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James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for
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Buckingham (John Bercow), although I hope to be much briefer than he was to allow the Minister time to conclude this part of the debate.

Members made important comments on the stigma that can attach to asylum seekers in the operation of a voucher scheme. My hon. Friend said that vouchers are vulnerable to fraud. That comment struck me, because if vouchers are vulnerable to fraud, cash is even more vulnerable. Indeed, asylum seekers dealt with under section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, if they are in possession of cash, could become even more vulnerable. They could be preyed on by those who are aware that they have cash and who might seek to exploit that situation. In addition, this is an emotive and sensitive matter, as cash payments could be exploited by those wanting to stir up and magnify racist feelings in this country.

A balance has to be struck in respect of the scheme's operational practicalities. I think that it is right to keep cash out of the scheme, but the review of its operation should determine whether the anomalies pointed out by hon. Members of all parties arise. That is why I support amendment (b) to Lords amendment No. 18, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), and not amendment (a).

Mr. McNulty: Whether or not I agree with them, there have been some excellent contributions to the debate. With due respect to the last speaker, I shall deal with the comments made by the grown-ups. What he said was not helpful and without substance one way or the other.

I shall begin by clearing up a couple of canards. It is not true that some people covered by section 4 would be tortured if they were returned home. By definition, they are failed asylum seekers and, whatever the reasons for their removal, there is no reason to fear that they would suffer torture or any other mistreatment specified by the refugee convention. The hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) mentioned that there might be difficulties with the safety of the removal process, among other things, and I accept that. In addition, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) that problems may arise in connection with people who suffer under section 4 for a long period of time. Initially, section 4 was designed to cover people pending removal and to apply for a day, a month or some other period, but the details of that provision are not germane to this debate.

There has been a good deal of background noise to this discussion. It is fundamentally wrong to conduct a disingenuous debate about the reintroduction of vouchers, and bodies such as Oxfam, the T and G union and the Refugee Council should know better, as that is not what the Government propose. I concur 100 per cent. with the reasons behind the decision some years ago by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) to get rid of the universal use of vouchers by all asylum seekers. That matter belongs to an entirely different debate. The Government believe that the cash-based regime applicable to all people going through the asylum process should be distinct from the process endured by those receiving section 4 support, as such people have exhausted all the legal processes, including appeals, and have no right to remain in this country.
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The starting point is that vouchers have always been a feature of the support for people covered by section 4, but we should go back to first principles. Where possible, section 4 support consists of the provision of full board and accommodation. It is not true that the people involved get a mere pittance in vouchers, and no more. The hon. Member for Buckingham suggested that destitution awaited them otherwise, but that is not the reality. The fact is that, when people covered by section 4 cannot get full board and accommodation where they are located, the difference is made up by means of vouchers.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow said, the law provides for vouchers to be given in lieu of full support and accommodation only when that entitlement cannot be provided. The vouchers also cover the bare essentials when it comes to toiletries, but that is not enough. I come bearing gifts, albeit perhaps only in one hand rather than both, recognising those points and extending the system in response to the serious concerns expressed. We are broadening the system to provide things in kind, which are not currently allowed under the regulation, such as the bus pass to get to an urgent medical appointment, to which my hon. Friend referred, and broader goods and services.

5 pm

Concern has been expressed that the narrow definition of food and essential toiletries could be extended to cover everything possible. The definition will be made clearer in regulations, but it will certainly cover nappies and other essential goods for new mothers, where there has been confusion, about which a fair point was made. However, apart from that specific context, it is wrong to apply the worst elements of the previous universal voucher system to these proposals. That is absolutely wrong. Those who provide section 4 support give vouchers as part of their contract when they cannot provide full board and accommodation, so there is no further cost—to answer the point made by the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green). To ask for regular reports on costs and on what constitute wider goods and services is entirely redundant. The asylum statistics already include quarterly reports on costs and numbers, so all the elements under amendment (b) that he set out so eloquently are utterly unnecessary; they are already being done or are about to be done. Amendment (b) is unnecessary.

We think that the current position under section 4 is about right in terms of expanding and broadening support. By the way, it is not the case that thousands of people are languishing under section 4 support. Many of those who have returned voluntarily—principally, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow suggested, to northern Iraq—were on section 4. About 700 northern Iraqis have already left the UK under the voluntary return scheme. I could not swear for every one of them, but the core of them were under section 4, so it is wrong to say that section 4 support locks people in limbo and that they cannot go anywhere, in any way, shape or form, and that they live in penury and destitution. I do not pretend that the regime under which they live is terribly pleasant—it is meant to be
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temporary, although I take the point about longevity. Although we accept the Lords amendments, we understand the limitations due to the narrow focus of the current regulations.

I do not take my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow's point, as suggested in his amendment, that we may have the option to take the cash route under section 4. We do not think that is appropriate, because we want the narrow, narrow cohort of failed asylum seekers to be controlled and managed under the existing regime. Yes, we want to broaden the scheme, not least to take into account his comments about the need for proper support, but amendment (a) goes too far.

Due to the limitations of the regime that has been in place since April, I commend to the House the broadening of support to cover things in kind and goods and services, as defined in regulation. I assure the House, and certainly my hon. Friends, that that will cover things such as bus passes for serious and necessary appointments and all the points made about lack of definition such as where essential toiletries finish and other elements begin. However, for the robustness and integrity of the system, it is right and proper that people on section 4 support, who have exhausted all avenues and have no substantive legal right to remain in the country, should, as a prelude to their departure, be on a different regime to those who are still going through the system. The new targeted contracts, under the National Asylum Support Service, will afford people support and dignity while the section 4 regime prevails and we concentrate more on their removal.

John Bercow: I welcome the broadening of support, but still feel that the rather arbitrary prohibition—for that is what it is—on the use of cash is unnecessarily restrictive. Will the Minister explain precisely how the use of such a small sum of cash could constitute a pull factor?

Mr. McNulty: The hon. Gentleman will know that I have been very careful in my words and I have not discussed pull factors in the context of the Lords amendment. I would turn things around to say that it is desirable for our asylum system to have a distinct regime of support for those who have exhausted all the elements—appeal, legal process and everything else—and are ready to go at whatever stage of readiness, as hon. Members have suggested. We do not demur from the fact that there must be such support—in a past life, not the hon. Gentleman, but the Conservative party would have demurred even from that—but it must be right that the preparation for departure and removal involves a different regime from that used for those who are still going through the system. That was the substance of the objection to vouchers for everyone that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary so rightly got rid of in the terms that were suggested. We think that the regimes should be different.

I am not convinced that adding cash beyond the extension of support that we are already offering goes   any further to provide the support that section 4 applicants need while they are waiting between the exhaustion of all their appeals and their departure. I repeat that the starting premise is that, where possible under the NASS contracts, they get full board and accommodation. Some hon. Members—not the hon.
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Member for Buckingham or my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow—have suggested that those people somehow start in penury and destitution and that, as a sign of good will, we should give them a few bob and a voucher. That is not the case. A proper, comprehensive support mechanism is in place, as there should be, for those individuals. It is not their fault that, for whatever reason, they have exhausted the application process and no longer have legal rights to remain, but they must go and they should not be in penury just because of that. We suggest that such support, added to by vouchers where full board and accommodation cannot be provided, is far too narrow.

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