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Beverley Hughes: Under the measures that we are debating, that would depend on the immigration status of the individual. That is the provision that the measures introduce into existing arrangements. Currently, local authorities do not take immigration status into account; the measures will require them to do so.
New clause 4 deals with the standard of housing of asylum seekers who are currently within the NASS system. Hon. Members expressed concern about substandard accommodation. If there were to be substandard accommodation, I would share their concern. Such issues are the reason why contracts with both private and public sector accommodation providers already require that the accommodation provided must be fit for human habitation as defined by the Housing Act 1985, or in Scotland by the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987, and that it must meet all the regulatory requirements.
It is reasonable to expect the Government to take reasonable steps to ensure that the accommodation they use is satisfactory, but to do as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey seems to wantthat is, to place a requirement on the Secretary of State directly to ensure statutory complianceis neither reasonable nor feasible, given the large amount of housing that is needed and the fact that it is obtained under contract from both the public and the private sector. It is reasonable that the first route to achieving good accommodation standards is through contractual arrangements and the enforcement of those requirements where it is shown that they have not been met.
NASS carries out property inspections. Its contract managers carry out technical surveys of properties and they can get outside professional surveyors to do so as well. When accommodation is found to be below standard, the provider is required to take steps to remedy the problems; otherwise, they risk being found in breach of their contract. Local authorities, too, have a general duty under section 605 of the Housing Act 1985 to keep housing conditions in
New clause 17, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), deals with the arrangements for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. My hon. Friend has great expertise in and a strong commitment to all matters relating to children, so I understand why he has raised the issue. However, he will know that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are currently supported under the Children Act 1989. That means that, in practice, they are the responsibility of the local authority where they first present themselves and are accepted as children in need. It also meansI know that he is aware of this, as it is the point of his new clausethat there is currently no legal framework through which any other local authority can be compelled to accept responsibility for such a child, although authorities can voluntarily transfer cases between themselves.
My hon. Friend will understand why it is not in those children's interests for us to have the power to compel other local authorities to take them. We would need to ensure first that those other authorities had the necessary infrastructure and experience to provide good quality care. However, the Department of Health and the Home Office are working extremely hard with local authorities to negotiate voluntary arrangements, and I hope he agrees that that is the best way to proceed. Compelling local authorities could result in children being placed in areas that provided a range and quality of care that did not serve the children's best interests. I hope that he will not press his amendments, with the assurance that I understand the spirit of what he is trying to achieve. I hope that he accepts that although we are not changing the legislation, we are working to try to achieve what he seeks.
Mr. Dawson: I shall be very brief. I entirely accept the point that my hon. Friend makes and I am very pleased with the information that she has given to me. However, there is the further question of encouragement to use section 20 of the Children Act 1989 rather than section 17.
Beverley Hughes: My hon. Friend needs to understand that the vast majority of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are about 16 and 17, so they are not very young. There is certainly no intention to deprive children of section 20 support if they need it. The fact is that for the needs of many, if not most, of those older young people, section 17 support is more appropriate, because they do not want to live in children's homes and supported accommodation. As he will know, young people's wishes are an important element in the overall assessment of need. It is that assessment that determines the level of support, and when section 20 support is appropriate it will be provided.
My hon. Friend also spoke to amendment No. 261. If he will forgive me, I shall not dwell on that amendment, in view of the time. The substance of the proposal was debated extensively in terms of the procedures in the 1989 Act. I know he feels strongly about the point of principle that is involved, but with the establishment of a new system of support for asylum seekers, it was felt to be more appropriate that that system also provided for asylum-seeking children in families.
The hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) raised issues in respect of amendments Nos. 143 and 144 that were debated extensively in Committee. I understand his concerns in tabling the amendments, but between the Committee stage and now, we have not changed our view or become convinced that asylum seekers who are appealing against refusal or early termination of their support need access to legal advice or assistance and representation. I can tell him, however, that amendment No. 143 is unnecessary, because the current arrangements already allow for the provision of forms of support other than those specified in section 96(1) of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 when circumstances are exceptional. The power is a permissive one. It would not be reasonable to pay witness expenses in every case, but the legislation contains a power to do so where necessary.
The substance of amendments Nos. 54, 55 and 56 was also debated in Committee. I think that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey knows we believe very strongly that, although personal preference will be one factor in placing asylum seekers in one place or anotheraccommodation centres or other forms of dispersalit will not be the predominating factor. He received assurances in Committee about the factors that the Secretary of State will take into account.
Amendment No. 49 concerns the power sought in the Bill to enable the Government to remove the opportunity for cash-only support. As my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow said, this is an enabling power. We do not envisage taking the power in the short term. We want to see how the Bill's reforms impact; there may be no need to mobilise the power at all, so I ask the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey not to press the amendment.
Simon Hughes: I asked the Minister not only about the time scale, but about the cost that would be involved if the support-only option were removed. Can she share with the House any information on costs to show how it will be cheaper for the Government to spend the money on support and accommodation, instead of only on support?
Beverley Hughes: That brings me to amendment No. 84. As my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow made clearthere was an extensive debate in Committee about this matterwe would consider the evidence on all sides if any proposal were made to exercise the power in the part of the Bill with which the amendment deals. I am persuaded by him that if the Government decided to bring forward the power, it would be right for the matter to be debated through the affirmative procedure. I hope he will accept that the wording of his amendments needs to be checked by parliamentary counsel, but I assure him that we will table a suitably worded amendment to the same effect when the Bill comes before the other place.
Simon Hughes: With the leave of the House. I am grateful for the Minister's indication that there will be a further opportunity to vote on the removal of support and that we can return to the debate on that matter. For the information of the House, I should like to point out that we hold to our view that for reasons of time and detailed policy, we are not persuaded that we should support the new clause and the new schedule that goes with it. When the time comes, not least because there are new clauses that we have not debated at all, such as new clause 13 and others, we will ask the House to divide on the rest of the Government new clauses, because they contain certain provisions that we cannot possibly accept.