Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Mr. Malins: This has been an intriguing debate. It began with my saying that it would be brief, because I wanted to put only a couple of small drafting amendments to the Minister. Lo and behold, as the debate developed, it suddenly became clear that what appeared to my hon. Friends, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and I to be two major policy issues were being revealed.

We have been told in the clearest possible terms that from now on—or perhaps from next week, or from the date when the Bill comes into force—all asylum applications must be made in person. Furthermore, we have been told that they must be made at

    ''a place designated by the Secretary of State'',

but we do not know where those places are. If I were a Minister—I am not one yet, and the way I am going I might never be one—I would ask the Whip to move that the Committee should suspend for a fortnight so that the proposals could be set out in clauses that could be properly debated by the Committee. However, were I the Whip, I would tell the Minister, ''No, I won't. Let's proceed.'' That is how this place works

There is potentially a much longer discussion to be had about some of the matters that have been raised during the debate by the Parliamentary Secretary. They relate to the proposed centres and the way in which an application is to be made in future. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker) asked the Parliamentary Secretary to define what ''local'' meant, to determine how many centres there would be, but the answer was that ''it might mean local'', so we are none the wiser.

Life is full of surprises, and I thank the Parliamentary Secretary for her helpful reply about amendment No. 131. I will not press the amendment

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to a Division, but we shall return to the more substantive part of the clause in due course.

Simon Hughes: I shall not push for a vote either, but we must reflect on the issues arising from the debate. Unless I missed it, I did not hear the Parliamentary Secretary say that there will be no postal applications. Given that there are 6,000 at the moment, I assume that postal applications will continue. If they do, problems in the system mean that the process will need to be changed along the lines set out in the lead amendment so that asylum claims start from the moment the application is made.

The issue is not a big one in my constituency, because Beckett house is close enough to be a local registration centre. However, I do not envisage there being places at which people can see immigration officials and register with the Home Office in every part of the United Kingdom, no matter how small the island or population. That is inconceivable, so keeping postal applications is sensible. The bulk of people apply either at ports of entry, when there is simultaneous application and recording, or in a way that does not have a distance in time between the application and recording. However, we must avoid bureaucracy that means that an asylum seeker who has a perfectly good case is not regarded as having made an application because they have not visited the regional centre. We must protect the way in which applications are made under the convention.

I understand the Parliamentary Secretary's point about clause 21, which gives the cover. I shall look back at the earlier legislation, but the important point is that we agree that there must be facilities for someone who is stuck here and does not have their own resources. If their application has ended but they cannot go home, we must not suddenly say, ''Sorry, but we're not doing anything''. I am sure that there is common intention about that. I will examine the Minister's comments. It may be that they cover the eventualities.

My only concern for the Parliamentary Secretary and her civil servants is that people whose case has ended must clearly and understandably be told that they have the opportunity of another support system and that if they want it, they must apply there and then. It must be unlike housing benefit and council tax benefit applications, in which it is too late for someone to do anything about it if they realise that they have not applied in time. For people without English as a first language and who are unfamiliar with the traditions, there must be a good safeguard to ensure that they know exactly what is needed to keep them supported.

Mr. Malins: I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Malins: I beg to move amendment No. 132, in page 10, line 13, after '1950', add

    'or Article 8 (''right to private life'') of that Convention.'.

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This is another sensible amendment that has been suggested to me by the Immigration Advisory Service. It deals with a short but relevant point. There are a small number of article 8 claims based on the right to private life where someone would qualify for exceptional leave to remain if the application were successful. Their need for support is just as great as that of someone whose case is based on article 3 of the 1951 convention. The amendment is as simple as that, and I hope that the Minister will accept it.

11 am

Simon Hughes: I support the amendment for the same reason, and I hope that the Government will be positive.

Ms Winterton: I cannot be as positive as hon. Gentlemen would like, but I am able to give some reassurance.

The definition of an asylum claim includes a claim that removing a person would be contrary to our obligations under article 3 of the European convention on human rights. That makes sense, given the overlap in some cases between a fear of persecution under the refugee convention and the prohibition of torture under article 3. When we assess whether someone can be removed to a particular country, there is a clear link between fear of persecution and subjection to inhuman or degrading treatment as a result.

The right to private life is a different matter, as it does not involve fear of persecution or torture. We therefore do not believe that there is any reason why it should be treated as an asylum claim. If it were, that would considerably widen the number of people who would be considered to qualify for support. The question would also arise why we should not regard all claims made under any article of the ECHR as an asylum claim, which would allow support to be offered. I hope that hon. Members accept that that would be unrealistic, especially in view of the potential cost. However, I assure hon. Members that we would consider someone's rights under the ECHR, including the right to private life, when assessing whether they should be removed from the UK. I hope that the hon. Member for Woking understands why we cannot accept the amendment, and that he will withdraw it.

