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Standing Committee E
Tuesday 14 May 2002
[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]
Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): On a point of order, Mr. Illsley. The Minister will recall several prolonged exchanges last Thursday about possible sites for accommodation centres. I asked whether a decision had been taken, and if so, whether it would be announced in the next two or three weeks. I told her that it was important that no decision be taken or announced until both Houses had passed the Bill. She said that the Government had not yet decided the sites. She said:
''We are considering which sites to submit planning applications for . . . An announcement on which sites we intend to submit planning notifications will be made soon, but no decision has been taken about individual sites''.—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 9 May 2002; c. 165.]
I was keen that members of the Committee should be the first to know about the sites. I told her that she would understand that many of us would regard it as an affront to the parliamentary system if an announcement were made during the next week or two while the Bill was in Committee or in the other place. She said that there was nothing more she could tell us and used the word ''soon''.
We were therefore surprised to read in The Independent on Sunday that:
''Ministers are to build one of three ''villages'' for asylum-seekers on a site where thousands of foot-and-mouth carcasses were buried.''
It said that a location at Throckmorton airfield in Worcestershire
''was chosen from a shortlist of eight.''
There was also an article in the Sunday Express. It seems to my hon. Friends and me that the Minister should have told us if she knew last Thursday that planning applications would be made for particular sites. The question arises whether she failed to tell us about something that she was aware of then. Is an announcement due to be made today in parliamentary questions? If so, it would have been courteous to tell us days ago when the information was available.
Would it not be proper for the Minister to let the Committee know the up-to-date position and, if necessary—it is a matter for her to decide—to apologise if she failed to tell us last Thursday something that she knew then? If she did not, that is the end of the matter. If she did, it would help us to know why the Committee was not the first to be informed. Eight sites are mentioned on the internet, including Pershore, Worcestershire; land vacated at Bicester, Oxfordshire; and RAF Newton at West Bridgeford, Nottinghamshire. Are those the three sites proposed for planning applications?
The Chairman: I call Angela Eagle.
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle): I am happy to respond and would have done so in timely fashion this afternoon in the Chamber at 3.30 pm. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that letters were to be sent to members of the Committee to make the parliamentary answer available simultaneously at 3.30. As he pointed out, however, the information was leaked in the media this morning, so I shall place the information before the Committee ahead of the forthcoming parliamentary answer. I should also stress that no decision to proceed on any site has been taken. As I said on Thursday, that will not happen before Royal Assent.
Here is the announcement to be made to Parliament at 3.30 pm. The question is:
''To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department when he intends to announce the sites on which he will seek planning permission for Accommodation Centres?''.
The answer is:
''We will be submitting planning notifications in respect of DSDC Bicester, RAF Newton and QinetiQ Pershore as soon as possible. The notifications will be submitted using the ordinary procedure of Circular 18/84. Consultation with the relevant local authorities will continue, including public meetings.
Further work is required on the sites at Air West Edinburgh, Sully Hospital (Glamorgan) and Hemswell Cliff (Lincolnshire) before a decision can be taken on whether to proceed to planning notifications.
The sites at Hooton Park (Ellesmere Port) and Killingholme (North Lincolnshire) are considered to be unsuitable for the siting of Accommodation Centres. No planning notifications will be submitted in respect of those sites.
Site searching has continued since we made our initial announcement, as we said it would. In addition to the sites we have identified ourselves, a number have been put forward by potential bidders. We will not be putting into the public domain details of such sites unless and until they are considered to be a serious prospect for the siting of an Accommodation Centre.''
Mr. Malins: Further to that point of order, Mr. Illsley. I am grateful to the Minister, but will she answer these specific questions? When was that question tabled?
The Chairman: Technically, that is not a point of order for the Chair. Any further questions arising from the Minister's statement to the Committee must continue through debate. The information given by Ministers to Committees does not constitute a point of order. It is inappropriate for the hon. Gentleman to continue questions on that basis.
Mr. Malins: Further to that point of order, Mr. Illsley. I perfectly understand your ruling, but is it appropriate for you to ask the Minister whether her comment last Thursday that she was considering which sites to submit planning applications for was wholly accurate, or whether a decision had already been taken? Will you direct her to respond, because the Committee may have been kept inadvertently in the dark and a decision already taken even though she said that it had not?
The Chairman: It is not within my power to direct the Minister to provide the information that the hon. Gentleman seeks, though I am sure that she has heard what he said and some of the issues may be cleared up later today or in future proceedings.
