return home.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

I appreciate what my right hon. Friend said about improving the system so that national insurance numbers are issued at the same time as status letters. I hope that that can be rolled out through the system. However, the problem is not so much the status letter as not receiving it. It is not uncommon for people to receive a letter saying that their NASS

support has been cut off when they have not received the status letter. They may still not have received it some weeks later. In such circumstances, the first that they know about a decision is when their NASS support disappears. That tends to happen when someone has won an appeal, which causes a dislocation in the system in issuing notification to people. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such matters need considering?

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

I shall look at the evidence. My hon. Friend has raised the matter before. In fact, he asked me about it in the House, and I gave him the answer to a different question because I did not hear him—the Home Secretary was whispering in my ear and telling me the wrong question. I accept that my hon. Friend has met people who have experienced long delays in receiving their status letter, but I am genuinely less convinced that that is happening now. If he has evidence, I should be grateful to receive it. We have tried to improve the system. I accept that there may still be work to be done at the point at which appeals are granted and I shall look into the matter.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

I will pass on evidence of a recent case to my right hon. Friend. The person won an appeal 15 months ago. He had his NASS support cut off, but has still not received his status letter.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

Thank you.

New clause 12 would allow individuals applying under the immigration rules for indefinite leave to remain as the victims of domestic violence to have recourse to public funds. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Winchester for acknowledging what I and other Ministers have done on several fronts for victims of domestic violence who are in an immigration situation, but the new clause asks us to go a stage further. We have made significant progress. First, on the need for support, we have ensured that domestic violence victims in such circumstances can gain access to supporting people-funded domestic violence services, such as refuges and housing-related support services. The supporting people initiative is a partnership of local government, service users, support agencies and voluntary organisations. The programme offers people who are vulnerable, for whatever reason, the opportunity to receive support in particular circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the supporting people initiative does not necessarily cover rent costs or living expenses. My colleague Baroness Scotland is continuing to talk to voluntary organisations and others that run refuges. I cannot say at the moment whether a further step has been taken on that front, but the supporting people provisions are a big step forward because they mean that a woman in such circumstances will have somewhere to go and will receive support under that programme. The voluntary

organisations that provide refuges and work with women who are the victims of domestic violence are certainly ready to provide that support. The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill will also further strengthen the rights of victims and witnesses, ensuring that they receive the support and help that they need.

As the hon. Member for Winchester acknowledged and the new clause recognises, the immigration rules now make specific provision for an application to be made on that basis. Where an application for settlement on the basis of domestic violence is successful, people are exempt from the fee for processing such applications that is a consequence of the introduction of charges. Finally, I have extended the types of evidence that can be used as proof of violence and relaxed the regulations relating to the forms of evidence that can be produced.

I hope that hon. Members accept that that set of four measures makes great progress in the way in which women who have unresolved immigration status but who are subjected to domestic violence by a man they have come here to marry can get practical help and support. They will find it easier to establish that there has been domestic violence because of the changes. We will continue to examine what is the best way of assisting victims of domestic violence.

The new clause does not offer a sensible way to proceed. Hon. Members have alluded to the problem: we are trying to strike a balance, and if we were to agree to the new clause, the perverse incentive to some people to use the provision to claim to be victims of domestic violence as a means of having their immigration situation resolved would be too great.

As the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) said, new clause 21 would mean that particular groups of people would be ineligible to receive benefits in cash or kind other than in certain listed circumstances, such as for treatment of infectious disease and in response to a health emergency. The new clause targets two classes of people; failed asylum-seeking families whose support would be withdrawn under clause 7, and nationals of the European economic area whose countries do not provide a level of service or benefit to UK nationals broadly equivalent to that which they receive here—and, further, who have been resident in the UK for less than 12 months.

I am particularly concerned that we should not enable people to benefit-shop—to go round successive European countries trying to get access to benefits in different nations. We have put in place a system to deal with benefit shopping and to ensure that those whose asylum claims have been rejected and who have exhausted their appeal rights are not entitled to support indefinitely. Schedule 3 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 prohibits support under a number of different provisions to particular classes of person: those who have refugee status abroad; citizens of other EEA states; failed asylum-seekers who do not comply with removal directions; and other people who are unlawfully in the UK. Furthermore, support for child-free adult asylum seekers will be withdrawn 21 days after their asylum

claim has been determined. Therefore, we have a range of measures to deal with people who might seek to benefit-shop.

There has been considerable recent press interest in the position of EU accession states. We had a debate about that on a previous occasion, and I want to re-emphasise the point that I made then, which is that non-working EU nationals can claim income-related benefits only if they satisfy in this country the habitual residence test. Each claimant's circumstances are carefully examined to ensure that tax-funded benefits are paid only to people with reasonably close ties to the UK. The factors to be considered in making that decision include the reason for coming to the UK, the length of stay, future intentions and any previous links with the country. We introduced that test to deal with benefit tourism.