Mr. Malins: I am grateful to the Minister. I am partly, if not wholly, reassured, and I do not wish to press the amendment to a vote. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Simon Hughes: We must get the clause right, as it is the lynchpin—the definition section—on which the rest of the Bill depends. I hope that we will have a chance to reflect on earlier debates, and agree to any necessary amendments.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 16 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

The Chairman: Before we discuss clause 17, I should clarify that we will rise at 11.25 am and suspend the

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Committee until 2.30 pm. I intend to break at 4.30 pm for 30 minutes.

Clause 17

Destitution: definition

Simon Hughes: I beg to move amendment No. 173, in page 10, line 17, leave out 'and' and insert 'or'.

The Chairman: With this we may take the following amendments: No. 174, in page 10, line 21, leave out 'and' and insert 'or'.

No. 175, in page 10, line 32, leave out subsection (5).

No. 176, in page 10, line 36, leave out paragraph (a).

No. 133, in page 10, line 39, at end insert

    'having regard to all the circumstances'.

Government amendment No. 104.

No. 134, in page 10, line 43, at end insert

    'having regard to all the circumstances'

Government amendment No. 105.

No. 209, in clause 35, page 18, line 31, leave out 'and' and insert 'or'.

No. 210, in page 18, line 35, leave out 'and' and insert 'or'.

No. 212, in page 19, line 7, leave out subsection (7).

No. 213, in page 19, line 11, leave out paragraph (a).

Government amendments Nos. 120 to 122.

Simon Hughes: I shall speak to the appropriate amendments in the group. Amendment No. 133 is a joint effort between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. The group also includes Government amendments, which appear straightforward and are hopefully uncontroversial. The amendments from No. 173 onwards relate to clause 17, but have the same effect on later clauses, particularly clause 35. They would affect the definition of destitution.

Under the clause:

    ''Where a person has dependants, he and his dependants are destitute for the purpose of this Part if they do not have and cannot obtain—

    (a) adequate accommodation, and

    (b) food and other essential items.''

Instead of making the effect accumulative—people are considered destitute if they do not have accommodation and food and other items—the amendment would qualify it, so that people are considered destitute if they do not have either adequate accommodation or food and other essential items. People frequently have accommodation, because they are staying with friends or family, but they cannot reasonably expect their friends or family to maintain them. It would relieve the burden on the state if accommodation did not have to be provided. It is nonsense to ask the state to look after people when others are willing to do so, but some recently arrived families may not have much in the way of financial resources.

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We shall debate similar issues in part 3. If the Government really intend to introduce these provisions, it would appear to be a draconian and unsympathetic Treasury-driven policy. To qualify for support, one has to lack accommodation and food and other essential items. I hope that the Minister will soon assure us that that is not the intended policy and that it will be changed. In previous legislation, an either/or position was the prerequisite and trigger for providing support and I hope that we can return to that.

The change has been criticised by various organisations that provide advice. The Immigration Law Practitioners Association and the Refugee Council have both criticised the phasing out of subsistence support and the Immigration Advisory Service made similar points, stating:

    ''We deprecate the proposal that asylum seekers should not be allowed to receive NASS support only rather than both support and accommodation as well. This will prevent asylum seekers remaining within their communities, create additional tensions, add considerable cost to the system, make integration of refugees more difficult and lead to social exclusion.''

The figures show that 20 per cent. of applicants can be or are accommodated with their families or in the community: they therefore receive help with cash, but not accommodation. They are given help to live, but do not need help to be accommodated.

Taking away the option is far from sensible. We have three basic ways of dealing with asylum seekers: in accommodation centres, where everything is provided on a trial basis; under the dispersal system, where accommodation is provided with subsistence but not in an accommodation centre; and with family and friends in communities, where accommodation is offered and the state does not have to pick up that obligation but where subsistence will be needed to help to foot the bills. Amendment No. 174 would have a similar effect, as would those grouped with it that relate to later clauses.

The second type of amendment is evidenced by amendment No. 175, which would remove clause 17(5), which states:

    ''The Secretary of State may by regulations specify items which are or are not to be treated as essential items for the purposes of subsections (1) and (2).''

This is a probing amendment, because the Bill contains no definition of an essential item. I think that the Minister appreciates that it would be helpful to clarify what that means. Obviously, there will be regulations—the sooner we see them, the better—and we will seek to make them subject to affirmative, rather than negative, resolution.

Similarly, amendment No. 176 relates to clause 17(6), which states:

    ''The Secretary of State may by regulations . . . provide that a person is not to be treated as destitute for the purposes of this Part in specified circumstances''.

Again, this is a probing amendment, to discover what the specified circumstances might be. We ought to be told.

Amendment No. 133, which is supported by Conservative Members, would simply add a phrase that would ensure that all an asylum seeker's circumstances are taken into account, not only the

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income that they are expected to have, because some people may not have what others have. I am sure that the Government understand the implications of that. Amendment No. 134 would have the same effect.

Finally, amendments Nos. 209, 210 and 212 make a similar point to that raised in the first group of amendments, although they relate to later clauses in the Bill. Policy on subsistence is a central issue, and I hope that we can retain all three options, with full Government support.

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