Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Mr. Hall: I will resist the temptation to come back on that point, because the foundation clearly has a definite view. I accept that that is your view, although I feel that we could do something if we had to. There is a case for developing other centres of excellence.

I turn to dispersal. One of the documents circulated to the Committee contains a list of hotels outside London where London boroughs send asylum seekers. Direct dispersal also takes place through the private sector. I know a Bedford landlord who sends taxis to the point of entry at Heathrow. He meets asylum seekers at the airport and brings them straight to Bedford. That is done through the Refugee Arrivals Project.

Will the local authority representatives say something about liaison? That is pertinent to social services and housing authorities—which are not represented by the representatives of Kent county council. What liaison is there between local authorities and the Refugee Arrivals Project with regard to placing people in private accommodation.?

I have learned from limited experience that some accommodation is far from satisfactory, so local authorities have a role there.

Mr. Brangwyn: The Refugee Arrivals Project is based at Heathrow airport and receives referrals from the immigration service there. We have sought to establish a rota system whereby the Refugee Arrivals Project will allocate people to London boroughs and—increasingly, as you said—to authorities outside London so that accommodation can be provided.

It is not simply a matter for the Refugee Arrivals Project. Other asylum seekers refer themselves to other areas and seek their own accommodation. That may be sustainable for long or short periods, although difficulties may arise.

We will seek to consolidate agreements with the Refugee Arrivals Project to improve management of the point of entry in the interim period. We understand that there are difficulties in relation to the accommodation that is being provided. Frankly, some of the solutions will be outside London because on a price-for-price basis, accommodation tends to be better outside London.

Mr. Gilroy: One of the dilemmas for all of the purchasing authorities who require accommodation is that they are inevitably attracted to areas of high deprivation where property prices are cheap. The coastal strips are vulnerable to that, particularly in the south-east. It is a dilemma. We have obviously suffered from that, particularly in the Thanet area.

Mr. Ransford: Whatever system is developed, it is important that the issue is seen as a responsibility for the whole local authority and not a certain part of it. It is not a housing responsibility or a social services responsibility. Clearly there are important environmental health issues. There are very important education issues, as you have heard. There are also important regulation issues, in terms of the quality of accommodation.

It is important for the whole local authority to work together, and in two-tier areas for the district councils and the county authority to work together. That is why we believe that a system developed by local government, looking at the issue and managing it in a co-ordinated and developmental way is the only way to make sure that people have decent settings while they are awaiting decisions and crucially, as the system speeds up, prepare for settlement, which is an important aspect of the whole situation.

Mr. Hall: May I just ask one question? To your knowledge, do the local authorities, your members and Kent approve the list of private-sector landlords to whom the Refugee Arrivals Project refers asylum seekers?

Mr. Gilroy: No, we do not. We approve our own but no one else's.

Mr. Brangwyn: Where a referral is made to the local authority, every effort will be made to ensure that the accommodation is of a satisfactory standard, but as I have said, a number of people refer themselves and make their own arrangements.

Mr. Hall: The Refugee Arrivals Project refers people directly to private-sector landlords. I am trying to find out whether there is normally a list of landlords that has been looked at by local authorities with local knowledge. The position seems uncertain.

Mr. Brangwyn: Where there is a referral to a local authority, that system kicks in. However, the Refugee Arrivals Project places people directly in private-sector accommodation and that is outwith any arrangements that we have with it.

Mr. Hall: Perhaps you should be trying to make those arrangements.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: Toby, I am surprised at your refusal to answer Ms Abbott's question about forced dispersal. I should have thought that you could say quite unequivocally that you disagreed with forced dispersal, as I do. I should like to ask you whether you agree with a different policy whereby people who wish to arrange their own accommodation, but need vouchers or other forms of direct support may do so. The accommodation may be in London or elsewhere. If they seek accommodation provided by the state, they should be in the same position as homeless people in this country and be given one choice. As London has a large number of asylum seekers, it would be disproportionate or unfair to oblige London to provide that choice for the foreseeable future.

