|Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill
Angela Eagle: My hon. Friend's position is not necessarily as incompatible with the Government's as she believes. This is an enabling power. I realise that the Committee must have a certain amount of trust that the Government will not use it tomorrow. We are taking a broad power that enables us at some time in the future, as the system evolves and if it seems appropriate, to cut off this option. We do not intend to do so immediately. We could focus on particular communities, as my hon. Friend suggested, before we even consider using the enabling power. Indeed, we would have to come back to Parliament to trigger it.
My hon. Friend's points are not necessarily incompatible with the clause, but there would have to be some trust that sudden decisions would not be taken at Government level that would rule out some of her important suggestions—namely, whether we could improve contact with particular communities and whether reporting would deal with tracking the asylum claims of those on cash only support.
Mr. Allan: I have a great deal of sympathy with the points made by the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) about the effect on communities already here. Is it the Minister's intention
Column Number: 201to prevent new people from taking the cash only option or to withdraw it from those already claiming it? That is an important distinction.
Angela Eagle: We do not want to introduce the enabling power overnight for everyone. If we decided to move towards it in the future, we would have to consider the practicalities. The first step would be to remove cash only support from all asylum seekers coming through at the time, and then to consider whether we wished to withdraw it gradually from those who have already taken advantage of it. The hon. Gentleman will know that we still have the remnants of the interim scheme, where decisions tend to be about practical administrative doability rather than policy neatness.
Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester): Does the withdrawal of the support only option apply only to centres such as London or also to dispersal areas? I have had representations from a refugee organisation in Gloucestershire, which says that many people there receive support only.
Angela Eagle: We know from the figures I gave earlier that 70 per cent of those involved in choosing the cash only option—that is what we must call it now that the vouchers have gone—live in Greater London, and 30 per cent live elsewhere, although I cannot give my hon. Friend a rundown of precisely where. The clause allows us to remove all cash only options and require people either to be dispersed if they require assistance from NASS or to go into accommodation centres.
At the beginning of this process, ahead of the pilot, we do not know how the accommodation centre proposals will develop. We must have the flexibility to change the old system to make it compatible with new developments. It is an enabling power that would in theory remove all other options, but as I said to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam, if we choose to use it, we will consider carefully how to implement it. It would be sensible to introduce it for all new asylum claims.
Mr. Dhanda: Are we talking about removing cash only support for people already in dispersal areas such as Gloucestershire?
Angela Eagle: I have had a figure put in front of me, which I will read out to the Committee in case it is helpful. The number of people given cash only support in the south-west region in December last year was 350—I hope that Gloucester is in the south-west region. I hope that that gives my hon. Friend an idea of the numbers involved. The problem is far greater in central London, and we need to consider the effect of the provision on dispersal. Were we to exercise the power fully, it would end cash only support, but as I hope I have made clear, we do not intend to do that immediately. Were we to decide to trigger it, we would consider the practicalities of doing so.
Mr. Allan: I am interested in what the Minister says about adopting a pragmatic approach. I hope that she is sincere in that, because I suspect that from a pragmatic perspective the withdrawal of the cash only option will prove counter-productive, for many of the reasons given by the hon. Member for Regent's Park
Column Number: 202and Kensington, North. I fear that the withdrawal of the cash only option would not disperse the 17,000 asylum seekers in London who are receiving it: it would merely leave them in London, but poorer. I hope that the Minister will consider seriously whether that would be the net result before proceeding with the provision.
The other valid concern, which was raised by the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), is the possibility that the 350 asylum seekers receiving cash only support in Gloucestershire might want to be supported by larger communities in London if cash only support were withdrawn. They may be able to live in Gloucestershire under the cash only option because they are staying with a Chinese or a Sri Lankan family, for example, but that might no longer be sustainable if the support were withdrawn. They might not want another accommodation option and might withdraw back to London. All those issues need to be looked at before proceeding down the route of the clause, which is fraught with difficulties.
The Minister referred to savings delivered elsewhere, which was a great phrase in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. There is always a perception that savings will materialise from one part of the system to enable us to put more into another part. The Government admitted in the proceedings of the previous Act that while the NASS accommodation options would be much more expensive than the benefits system, they would give an overall net saving because the time scales would be reduced: asylum seekers would use them for only a few months rather than for long periods. That has not happened.
Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): Is it not logical that there will not be savings, because the only way that the power could be introduced would be for NASS accommodation centres to offer accommodation to every asylum seeker? NASS would have to provide at least 17,000 more places, because otherwise we would cut off assistance for people who do not have any other means of support.
Mr. Allan: The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. Thinking it through, if the assumption is that there would still be savings with the more expensive option of NASS accommodation for asylum seekers when they arrive in the country, because the time scale would be shorter, giving an individual a cash only option with a shorter time scale would be cheaper still. Overall savings are possible, although I am sceptical. Until I see savings materialise from the 1999 Act, I will not predict savings from this legislation. It would always be cheaper to go for the cash only option. It stands to reason, as we can see the figures.
Angela Eagle: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there would be far less reason to trigger the powers if we could reach the stage where reporting was working effectively, and if we could demonstrate that cash only asylum claims were dealt with as quickly as those in accommodation centres? We have yet to trial accommodation centres, and we may be able to make real savings and take speedy and effective decisions. I certainly hope so. It is wise to have the power to phase out other parts of previous systems in favour of more effective ones. I do not yet know
Column Number: 203whether there is potential in accommodation centres for achieving that. The pilot will show that. However, he must admit that having the power to respond appropriately is reasonable at this juncture.
Mr. Allan: I appreciate the Minister's reasonable and rational clarification. She appears to be suggesting that there may be no need to withdraw the option if the reporting arrangements work and the claims can be processed reasonably quickly, and if we can therefore deal with the clustering of asylum seekers who are taking the option. That is helpful, if that is what she is saying. However, there is a fear that the Government would be cutting their nose off to spite their face if they withdrew this option, which may be cheaper and better for asylum seekers, in order to answer criticisms about dispersal and to try to speed up the process. We fear that that would be a blunt instrument, and would not work.
However, I appreciate the tone of the Minister's response and her assurance that this is an enabling power and that the Government will carefully consider the circumstances. I do not wish to press the matter to a vote, although we will continue to examine carefully how the Government take the debate forward. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 34 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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