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

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Beverley Hughes: I am sympathetic on that point, and I had considered making a decision on that question today. However, because the legal advice from counsel is imminent—it is due in the next two weeks—and because I should be able to make a decision on the matter in the round by the end of February, I do not want to prejudice other options that might be available to me in relation to different circumstances in which asylum seekers themselves may be responsible. I do not want to go further than that today, but I am very sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's point.

In the case of an NASS mistake, it is unreasonable not to make back payments, but I would rather get the complete legal advice before making my decision, which I hope to do in the next four to six weeks. We have developed operational plans to resolve the backlog of back payments within four months; those

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payments have been stopped during the last few months because we have been seeking clarification on the legal position.

Mr. Oaten: I do not want to put the Minister in a tricky situation; she is obviously considering the matter in some detail. I think that she said that she does not intend to stop back payments for cases in which the error was caused by NASS rather than the asylum seeker, and that she is taking legal advice on what happens when the error is caused by the asylum seeker not giving the right information.

Beverley Hughes: The key question hinges on whether asylum support payments are a legal entitlement. Although I am sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's point, which goes in a direction towards which I would naturally gravitate myself, I need to get advice on it. I do not want to compromise my ability to take a different position on cases in which there is no NASS mistake, but someone else has absconded or whatever. I hope that he will give me the benefit of the doubt. I will write to him about the position when I have the legal advice and when I come to a decision.

Mr. Gerrard: That point interests me. I have seen cases in which NASS payments are not made directly to the asylum seeker, but to local authorities as payment for their rent. There have been problems and delays in such cases. If rent were involved, I hope that the money would always be made up. A person left with rent arrears through no fault of their own is in an impossible position.

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Beverley Hughes: I accept my hon. Friend's point. I shall look at all the issues in the round shortly and I shall take cognisance of his comments.

New clause 11 aims to ensure that, following a final decision on their asylum claim, NASS-supported asylum seekers receive at least 28 days' notice—or, if their claim has been refused, 21 days' notice—of the termination of their NASS support. Again, I hope to give hon. Members some reassurance based on the work that I have initiated.

The difficulty perceived by hon. Members is that, legally speaking, the clock starts ticking when the decision letter arrives. Their point is that notification of the termination of NASS support follows the decision letter, so asylum seekers and refugees might not pick up from the letter the fact that the clock has started ticking, and some of the notice period will have been eroded by the time they receive the NASS 35 letter.

We have been working on this issue. Although I recognise that successful asylum seekers face considerable difficulties when leaving NASS support and entering the mainstream benefits system, I do not want to change the legislation so that the grace period commenced on receipt of the letter terminating NASS support, because that would simply elongate the process. Instead, we have concentrated on improving existing processes and working with the Department

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for Work and Pensions to make more effective use of the existing statutory period. Let me say a little about what we have done and what stage we have reached.

When we analysed the issue, we found that the main hold-up in accessing mainstream benefit before NASS support runs out arises from the issuing of the national insurance number by DWP. We have conducted a feasibility study in partnership with the DWP and the Inland Revenue and we have developed a process, although we have not yet rolled it out universally because we have only just got the results. As part of that process, however, successful asylum applicants are given a national insurance number with their decision letter. In that way, we eradicate at a stroke the problem of people not understanding the situation until they get their NASS 35 letter.

Our study covered applicants who were interviewed Liverpool and was a considerable success. We are in the process of drawing up a plan to roll the process out through the whole system. I hope that the hon. Member for Winchester will understand that doing things that way and ensuring that people receive the necessary information and their national insurance number with their positive decision letter will give people the full benefit of the 28 days so that they can quickly take advantage of mainstream benefits and other provisions, be that jobseeker's allowance, the new deal or whatever.

Mr. Oaten: That is helpful in terms of applicants who are successful, but will the Minister comment on those who are not? What is the process for them?

Beverley Hughes: The main focus has been on successful claimants, because they can transfer to other benefits or into projects and processes that can get them quickly into work. Unless they are eligible for section 4 support, those whose claims are refused will have no other support available to them, because their NASS support will end. They will have also been refused permission to stay in the country and must think of returning home.

Mr. Oaten: In the circumstances that the Minister describes, would someone who had agreed to voluntary removal not be removed for a certain period? One would want to ensure that proper support was in place at least until they were removed.

Beverley Hughes: We certainly want to ensure that people who receive a negative decision are told at the same time that their NASS support will end. In that way, they will have the full 21 days. That does not mean that people can receive benefits, but they can have the maximum period in which to leave their accommodation, if it is NASS accommodation, and work with us to return home.

Mr. Gerrard: I appreciate what my right hon. Friend said about improving the system so that national insurance numbers are issued at the same time as status letters. I hope that that can be rolled out through the system. However, the problem is not so much the status letter as not receiving it. It is not uncommon for people to receive a letter saying that their NASS

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support has been cut off when they have not received the status letter. They may still not have received it some weeks later. In such circumstances, the first that they know about a decision is when their NASS support disappears. That tends to happen when someone has won an appeal, which causes a dislocation in the system in issuing notification to people. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such matters need considering?

