Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Mr. Malins: Amendments Nos. 133 and 134 are probing amendments that relate to drafting. By adding the words

    ''having regard to all the circumstances'',

we widen the clause to require and enable a full review of all the evidence that is available. I hope that the Minister will accept that there is some merit in that.

Ms Buck: I support the amendment, which presses the Government on whether we should withdraw support-only arrangements. I have made representations on this subject on several occasions and seek some reassurance from the Government.

As a London Member of Parliament, my experience leads me to think that there are two potential consequences of withdrawing the support-only option. It will either increase the total cost of service provision, because of the likelihood that people who are currently receiving the minimum level of support will go into accommodation centres, or intensify the poverty of those who are providing support to members of their families or extended communities in their own homes.

I refer to a case that was brought to a local solicitor of a mother and a daughter who sought asylum from Iran following the death in prison of the girl's father. They were dispersed by NASS to Glasgow, where their flat was broken into a number of times and they were the targets of racial abuse. They came back to London and presented to the Refugee Council. They were then sent to Glasgow for a second time and were again subject to harassment, so they returned to London. The daughter was in a state of nervous breakdown and had to be admitted to hospital for mental health treatment. A friend of a relative who lives in America was able to offer them, rent free, the use of a room in north London, where they have lived ever since, receiving vouchers for support.

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Notwithstanding the overcrowding at the property, that has allowed them to settle. The children are now in full-time school and college and the mother is in college and receiving counselling. The friend would not have been able to offer that level of support had she also been required to feed them. In this case, the asylum-seeking family received a better, cheaper and more appropriate level of support while its claim was being considered, and the host did not suffer poverty as a consequence.

I should like some indication from the Minister that the support-only option will be bad for economic

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reasons and because of the risk it poses of intensifying poverty in certain communities—it has a particular impact on Turkish and Sri Lankan families. Can the Minister give the matter sympathetic consideration?

Angela Eagle: I am slightly puzzled by my hon. Friend's intervention at this stage. I was expecting to have this debate on clause 34, which deals with the abolition of—or potentially gives us the power to abolish—the support-only option. This part of the Bill deals only with the definition of destitution. It does not cover that area, and it would be more sensible, if my hon. Friend does not mind, for me to return to the serious points that she has made when we debate clause 34.

There is no change in policy whatever implied in the change in wording of the definition of destitution in clause 17. We intend to use the definition in the new Act, when it reaches the statute book, in exactly the same way that we do the one in the 1999 Act. People might be suspicious because of the use of the word ''and'' rather than ''or''. The hon. Member for Woking got into some difficulty on the day of Her Majesty's jubilee speech to the two Houses, when he juxtaposed an ''or'' and an ''and''. However, in this case, there is no difference in policy.

Mr. Malins: No, no, no. It is kind of the Minister to say that I got into difficulties. I reminded the Minister at the time that I am a huge monarchist. I was enabling a debate to get under way.

Angela Eagle: I accept the hon. Gentleman's explanation. What I was trying to do by mentioning it was to illustrate that in that case the difference between ''and'' and ''or'' was drastic in that it removed the requirement to pledge allegiance to Her Majesty during a naturalisation ceremony. In this case, there is no difference in the way in which we intend to pursue the policy. The effect of the wording is that if a person does not have both adequate accommodation and food and other essential items, he will be seen, for the purposes of the Act, as destitute. Put another way, if he lacks either adequate accommodation or food and other essential items, he is destitute. I hope that that will calm the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey.

There is no difference in effect between the old and the new wording. I am told that the new wording was placed in the Bill to make it easier to read and more user-friendly. There is no intent on the Government's side to change the definitions of destitution that were in the 1999 Act. That demonstrates the perils of trying to introduce plain English into legislation. As soon as Government change existing wording, everyone automatically assumes that there is a sinister motive for it. It is right that, in any legislature, such sinister motives should be hunted for. I assure hon. Members that there is no difference between the old and new definitions. I am sorry if people were alarmed and thought that there was, and am glad to be able to put the record right.

Amendments Nos. 175 and 212 would prevent the Secretary of State from being able to specify by regulations the items that are or are not be treated as essential to determine whether someone is destitute.

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That would lead to uncertainty, dispute and delay, and perhaps even more money for lawyers at the beginning of the process when people need to be defined as available for NASS accommodation or not.

I want to reassure the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey that the principles will remain the same. They are already enshrined in the Asylum Support Regulations 2000, which record what are not to be regarded as essential living needs. We envisage that the same list will be prescribed. For completeness, I shall say that the current list covers the cost of faxes, computer facilities, photocopying, travel except in limited circumstances, toys and other recreational items and entertainment. Without such a list, it is highly likely that confusion and disputes would arise regularly, thereby slowing down access to the system when people need it.

Some amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Woking would require the Secretary of State to have regard to all circumstances. The Government amendments give a wider discretion and achieve the same aim.

With those reassurances, I hope that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey will withdraw his amendment. We will return to the important points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North at the appropriate time.

Ms Buck: I apologise, but as we began to discuss the widening of the definition I got the impression that this was an appropriate time to raise those concerns. I am reassured by what my hon. Friend said.

Angela Eagle: I assure my hon. Friend that I will come to the debate that she has opened at the appropriate time.

Simon Hughes: I am grateful for the Minister's response. We can return to the subject of regulations, and I want to press the case to see them as soon as possible.

It was not surprising that we opened a debate that comes under a later part of the Bill. The hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North and I conceived a definition of destitution, and the subject reappears in clause 35 under the part of the Bill on support. Clause 35 immediately follows the clause on the form of support, so they link and the same

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definition applies in both. The amendments were grouped so that we took amendments to clauses 17 and 35 together. The substantive point relates to concern about NASS, and I accept that we will return to that debate.

I understand what the Minister said about wording, and I shall suggest an amendment that might make it even clearer. A reference to ''(a) or (b) or both'' might be the best way to clarify the issue. There was clearly some confusion, as I was not the only person misled by the drafting. It appears straightforward, and I can see the other interpretation, so I am not being unreasonable. However, a form of drafting could probably make the matter clear beyond doubt. I shall not ask the Minister to accept my suggestion now, but if ''destitute'' means that someone does not have accommodation, support or either, perhaps we should have that wording so that we get everything right.

One of the great battles in this place is to make legislation that we can understand and that we hope others can understand. It would be good to make some progress.

Angela Eagle: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. Our amendments were tabled to improve clarity. We do not appear to have achieved that, so I am reluctant to try again. However, I hope that he accepts the undertakings that I gave. I re-emphasise that there is no difference on the issue between our intentional policy in the 1999 Act and that in the Bill.

Simon Hughes: I am grateful, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made: No. 104, in page 10, line 41, leave out 'or assets which are' and insert 'which is'.

No. 105, in page 10, line 43, at end insert—

    '( ) enable or require the Secretary of State in deciding whether a person is destitute to have regard to assets of a prescribed kind which he or a dependant of his has or might reasonably be expected to have;'.—[Angela Eagle.]

Clause 17, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

It being twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock, The Chairman adjourned the Committee without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned till this day at half-past Two o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Illsley, Mr. Eric (Chairman)
Barker, Mr.
Buck, Ms
Dhanda, Mr.
Eagle, Angela
Gapes, Mike
Gillan, Mrs.
Hughes, Simon
Lammy, Mr.
Lazarowicz, Mr.
McGuire, Mrs.
Malins, Mr.
Prosser, Mr.
Rooney, Mr.
Watkinson, Angela
Winterton, Ms Rosie

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