Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Jeremy Corbyn: The Minister says that the local authority will provide support for children only, and not for their parents. In such cases would the children be taken into care, or would the traditional social services approach of supporting the whole family in order to support the children apply?

Beverley Hughes: No, the children would be received into care under section 20 of the 1989 Act and given accommodation, but support for the adults would be withdrawn. That is the point of the measure. If, having been offered travel, the family refused to go or failed to comply, the arrangements would be offered to the children but not the adults.

Local authorities will be required to inform the Home Office about those resident in the UK unlawfully who are not asylum seekers, and who apply for local authority support, so that removal can be arranged. Again, local authorities may provide short-term accommodation to families with children until the date of removal. Should such a family fail to travel, all support will be withdrawn, other than the offer of support for children under section 20 of the 1989 Act.

We will ensure that children and other vulnerable persons continue to receive appropriate care, while allowing families to stay together by enabling them to accept the offer of travel home. In particular, those with special care needs will continue to have them met until the date of travel. If they do not travel, unless they have an acceptable reason for not doing so—for example, they are too ill, and a medical certificate supports that view—care will be provided at the minimum level, in compliance with the European convention on human rights.

Simon Hughes: These are difficult issues and no one should pretend otherwise. I shall give the Minister two examples that I am advised illustrate the unfair consequence of such a proposal. The first is that of an Irish citizen with a disability who has lived here for 30 years, who clearly has the nationality of another EEA state, and who is not seeking to use their Community treaty rights. As I understand it, under the proposal they would have to be sent back to Ireland, because they would be ineligible for benefits here.

The second and perhaps more acute example is that of a citizen of another country—say, Ireland—who is the dependant of a person with refugee status in another European country, such as the daughter of someone who settled in Germany 20 or 30 years ago. Does not the proposal imply that many people will be required to move from a place in which they have lived perfectly lawfully

12 Jun 2002 : Column 899

for decades, and go to a country where they may have no relatives and, in effect, no home? That surely cannot be right.

Beverley Hughes: The hon. Gentleman rightly leads us into some technical areas. In cases where citizens of EU or EEA countries have rights under Community treaties of one kind or another, it is not intended that the policy will take away those rights. On the examples that he mentions, even the most draconian interpretation of the habitual residence test would regard someone who has lived here for 30 years as an habitual resident. Such a person would therefore meet the test and be entitled in the normal way.

In addition to the measures that I have outlined, we must accept the need to guard against those who may seek to abuse the support and facilities offered to them. For that reason, we are also introducing two new offences as part of the measures. First, it will be an offence for a person who has accepted the offer of short-term accommodation and/or a journey home to return to the UK to try to claim benefits again. Secondly, to help to ensure that local authorities have the best information before them when considering a request for support under these provisions, it will be an offence for a person to fail to mention—to fail to declare—any previous request for support under these measures. That is necessary to prevent people from going from one local authority to another and making claims.

5.30 pm

I am also placing an obligation on local authorities, as I have mentioned, to report to the Secretary of State any person in their area whom they reasonably suspect to be unlawfully present in the UK or any failed asylum seekers who are refusing to co-operate with attempts to remove them. That will help the Home Office in instigating removal action against appropriate individuals.

Mr. Iain Coleman (Hammersmith and Fulham): These are technical and complex matters. What discussions and consultations have been held with the Local Government Association, the Association of London Government and other local authority associations? Can my hon. Friend the Minister advise me of the detail of any such discussions and whether those organisations support the measures that she is outlining today?

Beverley Hughes: It is fair to say that the concern has arisen because of the situation that many local authorities have faced, the details of which they have brought to our attention. Some local authorities, including Barnet and Birmingham, have tested the case in law, as I mentioned earlier, but other local authorities—whose social security budgets are also very stretched—are unclear about the extent to which they can lawfully follow the example of those that have tested cases. The measures are in the spirit of requests from many local authorities to clarify the law and to make their position clear in legal terms.

When local authorities come to implement the provisions, we will need to provide guidance to them on some of the technical detail, and we will certainly do so. I am also satisfied that these measures comply with the requirements of the European convention on human rights and our other international obligations.

12 Jun 2002 : Column 900

It has been established that those with refugee status in an EEA state or nationals of that state have entitlement to support elsewhere. Therefore, we have to come to the conclusion that for such people to claim support here is not an acceptable use of our resources and presents a considerable burden for local authorities and their social services budgets. We have to make it clear that local authorities will not be empowered to provide such support in future. That clarification will be helpful to local authorities, many of which have been uncertain whether, to what extent and in what circumstances they should provide support.

The Opposition have tabled several amendments to the new clause and the schedule. I shall reply on those amendments later, but I can tell the House in advance that I will not accept them. Many of them would undermine the whole principle behind the new clause. I shall be interested to hear what hon. Members have to say in their favour.

Government amendments Nos. 254 and 255 make it clear that a person is destitute if he or she does not have adequate accommodation and food, or other essential items. My hon. Friends listened carefully to the discussions in Committee and to the concerns that the original draft clause indicated a change in policy. While I am satisfied that the original draft achieved the policy aim and that we explained that point in detail to the Committee, we have taken the opportunity to amend the clause to take on board the points made.

Government amendments Nos. 216 to 218 are technical amendments that clarify the fact that support will not be provided to those outside the United Kingdom. Government amendment No. 216 amends the definition of an asylum seeker for support purposes and says that people must be in the United Kingdom if they are to fall within the definition. Government amendment No. 218 clarifies the fact that an appeal made under clause 45 against a decision to stop providing support, or against a decision that a person does not qualify for support, may not be brought by someone outside the United Kingdom.

Finally, Government amendment No. 217 is a small technical amendment related to clause 38. It has no effect other than to simplify the way in which the clause is presented. It does not alter the substantive arrangements.

