Standing Committee B
Thursday 15 January 2004
[David Taylor in the Chair]
Failed asylum seekers: withdrawal of support
Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): I beg to move amendment No. 85, in
clause 7, page 7, line 11, leave out '14' and insert '21'.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 90, in
clause 7, page 7, line 19, leave out 'vary' and insert 'extend'.
Mr. Oaten: At Tuesday's sitting, the Minister helpfully explained the process behind a decision to remove benefits, and the length of time taken to inform families of such a decision. Although I disagree on the principle behind clause 7, the Minister reassured me that the Government are giving a lot of thought to ensuring that safeguards are in place and that individuals will have plenty of time to be informed of the consequences of their decision.
These are probing amendments designed to ascertain the reasoning for allowing only 14 days from the notification of removal of a benefit to the termination of that support. It would be particularly helpful if the Minister could answer some questions about that, and clarify whether 14 days is the standard period allowed from notification to termination. The period of 14 days would apply to the proposed
''fifth class of ineligible person'',
but is it different for people in the other classes set out in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002?
The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 includes the provision that support for failed asylum seekers must be terminated 21 days after receipt of the final decision on the asylum claim. Why is the period 14 days in this Bill? Given that the issue is so sensitive, it is odd that a period of 14 days has been used. I hope that the Minister will explain and clarify why this case is different.
Amendment No. 90 is designed to obtain clarification from the Minister about our concerns that clause 7 allows the Secretary of State to vary the period of 14 days. Would that be a variation below 14 days, or is the intention to allow more than 14 days? We would all hope that the intention is to allow more than 14 days in certain circumstances, and I hope that the Minister will clarify that. If it is not the intention to allow fewer than 14 days, that should be in the Bill. I hope that she will help with those simple questions.
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Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): I associate myself with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten). Fourteen days might not be long enough. In many criminal proceedings, the time allowed to register an appeal is longer. As the hon. Gentleman said, to ''vary the period specified'' might be construed as meaning to vary it downwards to an impossibly tight schedule. I hope that the Minister will provide assurances that such a variation would either not be downwards, or would require approval from the House.
The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes): I support the spirit of amendment No. 85. The hon. Member for Winchester wants to ensure that the process is not precipitous and that we allow enough time for families to leave voluntarily, or for opportunities to enforce a removal before certification, as we discussed in the previous sitting. I am clear that the purpose of the amendments is to ensure that families have adequate time to leave voluntarily and I have no dispute with that principle. However, we must remember that, in the entire process that I have outlined, the period of 14 days applies only after the Secretary of State has certified that, after many attempts, the family has failed to leave or to co-operate with arrangements to enable them to leave. That makes the situation different from the other circumstances that were outlined.
I can confirm that in other legislation there is a period of 21 days for single people for whom support is withdrawn once appeal rights have been exhausted. I envisage the total process being considerably longer than 21 days. We have agreed to write to inform people formally of a notification by the tribunal that appeals have been exhausted. We have also agreed to write to give them an appointment for an interview. Clearly, we will have to give them notice of that. We have also agreed that, if people continue to fail to turn up or to co-operate, we will issue a third letter warning them that support may be withdrawn, before we finally reach the certification letter, which says, ''I'm sorry, you haven't co-operated.''
Before the 14 days, there will be a period, which we have yet to work out in detail, to allow for three letters and notice of an appointment. I imagine that we are talking about at least another fortnight in that regard, so the period is already more than 21 days.
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I apologise for being a little late, Mr. Taylor. I also extend to you the heartiest Leicestershire welcome.
Would not one concern that the hon. Member for Winchester no doubt has about the period in clause 7(1) be mitigated to some extent by adjustments to clause 10? Even if people arrive at a position in which they are certificated as failed asylum seekers, so long as they have been through a proper judicial process and they feel that they have been properly dealt with by a system that they understand and respect, the 14-day period will have a less damaging and hurtful effect than it might otherwise have.
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Beverley Hughes: When we reach clause 10, the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), will make it clear that the revised arrangements for a single tier of appeal will give people a fair opportunity to state their appeal and will not be a diminution of the opportunity to do so, or the quality of that. Notwithstanding that, hon. Members argue that they want to be sure, in cases involving children, that there is adequate time for families to be clear about the options and some of the consequences and that, if it comes to leaving, which it will do, one way or another, with families in this category, they can do so in a dignified way and make arrangements.
I hope that I have made it clear that the process that we envisage will, before certification, involve a period that, in addition to the 14 days required in legislation, means that the total time exceeds that in legislation at the moment for other groups.
Amendment No. 90 would ensure that there was a minimum of 14 days between receipt of the Secretary of State's decision that support is to be withdrawn and that taking effect. I am happy to state on the record that we have no plans to limit that period. I am wary, however, and it would not be sensible to limit the operation of the clause by saying that it will only ever be possible to extend the period. We do not know what may happen in future. The process may be changed quite substantially. The amendment would limit us unnecessarily. It is normal in legislation at this stage to use a term such as ''vary'', because it gives us options.
I realise that that will not be any comfort to the hon. Member for Winchester, because he wants me to close down one option, but the Government have no intention of reducing the period of 14 days. We feel that there should be a statutory minimum for the period between certification and any enforced removal. That is right in the circumstances. We do not want to reduce that, but none of us can predict what may affect consideration of these processes. It would not be good law making to constrain ourselves at this point. I hope that the hon. Gentleman can accept my assurance that I have no intention of reducing the period of 14 days and withdraw his amendment on that basis.
Mr. Oaten: The Minister has been extremely helpful. She says that it is not good law making to narrow down the option. I could argue that it is not good law making from the Opposition's perspective merely to have a Minister's promise or commitment in Committee about something in the Bill that is unclear. I am uneasy about that. It would be hard to envisage circumstances where one would wish to vary the time period downwards. It would go into someone's natural period of justice and I am uneasy about it. I accept the Minister's reassurances and we may want to revisit that at a later point.
On the wider issue of whether it is 14 or 21 days, I understand the Minister is saying that, in this particular fifth class, we are allowing a longer period. As there will be a generally longer period, there is an argument for saying that it should not be 21 or 14 days. She has yet to explain how long it will be. We have
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some detail about the letters and the interview but we need to know whether that will all be done in a week, two weeks or four weeks. Until we have clarity about how long the process, which I think is helpful, will take, it is difficult for us to make a judgment about the 14 and 21-day point.
For the sake of a week, it would be a tidier system if the fifth class were in line with other classes. It must make sense to have the same principle in place. Not having it in place could lead to confusion. Individuals may assume, perhaps because they have been through the process before, or their advisers may assume that the period is the same as it is for other classes. It is sensible to have tidy legislation that is similar to the other processes that are in place. The Minister admitted that these cases are more complex. That is why the Government want to put these processes in place. If these cases are more complex, it is inconsistent to have a period that is much shorter than the one for less complex cases.
Finally, I may be misinterpreting some of the subsections, but in some of the other classes there might be an ability to appeal against the determination to terminate the support. My reading of the clause is that no appeal may be brought for the fifth class on the removal of support. If that is being taken away, my layman's interpretation is that another tier, another period, is being taken away for this class. That suggests that having the 21-day period rather than the 14-day period would be helpful. We will need to revisit these issues. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.