Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No.92) (HC877) on Special Grants for Asylum Seekers Support (Adults and Families of Asylum Seekers) for 1999-2000 and Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No.99) (HC878) on Special Grants for Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children for 2002-2003

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The Chairman: I advise the Committee and the hon. Gentleman, who has raised a reasonable point of order, that the Committee is here to consider the two reports and the determination that has been made by the Home Secretary. Ultimately, it will be for the House, not the Committee, to approve expenditure. I believe that some of the matters that have been raised are legitimate, but I do not want the debate to go wide of the purpose of the Committee this afternoon and to ask questions of the Minister who, for very good reason, is not competent to deal with all those matters.

I believe that the Minister advised the Committee that matters relating to extra expenditure have been properly audited and I hope that that will be accepted by the Committee. I am here only to rule on how the

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Committee should proceed. I shall not protect the Opposition or the Government, but I do not want the whole debate to be directed at matters for which the Minister does not have responsibility.

Mr. Forth: Further to that point of order, Sir Nicholas. I hope that you agree that Ministers have collective responsibility and that it is proper for any Minister who has been made a member of the Committee by the Government to answer properly any questions that are in order. I am sure that you will verify that that is so. I simply refer you to paragraph 2 of report No. 92, which clearly states:

    ''This report specifies the Secretary of State's determination'',

and you kindly guided us on that point. However, it goes on to refer to

    ''the purposes for which the grants are to be paid and the manner in which the amounts of the grants are to be calculated . . . the conditions which the Secretary of State intends to impose on the payment of the grant to which this Report relates.''

That appears to give proper scope and proper authorisation for the questions that my hon. Friends have raised. I hope that you agree that it appears to give us fairly wide scope to question the Minister on these matters.

The Chairman: I say to the right hon. Gentleman that I have allowed fairly wide scope in the debate so far, and I shall continue to use my discretion. The Minister has stated, however, that an independent body properly audited the sums spent, which leads me to believe that they have been correctly spent in accordance with the legislation, although I know that the right hon. Gentleman has an expert way of questioning almost anything. I am happy for the debate to continue, and I merely ask the Committee to direct its major focus towards its purpose this afternoon.

Mrs. Gillan: On a point of order, Sir Nicholas. I seek your guidance because, like my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir P. Beresford), I want a little more detail from the Minister about the Northamptonshire fraud investigation. Fraud is a Home Office matter, and presumably it would be in order for me to question a Home Office Minister about a fraud that is relevant to this grant. I seek your guidance and your confirmation that I am correct.

The Chairman: Fraud is certainly a criminal offence, and responsibility for dealing with it no doubt lies in part with the Home Office. The Minister has clearly heard these points of order, and I am sure that she will do her best to respond to the questions that have been raised.

Beverley Hughes: Thank you very much, Sir Nicholas. I am grateful for your clarification and for your endorsement of the points that I have made.

Mr. Pound: Before the Minister moves on, I should tell her that, on reading the reports and the other information, those who represent most London constituencies will say, ''There but for the grace of God go I.'' The asylum support system was so chaotic until the disciplines and protocols introduced by her Department, particularly since 1999, that it is amazing that the problems were not more widespread. The new atmosphere of discipline that exists in Haringey and

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other London boroughs augurs extremely well for the future, and the Minister and her Department should take credit for that.

Beverley Hughes: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that important insight into London boroughs. They support large numbers of asylum-seeking adults and families and they do their very best in difficult circumstances.

Let me take up Opposition Members' point about Northamptonshire. To reiterate my earlier comments, which you so kindly repeated, Sir Nicholas, we would not be bringing a request for further money for the local authority unless the amount had been properly audited. Clearly, no fraud was found and the issue was resolved satisfactorily. The auditors confirmed that the expenditure in total was appropriate and met the conditions referred to in paragraph 2 of special grant report No. 92. They also confirmed that it was properly spent and, therefore, that we might properly reimburse it today.

