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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 27 February 2013

[Philip Davies in the Chair]

Asylum Support (Children and Young People)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Desmond Swayne.)

9.30 am

Sarah Teather (Brent Central) (LD): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.

I am pleased to have secured this debate, and it is good to see a number of colleagues here, although perhaps not as many as I had hoped; maybe everyone is in Eastleigh this morning. [Interruption.] Perhaps not quite everyone.

It is good to see the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin). He served on the recent cross-party parliamentary panel on the experiences of children and young people in the asylum system, which I chaired. That inquiry, which was supported by the Children’s Society, is the instigator for this debate. The hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) had also hoped to be here, but he has a clashing appointment with the Select Committee on Education.

Before I say anything else, I would like to express my gratitude to the Children’s Society for its help and support during the inquiry. I am grateful to see the Minister here; I have had an opportunity to discuss the inquiry with him. I know he has read the report, so I look forward to his response. I also thank the 200 or so individuals and organisations that gave evidence to our inquiry, both in writing and in person. We were very lucky to receive evidence from a range of experts, including local authorities, safeguarding boards and academics, as well as from organisations working directly with young asylum seekers and their families. We also heard from the young people and their families themselves, many of whom came to give evidence in the House of Commons, which was a very moving occasion for many on the panel.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), who also served on the panel, has joined us. All the panel would agree that some of the evidence we received was extremely shocking and very upsetting. We found that families are often surviving on as little as £5 a day per person. Parents told us that they often skip meals to pay for basic items and that it is particularly difficult for them to pay for any item, such as a winter coat or shoes, that requires slightly more money. They told us that they are unable to pay for their children’s school trips and uniform, a situation exacerbated by the frequent moves during dispersal and rehousing that affect many families. Birthdays, toys and other things that other families take for granted are another question entirely.

Asylum support rates have fallen way below the poverty line in recent years; they were first set at 90% of income support rates, but it was later agreed that they be set at 70% of income support rates. Successive

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Governments have failed to uprate those benefits under section 95 and section 4 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, thereby allowing them to fall way beneath the basic level of support that we would consider appropriate for families—that of income support.

As the Minister is aware, no decision has been taken this financial year about uprating section 95 and section 4 support rates, so those benefits have effectively been frozen this financial year without any accountability to Parliament. We have not had an opportunity to question the Minister on why that decision has or has not been taken.

The levels of the benefits are extremely complex and are set differently for children of different ages. For children under 15 without a disability, the levels are significantly less punitive than those set for adults, slightly older children and children with disabilities. Of course, the problem is that families are living on a whole family budget, not just the child’s extra bit of support.

We found that, when the support is added together, a lone parent with a 10-year-old disabled child is living on just a third of income support levels. It is difficult to see how any family can possibly be expected to survive on such small amounts of money. Notwithstanding any deductions for accommodation, which is paid for separately, it is difficult to see how a family can manage for a prolonged period on such small benefit levels.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She has set out her stall very well and will surely continue to do so. Like me, was she struck by the great dignity of the people who gave evidence to our inquiry? They were not asking for anything, but, as she argues, they deserve to be treated properly.

Sarah Teather: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The people who came to speak to us were asking to be treated as human beings, to be allowed to support themselves and to have enough to support their family. They did not whinge, and they were often extremely grateful for what this country has given to enable them to flee to safety from countries that are war-torn or in which they faced persecution.

The people were asking just to be able to survive and to bring up their children well. The stories they told were incredibly distressing. I will address some of the things they said, and I would be grateful if other members of the panel also reported on some of their experiences of listening to those families.

An estimated 10,000 children in the asylum system are supported by these benefits, and many spend substantial portions of their childhood on asylum support. It is not as if the problem affected people for a few weeks but did not have a long-term impact.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Everyone here is of the same mind. Does the hon. Lady agree that part of the problem is that, up to the age of 18, people who fall into this category experience uncertainty and fear? Does she agree that that needs to be reviewed to address the needs of vulnerable young people from when they come into this country until they reach 18, when the system basically washes its hands of them?

