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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Local Government Finance (England) Special Report (No. 55) on 1999-2000 Special Grant for Asylum Seekers' Support (Adults and Families of Asylum Seekers)

Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Monday 20 March 2000

[Mr. JIM CUNNINGHAM in the Chair]

Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 55) on 1999–2000 Special Grant for Asylum Seekers' Support (Adults and Families of Asylum Seekers)

4.30 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 55) on 1999–2000 Special Grant for Asylum Seekers' Support (Adults and Families of Asylum Seekers) (HC Paper No. 304).

May I say, Mr. Cunningham, what a genuine pleasure it is to see you in the Chair today? This is the time that I have had the pleasure of welcoming you to the Chair of a Committee, and I look forward to a lively discussion under your chairmanship.

The report, made under section 88B of the Local Government Finance Act 1988, specifies determinations concerning special grants that the Government propose paying to certain local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales. The grant report has been submitted by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department.

The report sets out the agreement for the grant in respect of the costs to local authorities from 1 April 1999 to 5 December 1999 of supporting asylum seekers.

During that period, asylum seekers who claimed asylum at the point of arrival in the United Kingdom were entitled to receive social security benefits to cover their needs for housing, food and other necessities—unless and until their applications for asylum were rejected, at which point the benefits were withdrawn. Those who claimed asylum after entering the country were not entitled to those benefits, and local authorities were responsible under the National Assistance Act 1948 and under the Children Act 1989 for supporting destitute asylum seekers in such cases.

The Committee will know that we are moving from the arrangements covered by the present grant report to a new approach for supporting asylum seekers. We are committed to a radical reform of the arrangements for immigration and asylum, including the way in which asylum seekers are supported. We set out our proposals for modernising the system in the Home Office White Paper entitled, ``Fairer, Faster and Firmer—A Modern Approach to Immigration and Asylum''. Legislation has recently been passed to introduce new, unified support arrangements for asylum seekers in genuine need. The grant reimburses local authorities for the asylum seekers whom they have had to support in anticipation of the introduction of the new scheme.

The Committee should consider the grant report in the context of the move from the old arrangements to the new. Before publishing the report, we consulted closely with representatives of local government. Asylum seekers place a heavy demand on local authority social services, particularly in London and the south-east, where there are many such people. We have listened to the concerns of local authorities, and have made a number of changes to the report to assist them in meeting those demands. We have made available up to £185 million—an increase of £10 million—to ensure that claims for the period can be met in full, and we have revised the unit costs to assist those authorities that have had to support many families. The grant will enable local authorities to claim funds up to the equivalent of £140 per person per week for adults accommodated under the National Assistance Act 1948.

Under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 and section 22 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, local authorities have a general duty to safeguard the welfare of children in need in their area and, insofar as it is consistent with that duty, to promote the upbringing of such children by their families. We recognise that it can be difficult and costly to support families. Some authorities suggested that they might be out of pocket because the unit cost in the grant report would not enable them to accommodate families. Following discussions with local authorities, we agreed to set the amount that they are able to claim at £240 a week for each family that they accommodate.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): Paragraph 4 of annexe A contains the figure of £140, but is that not the amount paid to provide bed-and-breakfast accommodation for families? Will there be extra money for local councils?

Mrs. Roche: No, it is the whole cost for single asylum seekers.

The report does not cover the reimbursement of costs incurred by local authorities in supporting unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. A separate grant report is being published by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

There are relatively few asylum seekers in Wales—about 100 adults and a handful of families and unaccompanied children. They are mainly accommodated in Cardiff, Swansea and Newport. Grant will be available to local authorities through the Welsh Assembly on the same terms as it is provided in England, at an estimated cost of £400,000. Different legislation applies in Scotland. Nevertheless, the special grant report for asylum seeker assistance in Scotland is broadly in line with the English special report. It takes account of the smaller number of asylum seekers and has also been agreed with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

We intend to process asylum applications quickly and fairly so that genuine asylum seekers receive the protection to which they are entitled. That is why we are moving towards the new system. The special grant is a good settlement. It takes account of the views of local authorities and provides for them to meet the costs of supporting asylum seekers. The additional money that we have made available by raising the threshold to £185 million means that a local authority which provided support for asylum seekers during 1 April 1999 to 5 December 1999 will have its claims met in full.

4.37 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): It is always good to start on a bipartisan note. I join the Minister in welcoming you, Mr. Cunningham, to the Chair. We will not vote against the report. Although the report criticises the Government's policy and some specific points, the most important consideration is that the moneys are authorised and paid quickly to local authorities.

