Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Mr. Malins: So, from the time when the Bill becomes law, a person will be an asylum seeker if, among other things, he makes a claim for asylum at a

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designated place, in person. Does that mean that a claim is not an application unless it is made in person at a designated place, and it is goodbye to postal applications? If that is the case, the claim should become an asylum application as soon as it is made.

Ms Winterton: Exactly. That is my point. Because the claim is recorded at a designated place, it will be possible for that person to be eligible for support in the accommodation centre.

Simon Hughes: Perhaps I was not listening, but I cannot see how that is compatible with the convention. If someone smuggles himself into this country, to Leicester or Southwark, for example, and is advised to seek asylum, and either writes a letter to the Home Office or a letter is sent on his behalf or delivered by hand, surely that is a valid asylum application. In no country that I am aware of do people have to present themselves formally at a statutory place for their applications to be considered.

Ms Winterton: We are talking about eligibility for support, with particular regard to accommodation centres. At the same time as making the application at a designated place, an applicant will receive a registration card, on which it is verified that he or she is an asylum seeker. The hon. Member for Woking raised the issue of postal applications. In the past, there have been fraudulent or multiple postal applications, and we want to ensure that, as part of the process, we keep a proper record of applications and of where people move on to, whether to an accommodation centre or the dispersal systems. We want to ensure that, from the beginning, there is no administrative confusion and no unnecessary delay built into the system. The surest way to do that is to state that applications may be made at designated places.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey is, perhaps, referring to the problem that would arise if there were insufficient designated places for people to report to and make their applications. I can reassure him on that because we will certainly ensure that there are enough places for claims to be made. I cannot see why that would be incompatible with the 1951 convention.

Simon Hughes: Let me give another example. Someone may come into this country on a student or visitor's visa, and be in Shetland, the outer Hebrides, Anglesey or Londonderry—it could be anywhere. Circumstances may change in that person's home country and he or she may need to make an asylum application. It cannot be sensible bureaucratically to have asylum claim centres in Lerwick and Stornaway. It must be better for an individual to go to a local advice centre, citizens advice bureau, solicitor, friend or priest who can write a letter to the Home Office or to the immigration and nationality directorate on that person's behalf. Surely we are not going down the road of establishing centres. If we are, and they can be everywhere, that is fine, but it would cost a fortune.

Ms Winterton: I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. Most people will claim asylum immediately on arrival in the UK. Those who do not will have legally entered the country in some other

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capacity or have entered illegally. In the example that he gives, those who have entered legally are unlikely to be regarded as destitute, because they would have had support in order to be granted leave in the first place—they might have come under an employment category or have a sponsor.

Illegal entrants are, obviously, expected to bring themselves to the attention of the authorities as quickly as possible. If they do, by presenting themselves at a reporting centre to make a claim, suitable arrangements will be made for their application to be made in advance of a claim for support and accommodation from NASS. We cannot provide support for people who do not bring themselves to our attention. It is important to have a system that, as far as possible, allows us to record claims as clearly as we can from the beginning of the process.

Mr. Malins: Clearly, the Parliamentary Secretary and her officials have done a great deal of thinking about the places that will be designated for making a claim. Given the amount of work that must have gone into that, can she say roughly how many there will be in the United Kingdom—10, 50, 500? That must have been discussed, and I should be most grateful for an answer.

Ms Winterton: At the moment, the majority of locations that would be designated as places for people to make claims—the Croydon asylum screening unit, any port or any airport—are those at which people would arrive from abroad. It is difficult to give an exact number. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall look beyond those examples and will consider local reporting centres, local enforcement offices, casework centres and so on, so that we provide the most accessible places possible for people to make their claims. It is an important part of any strategy to ensure that people can find support when they want it, and that their claims can be made and recorded quickly and easily—either manually on a database—making them eligible for support. That will avoid much of the confusion that has arisen.

Mrs. Gillan: The more we explore what seemed to be a simple definition of asylum seeker, the more we reveal the layers of the onion. The Parliamentary Secretary now suggests that there will be a vast array of reception points for asylum applications. At this stage, I would like to know the answer to the question about numbers asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking, and what the cost and organisational implications are. We appear to be entering a phase of increasing bureaucracy and complexity.

Ms Winterton: Quite the opposite is the case. What causes administrative problems, extra bureaucracy and increased costs is not knowing where people are. It only increases costs if we cannot verify at an early stage, for example, that the people making applications are who they say they are. Having face-to-face interviews is an important part of that.

Claims can be made at existing facilities—we shall not have to create completely new facilities. The

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measure will not create greater difficulties for the applicant or for the system, as we are making the system clearer from the word go and minimising any possible fraud. Unfortunately, such fraud is possible under the present system.

Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): In addition to airports and Croydon, which the Parliamentary Secretary mentioned, she referred specifically to local centres. What does local mean—local to where and to whom?