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Sarah Teather: I suspect the hon. Gentleman’s question refers to unaccompanied asylum seekers. Am I correct?

Jim Shannon: Yes.

Sarah Teather: The inquiry specifically addressed children who are with their families and who are supported by section 95 and section 4, but there is another question about the vulnerability of unaccompanied asylum seekers and the fact that often all support ends at 18.

Many of us will remember, and those of us with children or nieces and nephews will recognise, that an 18-year-old is incredibly vulnerable if they have no family, which is why they are supposed to be treated as children leaving care. They have significant extra difficulties that need to be catered for and are not always addressed sympathetically by the Home Office’s decision making.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Lady on obtaining this interesting debate. Will she tell us how education works for those young people?

Sarah Teather: Is the hon. Gentleman talking about unaccompanied asylum seekers?

David Simpson: Yes.

Sarah Teather: Education legislation is intended to be blind to a child’s immigration status—in fact, the Government are supposed to be blind to a child’s immigration status full stop. We are signed up to the UN convention on the rights of the child, and it seems to me that the UK Border Agency differentiates between children whose parents are currently in the system, or whose asylum case has failed, and children who have permanent residency.

The rules on education in the UN convention are absolutely clear: children must be provided with education regardless. However, the financial support for which they are eligible is an issue. Does it allow children to grow and flourish as the UNCRC expects? It is not adequate to provide children with barely enough to survive on; the UNCRC is clear that we must provide enough to allow them to develop to their best potential. I argue that the system is inadequate even to allow children’s bare survival. It certainly fails miserably to meet our duties under the UNCRC.

At the moment, a surprisingly large number of children live within the asylum support system. A significantly smaller number of those—probably only about 800—are supported under section 4, but the effects on that small number are disproportionate. We in Government know well what impact poverty has on a child’s life chances. All Ministers have accepted that child poverty significantly damages children’s potential for development, and that idea has cross-party support. That is why so much effort has been devoted to ensuring that we get the data right for counting child poverty, understand the indicators and focus on the causes and impacts of child poverty. I know that well from my time as a Minister at the Department for Education, where the issue was one focus of my work. However, we seem not to be able to take the issue as seriously for children whose asylum cases have not been decided.

The situation is significantly worse for those on section 4 rather than section 95 support. Section 4 support is intended to be short-term. It has been described by previous Ministers as an austere regime intended only for those whose applications have failed but who cannot

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currently return home. However, it is worth recognising that many children spend years on section 4 support. Although it might be intended for adults to live on for a matter of weeks, many children spend substantial portions of their lives on it—we met families whose children had spent almost all their lives on section 4 support. What makes section 4 support so difficult is not just that levels are significantly lower, but, more specifically, that it is cashless and highly restrictive about where the money can be spent.

Nic Dakin: One thing that struck me about the evidence provided to us was the impact of the Azure card. It reduces the effectiveness and value of the small amounts of money that the families and children get. Does the hon. Lady agree that if nothing else needs urgent consideration, the Azure card and the cashless system do, in order to improve things for those families?

Sarah Teather: I absolutely agree. Parents said to us that the restrictions on where they could shop meant that things were often more expensive, particularly items such as buggies, which were completely impossible for many families to buy. They would have been much happier to go to the second-hand shop, but of course they cannot use the Azure card there; they are required to go to Mothercare or similar shops. To reflect on my sister-in-law’s experience, buying a buggy at Mothercare costs practically as much as buying a car. I hope that I am not libelling the shop by saying so; I shall probably get letters from Mothercare now. Nevertheless, I think that most people would recognise that such items are extremely expensive. For anyone trying to survive on £5 a day in a cashless system using an Azure card, it makes no financial sense whatever.