The report raises important questions about the current financial year and the extent to which the arrangement will be a necessary part of the Government's relationship with local authorities to support asylum seekers in future, especially in the financial year 2000–01. How adequate is the £185 million threshold? It is clear from the formula on page 5 that if the £185 million were oversubscribed, each council's bid for support would be scaled back pro rata. How much money had local authorities bid for by the 16 February deadline? What was the breakdown by local authority? The Minister may want to make that information available in the Library.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): I apologise for stopping the hon. Gentleman mid-flow, but it would be helpful to have that figure now, as the size of the shortfall will affect how the matter is dealt with.

Mr. Lidington: I am happy to give way to the Minister.

Mrs. Roche: There will be no scaling back. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State revoked the original grant report, which I think was for £175 million. We then put before the House a second report granting £185 million, so that there was no scaling back and so that the formula would allow local authorities' claims to be met in full.

Mr. Lidington: I am grateful for that response, but I must say that it would help hon. Members if the Minister placed a more detailed, authority-by-authority analysis in the Library.

I have discussed these matters with local authorities, which have expressed continuing concerns. Even with the increased sum that the Government made available after reflection and discussion with councils, local authorities in the southeast have incurred significant costs that relate to supporting asylum seekers but which are not eligible for reimbursement within the terms of the Government's grant scheme. As the Minister will know, Kent county council commissioned KPMG to produce a detailed analysis of the impact on Kent of the large number of asylum seekers who required council assistance. The council reckons that no less than £1.7 million of its expenditure on asylum seekers falls outside the scope of the scheme under discussion. That expenditure therefore falls on to Kent council tax payers, because there is no provision for reimbursement by central Government.

The sort of costs that I have in mind are those caused by the need to find foster parents for the large number of unaccompanied children who have arrived in Kent, which has driven up the general costs of foster care in the county. The county council gave another example: it has incurred interest payments of roughly £500,000 because it has had to make up-front payments in respect of asylum seekers before receiving central Government reimbursement. Similarly, those interest payments are not covered by the current scheme.

The second aspect of my questions concerns the differences between Scotland and England. I am grateful to the Minister for covering to some extent the provisions that apply in Scotland, but I remain curious. I am concerned not least in respect of the return in the past seven days of a number of families to London from Glasgow—an incident that involved Glasgow city council and Wandsworth borough council. As the Minister said, different levels of support are provided in Scotland and England. The Government propose that a payment of £140 per week should be made to single adults in England and Wales and that £240 per week should given to an asylum-seeking family. In addition, a small additional sum will be provided to cover capital expenditure on accommodation, if the local authority can provide supporting evidence.

In Scotland, however, the comparable figure seems to be £165 per week per person. If my understanding is correct, a married couple claiming asylum in England would receive support worth £240 through the standard weekly payment for families. However, a council supporting a married couple in Scotland would, presumably, receive £165 per week for each individual, which adds up to £330 rather than £240. I may have misunderstood some detail of the scheme, but I cannot see the rationale behind that difference. Merely saying that there have been historic differences us is not enough. The problem is made more interesting by two further details. First, Parliament last week approved the spring supplementary estimates with which the Minister will be familiar. Page 73 of the supply estimates refers to a transfer by the Home Office of £3.98 million to the Scottish Executive for asylum seekers' support arrangements. The money is being taken from the Home Office block grant and transferred to the Scottish authorities. Would the sum support more asylum seekers in England than it is expected to support north of the border?

Secondly, my concern is made greater by the fact that the Government have admitted that their new voucher scheme will not be ready for application to in-country applicants for asylum until a date yet to be determined. The new scheme will come into effect for new port claimants from 3 April. The arrangements whereby local authorities incur support costs and must seek reimbursement through a special grant from central Government will be rolled forward into a further financial year.

The Government's intention under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 was that the voucher scheme should apply throughout the United Kingdom, with common rates of support for asylum seekers wherever they were housed. If the local authority-based system continues, it will include the disparity of treatment between England and Scotland that I have described. I would welcome further explanation of that disparity, and would like to know whether the Government will seek to introduce common funding levels for local authorities on both sides of the border.

There is increasing evidence that the voluntary dispersal of asylum seekers under the interim arrangements introduced by the Government pending the implementation of the 1999 Act is going far from smoothly. Far fewer people have been successfully and peacefully dispersed to other parts of the country than the Government and south-eastern and London local authorities had hoped.

The Minister stated in a written answer of 21 February 2000, at column 817 of Hansard, that 1,124 asylum seekers had been dispersed from London and Kent to other local authority areas by 6 December 1999. There is a question mark in my mind about the accuracy of the statistics. A sign of the difficulty and burden that local authorities in Greater London and other parts of the south-east must bear can be noted if one sets that answer alongside another from the Minister of 13 March 2000, at column 77, in which she said that no fewer than 59,350 asylum seekers were being supported by London boroughs.