In order to comply with our international obligations, the test has to be applied on a non-discriminatory basis. The hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing) mentioned the reciprocity in the agreements between member states, which means that UK citizens are entitled to benefits, provided that they satisfy certain conditions. In principle, EU nationals are entitled to the same benefits here, provided that they meet our conditions, one of which is the habitual residence test.

In summary, the thrust of our asylum and immigration reforms is to create a robust system. I do not think that the UK is a soft touch. I was grateful for the conclusion in the report published yesterday by the Home Affairs Select Committee, which said it is not true that the UK is a soft touch on the benefits front—or any other front in the asylum system—and that that view should not be propagated.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Vice-Chair, Conservative Party 3:15 pm, 27th January 2004

In a way, the right hon. Lady's answer reflects her earlier response to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier). The problem is that recently the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), was talking about the need to prevent people from using the health service when they were not entitled to do so. Perhaps the measures that the right hon. Lady has put in place are not effective.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Minister of State (Citizenship and Immigration), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism)

That is a related, but rather broader, issue. When talking about eligibility for a wider range of public services than just income support of various kinds, access to health services, and so on, we would be talking not only about people who are here illegally, but about those who might have entered legally on visitors' visas with the express intention of trying to get some expensive health treatment at an NHS hospital.

The Government are considering eligibility across the board as it is already defined. This is not my area and I have to be careful, but I understand that although the NHS has been able for a long time to check people's eligibility, it is not common practice.

One of the reasons it is not common practice is that it is difficult to prove somebody's identity and ineligibility at the point they receive the service.

It is well known that one of the reasons why the Home Secretary is concerned that we should move to a national identity card is that in addition to having an impact on illegal entry and working, there will be a benefit in its being used as a check on a person's eligibility to receive a broader range of public services—such as health services—and it will provide the health service with an easy way to check somebody's eligibility at the point of referral. We are with the hon. Gentleman on that point, but it is broader than the question of asylum seekers and illegal entrants; it would include other people who are entitled to be here, although not necessarily entitled to access services. The Government are working on that.

I am sorry that I cannot willingly accept any new clause in this large group. However, I hope I have assured hon. Members that we are with them in spirit on some of them. I should like to ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the motion.

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Home Affairs

There is some reassurance in what the Minister said on a number of the new clauses. We are just going to have to agree to differ on section 55, because I am fundamentally opposed to it. Despite the Minister's assurances about the appeal process, which I shall have to plough through, I am sure that a number of people were left with the impression that there would be a form of appeal system whereby there would not be a requirement to go to a higher court. If 45 per cent. of decisions are being overturned at the earlier stage of reconsideration, there are some issues around how the process is working. We can revisit that point at a later date.

The Minister was helpful on back payments. I am grateful for her responses. She shares my concern that some things are fundamentally wrong: for example, the single mother I mentioned who has lost £400 over a three-week period because the money has not been paid. The issue, as I understand it, is complex and the Minister will need to take legal briefing on it. We look forward to that happening in a couple of weeks' time. I hope that the Minister will be able to report on it at some point during the next stages of the Bill.

I would be concerned if Ministers judged that even if someone had missed their payment there would not be a natural assumption that they would be entitled to it. I am concerned that the individual in the example that I gave, who might have survived for a couple of weeks by borrowing money, should be able to pay that money back. The hon. Member for Walthamstow made a good point about direct payments going into public bodies. In that example the bodies concerned would not be able to recover that money. However, the Minister has given us assurances that she will consider the issues sympathetically and I am happy with that.

On new clause 11, I am comfortable with the pilots between the DWP and the Home Office and the attempt to ensure that the individual knows that the clock starts ticking when the decision is taken. Both are good ideas. However, I am less comfortable that as

much energy is being invested in ensuring that the information is made as clear to those who are unsuccessful.

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs, Home Affairs

I am grateful. Although I do not necessarily agree with pilots for unsuccessful applicants, the lessons that are learned from pilots on the successful applicants should be transferred. In essence, a lot of that will be about the information and about how to get a good quality letter in the first instance, which should be easy to transfer to the unsuccessful cases. Indeed, it is probably slightly more important to get things right in those cases, because there will be a shorter period.

Finally, new clause 12 concerns, for want of a better word, domestic violence. I acknowledge how far the Government have gone in tackling the issue and I mentioned that when I moved the new clause. At the end of the day, however, the Government measures have a missing link, which is that, whatever assurances might be given, unless people have the financial security to take the bold decision to leave someone who is inflicting domestic violence, there will always be the risk that they will stay in a dangerous and unhappy marriage. However, the Minister outlined some of the work done under the supporting people programme. That programme cannot give the full financial support that would be available under the scheme that we propose in new clause 12. However, I hope that the discussions in which Baroness Scotland will be involved could introduce a slightly stronger financial package to ensure that individuals have the freedom to make that choice.

There has been a little progress. I am certainly pleased with the comments on back payments and domestic violence, but we shall have to agree to disagree on section 55. Given the Minister's tone and her comments on a number of the new clauses, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.