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Asylum Seekers (Inner London)

1.30 pm

Mr. Iain Coleman (Hammersmith and Fulham): The central point that I want to bring to the Government's attention today is narrow, but vital to inner London boroughs. Before doing so, I want to make clear the climate in which we are operating.

The issue of asylum seekers and the way in which the Government have tried to deal with the backlog of applications have caused considerable controversy in recent times. This sensitive area of policy has been subject to disgraceful and dangerous propaganda by some newspapers and by some of the tactics employed by the Opposition. A proportionally large number of asylum seekers have settled in the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham and I am aware from my contact with many of them that the majority have been through deeply scarring and traumatic experiences. I do not have time today to detail the brutalising and often horrific treatment to which many of them have been subjected, but I believe that the majority that I have seen are genuine asylum seekers who have a right to expect to be treated fairly and with the proper dignity that is enshrined in the 1951 convention to which our country is a signatory.

I regret to say that some of the measures in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 are unnecessarily harsh and reactionary and caused considerable disappointment and even shock to many supporters of our Government. In particular, the decision to operate a stigmatising and inefficient voucher system, which is expensive to administer and open to fraud was a serious policy mistake. The level at which support for such vulnerable people has been set is unacceptably low and many of my constituents who are seeking asylum are suffering as a consequence, especially many of the innocent young children who have been caught up in the system. I want to make it clear that I dissociate myself from the language of the Opposition and much of our national press who have covered the matter so hysterically and dangerously.

The central issue that I want to raise is the fact that clear evidence demonstrates that a number of local authorities have not secured full funding from the Government for the care of asylum seekers. I shall demonstrate that with evidence gleaned largely from my constituency, although I am aware of a similar pattern of underfunding in other inner London boroughs.

On 2 June this year, the Audit Commission published a report that was concerned principally with the dispersal arrangements and the impact on asylum seekers and the areas receiving them. A careful analysis of the report clearly supports the case in some instances for additional funding over the current maximum available grant. Page 16 of the report states:

Page 82 of the report refers to the immense pressure on local authorities and the importance of ensuring that the funding regime for asylum seekers meets the

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reasonable costs of key local services. In Hammersmith and Fulham, the average cost of supporting asylum seekers with children for the previous financial year was £370 a week. The maximum grant available is currently £240 a week. The council has been supporting an average of 500 such families a week, leaving a shortfall of £130 a week for each family. A simple mathematical calculation shows that that leaves an overall bill above the grant available from central Government to my local authority of approximately £3.25 million a year--just for social services. Page 85 of the report refers to the variable costs of different local authorities. Average accommodation costs in Hammersmith and Fulham are £230 a week and with subsistence costs the figure ranges between £350 and £380 a week per family.

The Government have correctly and justifiably asked why the costs in Hammersmith and Fulham, and other inner-London boroughs such as Camden, Wandsworth and Westminster, are significantly higher than those in other areas of the country. There are several reasons. First--and crucially--the boroughs in question easily have the highest accommodation costs in the UK, if not the whole of Europe. They have a high number of asylum seekers and the uncertainty about the legislative position and Home Office policy on asylum seekers means that it has been very difficult to forward plan strategically. Another factor that places great pressure on Hammersmith and Fulham, which has made it difficult to place families in potentially cheaper boroughs or in immediately neighbouring boroughs, are families who, as port-of-entry applicants, were initially accepted as a housing responsibility but who were transferred to the responsibility of social services.

The regulations published by the Government made it clear--regrettably in my judgment--that councils should entirely disregard choice of placement, but other regulations require the councils to take into account the welfare of the families concerned. I know many families in my constituency who have been in their accommodation for well over 12 months. There is clear legal advice, which councils are bound to consider, that the longer the family has been in a particular area, with the children in a particular school, the more inevitably powerful are the arguments, on welfare and compassionate grounds, for not moving them to another area.