The apparent failure of the voluntary dispersal programme and the questions arising about the Government's planned new support system and dispersal programme are of concern to people in those authority areas and the councillors who have to take decisions on their behalf. There is growing evidence that the system is beginning to crack apart. Like me, the Minister saw a delegation of Blackpool hoteliers a couple of weeks ago, who came to London to complain that while they did not object in principle to the dispersal of people to Blackpool, in practice asylum seekers were being found places in hotels in prime tourist areas. There was concern in the tourist industry that their presence in the popular tourist centre of the town might deter potential visitors.

In November 1999, Northamptonshire county council asked the Home Office for exemption from taking more asylum seekers, arguing that it had already accepted responsibility for a large number who had entered the county by various routes and whose presence placed a difficult burden on housing and social services. It would be interesting to know whether the Home Office agreed to that request, how many other councils have made similar requests and whether any of them have been accepted by Ministers. Last week we heard how Glasgow city council bussed 16 asylum-seeking families back to Wandsworth borough council with, apparently, virtually no notice. Wandsworth already has to cope with nearly 1,000 asylum seekers.

There is confusion over the Home Office's statistics. The Minister said in a written answer on 21 February that as of 6 December, 41 asylum seekers had been dispersed to west midlands local authorities under the voluntary dispersal scheme. However, a note of the same date from the west midlands Local Government Association stated that more than 300 asylum seekers had been placed in the region and that a further 150 to 400 places had been identified. The disparity is startling in the extreme.

I wonder whether the confusion can be explained as an example of the difficulty experienced by some councils who are able to achieve dispersal but who must keep administrative responsibility for asylum seekers who have been dispersed elsewhere. Certainly, the leader of Kent county council has told me that a big burden on Kent officers' time is created by the necessity of going to Tyneside and the north-west to check on asylum seekers who have been dispersed and ensure that they are being adequately advised and cared for. That is a ridiculous way to run an asylum seeker support system.

Kent and London authorities clearly expected that from the beginning of April this year, responsibility for people who had been dispersed would be transferred to the local authority in whose area they were residing. Apparently, that will not happen. Kent and the London boroughs will have to pick up the tab and send officers traipsing around the country because the recipient local authorities will not willingly accept responsibility, and the Government have so far seemed unwilling to use their powers to insist that they do.

As to the new support scheme, despite assurances in speeches and written answers throughout the winter and as recently as the beginning of February that all was hunky dory and that it would be ready on time, the Home Secretary has now acknowledged that the voucher scheme will not be ready by the beginning of April and that it will apply not to in-country applicants but to new port applicants only. In addition, the backlog of 100,000-plus cases will continue to receive either social security support or local authority support reimbursed by special grant until they can be transferred to the new arrangements. Therefore, in the new financial year local authorities will be left to cope with the continuing burden of dealing with people who apply for asylum in country.

What estimate have the Government made of the cost of those arrangements to local authorities, and eventually therefore to the Home Office? Has the Home Office budget for 2000-01 made provision for a new special grant scheme to reimburse local authorities for their expenditure in that year? At what stage does the Minister expect the national scheme to be extended to in-country applicants as well as port applicants? Some local authority leaders are beginning to doubt whether it will ever be extended to in-country applicants because of the Government's difficulty in identifying sufficient accommodation for the number of asylum seekers that they expect the country to have to cope with.

I hope that the Government will finally be able to release the information that I have asked for over a number of weeks: how much accommodation did Ministers ask the Asylum Seekers Support Agency to secure in time for April and how much has it been able to provide? I was delighted when the Home Secretary told me at the last Home Office oral questions that he would write to me with that information, particularly as his previous written answers had indicated that the Government regard the information as commercially confidential and, therefore, as something that I should not be allowed to have.

What is the state of preparation of the voucher scheme? How many stores will take vouchers? What safeguards will be there be in regard to compounding vouchers for cash? Unanswered questions remain about the operation of the new scheme. The Government have been shy about giving Parliament full information about the state of preparedness of the new arrangements.

In the light of the difficulties with both the interim dispersal scheme and the preparation of the new accommodation voucher scheme, are the Government considering using their powers under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 to designate reception zones for asylum seekers? They deliberately, and rightly, took on new powers. Under section 100 the Secretary of State can insist on a local authority or housing association providing him with information on the accommodation available in a particular district. The Act also gives the Secretary of State the power to designate reception zones and direct a local authority or housing association to make accommodation available. Before designating reception zones, the Secretary of State must consult local authorities, local authority associations and others.

It is high time that that consultation started. There is growing evidence from different parts of the country that the Government's plans to reform asylum-seeker support are descending into chaos and becoming a shambles. Ministers have taken powers to deal with the problem. They owe a duty to the local authorities that bear the burden at present to use those powers as appropriate to remove the burden. Central Government must accept the responsibility that belongs to Ministers.

4.58 pm

 
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