Families who want to buy food more in keeping with their own culture find themselves unable to shop in suitable shops. It is particularly difficult for some families that they are expected to walk, sometimes up to 3 miles, in order to go shopping. The idea that a lone parent with several children should walk several miles to use an Azure card to go shopping, carrying the children and luggage back from the supermarket, is completely unreasonable.

Similarly, money on the Azure card cannot be saved from one week to the next, at least in more than very small amounts, so unless all the money is spent during the week, it is effectively wasted. People said that if they are ill and unable to shop, they run out of money and are unable to refill the fridge the following week. If they need a winter coat, they have no possible means of saving up for one. During a winter such as this one, that seems completely unreasonable.

Families also spoke to us about the stigma associated with using the Azure card, which identifies them immediately as asylum seekers. Many spoke distressingly about their experiences of being abused in supermarkets when they produced the card in order to buy their shopping. Sometimes, even after the card had been topped up, it still did not work. It is unreliable, as well as bringing great stigma with it.

The section 4 system seems utterly baffling to me. It is highly expensive to administer given the relatively small number of people involved, and it is a punitive regime that seems disproportionate to the problem that the

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Government say they are trying to fix. It is worth rehearsing some of the consequences of trying to live under the system.

I had a case in my constituency involving somebody on section 4 support. Those on section 4 support cannot be housed with other relatives; they must be housed in special accommodation. As a consequence, he was separated from his partner and child. As is extremely common, he was not eligible for travel money. The Government have said to me that travel money is available in exceptional cases. Those cases seem to be phenomenally exceptional, because my constituency office has had great difficulty accessing the money when it is needed. That man walked miles across London every day to visit his wife and child, a situation that put intolerable pressure on the child and family. We certainly heard of the reverse situation, where the woman was separated from the father of her child. It makes no logical sense. The Government would save money by allowing people to live with their partners, other relatives or friends, as those on section 95 support may do.

Section 4 support is highly restrictive of what people can buy. One thing that struck me most particularly as a Minister considering the issue was that the regulations expressly forbid the purchase of toys. What a bizarre thing to do. I do not know who thought of it, but it is certainly not compatible with the UNCRC.

For pregnant women and new mothers, the situation can be even more intolerable. Maternity Action and the Refugee Council submitted evidence to us during the inquiry. They have subsequently produced their own report, “When maternity doesn’t matter”, which I will say more about in a moment when I turn to housing. The organisations cited a case in which a woman with no money for a buggy or transport was forced to walk home from hospital in the snow, carrying her newborn baby in her arms, shortly after giving birth. That is a ludicrous and appallingly distressing story.

When I discussed the issue with the Minister previously, he said that he did not believe that the public would tolerate our giving the same amount of support to those whose claims have been rejected as to those still awaiting a decision, but I do not think the public would tolerate the kinds of story that we heard in our inquiry. He underestimates the humanity of the British people if he thinks that that is actually what they want in the asylum support system.

There is a further question about whether such punitive treatment actually has any purpose. It does not make desperate families who fear for their lives return home; it simply leaves them in poverty, jeopardising their health and their children’s long-term development. We saw a case in which somebody left on section 4 support for a very long time was later given refugee status on reapplication. To think that all those people are somehow scamming the system and ought to go home is to miss the point entirely.

It is said that if we raise benefit levels, it will encourage more people to seek asylum here. There is simply no evidence for that. When vouchers were introduced, the number of asylum applications rose. When cash was re-introduced, it fell. There has been plenty of research, which I am happy to share, looking at why people choose a particular country. In most cases, it has much more to do with historical ties between particular countries than with any expected benefits that people might receive

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when they get to the country. Given the complexity of section 4 and section 95 support—it took us some considerable time to produce the spreadsheet to work out exactly what families in different circumstances would get—it beggars belief that someone in a situation of war, violence or persecution would spend a couple of days researching that on the internet before deciding which travel company to book their flight with. We need to get that into perspective. The answer must surely be to set levels in line with other benefits. Deducting accommodation costs if necessary, we should make a clear commitment to uprate benefits so that people who have fled war, persecution and violence can live —as the hon. Member for Scunthorpe said—a basic, dignified life.