The uncertainty about the strategy for supporting asylum seekers has undeniably led to other problems, particularly in such areas as Hammersmith and Fulham and Westminster, where temporary accommodation of any kind is at a premium. Potential providers of block accommodation sought long-term contracts that the council was unable to negotiate because of uncertainty about how long its duty would last.

What reason have the Government given for failing to pay the bills submitted by local authorities that have exceeded the set expenditure maximum? The one possibly hopeful reference for the Government in the Audit Commission report is at paragraph 88, which states that

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My concerns are twofold. First, central Government must clearly take responsibility for support for asylum seekers. It is central Government who set down the rules governing the support mechanisms that local authorities have been allowed to use. The aggregate of external finance in my borough has been set to increase by just 1.5 per cent. in the current financial year. Over £16 million of cuts, in a budget of less than £200 million, have been made in just five years. There is little or no scope for use of balances, which stand at less than £2 million. If the council is now obliged to cut services to the local community yet further, or to raise the council tax significantly, local people will not understand why the situation has been allowed to arise. I plead with the Government to think again about the extra costs incurred by the inner-London boroughs.

The Association of London Government has calculated that the expenditure incurred by the boroughs in question above the grant level last year was £27 million. In inner London, authorities have worked hard to provide a quality service within the boundaries set out by central Government, and they believe that they have been financially penalised for seriously tackling the brief that the Government gave them. In other areas, no such financial penalty has applied when local authorities have been less willing and less enthusiastic to carry out their duty. The inner-London boroughs hold the view that he who provides least and complains most has been treated best. That cannot be right.

The effect of the shortfall could be serious for the financial position of some local authorities affected, including my own. The chair of the Association of London Government, Councillor Robin Wales, has pointed out that the current levels of grant do not reflect the actual cost to the borough. The London boroughs currently support 63,000 destitute asylum seekers. That is a difficult job, and it has been made more so by the underfunding that I have sought to highlight. I urge the Government to consider the issue again, and pay in full the real and actual costs incurred to all the local authorities that now find themselves out of pocket to such a large amount, through no fault of their own.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton ): Order. Two hon. Members have said that the initiator of the

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debate has given them permission to speak, and that they have notified the Minister of that. I shall be happy to call them both if they will be extremely brief, but I want an opportunity for the Minister to reply in full to this important debate.

1.41 pm

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to my hon. Friends the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Coleman) and the Minister for giving me a few moments to contribute to the debate. I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham about the general aspects of asylum-seeker policy. I was and remain unhappy about many aspects of the operation of asylum legislation.

I differ from my hon. Friend in one respect, in that I support the general principle of a dispersal programme. I believe that a national solution is necessary, given the numbers of people seeking asylum. Like him, I represent an area with a large number of asylum seekers, many of whom are highly traumatised individuals with tragic histories. My experience is of victims of torture, families torn apart by war and shattered lives.

I congratulate the Government on having made progress on meeting the cost and policy issues connected with asylum seekers since 1997. Progress was made immediately after the election in dealing with the shortfall of costs bequeathed to us by the disastrous Asylum and Immigration Act 1996. For the reasons outlined by my hon. Friend, several inner-London authorities still carry a significant shortfall.

I shall give figures for the two boroughs that I represent in part. The total net expenditure after Government grant borne by the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea in 1999-2000 was £1,493,000 in direct costs of housing and supporting asylum seekers, and an additional £1.7 million in indirect costs. Those costs are recognised by the Government as being spent on matters such as the assessment and the administration of asylum applicants. The royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea is, unfortunately, excluded from the otherwise extremely welcome grant from the Department of Health for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. That has left it with an additional shortfall of £593,000.

In the London borough of Westminster, the net cost to social services was £4.6 million in 1999-2000 for adults and families, and £4.3 million for asylum seekers for whom the council had a housing duty. The 2000-01 estimates offer a £6 million and £3.9 million shortfall respectively, assuming that the National Asylum Support Service takes over responsibilities for new adult and family applicants in the near future.