Beverley Hughes: I shall look at the evidence. My hon. Friend has raised the matter before. In fact, he asked me about it in the House, and I gave him the answer to a different question because I did not hear him—the Home Secretary was whispering in my ear and telling me the wrong question. I accept that my hon. Friend has met people who have experienced long delays in receiving their status letter, but I am genuinely less convinced that that is happening now. If he has evidence, I should be grateful to receive it. We have tried to improve the system. I accept that there may still be work to be done at the point at which appeals are granted and I shall look into the matter.

Mr. Gerrard: I will pass on evidence of a recent case to my right hon. Friend. The person won an appeal 15 months ago. He had his NASS support cut off, but has still not received his status letter.

Beverley Hughes: My heart sinks. If my hon. Friend can—

Mr. Gerrard: I already have.

Beverley Hughes: Thank you.

New clause 12 would allow individuals applying under the immigration rules for indefinite leave to remain as the victims of domestic violence to have recourse to public funds. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Winchester for acknowledging what I and other Ministers have done on several fronts for victims of domestic violence who are in an immigration situation, but the new clause asks us to go a stage further. We have made significant progress. First, on the need for support, we have ensured that domestic violence victims in such circumstances can gain access to supporting people-funded domestic violence services, such as refuges and housing-related support services. The supporting people initiative is a partnership of local government, service users, support agencies and voluntary organisations. The programme offers people who are vulnerable, for whatever reason, the opportunity to receive support in particular circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the supporting people initiative does not necessarily cover rent costs or living expenses. My colleague Baroness Scotland is continuing to talk to voluntary organisations and others that run refuges. I cannot say at the moment whether a further step has been taken on that front, but the supporting people provisions are a big step forward because they mean that a woman in such circumstances will have somewhere to go and will receive support under that programme. The voluntary

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organisations that provide refuges and work with women who are the victims of domestic violence are certainly ready to provide that support. The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill will also further strengthen the rights of victims and witnesses, ensuring that they receive the support and help that they need.

As the hon. Member for Winchester acknowledged and the new clause recognises, the immigration rules now make specific provision for an application to be made on that basis. Where an application for settlement on the basis of domestic violence is successful, people are exempt from the fee for processing such applications that is a consequence of the introduction of charges. Finally, I have extended the types of evidence that can be used as proof of violence and relaxed the regulations relating to the forms of evidence that can be produced.

I hope that hon. Members accept that that set of four measures makes great progress in the way in which women who have unresolved immigration status but who are subjected to domestic violence by a man they have come here to marry can get practical help and support. They will find it easier to establish that there has been domestic violence because of the changes. We will continue to examine what is the best way of assisting victims of domestic violence.

The new clause does not offer a sensible way to proceed. Hon. Members have alluded to the problem: we are trying to strike a balance, and if we were to agree to the new clause, the perverse incentive to some people to use the provision to claim to be victims of domestic violence as a means of having their immigration situation resolved would be too great.

As the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) said, new clause 21 would mean that particular groups of people would be ineligible to receive benefits in cash or kind other than in certain listed circumstances, such as for treatment of infectious disease and in response to a health emergency. The new clause targets two classes of people; failed asylum-seeking families whose support would be withdrawn under clause 7, and nationals of the European economic area whose countries do not provide a level of service or benefit to UK nationals broadly equivalent to that which they receive here—and, further, who have been resident in the UK for less than 12 months.

I am particularly concerned that we should not enable people to benefit-shop—to go round successive European countries trying to get access to benefits in different nations. We have put in place a system to deal with benefit shopping and to ensure that those whose asylum claims have been rejected and who have exhausted their appeal rights are not entitled to support indefinitely. Schedule 3 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 prohibits support under a number of different provisions to particular classes of person: those who have refugee status abroad; citizens of other EEA states; failed asylum-seekers who do not comply with removal directions; and other people who are unlawfully in the UK. Furthermore, support for child-free adult asylum seekers will be withdrawn 21 days after their asylum

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claim has been determined. Therefore, we have a range of measures to deal with people who might seek to benefit-shop.

There has been considerable recent press interest in the position of EU accession states. We had a debate about that on a previous occasion, and I want to re-emphasise the point that I made then, which is that non-working EU nationals can claim income-related benefits only if they satisfy in this country the habitual residence test. Each claimant's circumstances are carefully examined to ensure that tax-funded benefits are paid only to people with reasonably close ties to the UK. The factors to be considered in making that decision include the reason for coming to the UK, the length of stay, future intentions and any previous links with the country. We introduced that test to deal with benefit tourism.

In order to comply with our international obligations, the test has to be applied on a non-discriminatory basis. The hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing) mentioned the reciprocity in the agreements between member states, which means that UK citizens are entitled to benefits, provided that they satisfy certain conditions. In principle, EU nationals are entitled to the same benefits here, provided that they meet our conditions, one of which is the habitual residence test.

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In summary, the thrust of our asylum and immigration reforms is to create a robust system. I do not think that the UK is a soft touch. I was grateful for the conclusion in the report published yesterday by the Home Affairs Select Committee, which said it is not true that the UK is a soft touch on the benefits front—or any other front in the asylum system—and that that view should not be propagated.

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