I understand the political difficulties of raising benefit levels for asylum seekers, in particular when there is much debate about wider benefit levels—full stop. Surely it would be more sensible and take an awful lot of political grief away from the Minister if they were simply pegged to other benefit levels and automatically uprated each year. Ministers would then not have to go through the agony of having to work out on which full-news day to introduce a measure; they could simply get on with doing the right and humane thing.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Does the hon. Lady agree that the sensible approach that she is advocating is what used to be the case until, unfortunately, the previous Government made the change? Instead of pegging the support to a proportion of benefits, they decided to remove that linkage and left it floating, drifting, leading to the very destitution that she is describing.

Sarah Teather: There have been a number of different changes over time. The previous Government agreed that they would peg asylum support to 70% but almost immediately broke that agreement. The problem with this type of issue is that, because it is politically contentious, successive Ministers in different Governments have found it difficult to tackle, which is why it needs to be done in such a way that they do not have to face the headlines every time something happens. Drafting the legislation so as to allow the support to be uprated automatically would surely take the political headache away from Ministers, allowing them to do the right thing. I do not believe that Ministers from any party would wish to see children pushed into severe poverty. It is a question of ensuring that the administration is such that it can be done easily. I strongly encourage the Minister to take that step.

Logically, section 4 should be abolished, to be replaced by one cash-based system for all people regardless. The existing system costs money, it is inhumane and it serves no purpose. If it was abolished and section 95 applied to everyone, I would be extremely surprised were there any political outcry. The Government have managed to make changes to the immigration system and to abolish child detention without any hue and cry, so I am sure it is not beyond the wit of the Minister to amend section 4 so that people get a decent cash system.

Nic Dakin: This is a key point. Moving to a cash-based system is a costless way of improving the system and will respond to the stoicism and dignity of those people by giving their children a better deal.

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Sarah Teather: Indeed. The Minister could also make a virtue out of it, because the change would almost certainly save money. I made a point a moment ago about how people could be housed with their relatives if less restriction was applied than in the section 4 system, which requires people to be housed in different accommodation. The change would also save money on administration, and I strongly encourage the Minister to make it. At a time of austerity, I am sure he is looking for any method to save a little money.

Not recognising disability and special needs in families seeking asylum is also unjust. We ought to ensure that those needs are recognised in the system, because it is completely illogical to expect a family to be able to cope without such recognition. We heard from one young carer, Riyya, who was left with the most extraordinary pressure of caring for her disabled mother, and of course no financial recognition was given in the benefit system of that pressure or of the extra support that her mother needed. It caused devastation to Riyya during her childhood.

If the Government are really looking to save money, an obvious way would be to allow asylum seekers to work and to support themselves if they have been waiting in this country for some time for their case to be decided. That is what most asylum-seeking families want: they want to be able to support themselves, they do not want to be on benefit. We have spent a lot of time talking up the importance of the work ethic as a salvation for all. One of the mantras of the Government is that work is an important route for supporting oneself, for dignity and for children’s prospects. We know that, and we devote a lot of time trying to get people back into work when they have been out of work for a long time—in all cases except this group, who are often highly educated and talented people with a lot to give to this country. During the time they spend on asylum support, they are deskilled and demotivated, and their children have to survive in high levels of poverty. Again, the Minister could make a political virtue out of that change, because I am pretty sure it is what the public want as well. They want to see people contributing to this country; having given people safety, the public want to see them giving something back, and that is what asylum-seeking families want as well.

Jim Shannon: On that deskilling of people, many who come to this country have skills or job experience with which they could contribute to society, but sometimes they are not given the chance. Does the hon. Lady feel that more opportunity should be given to those people who come here with skills and job experience with which they could contribute to the country? At the moment it is not happening.

