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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Local Government (England) Special Grant Report (No. 68) on the 2000/2001 Special Grant for Kosovan Refugees (House of Commons Paper No. 636)

Sixth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Thursday 20 July 2000

[Dr. Ashok Kumar in the Chair]

Local Goverment Finance (Kosovans)

Report (No. 68) on the 2000/2001

Special Grant for Kosovan Evacuees

(House of Commons Paper No. 636)

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. 68) on the 2000/2001 Special Grant for Kosovan Evacuees (House of Commons Paper No. 636).

I warmly welcome you to the Chair, Dr. Kumar. This is the first Committee in which I have had the privilege of serving under your chairmanship. During those wonderful years when I chaired Battersea Labour party, you were its vice-chairman at one stage, but our roles are reversed today and I promise to be on my best behaviour.

This special grant is intended to continue provisions for the reimbursement of local authorities in England for additional expenditure incurred in connection with the Kosovan evacuation programme. It is a narrow but important issue of provision to local authorities by way of special grant.

The report covers both evacuees under the humanitarian evacuation programme of the United National High Commissioner for Refugees and Government-sponsored medical evacuees. I should make it clear at the outset that eligibility for grants does not extend beyond the initial exceptional leave to enter the United Kingdom that was granted to the evacuees. Kosovan refugees or asylum seekers who arrived in the United Kingdom independently are also ineligible for the grant.

The Committee will know that rapid evacuation from Kosovo presented a considerable challenge, to which I am sure that there is general agreement in the Committee that local authorities and many other agencies in the voluntary sector rose splendidly. Between 25 April and 25 June 1999, 4,031 Kosovans, selected on the basis of vulnerability and medical need, arrived in England at the rate of up to 1,000 a week. A further 83 had arrived as priority medical patients with their nuclear families by the close of the programme on 26 June 2000. That brought the total number of Kosovans evacuated to England to 4,114. A further 349 were accommodated in Scotland under similar but separately funded arrangements.

The majority of the Kosovans who arrived under HEP were housed initially in reception centres in the north of England and the midlands. The centres were intended to provide short-term accommodation, and many Kosovans moved into the community to lead a more independent existence. Later, medical evacuees were more likely to be housed in local authority or private sector accommodation immediately on arrival. Kosovans with leave to remain, like evacuees of other nationalities, have been free to move around the country and to live where they wish. Evacuees were also given the opportunity to return to Kosovo under the explore and prepare programme.

The permanent return programme from the United Kingdom began on 26 July 1999 and ended on 25 June 2000. The programme was available to Kosovans who arrived in the UK under the humanitarian evacuation programme and to independent arrivals. All returnees under the programme received a grant, and 2,396 Kosovans, amounting to 54 per cent. of evacuees, returned to Kosovo under that programme.

Special Grant Report (No. 49) provided for the reimbursement of local authorities for expenditure incurred during the previous financial year. Following parliamentary approval of the report in January, all interim claims received by the deadline of 24 February were processed by the end of March. Grants paid so far to 40 local authorities for expenditure to 31 December 1999 total £20.8 million. Final audited full-year claims for 1999-2000 are to be submitted by 30 September. We estimate that the total cost of the provisions in Special Grant Report (No. 49) will be £27 million.

The special grant report before the Committee involves the means by which local authorities will be reimbursed for additional expenditure incurred during this financial year as a result of the programme. That is the narrow but important subject of today's debate. The report was laid before the House under powers granted to the Secretary of State. Our best estimate of the costs of the new special grant proposals is £7.6 million. That would bring the total cost of the programme over three years to £34.6 million, which is rather less than our original estimate of £45 million.

The Home Secretary gave a commitment to local authorities in May 1999 that the Government would reimburse additional expenditure that local authorities incurred in respect of Kosovan evacuees. The report will ensure that that commitment continues to be met. We have worked closely with the Local Government Association and local authorities on the report's timing and content. Final audited claims are to be submitted by 30 September 2001 and local authorities are requested to submit interim claims, for the period from 1 April to 30 June, by 30 September 2000. The bulk of expenditure for the year will occur in that period. The proposals in annex C allow for prompt reimbursement. The report sets out the categories of expenditure that can be claimed. I commend it to the Committee.