As my hon. Friend explained, the inner-London boroughs are now in competition with the National Asylum Support Service for accommodation. That has been intensified by the extreme shortage of temporary accommodation in the capital. Boroughs cannot negotiate long-term contracts for temporary accommodation as the National Asylum Support Service can, and that has added dramatically to their costs. The inner-London boroughs cannot sustain the costs of running void properties, which has made it extremely difficult for them to achieve the cost savings

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available to NASS. That helps to explain why the unit costs are so much higher for those London authorities than for others.

I have not always seen eye to eye with Westminster city council about asylum seekers, just as I have not on virtually every other policy. However, the council, along with the other London boroughs and the Association of London Government has been supportive of the Government's dispersal strategy. Politicians there have responded to the issue in a commendably restrained manner, given the intense pressure on their finances and services.

I do not believe that either of the local authority areas that I partially represent, both of which are controlled by the Conservative party, are relaxed in principle about the costs that they have to bear and the provision that they must make for asylum seekers. They and other London authorities are struggling to find reasonable quality accommodation and support services at a reasonable cost, and should be fully remunerated for doing so.

1.46 pm

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay): I endorse much that has been said during the debate. I was formerly a member of Westminster city council, and served on the housing committee. I saw the problem in the light of the dilemma not only over the increase in asylum seekers, but over homelessness in general. People would focus on Westminster and the central boroughs and refuse to move across the river to places such as Peckham, where accommodation was available. I should like the Minister to deal with that in her response. Reserve powers are there to require the regions and even outer London boroughs to offer accommodation, which is in short supply, because very few regions have taken up the opportunity to contribute a solution to the problem. The Minister might also comment on the possibility that we could require asylum seekers to move to outer London boroughs and the regions.

I endorse what was said by the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck). The National Asylum Support Service is competing with inner-London boroughs in attempts to persuade outer areas such as Glasgow to take asylum seekers. The Government programme allows contracts of several years to be offered in those areas, whereas boroughs such as Westminster cannot countenance that owing to their budgetary system and because they cannot afford to pay for voids, which are inevitable when a contract is taken out for three to five years.

The housing problem is not simply an asylum-seeker issue. Persuading homeless people or seekers of public help with housing to go even as far as across the river, where there is often spare accommodation, has always been a problem.

1.48 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche ): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Coleman) on raising this issue. He is right to say that it is an important

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matter, and I will do my best to address the issues that he and other hon. Members have addressed during the debate.

I understand my hon. Friend's interest in these matters, and I know that he showed considerable interest when the legislation was passing through the House. He has some experience in these matters, and will know that I also represent a London constituency with high numbers of people seeking asylum.

The Government have a clear policy. We are committed to honouring our obligations under the 1951 convention, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham referred. We seek to ensure that, when people have a genuine claim under that convention, we recognise that claim as quickly as we can and give them the full package of refugee integration. However, we have a policy to deal as quickly as possible with people who make unfounded claims.

When the Government took office we faced a chaotic situation. That was due solely to the previous Government's removal of access to cash benefits for one category of asylum seekers--those who had applied for asylum in-country--without making any provision for their support pending the outcome of their asylum claim. Subsequent court cases determined that local authorities were responsible for those people. Given the pattern of asylum claims, the main share of the responsibility fell to local authorities in London and the south-east. Of course, the situation was not helped by people claiming asylum at the port, who still had access to cash benefits but could only turn to local authorities for help with housing. That exacerbated the problem.

At an early stage, the Government determined that that could not continue. As hon. Members will know, we devised a national asylum support scheme that would lead to the transfer of responsibility for the support of destitute asylum seekers from local to central government. As the scheme rolls out--it started on 3 April--we will gradually help with and remove the immediate responsibilities on local authorities for supporting new asylum seekers. Local authorities in London recognise that those measures will help them.