Sarah Teather: I absolutely agree. The sooner that people are able to get back into a regular pattern of work, so that they can support their family and themselves and give themselves some dignity and a sense of contributing to the country that they have chosen to make as their home albeit under difficult circumstances, the better that is for everyone concerned. Furthermore, the quicker they can integrate, the quicker they can learn English, while from a financial perspective it will cost the country a good deal less to support them. That seems to be a logical and sensible thing to do, and I strongly urge the Minister to look at doing it.

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In our inquiry, we intended to look specifically at support rates, which is what I have spent most of the time discussing. Before I finish, however, I want to say something about some of the other things that we found that were equally shocking, such as the way in which families are treated by their housing provider. The families have multiple moves, not only dispersed once but moved repeatedly, with appalling living conditions and cases of disrepair, as well as a lack of privacy and of hygiene. The multiple moves, as I said at the outset of my remarks, affect not only family budgets because of the need to buy a new school uniform every time but children’s school life, and their ability to make friends and to settle. We must remember that the children have fled their own country; they have fled war, violence and persecution, with all the trauma involved, and yet, when the family arrive here, we move them over and over again, often with little notice or little information to allow parents to prepare their child emotionally. What family would want to be moved and uprooted with little notice and without some information so that they can discuss with their child what is to happen? They get no information in advance about where the local schools are or about the area, and no support to allow them to register at a new school or with the doctor. They are basically plucked from one place and dropped into another with no support whatever to allow them to integrate. It is no wonder that mental health problems are so high among this group. It would not be an expensive problem to fix. We could provide support for families if a move is necessary, and we could try to move families with young children less often.

One mother and her four-year-old daughter told us that they moved 11 times in five years. She explained that, as a consequence of what she fled from in her own country, she spent the best part of 10 years moving house, first within her own country, then in this country, effectively fleeing from house to house, being moved by the UKBA. She said, “I’m tired.” I am not surprised she is tired, and I am not surprised that it is so difficult for her children. Moves are often made with no appreciation of the impact on children. Families and local authority representatives told us that contractors do not always turn up when they say they will, so belongings, such as a children’s cots, are packed up and no notice is given of when the contractor will eventually turn up.

The impact on pregnant women is even worse. I have referred to the deeply upsetting report, “When Maternity Doesn’t Matter”, which the Refugee Council and Maternity Action produced this week. They submitted evidence to our inquiry that the impact of dispersal on women’s lives is catastrophic if they are pregnant. The four weeks’ protected period that UKBA agreed to introduce is an advance, but still woefully inadequate. Women are moved away from their partners so they may have no one with them when they give birth and no one to look after their other children. A single mother in the study reported that she was separated from her partner so she had no one to look after her children and she considered leaving her children with a local shopkeeper before she went into labour because she had no other options for child care. Midwives told us that it makes their lives incredibly difficult because they are unable to provide continuity of care.

We would not expect any British woman to experience such conditions, but these women have specific extra difficulties and they should receive more support, not

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less. Many have suffered female genital mutilation and sexual violence in their own country as well as torture, which exacerbates the risk of flashbacks when giving birth. They have a much higher rate of maternal death than we expect in the general population. They make up 12% of all maternal deaths, but only 0.3% of the overall population. Those figures are staggering and worrying, and the Government must get to grips with them.

Again, it is not expensive to fix the problem. There is no reason for repeatedly moving these women, and that could be stopped. I strongly encourage the Government to examine the matter to ensure that women are treated decently and that their children have a chance to thrive. We know that what happens in the first few weeks and months after childbirth is important for their children and attachment. That is why the Government are putting health visitors in Sure Start children’s centres. We know that post-natal depression and so on have an impact on attachment, and a long-term impact on children’s ability to thrive and what happens to them in later life. Other Departments know that, so why does the Home Office not accept the evidence that is driving Government policy everywhere else? It must work with the Department of Health and the Department for Education. The situation is simply not good enough, and it could be changed.