Lord Harris: May I just make it clear that I did not refuse to answer any question. I answered the question. People may have felt that my answer was unsatisfactory, but I answered the question. My point is that I do not believe that the problem will necessarily be solved entirely voluntarily. However, I accept and welcome the assertion that it will be important to take into account the preferences of individual refugees. That policy is followed by my own authority and, I assume, by others for placements out of their areas.

On the question as to whether someone should have a choice, the position for homeless families is that the offer that is made should be reasonable. In taking into account what is reasonable, you have to look at the individual's circumstances and other relevant factors. I should have thought that exactly the same principle needs to be applied to the placing of refugees and asylum seekers. You need to look at what is reasonable under the circumstances. For example, placing people in a hostile environment would not be reasonable.

4 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.10 pm

On resuming—

The Chairman: Lord Harris had you finished your response to Mr. O'Brien before the suspension?

Lord Harris: I had finished my initial response.

The Chairman: If nobody wishes to add to that, I will call Mr. Allan.

Mr. Allan: As local authority representatives, you had experience of the system before 1996, when there were people on housing benefit and income support and, post-1996, of mixed groups. Some people are still completely dependent on local authorities under National Assistance Act 1948 and some are still on income support and housing benefit. Under the proposed system, everything will be provided on a cashless basis via a new agency. The London Government Association said that vouchers are costly and bureaucratic and stigmatise the recipients. Notwithstanding the dispersal issues, if 100 asylum seekers and their families were living in your area do you, as professionals, think it would be easier to deal with them by means of an income-support type payment or a voucher system?

Mr. Ransford: My experience, most of which is in child care, suggests that a voucher system does not produce the desired outcome. It places an administrative burden on the system, it singles people out from the rest of the population and it is open to abuse. Examples of the voucher systems currently operating suggest that the vouchers are discounted and sold for cash and used in wrong ways. Certainly, if you want to identify people in a community as different, separate and special and to stigmatise them when they hold up queues in supermarkets, a voucher system is a good way of doing it.

There is a case for providing a total board and lodging service including accommodation, food, heating, lighting—all the basic essentials—and a limited amount of cash or providing vouchers which all of us use, such as travel or telephone cards. That system can work and some of the best examples are predicted on that basis.

However, the voucher in the middle could cause great problems. Whether that system is better than an income support system is a matter of judgment: everyone else lives in a cash society, but we have to accept that we are dealing with people whose status is currently different, who are destitute, who need instant and good-quality services which can often be provided in a way that equates with best practices now.

Mr. Gilroy: To be honest, the voucher system has been a nightmare for us. It has created community tensions and black-market economies; if asked to, I could probably give you some good examples—we have thoughts about all sorts of things. It is very costly in terms of unit cost per voucher. I wish the Home Office well; it will cost a fortune.

If we were to continue the system in Kent, if we were to have this responsibility permanently, we would manage some of the issues by moving into some smart card technology in partnership with a clearing bank, because of the processes involved and the audit trails that local government officers have to manage. It is absolutely horrendous. I have to support my colleague, Mr. Ransford, who passionately wants you to reflect very carefully on the operational implications of what you are proposing. We have tried it; we are doing it; but we think that there are better ways of managing it as we move post-millennium.

Mr. Brangwyn: In 1996 the London boroughs had to rise to the challenge of issuing vouchers. A number of boroughs have in place schemes that do work. As we indicated in our evidence, there is a price attached to that. There are additional administrative costs and some other difficulties. Overall, we have been able to establish an operational system in collaboration with a number of private companies and supermarkets. By and large, that can be made to work and to work well.

We also pointed out in our evidence that that cannot cover every single conceivable item of requirement for an individual asylum seeker. Of course, we have to find other mechanisms—telephone cards, travel warrants and, I am afraid, some small amounts of cash which will effectively have to be written off—to cover incidental items of expenditure which are unavoidable given the circumstances of individual asylum seekers. It can work but prices are attached to it.

 
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