Simon Hughes: As the Minister rightly said, Government new clause 10 is the method by which the proposals in Government new schedule 1 will be introduced. It is an enabling measure to which we cannot have objections in principle. However, we are concerned about the new schedule.

As I said earlier, this is complex territory. It is difficult for the House to do justice to such a proposal, given that it did not appear in the Standing Committee. It appeared only after the Committee ended. There is nothing new about that, but it is exactly the sort of proposal that should go before a Special Standing Committee, so that people can give evidence about it. It should at least be brought before the Standing Committee for detailed consideration.

The House deals with new schedules, new clauses and amendments in a certain way, however. Liberal Democrat Members have tabled a set of amendments to new schedule 1, but the way in which Government business is taken means that they cannot be voted on. At the end of the debate, therefore, we will seek to divide the House on

12 Jun 2002 : Column 901

new clause 10 to register our disapproval of some of the matters in the package. They include the complex issue in new schedule 1 of what, in shorthand, is called the problem of benefit shopping.

Amendment No. 49 embodies our strong objection to the Government's intention to change the financial support system to prevent people who have the chance of gaining accommodation with friends or relatives around the country from getting the financial support that would allow them to do so. That option saves a huge amount of money at present, as the accommodation is provided free of cost to the Government.

When we debated the matter in Standing Committee with the Minister's predecessor, we talked about the National Asylum Support Service support system and registered our strong disapproval and the fact that we did not believe that the proposals in the Bill would be in the Government's interest. It must be cheaper if people who are willing and able to look after themselves do not ask the Government to pay for their accommodation but only for their necessary living costs over and above the cost of accommodation. That must be cheaper for the Government than if they have to meet the costs of accommodating people and of paying them benefits as well.

We therefore object to some of the details that emerged only last week, and to the idea that the chance of benefits will be taken away from people who, as asylum seekers, might otherwise be given accommodation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) and I accept that there needs to be a regime across the EU that prevents people from gaining a set of entitlements in one country and then transferring them, without any authority, to another country. There need to be rules about that. However, that is a much wider area than could properly be covered in this debate.

The Minister probably knows from her constituency surgery, as I do from mine, of people who are lawfully in this country because they have been given refugee status but who have no automatic right to travel to other countries. They are lawfully here but cannot visit their relatives in Paris, for example, because there is no European Union-wide recognition of the rights of people who have less than full rights in EU member states. I am aware that the European Parliament has debated this, and colleagues there have talked to me about it. It strikes me that the way to deal with such issues is to seek EU-wide agreement on the rights of people who have been accepted in one place but may need, for a short or long period, to go somewhere else.

I do not argue that people who, to take the Minister's example, might originally have come from Somalia and then settled in the Netherlands should have the right to come to the United Kingdom and claim benefits in addition to those they receive in the Netherlands. Of course that would not be right—European Union member states should pay only once. However, it may be perfectly proper to transfer such rights, on application, from one country to another.

This is the largest group of amendments, new clauses and new schedules to be debated today. Some have been tabled by the Government, some by the Conservative party, some by the Liberal Democrats, and the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) has also tabled a new clause. I shall deal with these as speedily as

12 Jun 2002 : Column 902

I can and at least put the argument before the Minister. Inevitably, if the Government hold their supporters behind their policy, they will win the day today, but these matters will have to be revisited in much greater detail when they go to the House of Lords, because there has been no opportunity for parliamentarians to look at them in detail here.

I will take the proposals in order. New clause 4, tabled by the Conservatives and supported by the Liberal Democrats, would provide for tests of adequacy of accommodation. It is relatively self-explanatory; I support it and hope that the Minister will accept it. I should be grateful if the hon. Lady indicated in her reply whether a proposal along these lines is acceptable. It would ensure that those in the dispersal system have adequate accommodation and that they are not excluded from protection when it comes to the sort of decent accommodation that we would expect other people in poor circumstances to have if they were born in this country or were British citizens.

In new schedule 1, the Government propose that for those who have been given refugee status abroad, who are citizens of another EU state, who are failed asylum seekers, or who are unlawfully in the United Kingdom—each category may merit different treatment—a raft of potentially available benefits will disappear. We normally think of such benefits as coming under the National Assistance Act 1948 and being distributed through the social services.

Like the Minister, I represent an urban consistency and understand the pressure on all local authorities, particularly with regard to the social services budget. We know how councillors and officers have to juggle the budget and the huge pressure that they are under, to which the Government have, in part, responded. Our general concern—I am trying to be general as well as succinct—is that by taking away all such benefits, groups of people could, for periods of time, be without any recourse to benefit and have no practical alternative.

Our amendments to the new schedule would allow a continuing right to benefit for people with an outstanding human rights claim or appeal, those who might have another claim to support or social and medical assistance under the European convention on human rights, or those who seek to transfer their refugee status. To take the example given by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock), if people had fled from a country in which there was civil war, such as Ethiopia, and come to Europe only to discover that their wife, child or parent was in another European country, they would seek to be reunited. That is the sort of argument behind the amendments to Government new schedule 1.

On our amendment No. 49, clearly the option of cash-only support should be kept open. The Minister did not deal with that. I have not heard any arguments from her or her predecessors to suggest that what the Government are proposing will be any cheaper. They are saying that support only is being used to avoid dispersal. When the National Asylum Support Service system started, 100 per cent. of support-only applications were in Greater London. The figure is now only about 70 per cent. If that is the case, support only does not stand in the way of dispersal. Indeed, if it were withdrawn, many people who are staying with relatives and friends in London and other parts of the country would be disadvantaged.

12 Jun 2002 : Column 903

Next Section

IndexHome Page