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John Bercow: The speech of the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) was inspired by compassion and delivered with eloquence. I do not want to embarrass him unduly, but this is one of those occasions on which people can come together, because we are agreed on the principle at stake. I, too, in common with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), hope that the hon. Member for Walthamstow will press his amendment to a Division, and if he or others do, I am strongly minded to support it.

Let us be clear. As the Minister who is engaged in the    public debate well knows and has already acknowledged, vouchers are not new. They are not only not new in the sense that they have applied to a certain category, section 4 recipients—failed asylum seekers—since April 2005—they are not new in another sense, in that, as he will acknowledge, they have applied before. I believe and, in fairness, the Minister believes—I raise these issues in a positive spirit—that the Government were right to remove vouchers across the piece in 2002. It is relevant to the public debate to recall what was said at that time, by the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett). Announcing the intention to remove vouchers for asylum seekers more generally, he said that those vouchers were

He was right.

Yes, the debate has moved on since then, and the Government have decided, for reasons that I think are scarcely intelligible let alone defensible, that voucher provisions should apply to a very limited category of persons—the section 4 cases, people whose applications for asylum have failed and who are destined eventually to go back to the countries from which they have come.
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They are not going back at this stage, because there is an impediment to them doing so—it would not be safe for them to travel. That might be because the country to which they would have to return is unsafe and they would be at risk of imprisonment, torture, death or a grisly combination of all three, or it might be that they cannot travel for the more prosaic but equally important reason that they are unwell or, in the case of a woman, pregnant.

In those circumstances, it is true that for virtually a year now those people have received voucher support to the tune of £35 a week. We all know the cases of people who have been affected. My anxiety about what the Government are doing is that it seems to me that Ministers are unnecessarily closing down the options. I am always ready to joust with the Minister of State, as he knows, and to listen to the points that he makes, but I have not yet heard a persuasive argument. I found the case made by the hon. Member for Walthamstow and the Refugee Council compelling.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I welcome the hon. Gentleman's speech. He is becoming increasing liberal on these issues, which is good. May I urge him to have a word with his right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), because surely this is the sort of issue on which all the Opposition parties should be encouraging the Government to change their position if we are really to have a Conservative party that has changed and to put the maximum pressure on the Government?

John Bercow: The hon. Gentleman is being unduly cheeky at this hour of the day. Rome was not built in a day. I yield to none in my admiration for the scale of the transformation of the Conservative and Unionist party that has already been brought about, in a very short time, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). If the hon. Gentleman seeks to egg me on, he must be mindful that he will be tempting me to stray from the disciplines of order. I would incur your wrath, or at any rate your furrowed brow, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I am not minded to do so, even when tempted so sedulously by the hon. Gentleman.

I have three simple concerns. First, to cut to the chase, the hon. Member for Walthamstow is right that the use of vouchers has a stigmatising effect. To try to decide whether we think that that argument is correct, let us for a moment imagine ourselves, as the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) did, in the position of someone using the voucher, standing in a queue in Tesco. If hon. Members ask me whether I have seen that myself in Tesco in Buckingham, I admit that I have not. I am conscious, however, that there will be right hon. and hon. Members throughout the House who have witnessed it.

I do not want to be discourteous, but, with great respect to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Mahmood), it is a very serious point. For those people in those queues, experiencing stigmatisation, feeling embarrassed and anxious and finding themselves on the receiving end of hostility, it is not a laughing matter. They are waiting to pay for goods. Use of the voucher can lead to delay and, not surprisingly, that
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causes irritation among other people who are waiting. What could send a more obvious signal that someone is different than the fact that, unlike everyone else who is paying by cash or card, the failed asylum seeker is having to use a voucher?

4.45 pm

That is very unfortunate and undesirable. Whether it actually constitutes a breach of human rights is, I accept, arguable. What I would say to the Minister is that it is a very notable and unnecessary unkindness and it reflects a meanness of spirit that is unworthy of the Government. Although the Minister of State has long been determined to prove himself the Labour party's answer to my noble Friend Lord Tebbit of Chingford, the truth is that on these issues he is a humanitarian. I do not want to embarrass him—I know that he is always embarrassed when he is complimented by a Conservative Member—but at heart he is a humanitarian on these issues. He has championed the cause of fairness in immigration and asylum policy over a long period. Although I think that there are serious weaknesses in aspects of government policy, he is not fundamentally a bad guy on these issues, and I ask him to think about those individuals in that queue.

