Homes Bill

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Mr. Love: First, I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for the detailed explanation of the various clauses that intertwine on this particular subject. I bow to his superior knowledge. I also thank him for his reassurance that he will look again at the Bill, and that the words:

    ``if made in accordance with the authority's allocation scheme''

in clause 26, new section 166(3), will not allow local authorities in the new permissive regime for allocation schemes to continue with blanket exclusions. That is a difficult and complex area. I will look closely at the record of today's proceedings. No doubt we will talk again about some of those issues, but I am sure that in the end we will achieve the objective of both sides of the Committee of ending blanket bans. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

5.39 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

5.54 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): I beg to move amendment No. 73, in page 15, leave out lines 20 to 25.

The Chairman: With this we may take amendment No. 74, in page 15, leave out lines 26 to 28.

Mr. Brake: I begin by thanking you, Mr. Gale, and other hon. Members for their congratulations. For once, my late nights are nothing to do with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). [Laughter.]

To pursue the serious matters in hand, I rise to support amendments Nos. 73 and 74, which would implement the Government's philosophy set out in the housing Green Paper. That philosophy has been expounded by the hon. Members for Edmonton and for Eastbourne and by the Minister. The housing Green Paper made it clear that the Government intended to remove the power to impose blanket exclusions from the housing register.

A blanket exclusion applies to asylum seekers. I am aware of the complexity of the overlap between immigration and housing legislation. The amendment would make a substantial impact and require other legislation to be examined, but it is worthy of debate.

Many asylum seekers will have escaped harrowing events in their countries of origin before reaching the United Kingdom. Many subsequently have to undergo the humiliation of poor quality accommodation in this country. One of my constituents was literally sent to Coventry—a wonderful city, but not the best place to live if someone works in Croydon. The accommodation used for asylum seekers is often in the private sector, which can be more expensive than council accommodation. Houses in multiple occupation are also used. Local environmental health officers would be unlikely to approve them if they were informed which properties were being used, but lack of communication between local authorities and the National Asylum Support Service is a real problem.

In the case of vouchers-only asylum seekers, severe overcrowding can arise. Someone in my local authority earlier today told me that one of our properties was heavily overcrowded with vouchers-only asylum seekers. The owner had told them that they could use that address, so they would not be moved around the country, but it led to severe overcrowding.

If local authorities could build the required social housing—I am afraid that there is nothing in the pipeline yet—and asylum seekers were subject to the same assessment of need, it would be a much fairer system. At the moment, the most vulnerable asylum seekers with the greatest degree of disability are being sent halfway across London to visit the local authority on the rota for doing assessments of need and are then shunted to and fro. That is happening to the asylum seekers who are least able to bear it.

Ensuring that asylum seekers follow the same rules of allocation would lead to a fairer system. They would then be subject to an assessment of need that works reasonably well. It might be cheaper than the present heavy reliance on private accommodation and it might even be a safer system in which local authorities would have greater control over accommodation.

These are probing amendments. I hope that the Minister will tell us what consideration he has given to the issues and about the reforms that the Government intend to introduce in relation to NASS and the problems that I and many other hon. Members have identified in the system. What reforms are in the pipeline? If nothing is planned, will the Minister reconsider the position of asylum seekers and the rules of housing allocation?

Mr. Loughton: For a variety of reasons, we cannot support the Liberal Democrat amendments. First, they would have serious implications for the level of homeless people who did not qualify as asylum seekers and their access to accommodation. Secondly, I think that they would also contravene the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996 and the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, certainly in spirit if not in practice.

Recent figures have made us only too aware of the level of the asylum seeker problem. Last year, 76,000 principal applications for asylum were made. The inclusion of dependants takes the number up to virtually 100,000—a 7 per cent. increase on 1999 and the largest number in the European Union. We now represent some 20 per cent. of all asylum seekers in the EU. The figure here is more than double the level of asylum seekers in the United States, despite the terms of the 1999 Act and previous legislation. I gather that the biggest increase is in asylum applications from Iran and Iraq.

6 pm

Most of those applications for asylum were made once the people were in the country. Last year, of 110,000 asylum seeker applications, fewer than 10,000 were recognised as political refugees. Some 66,000 applications by asylum seekers are still in the system, which is a considerably higher number than that left in 1997 by the previous Government, despite all the promises of changes to and investments in the system.

That is the context in which the amendments should be judged. This is not only a London issue. I represent a constituency in west Sussex. Local authority figures for the level of asylum seekers show that west Sussex has one of the highest numbers— if not the highest—of all the shire counties in the country, with a much higher level than many London boroughs. The fact that Gatwick airport is in west Sussex is often overlooked. A high number of asylum seekers come through the airport, which puts considerable pressure on local authorities in west Sussex to produce homelessness strategies and on social services and particularly those dealing with refugee children. Social services' budgets have been severely stretched—but I am straying slightly from the subject.

Westminster is a central London borough with a high number of asylum seekers. It produced a report about a year ago, but the examples that it gave are still relevant. Westminster highlights the cost of temporary accommodation in the capital that is used for housing asylum seekers among others, and the enormous rise in the cost of temporary accommodation. According to the report, London Research Centre figures show that the average nightly cost per homeless household of bed-and-breakfast accommodation has risen from £38.70 in 1997 to £46.60 in 1998—an increase of 20 per cent. in only one year. That trend has continued.

Ms Karen Buck (Regents Park and Kensington, North): In the light of those figures, I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would join me in warmly welcoming the special grant that was announced yesterday, which the Minister had a hand in delivering? It will provide at least £25 million to health authorities, precisely like Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea, which are facing the real problem of accommodating asylum seekers in very high value property.

Mr. Loughton: Precisely like Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea, but precisely not like west Sussex, which as I have said, has a very high level of asylum seekers. The amount received in my county was negligible. The pressure on resources is considerable. Money is being taken by social services for those reasons, quite aside from the homelessness problem. It means that money is being taken away from the education budget and from social services provision for elderly people of which west Sussex has the highest level of any county in the country. The hon. Member for Regents Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) may well want to triumph at that figure, and I would join in her congratulations if there were a rather greater spread of those spoils around other parts of the country that do not happen to be Labour areas but which do have considerable problems. The impact on the marginal London seats around Westminster, as the Minister knows, is considerable, yet in west Sussex we do not get those benefits.

In April 2000 the Home Office introduced the new dispersal system where local authorities and housing associations across the country assist the Home office in assessing accommodation. The problem with those new arrangements is that they do not deal with the housing needs of asylum seekers currently accommodated by the London boroughs. As the backlog of asylum seekers currently awaiting a decision on their application is reduced, many more asylum seekers will qualify for permanent housing. The figures in the report show that, currently, 689 asylum seekers in Westminster are being accommodated under Housing Act duties. My interpretation of the Liberal Democrat amendment is that it would place a much greater duty back on local authorities to deal with asylum seekers. That would greatly increase the queues of asylum seekers, alongside other priority homeless cases such as those we have been discussing.

Mr. Brake: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman noted my reference to the fact that local authorities would need greater resources should the amendment be accepted. These amendments touch on the quality of housing provided for asylum seekers. Does he believe asylum seekers should be housed in accommodation that is not fit for human habitation? Does he believe that poor quality housing should be used as a deterrent for potential asylum seekers?

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