Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill

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Mr. Oaten: Will the Minister explain what the Government meant when they promised that there would be a form of appeal for section 55? That was made clear to Labour Members in question and answer notes, and I wonder what has happened to that process. I thought that it was the Government's intention to include an appeal process.

Beverley Hughes: I cannot clarify that, but there seems to be some confusion about it in the hon. Gentleman's mind. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow made it clear that he understood, when that was included in the Bill, that it would not include the normal process of appeal to the asylum support adjudicator. That was why we discussed the reconsideration process, and it has been further developed. I am not sure what the hon. Member for Winchester was citing, but it surprised me because I thought that most hon. Members understood that the normal route of appeal to the asylum support adjudicator in relation to section 55 would not be available.

2.45 pm

As I said, the Home Secretary made clear on Second Reading that those who apply to the asylum screening unit within three days of arrival will normally be given support under section 55. That is already reducing the number of negative decisions. The figures for last week show that approximately 45 per cent. of applicants were granted support at the first application. That is an increase on the figures from some months ago.

One of the important issues is the reconsideration process, certainly from the point of view of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten). He was concerned about redress after the initial decision.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): I am interested in the statistic of 45 per cent. that the Minister just quoted, and would like clarification. The Minister said ''45 per cent. of applicants''. Does that

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mean 45 per cent. of applicants or 45 per cent. of those whose cases are considered for a section 55 decision, because some applicants—the people who apply at the port—are never considered in relation to section 55? Am I correct that people who do not apply immediately at the port, but who are looked at by the asylum screening unit, might also never get to a NASS section 55 consideration?

Beverley Hughes: The 45 per cent. figure is for those people who have asked for support and who therefore go through consideration under section 55.

I shall give the hon. Member for Winchester the latest figures that I have on reconsideration cases, for 19 to 23 January. In that week, 72 new reconsideration cases were received. Most reconsiderations are based on claims under article 3 and, in that week, 54 claims were made under that article. Of those, 24 were conceded and 30 were refused again. There is a balance in the reconsideration cases that are coming through. I hope that I have demonstrated that serious consideration is given to article 3 cases and to issues related to change of circumstance. When the criteria are met, caseworkers make the decision to reinstate the support.

If, in such cases, there were a right of appeal to the asylum support adjudicator, we could be in a difficult situation. At present, there is a reconsideration, which is given effective and genuine consideration and results in about half of the cases brought under article 3 being conceded. The speed at which reconsideration is currently given is also important—90 per cent. of cases that week were reconsidered within 24 hours. If, for some reason, a person cannot have their case reconsidered within that time, they will be housed in emergency accommodation until the reconsideration can be done, so they are not just sent away overnight.

I say to the hon. Member for Winchester, in relation to his amendment, that if we were to institute a process of applying to the support adjudicator, that would certainly be a much longer process, after which people would then have the possibility of judicial review. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is considering a process involving reconsideration, then appeals to the adjudicator, and then judicial review. We would be building into the system layers of reconsideration that I do not believe to be necessary. The model that I outlined would consist of a speedy reconsideration, with the sort of outcome that I mentioned, with the provision that if a case could not be reconsidered within 24 hours, we would house people, and with the bottom line of a judicial review if people were really unhappy with the reconsideration of their case. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that that is a better model, given the numbers of people that we are considering.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab): Before we move on, I should like to say that I appreciate the need for and rationale behind section 55, and I know that it has been effective in the areas at which it was aimed. However, we were always concerned that there would be hard cases at the margins. The recent changes that have been implemented, such as the 72 hours and

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reconsideration, are helping. However, I still experience serious issues in my constituency. Just yesterday I received a note telling me that the local church had to be opened up to take in three absolutely destitute people who had knocked on the church door. For those hard cases that have fallen through all the safety nets, what advice can I give to my local minister, or even to the asylum seekers to help them?

Beverley Hughes: I am not aware of those cases. If my hon. Friend wants to send me any information I will of course investigate them.

People do not just get one reconsideration—they can ask for one at any time. If their circumstances change, or if they really are destitute and could be regarded as coming close to the article 3 threshold, they can ask again for reconsideration. To asylum seekers, and to people trying to support them, the advice is: go back to the immigration and nationality directorate and ask for reconsideration. I have given a guarantee that that will be done within 24 hours, and if it is not, people will be put in emergency accommodation while it is done.

New clause 20 contains a very ingenious formulation. I know there is serious intent here, which I do not intend to diminish, but this formulation was very impressive, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow found a very neat way of effectively excluding about 90 per cent. of the people who might otherwise be considered under section 55.

At present the 'clearly unfounded' certificate, which his amendment refers to, is mainly applied only to claims from people entitled to reside in the 24 states designated under section 94 of the 2002 Act. Only around 10 per cent. to 15 per cent. of asylum claims are made by such persons at the moment. Clearly some of those people would be able to demonstrate, as people do at the moment, that they had made their claim as soon as was reasonably practical within 72 hours. We would expect that number, which is 15 per cent. at the most, to diminish, so I reckon only around 10 per cent. of our current applicants would be eligible to have section 55 applied to them.

On a more serious note, my hon. Friend will probably not agree with me, but I simply ask him to accept that this is a serious measure, designed not to make people destitute, but to get them to change their behaviour by claiming at port, and helping us to investigate the traffickers by getting us information. It would be worthless if we could apply the measure to only 10 per cent. of cases.

New clause 10 relates to back payments of asylum support. The effect would be to express power for the National Asylum Support Service to pay back payments of asylum support where a claimant has not received a regular support payment. From a legal point of view, we do not need that amendment. Where we consider it is necessary and appropriate to make payments, we are satisfied that we have the legal power to do so.

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The hon. Member for Winchester drew our attention to an important policy issue in this area and wanted some comment on it. Since last summer, we have not made any back payments of asylum support, and I shall take this opportunity to explain why, what has been happening, and when we expect the situation to be resolved, which, I accept, needs to happen quickly.

NASS-supported asylum seekers make claims for back payments in a wide variety of circumstances but there are two broad categories—first, where a payment was missed because of a mistake on the part of NASS, or secondly because of a mistake, or a failure to collect, or a failure to give information, on the part of an asylum seeker, although the actual range of circumstances can go beyond those. In any case, the key question is not whether NASS can make a back payment but whether it is required to do so.

When it was instituted, asylum support was meant to be paid out to relieve destitution week by week. In the interests of managing the asylum support budget as best I can, as it is now more than £1 billion, I am bound to ask the following question: so long as the payments have been switched back on and the asylum seeker is no longer in any risk of destitution, is it necessary to spend public money going back and ''filling in'' missed payments from previous weeks? I have asked officials for further advice, including legal advice, on that question. The key question is whether, and in what circumstances, asylum support payments must be regarded as a legal entitlement. I am trying to clarify that.

Mr. Oaten: I will say more later, but I am troubled by the direction in which the Minister is heading. She makes the assumption that a person—through no fault of their own—does not need the money because they survived without it for a couple of weeks. There must be circumstances in which individuals have borrowed money from charities on the assumption that it could be paid back. Just because the Minister believes that somebody has survived on nothing, one cannot assume that they have had no money, which they may need to return, from other sources.

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