Of course, the question remains about the role of central Government, and what more they can do to help local government with the costs of supporting asylum seekers. Local authorities in London have done good work generally, and dedicated council officials have played their part. NASS works closely with local authorities, up and down the country, to ensure that dispersal away from London and the south-east is a reality, and that it provides an appropriate environment for asylum seekers.

I am pleased to say that more than 3,000 asylum seekers and their dependants who rely on the National Asylum Support Service have been dispersed outside London and the south-east. That is in addition to those whom local authorities were able to disperse under the voluntary scheme introduced in advance of the new provisions. I am not just talking about the ad hoc dispersal by local authorities--the figure of 3,000 is in addition to those dispersed under the voluntary arrangements that started on 6 December under the new legislation. I thank all those involved in the voluntary scheme, in which local government played its part. The

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reception of asylum seekers in the dispersed areas has involved a combination of work by the Government, local authorities and the voluntary sector.

All those measures, and the success of NASS so far, will bring welcome relief for local authorities in London and the south-east. Many local authorities will still accommodate asylum seekers who secured support prior to the introduction of the new scheme. In those cases, reimbursement will continue to be provided through grant aid. I cannot yet give details of this year's grant arrangements, which we are still in the process of finalising. The National Asylum Support Service currently applies to all new port asylum applicants and in-country applicants in Kent, and will shortly be extended to other in-country applicants. That will mean that there will soon be additional relief for local authorities as they will no longer have the job of providing housing to new claimants on a case-by-case basis.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham rightly concentrated on the costs incurred by his authority. The whole picture for London boroughs, based on last year's grant claims, is surprisingly varied. The figures are still subject to audit adjustments, but the wide range of costs that they reveal is interesting. Some boroughs have significant difficulty living within the unit costs. For example, Hammersmith and Fulham spent nearly £13 million on asylum-seeker support in 1999-2000, but only £10 million of that was recoverable under the weekly cost limits of the grant regime. That placed the borough second in the league of support cost shortfalls behind Westminster, which recovered £10 million from a total spend of £15 million. Five London boroughs, including Hammersmith and Fulham, and Westminster, accounted for more than half the London unreimbursed costs, but only a fifth of the total support costs for London. While some boroughs had difficulty living within the grant limits, seven London boroughs had their costs fully reimbursed, and that included two of the top five spenders on asylum support, Newham and Lambeth.

Hammersmith and Fulham's weekly unit costs were £144 for adult singles and £367 for families compared with the weekly grant levels of £140 and £240. At the

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other end of the cost spectrum, nearly half the London boroughs were able to support adult asylum seekers for £140 per week or less and, in some cases, weekly costs were well under £100. Thirteen London boroughs could support families for £240 or less. The picture is complex.

Given that many of the boroughs, including Hammersmith and Fulham, and Westminster, are dispersing asylum seekers out of their areas, it is difficult to understand why there is such a great variation. We have asked the Audit Commission to look further into cost variations between local authorities to see if any lessons can be learnt on ways in which to reduce them.

When we can announce it, I hope that the extension of NASS to cover in-country London cases will ease the pressure on authorities such as those that we have heard about today. We are taking the matter seriously, which is why we are investing resources in setting up a system that removes the responsibility from a few and co-ordinates a national approach to meeting our international and humanitarian obligations, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) referred.

We are not in a position in which the unfair share of the responsibility should fall on just a few boroughs. Along with all other European Union member states, we are facing a national problem, which demands a national solution. We are moving on from the mess created by the previous Administration. It has taken us time to do so, not least because we have had to introduce a major piece of legislation. We have set up the National Asylum Support Service and entered into contracts for the provision of a national voucher scheme, accommodation around the United Kingdom and provision of other support services. That was a major undertaking. We have engaged people from all sectors in meeting this challenge.

It is time that we recognised the enormous strides that have been made in the past 18 months. I certainly look forward to the benefits that will result from better management and co-ordination. We want to make sure that those whose asylum claims are being processed are treated with respect and dignity during that period.

Question put and agreed to.

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