My final point, which is perhaps the smallest and the cheapest to fix, was the most shocking for the panel. Almost every family told us that housing contractors routinely enter properties without knocking. We heard not just from one family, but from all of them independently that people just turn up and use keys to let themselves in. People may be in the shower and if they are Muslim women they may not have adequate head covering. It causes terror for children, and is an epithet for the lack of respect with which they are treated. They are treated as luggage rather than people who deserve some dignity and respect. The Government must get to grips with that with housing contractors.

I have gone through the details of the report. Some of our recommendations would save the Government money, some would cost a small amount, some would be more popular than their current policies, all would be more humane, and none would encourage more asylum seekers to come here. These changes would be win-wins for the Government if they implemented them.

Any change is risky and difficult, but the Minister is very capable and I am sure that he is on top of his brief. If anyone is politically shrewd enough to appreciate the points on offer, I am sure that he is. He does not strike me as a Minister who has come to his brief wanting to tread water, and I strongly encourage him to take note of the points that the cross-party parliamentary inquiry made.

10.6 am

Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): I thank and congratulate the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) on securing this debate on the important issue of unfairness and injustice. My contribution to the debate is based on my personal knowledge of the subject, my previous work and the casework at my constituency surgeries. I have a large caseload. The views expressed in the report resulted from hearing many experts. The hon. Lady has mentioned many

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issues that we all face in the community, and I may repeat what she has said, because she expressed the views of many people and many MPs from their experience in their constituencies.

This country has a long-standing tradition of providing sanctuary to those fleeing danger and violence, but unfortunately we are in danger of failing refugees and asylum seekers by giving them inadequate support. It is our duty to provide assistance to those in need, especially to young children and families who have already suffered through war and persecution. Unfortunately, there are many tragic examples of asylum seekers in this country living in terrible conditions due to the low support awarded to them. Some families cannot put food on their tables; some are living in cold, unhygienic, overcrowded and unsafe accommodation; and other people are separated from their families and regularly moved around the country.

The cross-party parliamentary inquiry on asylum support, of which I was a member and which was chaired by the hon. Lady, produced a comprehensive report that examined support for asylum-seeking children and families and made recommendations. One key concern outlined in the report is the discrepancy between support for asylum seekers and families receiving mainstream benefits. Asylum seekers are not permitted to work, and the support that they are entitled to under section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 is considerably less than current income support, which is a minimum level to meet essential living needs.

The situation is detrimental to the well-being of asylum seekers, leaving families hungry and struggling in atrocious conditions. Some children on asylum support are living on as little as £5 a day. As part of the inquiry, we heard tragic stories of parents going hungry, so that they could feed their children, and having to choose between buying food and buying warmer clothes for winter. Parents should never have to go hungry to feed and clothe their children because they cannot afford to; income support for asylum seekers is clearly insufficient if that is the case.

The situation is even more difficult for families with a child or a parent with a disability. Without access to mainstream benefits, families seeking asylum are also not entitled to benefits such as disability living allowance, carer’s allowance or mobility assistance. That leaves asylum-seeking families with disability significantly worse off than families who are able to access mainstream support. Some families are only getting about a quarter of what they would get under the mainstream system. As it may cost up to three times more to raise a disabled child, it is unreasonable for such families not to receive an allowance to meet those extra costs, especially when they already have difficulty making ends meet. Parents raising a disabled child will also require extra support to help them with their child’s education, health and social activities. Unfortunately, once again, the asylum support system does not recognise those additional needs and forces parents to struggle with such challenges unassisted.