Ms Winterton: I have already said that we would consider using local reporting centres or places in which casework happens. We must look at individual areas and consider what facilities we can make use of. It would not be sensible to determine a particular mileage in an area in advance. We need to consider what is sensible in an area in terms of access for people.

Simon Hughes: It is important that we reflect on the matters that we are debating and get them right. We should bear it in mind that the clause relates simply to definition of asylum seekers.

I have two points. First, the Government have not said whether they are getting rid of postal and other forms of applications, and it would be helpful to know whether that was the policy and when that policy was made. Secondly, if there is supposed to be a network of reporting centres for the purposes of registration, why is that not stated in the Bill? Accommodation centres are referred to in the Bill—why not registration centres?

There are two entirely new policies here, in relation to which none of us had any notice. They increase bureaucracy and put an end to what seemed a moderately successful system, with 6,000 people a year putting in applications that were processed by the IND.

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Ms Winterton: There is nothing sinister in saying that we are making it easier for people to make claims in person. Current everyday practice is that all port applicants and anyone who applies at the asylum screening unit in Croydon go through the process that I have described. We simply want to extend that practice.

There is no doubt that there have been difficulties with postal applications. I hope that hon. Members accept the need to consider those problems, some of which we can remove through the new system. Whether the problems are caused deliberately or not, there have been difficulties with postal applications because people do not get the sort of personal assistance that they would get in a face-to-face interview. That, too, is an important part of the process.

Mrs. Gillan: I am grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for giving way; she has been most generous. I hope that she does not mind our pressing her, but we have some anxieties about this matter. She told the Committee that she would widen the network of places designated by the Secretary of State to receive claims for asylum. What criteria will be used for the

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examinations and what time scale will apply? When will the designated places be fully listed, and how will the information be made available so that people can see it? What are the cost implications and will police stations or local government offices be used? I hope that the hon. Lady will be able to allay my fears that policy is being made on the hoof in an attempt to be generous, but has not been thought through. I want to ensure that parameters are laid down.

Ms Winterton: As I indicated earlier, existing facilities will be used. We must weigh the costs associated with the problems of postal applications and the possibility of detrimental effects on the asylum seeker against, on the other hand, fraud, which can be extremely costly. We must also weigh that against the proposal announced in a statement to the House by the Home Secretary on 29 October, that we would expand reporting centres. We do not need primary legislation to do that.

As I said before, we are making a perfectly straightforward attempt to ensure that we know where people are from start to finish, that claims are properly recorded and—this is the point—that we can then process claims more quickly and make support available to asylum seekers. We are simply trying to ensure that our system is improved. The proposal has been thought about extremely carefully and we are confident that it will improve efficiency, reduce any confusion and help to cut down on fraud. There is nothing more than that in what we are trying to do. A proposal has already been announced, and the clause follows it through. Overall, it will lead to greater efficiency and possible savings. It is important to improve the system and the Bill will help to do that.

Let me set out the background to amendment No. 131. Our commitment is to provide support to a person whose household includes a dependant child under 18. That reflects an existing provision in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. The aim is to continue to support children who would otherwise need to be supported by the local authority.

I take note of the points made about trafficking, but that is covered in part 7. It is an important issue. Although, in the majority of cases, those involved would be the parents or guardians of children, there may be other situations to consider—for example, when an aunt, uncle or stepchild is involved. The amendment would reduce our ability to define a dependant in secondary legislation. We need some flexibility. I am sure that hon. Members accept that there are different types of relationship, which can be more complex than straightforward ones that involve only a parent or guardian. We do not want to be restricted in that respect.

Amendment No. 172 would require us to continue to offer support to a person whose asylum claim had been determined, but whom it was not practicable to return to another country. It goes without saying that we want to support those who are seeking asylum and are destitute, but once a claim has been determined, they should no longer qualify for such support unless their household includes a dependent child under 18. Those who are granted refugee status will qualify for mainstream benefits but in general we will expect

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people who are refused and who have no basis to stay to leave.

That said, there are obvious difficulties in returning people to certain territories, and I think that that is what the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey is getting at. A practical example would be someone from northern Iraq, who was unable to return to that part of the world. If a person has demonstrated that there is a genuine reason why they cannot leave the UK and that is through no fault of their own, or that a judicial challenge against a decision is not without merit, they may make an application under section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. In doing so, they would have to show that they could get no other support from friends, relatives or charities. It is right to offer support under that section, but it is different from the support that they would have been offered previously.

If the hon. Gentleman is also trying to discover whether that support would continue to be provided in accommodation centres, I refer him to clause 21(4), which says that people in the centres can be eligible for section 4 support if that is deemed necessary. I hope that that provides some reassurance and that the amendment will be withdrawn.

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