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5 Nov 2002 : Column 197—continued

New Clause

Lords Amendment: No. 84, after clause 48, to insert the following new clause—Late claim for asylum: refusal of support.

Simon Hughes: I beg to move amendment (b) to the Lords amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : With this it will be convenient to discuss amendments (c) to (f), amendment (a), Lords amendment No. 86 and amendments (a) to (c) in lieu thereof, Lords amendment No. 99 and the Government motion to disagree thereto.

Simon Hughes : We come now to financial support for asylum seekers. I am conscious that, as a consequence of the guillotine constraints under which we are working, we have only a quarter of an hour to debate the amendments, and this House has not previously had an opportunity to deal with these matters because the measures were introduced in the House of Lords when the Bill was recommitted to a Committee. The Government produced these amendments, after the summer, at the end of the Report stage, and they are tightening the rules at the eleventh hour. In our view, those changes are unfair and likely to result in considerable hardship and lack of redress.

The Lords amendment states:

Amendment (b) would change the balance, so that the Secretary of State would have to be satisfied that there was undue delay in making the claim. There are many people who, through no fault of their own, do not immediately make an asylum application. It is not only Liberal Democrat Members who believe that; hon. Members on both sides of the House who deal with asylum cases know that there are such people, and current and previous Labour Front Benchers have said so in proceedings on earlier legislation. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) said so when he was Home Secretary. The right hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) sought to pray against orders that would have had the same effect as the Lords amendment because he was unhappy about them.

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Most persuasively, the very good Committee of Members from all parties in both Houses, which we set up to deal with human rights issues, said of the Lords amendment that

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My experience is that people who come here who are ignorant or frightened of the system may well not come to the attention of the authorities for days or months. They are afraid to do so because they do not know what the consequences will be. The danger in the Bill—although, I hope, not the intention—is that many of those people will be ruled out from receiving financial support and from the ability to appeal against that decision because the Secretary of State could say that he was not

The phrase

means at the first available opportunity, which should be objectively defined. There should be an objective test, based on when the person knew that they were required to make a claim. I shall give the House one parallel. In civil litigation, where there is a three-year limit for action, people are entitled to start the clock not when they sustain the injury for which they are entitled to make a claim but when they become aware of their entitlement.

I hope that the House accepts that the Government should have to satisfy themselves that any delay is undue, unreasonable or unjustified. This case is simply put, but it has huge implications because, in the long term, the Secretary of State may be in breach of the convention. In the short term, however, I am more concerned that many deserving people who will otherwise be destitute will not be entitled to the support that we, as a rich country, must give them when they come to us looking for asylum.

Jeremy Corbyn : The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the number of people who will become destitute. Is he aware that there are already thousands of asylum seekers who, having been dispersed to other parts of the country, have removed themselves to London from a place of safety and are sleeping on people's floors? We have a situation, mainly in London, in which the very poor are trying to house the desperately poor in their rooms.

Simon Hughes: I agree. My experience from my constituency is that there are many people who do not claim support, do not receive it or are appealing against a decision so they are dependent on the charity of others in pretty much the same situation. The bigger danger is for people who have no one to look after them, because

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they are likely to be out on the streets and open to abuse and exploitation. If we are trying to keep refugees and asylum seekers out of the hands of criminals, traffickers and exploiters, we are going the wrong way about it. I hope that the House will support amendment (b).

Mr. Blunkett : I ask the House to reject the amendment on the very precept put forward by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). He gave an example based on civil litigation, saying that the clock should start when we presumed that people had become aware of their condition. I presume that people who come to this country to escape from death and torture do so to claim asylum, and I presume that they will claim asylum when they get into the country.

There are people who fulfil other immigration and visa requirements and who remain here, sustaining themselves, for a long time, until they run out of money or their course finishes. They then claim asylum so that we may sustain them for a further period. We all agree, I hope, that they should be ruled out from receiving that support.

The question is how reasonable we are regarding people who come here but do not claim asylum at the port of entry. We need to be reasonable and to take into account the trauma that people experience. We need to allow a reasonable period before we presume that people have come into the country for another reason and have been sustaining themselves, then when they can no longer do so, have decided that the asylum system would sustain them, being more generous than the equivalent something-for-something welfare to work system.

We are saying to people, XIf you have been here some time, by all means tell us how you got here, what your circumstances are, the means of entry and what you have been doing since you reached this country and we will provide you with support." That is what our proposals provide, and I think that that is reasonable. People with families will be sustained and those with special needs will be supported. That is in the proposal. People who have been in this country for some time and have decided to claim asylum can continue with that claim, but there is no reason on God's earth why we should sustain them. We should remember that those who choose to take part in the dispersal system receive not only sustenance, such as food and heating, but accommodation, equipment and other materials. As we do not automatically do the same for the indigenous population, it is not a lot to ask that we put these people on equal terms.

Annabelle Ewing rose—

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) rose—

Mr. Blunkett: I give way to the hon. Lady.

Annabelle Ewing : I listened to the right hon. Gentleman's explanation of this provision and its apparent reasonableness, but if it is so reasonable why was the proposal introduced at the eleventh hour?

Mr. Blunkett : One reason was that the number of people who have been in the country a long time and

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have cottoned on to the new social security system has grown exponentially. The in-country claims are substantial.

Mr. Mullin : I am listening carefully to what the Home Secretary has to say on this point. He will understand that many of us are concerned that the proposal will lead to destitute asylum seekers. We want to be assured that there is sufficient flexibility in the system to cope with the hard cases that arise. Is my right hon. Friend able to offer any reassurance on that point? I acknowledge all the points that he made, but I would still like to be assured that those who fall through the system for whatever reason do not end up sleeping on the streets.

Mr. Blunkett : I think that our proposal to respond if people give us a complete and accurate account of their circumstances covers the point that my hon. Friend rightly makes. People are right to be concerned. Given the sparsity of time owing to the previous votes, I shall just show one commitment of good faith.

Considerable concern has been expressed about the amount that we provide to sustain mothers with young children and small babies. The Minister of State and I are announcing tonight that, from February, we will increase the amount by #3 for mothers with children between the ages of one and five, and by #5 for those with children under one, so that they can have healthy food and milk on the same basis as the Department of Health provides elsewhere. If new mothers can show that they cannot breast-feed, we will introduce their top-up immediately. We are desperately trying to provide a sensible balance.

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