The same is true for children caring for a disabled parent, as they are not entitled to supplementary carer’s allowance or any extra assistance. As the hon. Lady has said, the inquiry allowed us to hear about an 11-year-old girl who cared for her disabled mother. It was not unusual for her to have to miss school to take her mother to hospital appointments and help with the

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shopping and cleaning. Sadly, as her mother was unable to sign in for her support every single week because of her disability, they would sometimes have to go without any money. Had that mother and daughter been given additional support, they would not have had to struggle in that way and the girl would have had an uninterrupted education.

The lack of support for refugees with additional needs is particularly evident and worrying for children affected by HIV. Such children need warm, clean accommodation and high-quality food and health care, which, in most cases, they will not have access to through their asylum support, leaving them vulnerable to serious illness. In addition, mothers who are HIV-positive should not be breastfeeding, but are not given supplementary funds for formula milk, putting their babies at risk.

Refugees who are fleeing war and persecution should be given an extra layer of protection, but in such cases, some of the most vulnerable are those who receive the lowest support. It is clear that the particular needs and additional costs of living for families where there is a disability or illness must be taken into account to determine financial support for asylum seekers. It is unacceptable for parents and children with disability to be left without the support that they desperately need. Asylum-seeking families should be able to access disability living allowance, carer’s allowance or mobility allowance, so that they are able to live without fear of going hungry, cold or scared.

In this country, we put a lot of emphasis on English language skills and knowledge, which I feel is most important. Everyone needs to learn, so that they can fully participate in the system, but it is also the responsibility of the system to recognise the other social and practical skills that such people bring with them, so that they can be used. Not only could people then offer their own skills, but it could be ensured that they contribute more effectively to society after they come in. I hope that the Minister, in responding, will address how we can best use the skills that people carry with them.

Thank you, Mr Davies, for giving me the chance to contribute to this important debate. I hope that the Minister will listen to the contributions made by all Members this morning, as well as what is said by people who have expertise in the field, who are dealing on a day-to-day basis with many cases, and that he will read the recommendations made in the report. I also hope that he will help the families and children who are going through the most difficult period of their lives and take them out of the poverty trap. Furthermore, let them live and move in society with dignity and respect.

10.16 am

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): I apologise, Mr Davies, for having to nip out to deal with a constituency issue, but I have been here for most of the debate, and what a good debate it has been. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) on securing it and on building on what has been a very good all-party inquiry into a significant and precise issue. As she said so eloquently in her speech, action can be taken by the Minister—who is a very good Minister—to seize the opportunity and advantage available for a win-win situation.

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Most of these children and families come from countries, such as Iran, Zimbabwe and Afghanistan, where violence is endemic and human rights abuses are well documented. Owing to poor-quality decision making by the Home Office on asylum claims, there are consistently high overturn rates on appeal for some countries—for example, for Syria, the rate is 53%; for Sri Lanka, 40%; for Iran, 37%; and for Afghanistan, 30%.

As recent Refugee Council research shows, many families will be refused asylum but may still have protection needs, and they will be too afraid to return to their country of origin. They are left in limbo in the United Kingdom, sadly living in destitution and prohibited from working to support themselves and their children. In general, if a temporary obstacle prevents them from leaving the UK—for example, if they are too sick to travel or if there is no viable route of return—under the section 4 system, they may only live in designated accommodation, and instead of cash, they only receive money to cater for essential living needs on the Azure payment card. As the hon. Lady pointed out, although that is designed as a temporary measure, it can go on for years and, sometimes, as long as a decade or more, which is surely not acceptable.

I want to focus my remarks on the card. It can only be used at designated retail outlets, so people cannot get the best value for money. I think that every hon. Member is committed to systems that allow the delivery of the best value for money, so it is ironic that we have designed something that militates against that. People can only purchase food, essential toiletries and other items up to the value of £35.39 per person per week. We heard from families who reported experiencing frequent technical faults with the card—something that, as the hon. Lady pointed out, can be embarrassing and degrading—and they were not allowed to buy certain items such as condoms or sanitary towels.