There is a related point affecting someone with a voucher in the queue. In the operation of the vouchers to date, there has been ambiguity over what the voucher can purchase. If the Minister can assure me that that will not be so in the future, I shall be delighted, but I shall want firm guarantees and explicit details. In many cases, in given stores it has fallen to the check-out assistant to judge whether the voucher can be used to purchase, for example, nappies. My view—and I hope that I command assent for this proposition in all parts of the House—is that it is unfair on both the failed asylum seeker and the check-out assistant for that situation to arise.

In so far as the Government have said that they want to introduce greater flexibility, recognise the need for additional support and can see that the operation of the system over the past 11 months has contained flaws, I welcome that, but I want to know what particular commitments they will make. It is wrong that someone using vouchers who is on section 4 support should have to make the invidious choice whether to use a voucher for travel—if that opportunity will exist—or for purchasing food. We need to be sure that the vouchers will be sufficiently flexible and adequately generous to allow for all the necessities of life on which those people, no less than ourselves, depend.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): The hon. Gentleman says that, if the vouchers are the only method of obtaining goods or services, they should be required to be sufficiently flexible. However, they cannot be sufficiently flexible to be used, for instance, in a coin-operated machine in a launderette. The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), which simply allows cash to be given in certain circumstances, would deal with that purely practical problem.

John Bercow: The hon. Gentleman is right. I was trying to be as fair to the Government as possible, but I agree with the purport of the amendment, as I said at the
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outset. Cash should be an option. As he will know and others can testify, a further weakness of the system is that it is not possible—consistent with the principle of not allowing failed asylum seekers to have cash—to obtain change for them. That means, to be blunt, that the failed asylum seeker, who is often poor to the point of destitution, is literally and calculatedly short-changed by the existing system. Moreover, although I am happy to champion the cause of legitimate capitalist enterprise, I see no reason whatsoever why a big or store—or even, for that matter, a small one—should effectively profiteer at the expense of a failed asylum seeker who has scarcely two brass farthings, to employ the old-fashioned expression, to rub together.

I want to conclude on the very practical point that the Government have often raised. Ministers have said, "Well, we've got to be clear about this. Yes, people need to be supported, but on the other hand we cannot allow scope for a pull factor that will draw people to this country." The suggestion from Ministers—not, in my view, evidence-based—has been that the ability to use cash in this context would constitute a pull factor. My response is as follows. First, in 2000 and 2001, when the Government used the previous vouchers, applications actually went up, so the notion that the use of vouchers is itself a deterrent factor likely to conduce to a reduction in applications is not supported by the empirical evidence acquired to date.

Secondly, by virtue of the section 4 criteria themselves, it simply cannot be true that possessing cash constitutes a pull factor bringing people here. It has   already been decided of people in receipt of section 4 support that they are unsuccessful applicants, and they have accepted the reality that they will have to return to their country of origin in due course. The notion that having cash can cause them to stay, and that the absence of cash would prevent that eventuality, seems logically flawed.

I say to Ministers and colleagues in a constructive spirit that we have a view from another quarter on this subject in the 2000 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. On the pull factor, the high commissioner has declared, on the record, that in deciding whether to come here as asylum applicants, people are more likely to be swayed by the presence of their own communities than by reception conditions or benefits. The Minister said earlier from a sedentary position—I am being very fair, because by mentioning his sedentary I am making it more audible than it would otherwise have been—that the high commissioner was talking about the old vouchers. If, when the Minister winds up, he can provide a compelling thesis in support of his policy, I will be happy to be influenced by it. I have not seen anything so far from the Government to suggest that that is very likely. He knows that I agree with other aspects of Government immigration policy, a good deal of which is thoroughly sensible and measured and in the national interest. So far, this measure has not been well crafted. I much prefer retaining flexibility and I applaud the noble spirit behind the amendment of the hon. Member for Walthamstow and the very welcome remarks of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath).

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