4.38 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): I join the Minister in welcoming you to the Chair, Dr. Kumar. I now understand why you and I were hanging around the Upper Committee Corridor earlier this afternoon.

The Opposition do not intend to oppose this report—it is important for payments to be authorised and made to the relevant local authorities as swiftly and efficiently as possible. However, I have a few questions for the Minister. First, I hope that she will explain in a little more detail the situation faced by Kosovans who came to this country under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees programme. How many left voluntarily, how many remain in the United Kingdom and what is the status of those who remain in our immigration and asylum system?

In preparation for this afternoon's debate, I examined our previous special grant debate on 26 January and some written answers. According to the figures that I came up with, 4,346 people had come here under either humanitarian or medical evacuation programmes. I think that that figure was used in the debate in January. Probably we could agree on a number somewhat below 4,500. The people concerned had exceptional leave to remain for up to 12 months.

In recent weeks, written answers and newspaper reports have given different estimates of the number of people who have departed voluntarily. I understood the Minister of State to tell the Committee that more than half of the Kosovan people originally evacuated to the United Kingdom had now left for Kosovo. I hope that she will be able to advise us later how many people remain here, according to the Government's estimates. I understand that the period in which Kosovans would be eligible for a relocation grant from the Home Office has elapsed, and that they would not have that additional financial incentive to return home.

What is the current status of the Kosovans who remain? I believe that a certain number have applied for an extension of leave to remain, and in some cases there may be proper medical or other exceptional compassionate reasons for granting such status. I am aware of other people having claimed asylum although I do not know the numbers. One suspects, because the figures do not add up to anything like the number of people whom we believe are still in the United Kingdom, that others have simply decided to remain without making a formal application to the Home Office. What is the status of those people, and what action do the Government intend to take? I read reports recently that suggested that the Government intended to proceed with a programme of, if necessary, forcible repatriation of people who were evacuated here under the UNHCR programme, and who were no longer entitled to remain. Is that their policy? If so, on what time scale do they plan to implement it?

What advice are the Government receiving from the UNHCR about the advisability of returning people? When we debated the subject in January, during a harsh winter, with snow on the ground, and with the rebuilding of homes in Kosovo still at an early stage, the UNHCR strongly advised against sending people back unless they were willing and prepared to make the journey. We are now half a year further on. What assessment have the Government made of conditions in Kosovo and the appropriateness of returning people there, if necessary against their will? As the Minister will know, other European countries have forcibly sent people back to Kosovo. Has the Minister made an assessment different from that of her counterparts in other countries?

Two minor points remain to be dealt with. The first concerns the period for which the grant is payable. As I understand the special report, the grant is payable in respect of listed categories of expenditure incurred by local authorities at any time in the current financial year, with one exception. The exception is that local authorities will qualify for reimbursement of the closure costs of reception centres only in respect of expenses incurred between 1 April and 25 July. Has that short period been specified because the Government believe that every local authority will close its reception centre within those dates? Alternatively, is there a risk of our approving a measure that will leave some local authorities unable to be reimbursed for costs associated with the disposal of reception centres because they missed the 25 July deadline by a matter of days or weeks?

Finally, on the people for whom local authorities are eligible for reimbursement, annex A to the special grant report refers to qualifying individuals as people who came here as part of the humanitarian or medical evacuation programmes and who are within the 12-month period of exceptional leave to remain that was granted on arrival. With the exception of a few medical evacuees, those people arrived between late April and late June 1999. Therefore, virtually all the Kosovan people whom we are discussing have gone beyond that 12-month period. Given that a significant number of Kosovans remain here, what is the position of local authorities that support those people? If they have tried to extend exceptional leave to remain or claimed asylum, do they move into the normal support systems that are in place for other people in those categories?

What happens to people who have decided to stay on without making a formal application to remain and who are here contrary to immigration law? Does a local authority have a continuing responsibility to provide support as set out in the National Assistance Act 1948 and the Children Act 1989, with which we are familiar in the context of asylum legislation? It may be that local authorities will say, ``We are being expected to provide support to Kosovan families who have remained here despite the expiry of their 12-month exceptional leave to remain, but the Government are refusing to reimburse us by way of special grant. What are we supposed to do?'' I hope that the Minister will write to Committee members if she cannot respond to those issues today.

4.48 pm

 
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