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7.15 pm

I was not a member of the Committee, but I tried to follow its work and to read the evidence submitted to it, and the Government did not make their case that people

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were generally coming here for cash. In comparison with other countries, we are not particularly generous. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) said, we retain the illusion that we are uniquely generous and welcoming, but nowadays other countries have a better record than ours. I believe that the Government are so concerned about not being taken for a mug by the rogues that they are forgetting their duty to be decent to the genuine.

The Government have made their case that the system they have inherited is a shambles which has not improved over the past two years; but their response to the shambles--I think my hon. Friend the Minister called it a shambles within a shambles--is a strange one. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) pointed out, we are dealing with a system that does not work, and are therefore setting up a parallel organisation run by very much the same people who are not running the existing one. The Government have decided to set up an alternative bureaucracy called the Asylum Support Directorate. "Directorate" is a funny word. I could not understand why they chose it, and thought that the obvious word was "agency"--until it occurred to me that the last time we set up a support agency, it was called the Child Support Agency.

Faced with a department, a management, a staff and an information technology system that need strengthening, we are going to set up an agency alongside that organisation: an alternative bureaucracy employing hundreds. We shall be setting up an alternative Royal Mint. The agency will administer travel expenses, and arrange London accommodation for thousands of asylum seekers. I fear that the bogus will run rings around that, and that the genuine will be caused grief. I ask Ministers to think again. After all, this alternative bureaucracy will not process a single extra application, or speed up the system.

I also think that we should look again at the 70 per cent. income figure. Although more of it will be cash, it will still be only 70 per cent. of what is said to be the minimum. Although I welcome the increase in the cash element, I am struck by the sheer inefficiency of the voucher system. Others have produced parallels; the closest parallel that I can offer is the experience of being in a duty-free shop abroad with a currency that cannot be taken out of the country. People cannot spend their money wisely in such circumstances. I believe that it will be impossible to make the voucher system seem humane. I know of no other country that is using it, and I am concerned about its impact on those who have been deeply damaged by what they have come from.

I am concerned about the evidence given by the UNHCR, the Refugee Council, UNICEF and Amnesty International. That formidable group of organisations has been very critical of what we are doing. I ask the Minister to think again, because I think that the proposals will severely backfire on the Government.

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): I will be brief. We have had an excellent debate, and, in all conscience, I merely want to put my views on record. When my children ask me what I did, I want to be able to show them what has been written down.

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Earlier speakers have begun by saying what wonderful concessions have been made, and how well the Home Secretary has behaved. I endorse all that, but I think that we have reached a pretty pass when, after one Minister has consulted and produced some relatively minor concessions, there is dancing within the parliamentary Labour party. We have gained some concessions, but I hope that the clinical analysis undertaken by my hon. Friends the Members for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan), for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) and for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) has caused the Minister to think again, especially about new clause 6. The problem is that when the Home Secretary introduced the debate, he said that the reason why he opposed the amendment was that the provision was central to the Bill. That is why I support the amendment. To be honest, that is why I will vote against the Bill on Third Reading.

People have mentioned the poor law. We need to put the Bill in its historical, reactionary context. It is one of the most outstandingly reactionary, racist Bills of the past two centuries. People need to remember what the poor law was about. People have mentioned it, but they need to remember how it came about. It came about because, in 1795, a group of magistrates in Berkshire, a short way from my constituency--they might still be in my general management committee--decided in all succour that people who were faced with distress should have benefits that were linked to the price of bread.

Idiots and reactionaries such as Malthus then said that that would mean that the working class would start to procreate and that there would be overpopulation, so they introduced the system of the workhouse. As a disincentive to people claiming benefit, they introduced a system where whole families were forced into workhouses to live in poverty--and that included children.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman may have used the word "children" just now, but he is beginning to make a speech that would be more appropriate for Third Reading. We are specifically talking about support for children.

Mr. McDonnell: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The next sentence would have clarified the matter and given you relief.

The whole point of that system was to impoverish people to ensure that they refused to claim benefit; it was an incentive to work as well. The Bill impoverishes children to act as a disincentive to fraudsters--that is the level that we have reached. We are about to put children into poverty to provide a disincentive to people claiming cash benefits.

People have referred to income support as the poverty line. The Government were elected to tackle poverty. The Prime Minister, wonderfully, has set a target of eliminating child poverty not just in this country but throughout the world; the target year is 2015. Now, we are taking a poverty line level that we inherited from the previous Government--which we do not accept and are trying to improve--and forcing children and families to live below that level.

What has been said is clear. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow made the point clearly. He clinically took apart the Minister's argument. There is no

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statistical substance--no evidence at all--that cash benefits increase fraud, or are any incentive to claim. We have been through all the figures.

There may be an issue around cash benefits. I do not jest when I say that there may be some ideas. Why do we not apply them elsewhere, so that people can withdraw cash benefits and use them elsewhere in the social security system? There is one place in this city where all cash has been removed and people use a voucher system. It is called the City of London, and it has not in any way eliminated fraud. People in the City are raking it in. What the Government are trying to do in the Bill goes against the grain of everything that we have stood for as a party--everything that we have stood for in trying to look after children in poverty.

If there is fraud, let us investigate it and prosecute. If there are delays in the system, let us speed up the system. That is the way in which to tackle the issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser) has referred to the position in his constituency. In my constituency, I have Heathrow. The largest number of unaccompanied children coming into the country come into my borough; the largest number come to my constituency. I see some terrible cases. All hon. Members have had such cases. Many may have read about them. Some will have them in their constituency surgeries. Children come here in the most desperate circumstances, having experienced horrors--and what are we going to do with them? Put them into poverty.

Mr. Straw: Let me provide my hon. Friend with complete reassurance. He is talking poignantly about unaccompanied children--and rightly so--but there will be no change in the arrangements applying to unaccompanied children. I give him that absolute assurance.

Mr. McDonnell: I am grateful for that, but, if the Secretary of State had been listening carefully, he would realise that it was one reference of several. Children with families also come into my constituency havinghad terrible experiences. We are going to put them into poverty. I have families living in horrific bed-and-breakfast accommodation, desperately trying to get their children back into normal life. What are we going to do to them? We are going to give them some cash; otherwise we are going to give them vouchers.

At a meeting in my constituency, I expressed the view that vouchers stigmatise. We already see that happening. When people in a queue produce vouchers, it is not--as the Home Secretary has implied in other meetings--like someone getting out a credit card, or a leaflet, or voucher giving 2p or 3p off. Those vouchers are identifiable. Someone on the till may be a bit racist. They may refuse to accept the voucher for a purchase, or may deliberately underchange that person when he or she tries to give a bit of cash and a bit of voucher. It is happening under the existing system.

People may not think that vouchers stigmatise. As someone said at the meeting to which I have referred, we should remember free school meals. We should remember what it was like then--something that many in the Chamber will have experienced.

I urge the Government to think again about what they are doing with the Bill. They are trying to introduce a fairer, faster system which, I hope, will deal with all the

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problems, but their proposals are tarnished by the attack on childhood, the introduction of lower benefit rates for children and the stigmatising voucher system. I deeply regret the fact that we are associating ourselves with such a measure, which I expected from the previous Government, not the present one.

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