Third Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Wednesday 26 January 2000
[Mr. Bill O'Brien in the Chair]
Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 49) on the 1999--2000 Special Grant for Kosovan Evacuees
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. 49) on the 1999--2000 Special Grant for Kosovan Evacuees (HC115).
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. O'Brien. This is definitely Wednesday, not Tuesday. The special grant is intended to reimburse local authorities in England for the additional expenditure that they have incurred as a result of the decision to bring Kosovar evacuees to the United Kingdom. I am sure that all members of the Committee recall last year's conflict in Kosovo and the considerable challenge that it presented for the international community to show that brutality and oppression could be confronted. The resolution of the crisis demonstrated that we met the challenge successfully although, of course, much still needs to be done to repair the damage suffered as a result of the conflict.
The real tragedy that underpinned the whole episode, however, was the plight of the hundreds of thousands of Kosovar refugees forced to leave their family and friends, their homes and communities in their flight to their country's borders.
Throughout the conflict, the Government's priority, along with its European partners and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, was to ensure that, as far as possible, refugees were cared for in the region so that they could return to their homes when it was safe to do so. We made it clear, however, that the United Kingdom stood ready to receive some thousands of refugees from the region on the basis of criteria agreed with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, should it have become necessary on humanitarian grounds.
That commitment to receive refugees also then provided a major challenge for the UK to ready itself rapidly for the arrival of a large number of Kosovar evacuees. The successful manner in which this operation was undertaken was a testament to the many agencies and local authorities that came together in responding to the refugee crisis, providing emergency and on-going accommodation and support to the evacuees who came to the UK. Many of us will have seen television pictures that demonstrated the popular humanitarian response from the public.
Unlike most other host countries, we did not set an upper limit on the number of refugees that we would take. We preferred instead to take refugees on the basis of need, rather than to fill an arbitrary quota.
In April last year, the Home Secretary asked the refugee sector and local authorities to prepare to establish a reception service for Kosovar refugees, should it become necessary. The first request to take refugees under its humanitarian evacuation programme was received from the UNHCR on 20 April last year and was agreed within one hour. The first aeroplane of refugees arrived in the UK on 25 April. Over the next two months, 4,346 evacuees, including some medical evacuees, arrived in the UK on 31 flights. A further 68 evacuees have so far arrived on subsequent Government-sponsored medical evacuation flights. All Kosovars arriving under the programme have been granted 12 months' exceptional leave to remain in the United Kingdom to provide for their temporary protection. The majority were housed, at least initially, in reception centres in the north of England and in Scotland.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in London has commented favourably on the way in which evacuees have been treated in the United Kingdom. The service provided was one of the best among the host countries. This was due in no small part to the magnificent response of local authorities, the voluntary sector and local people. We certainly extend our gratitude to everyone involved in that effort.
As well as providing initial accommodation and support, local authorities have provided a wide range of other support services including move-on accommodation. The special grant report before the Committee today is the means by which the additional expenditure incurred by local authorities in respect of Kosovar evacuees will be reimbursed. As the report explains, it has been laid before the House under the powers granted to the Secretary of State by section 88B(5) of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 as amended by paragraph (18) of schedule 10 to the Local Government Finance Act 1992.
The Home Secretary gave a commitment to local authorities in May last year that the Government would reimburse all additional expenditure that authorities incurred in respect of the evacuees. We have since then been working closely with the Local Government Association and with local authorities on the precise nature of the reimbursement arrangements.
A good deal of the expenditure incurred was incurred very quickly as local authorities rapidly provided accommodation and reception centres for evacuees. Since then evacuees have been provided with education, vocational training, social services and translation support. There have been other costs, too, such as the cost of airport arrival teams, regional co-ordination teams and a loss of rental income from certain premises used in respect of the programme. We need to ensure that the scope of the scheme adequately reflects and captures that expenditure.
The special grant will meet all additional expenditure that authorities incurred in support of those Kosovars who arrived as part of the humanitarian evacuation programme. I make it clear that the grant does not relate to refugees or asylum seekers who arrived in the United Kingdom independently. The Committee may wish to bear that in mind.