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Asylum-seeker: form of support
Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): I beg to move amendment No. 207, in page 17, line 37, leave out paragraph (a).
My hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) gives his apologies for not being present this morning. He is speaking at the Police Federation conference, but has assured me that he will join us this afternoon.
The amendment is designed to tease out the Government's intentions on cash only support. During proceedings on the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 and ever since we have expressed our concerns about the support system for asylum seekers, which we believe fails in two respects: it has not been the most appropriate form of support for the asylum seekers themselves, and it has not been good value for money.
The clause, unamended, potentially replicates both those mistakes. It enables the Secretary the State to provide support for the living needs only of those people held within accommodation under the national asylum support system and effectively removes his ability to support individuals who have found accommodation elsewhere, usually with friends and family. That option should be retained because a significant number of individuals have found accommodation with host communities that they either knew before they came to the United Kingdom or have got to know since. The additional cash support is an important element in sustaining that.
We recognise the Government's concern that this is in some ways contrary to their dispersal strategy. They want to be able to say where asylum seekers should end up. Clearly, the cash only option allows asylum seekers to decide where they end up. They can choose to live with a particular family rather than in the accommodation to which they have been directed. We believe that the dispersal programme in general is still compatible with the cash only support system. According to the Refugee Council cash only support applications used to be almost entirely in the Greater London area but individuals are now claiming that support while living with host communities elsewhere.
Clearly, the system is not confining asylum seekers to the south-east, but it still has some way to go. It was introduced relatively recently and we do not know how it will develop over time. I certainly see individuals in Sheffield from the Somali community. Somali asylum seekers may well choose to live with the established Somali community there. That would be quite a sensible option for them and the cash only support system may allow that to happen. We need to recognise that individuals may choose to live with families and friends in established communities. Many of those established communities are in London and the south-east, but not all of them. The Government may wish to control where asylum seekers live in order to carry out their immigration functions. We believe that the reporting arrangements in the Bill and other legislation are sufficient to enable them to carry out
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their function of tracking asylum seekers without having to dictate precisely where they live and allowing them some flexibility to make those decisions themselves.
We fear that if the Government proceed with the withdrawal of the cash only system immediately it may lead to more family separation. Without the additional cash contribution, families who may have recently established themselves in the United Kingdom or may still be going through some form of immigration procedure may be unable to look after another family member who wishes to stay with them. The new arrival will end up in National Asylum Support Service accommodation rather than with the family with whom they should be. In view of article 8 of the European convention on human rights and the right to family life, is it right for an individual who is in the UK and who has family members here to be disbarred financially from living with that family?
The cost question is significant. At present a single adult in the age band from 18 to 25 receives £29.89 per week in cash vouchers. That is clearly far less than providing accommodation in an accommodation centre, or indeed through the full package of benefits. We have to question the Government's motives in apparently wanting to close down a cheaper option whereby an individual provides for himself in his own community and receives what is effectively a small cash payment. Why introduce a policy that discourages that and instead directs people into a much more expensive option? Does that make sense?
We must also question the capacity of the support system if the 6,000-odd individuals who get voucher only support are directed back into the mainstream system. Do we have the ability to cope with that, given that there have been difficulties negotiating support packages for many asylum seekers throughout the country? The local authority in my constituency works as well as it can with the national support system but it is not a trivial task to find an extra 6,000 units of accommodation.
What happens if cash only support is withdrawn and significant numbers of individuals will not allow themselves to be diverted into the more expensive system but stay where they are without the cash support? Do the Government really intend that the host families and communities should pick up the entire tab? I accept that asylum seekers will have made the choice to stay there, but often the host communities are not at the top of the income tree and the people involved are already on fairly low incomes. Is it really intended to force individuals to make a choice between living with family and friends, being a burden on them, making them even poorer and perhaps creating additional social tensions as a result of that poverty, or living many miles away from those with whom they feel associated, simply for financial reasons? That is an invidious choice.
I hope that the Government will reconsider their view on the issue and keep open the additional option. The Bill as drafted does not state that it will be
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withdrawn tomorrow, but there is a clear intention in the White Paper and the Bill that it will be withdrawn over time. We ask the Government to reconsider that intention, and to take note of our criticisms and the potential problems to which we have drawn attention that will result from the withdrawal of the additional flexibility.