On special grant report No. 99, hon. Members may be aware that there is a significant and, unfortunately, growing number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children being cared for by local authorities. The number now stands at more than £6,500—[Interruption.] I apologise; 6,500 such children. At present about 58,000 children are looked after by local authorities in England and although the figure of 6,500 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children might seem relatively small, some authorities have very significant numbers of such children in their care. Members may be aware of the situation in Kent, where the number of such children for whom the local authority is responsible is almost the same as the size of their own looked-after child population.

It falls to local authority social services departments to care for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in the same way as they would care for any other child in need. Although the Home Office is responsible for providing the funding to those local authorities, the Department of Health continues to have the policy responsibility for the children, as they do for all children who come within the scope of the Children Act 1989 and the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000.

We acknowledge that the increasing numbers of unaccompanied children are putting additional pressure on some local authorities. The purpose of this debate is to discuss the funding that we are providing through central Government to help local authorities to meet the costs incurred in the current financial year. There have been special grant arrangements to help local authorities to meet the costs of providing support to these children for a number of years.

The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill contains provision for the Home Office to fund unaccompanied asylum-seeking children without the need for a special grant report. Consequently, this year's grant report—as I am sure members, observant as they are, will have noticed—covers the period up to the date of Royal Assent to that Bill. As that date is

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not yet known, it is impossible to estimate an overall ceiling to the funding, as we have done in previous years. We have therefore removed the ceiling for this period.

This year's rates for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were agreed at the beginning of the year to enable local authorities to budget for the cost of caring for them. In recognition of the cash flow pressures put on local authorities, the arrangement of the settlement of the grant has been amended to provide for quarterly payments, commencing on 31 July this year, if the House agrees to this report. That takes account of a point made during last year's debate about the problems caused by making the payments at the end of the financial year.

Mr. Forth: I think that the Minister just said that the Government find it impossible to get sufficient grip on the numbers to provide a meaningful ceiling. We are therefore being asked to approve what sounds suspiciously like a blank cheque. However, in the next breath, she went on to talk about the local authorities involved budgeting for this expenditure. If the Government, in all their majesty, cannot work out a ceiling, how can they reasonably expect the local authorities to work out a reliable budget?

Beverley Hughes: I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman was listening carefully to what I was saying, but he has not understood it. The issue is not that we cannot reasonably estimate numbers and have a grip on them but that we do not know when the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill will receive Royal Assent. We are unsure not of the numbers but of the precise period of time that this grant will have to cover. That is why we have taken the ceiling away. Doing so enables us to pay local authorities in full for whatever period ensures without coming back to the Committee. We estimate that reimbursements to local authorities this year will amount to about £140 million, which compares with £111 million, £85 million, £50 million and £20 million in the previous four years respectively.

Mrs. Gillan: I hope that the Minister is not about to move off the figures, because I want to probe a little on them in relation to report No. 99. I want to ask about paragraph 3(2)(a), (b) and (c) and paragraph 3(3)(a), (b) and (c) of annex A, which contain differentials between the over–16s, the people covered by section 20(1) of the Children Act 1989 and the under–16s.

The differential for exceeding the weekly total of 100 or fewer children in the relevant period is listed for the over–16s as four fifteenths in the uplift. However, for section 20(1) people and the under–16s, there appears to be a differential of eighty-four one hundred and fifteenths. What is the difference between the two? Why is the differential not the same? I do not understand why the uplift should be so remarkably different in those instances.

Beverley Hughes: If the hon. Lady bears with me, I shall come to that point and explain the figures in the report. I shall explain the differentials between them, among other matters. She could listen to what I said and then decide whether she wanted to ask further questions.

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About 80 per cent. of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are 16 or 17 years old. For those young people, we are meeting local authorities' costs up to £220 a week. The care costs for children under 16 are usually much greater, so for them we are meeting claims of up to £420 a week. That is one differential.

Some authorities with responsibility for higher numbers of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children also encounter costs that are significantly higher than allowed for under the grant. To enable local authorities with the largest numbers of children to meet the costs, higher rates are available. For local authorities that, on average, looked after 100 or more children aged 16 and 17 each week, we are meeting costs of up to £300 a week. For children under 16, the higher rate is up to £575 a week.

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