Some authorities raised with us during the consultation period whether costs could be claimed where no additional, direct financial outlay arose. That would have included some measure of compensation for staff time or for a notional loss of interest on revenue balances. The scheme within the special grant report will reimburse any genuinely additional expenditure, including staff costs, where such an outlay can be shown. However, we have not included any change that would alter the scheme to the point at which it became a compensation arrangement and not one intended to focus on reimbursement.
The report explains the wide range of expenditure types for which local authorities can claim. It is proposed that local authorities will claim by the end of next month for the expenditure that they occurred up to the end of 1999. We shall endeavour to pay all those claims before the end of the current financial year. Authorities will be required to submit final claims for the full 12-month period as soon as they have been prepared and then certified by an external auditor.
It has proved quite difficult to quantify the total cost of the special grant proposals, given the wide range of local authorities and types of expenditure expected to feature in the claim process. Our best estimate for the current financial year is in the region of £45 million. As evacuees who arrived in the United Kingdom between April and June last year were given 12 months' exceptional leave to remain, there will be some costs falling to local authorities in the next financial year. We shall be looking to continue to support local authorities' expenditure until those 12-„month ELR periods expire.
I thought it right to spend a little time in explaining the background of why this has come about and the special grant report itself. I commend the report to the Committee.
Mr. Lidington: I first associate myself with the Minister's remarks in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. O'Brien, and with her comments about the way in which local authorities responded so swiftly and comprehensively to the requests that the Government made of them last year when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced its humanitarian evacuation programme.
It was helpful that the Minister took some time to introduce the rationale for the special grant report and to explain how the payment of the grant would work in practice. I have a few questions. I hope that she will be able to respond to my concerns at the end of the debate.
The Minister estimated that approximately £45 million would have to be reimbursed to local authorities by means of the special grant in respect of the current financial year. Although I understand that the calculation is rough, I am interested in her estimate of the number and type of local authorities involved. When the scheme was announced, my impression was that we were talking mostly about a relatively limited number of large urban authorities that had agreed to provide the facilities to receive and look after people evacuated from Kosovo under the humanitarian evacuation programme. I acknowledge the distinction that the Minister rightly made between the arrangements provided for in the special grant that we are debating and the role that many other local authorities are undertaking in looking after the needs of asylum seekers who have arrived here independently or submitted a claim for asylum in-country, having already entered the United Kingdom, lawfully or not.
An estimate of the number and type of authorities that are in receipt of the special grant would enable the Committee to appreciate more fully how great the expenditure is likely to have been by individual councils. If the total expenditure is spread between only a dozen councils, it will represent a bigger chunk of their revenue and expenditure in one financial year than if the burden were spread between 50 different local authorities.
I am concerned that only in January 2000 are we debating the payment of a Government grant that was promised by the Home Secretary as long ago as May 1999. I venture some criticism of the government for not bringing the matter before Parliament earlier. I hope that the Minister will provide an explanation for what appears to be an inordinate delay.
My concern is heightened when I look at the items of relevant expenditure that are listed in annexe A to the report. It is clear that many categories of expenditure that are listed are expenditure that local authorities would have incurred very early on in the reception of and care for asylum seekers or evacuees from Kosovo. For example, annexe A includes the cost of
``airport arrival and departure teams; the costs incurred establishing, preparing and closing down reception and return centres; volunteer expenses''-
most of which would have been incurred in the early days or weeks following the evacuees' arrival in the United Kingdom, when help would have been needed to settle them into their new surroundings-
``the administrative costs incurred in arranging for the reception and care of evacuees . . . the cost of providing and furnishing housing''.
Clearly, bills for furniture and equipment will have been incurred early in the settlement of the evacuees. Local authorities will have been carrying on their books a significant cost burden for many months, living on the hope and promise of the Home Secretary, but not seeing delivery of that promise until three quarters of the way through the financial year. I should be grateful if the Minister could also say when local authorities will receive their cheques from the Government. My understanding is they have to apply by the end of February. With the best will in the world, I would expect that it would take the Home Office a little while after that to check and audit the applications and to make sure that the money was sent out to each local authority. So are we talking about March, April or May before local authorities are reimbursed for expenditure incurred perhaps 12 months previously and for which, meanwhile, their local council taxpayers will have been bearing the cost?
My second point concerns the period in respect of which this grant is to be payable, which is defined in annexe A(2) as the period from 1 April 1999 to 31 March 2000. I listened carefully to what the Minister said. From her remarks, I was uncertain about the Government's intentions beyond the end of this financial year. As I understood her comments, the evacuees were given 12 months' exceptional leave to remain-the standard period when they arrived in this country under the humanitarian evacuation programme or the individual medical evacuation programmes. Therefore, I acknowledge that it is sensible to make the grant payable for that entire financial year. However, if some of those people remain in this country beyond 31 March, for whatever reason, is it the Government's intention that special arrangements should continue to be made for that category of people: those who came into this country under the auspices of the UNHCR rather than independently?
Or is it the Government's intention that anyone who remains in this country beyond 31 March 2000 should thereafter become subject to the normal arrangements that the Government are introducing in respect of asylum seekers? They would transfer from the specially funded arrangements and the reception centres operated by local authorities into the accommodation and on to the system of voucher support that the Government are providing under the terms of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. My concern about the extent of the Government's future commitment is heightened by the fact that progress appears to be slow in assisting these people from Kosovo to return to their homes. I understand that the United Nations suspended its humanitarian evacuation programme from Kosovo as far back as July 1999. Everybody on the Committee would acknowledge that, after Kosovo was freed, there would inevitably be a period within which homes would have to be rebuilt or temporary accommodation provided and infrastructure repaired. Nevertheless, I did raise an eyebrow when I saw the written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) on 14 December last year. He had asked how many Kosovar refugees were currently in the United Kingdom and how many were either seeking or had been granted asylum. The Minister, as part of her answer, said that-
``4,346 Kosovars arrived in the United Kingdom under the United Nations High Commission for Refugees Humanitarian Evacuation Programme (HEP) between 25 April and 25 June with a further 68 arrivals on subsequent medical flights. As at 2 December 1999,''-
the most recent date for which the Home Office then had figures available,
``1,319 Kosovars (including 25 per cent. of those evacuated under the HEP) had returned voluntarily.''-[Official Report, 14 December 1999: Vol. 341, c.140w.]
So, at the beginning of December last year, nearly six months after the liberation of Kosovo, three-quarters of those who had been evacuated to the United Kingdom as an exceptional humanitarian measure were apparently still here.
I have seen figures that the UNHCR says were supplied to it by the Refugee Council in this country, which show that the number returning has risen since the date of the Minister's reply from 25 to about 35 per cent. I hope that the Minister will confirm later today whether that higher estimate is accurate. I am concerned that the rate of return appears to be slow, compared with the rate of return in some other western European countries.
The figures supplied by the UNHCR have to be treated with caution. Countries rarely identify separately those returning to Kosovo who originally came out under the humanitarian evacuation programme, from those who are returning through a system of organised repatriation, but who fled independently. However, while the UK-which took in more than 4,300 Kosovars-has seen organised repatriation of just over 1,400 people, in the Netherlands the comparable figures are just over 4,000 accepted under the HEP and more than 2,700 returned so far through organised repatriation Germany took in a huge number of people before the HEP was devised and nearly 15,000 under the humanitarian evacuation programme itself, but more than 18,000 people have returned to Kosovo under a system of organised repatriation since it recovered its freedom.
It would be strange if we were maintaining an army in Kosovo-I do not quarrel with that-in order to safeguard freedom from persecution in that country and yet, at the same time, there was a reluctance among Kosovars who came here legitimately to return to their home country. A great deal of effort has been made and many British service people's lives have been risked in order to return Kosovo to its chosen system of self-government.
There may be a good explanation for the apparent slowness of the organised voluntary repatriation programme from the United Kingdom to Kosovo; if so, will Minister tell us? It is a cause for concern, not least in the context of the general crisis over asylum applications, which would be beyond our remit to discuss today. As well as answering my earlier detailed questions about the special grant and about eligibility, will the Minister tell us whether the Government are determined to assist the Kosovars who came here temporarily on humanitarian grounds to return to their home country at the earliest date? That would send a clear and constructive message that Britain, while it stands ready to help people who are genuinely fleeing persecution, is determined to make sure that our humanitarian tradition is not abused as a means to enable people to evade our immigration controls.