Attention can also be drawn to such families, and they can be the victims of abuse. For example, one mother, who had been trafficked for sexual exploitation when she was young and who was living on section 4 support when we spoke to her but has since received refugee status, told the panel how she had been spoken to by another shopper while using the Azure card. The shopper said, “You black monkey, go back to your own country.” These horrific experiences have a profound impact on parents and their children. None of us feels that that racism should be tolerated, and we should not put systems in place that risk that racism taking place.

I was ashamed to hear some of the evidence that we heard. People gave evidence with great dignity and stoicism and no complaining. It left me thinking that we can surely do better and at no extra cost. Indeed, the cost implications of maintaining a two-tier system under section 4, aimed at persuading people to leave the UK, are such that it is not a cost-effective approach. Ultimately, increasing asylum support to bring it in line with mainstream benefits to ensure that children’s needs are met would mean additional costs. However, abandoning the parallel section 4 system could and probably would save money, because it would get rid of an unnecessary and clumsy bureaucracy.

Still Human Still Here estimates that abolishing the parallel support system under section 4 could lead to savings of more than £2 million due to administrative costs and because families would no longer be required

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to live in designated UK Border Agency accommodation and could remain with friends or relatives, as is the case currently for those on section 95 support. There is an opportunity to save money in times of austerity and to allow money to go further for people who have very little money. It is a win-win opportunity for the Government, and I am sure that this Minister will want to embrace it.

The report recommended that the Government should abolish section 4 support and urgently implement a single cash-based support system for all children and their families who need asylum support while they are in the UK. I hope that all parties in the House will work together with the Government to assist them in bringing that about as soon as possible. The system should include children who were born after an asylum refusal, to ensure that no child is left destitute.

Much more could be said, because of the richness of the evidence that was provided, but I want to focus simply on the cashless payment, which does not make sense in terms of delivering to those who most need it the opportunity to take full advantage of their lives and move things forward; nor does it make sense because of the cost to the UK taxpayer, who is paying for unnecessary bureaucracy. Here is an opportunity to address that and move things forward in a way that benefits everyone.

10.22 am

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): I commend the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) for initiating the debate. I commend not only the work reflected in her remarks today, but the work of the cross-party panel, which conducted such a compelling inquiry. The hon. Lady has also reflected many of the points and concerns that she has raised in a very cogent early-day motion, which I have also supported.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), who has responsibility for children, told the main Chamber on Monday, in the debate on the Children and Families Bill, that every child is our responsibility.

The report by the cross-party panel is a call to action and a call for change if we really do subscribe to the ethic that every child is our child, because it shows that, as a result of how the regime for asylum support is operating, children are being held in destitution. Their parents are being frustrated from discharging their most basic responsibility and from fulfilling the most cogent aspiration of any parent—to provide due and proper care and nurture for their children.

David Simpson: The hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) mentioned briefly a young lady who had been trafficked. Did the evidence given to the panel contain much about young people being trafficked for sexual exploitation?

Mark Durkan: The evidence was there in terms of the risk that children were facing. We have a regime that does not work to the imperative of the protection of children and their rights. It is a system that, in many ways, possibly by ensuring the degree of destitution for parents and children, puts parents—mothers—at risk of ending up in undue transactional circumstances, including prostitution. It creates many degrees and levels of risk for children, which we should, of course, be at pains to prevent.

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We have heard from the hon. Members for Brent Central, for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) and for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) that the system is unfair and cruel and creates inequity. I know that the Minister is a reasonable, sensible and sensitive person. He will see the inequity to which other hon. Members have referred, but if his officials cannot be moved by the inequity, will they not at least be moved by the inefficiency that has been brought out so strongly by the hon. Members and which is demonstrated so strongly in the panel’s report?

There seems to be a naive assumption that a cashless system, as in section 4, is somehow a costless system, but, as we can see in the report and as we have heard from the hon. Member for Brent Central and other hon. Members today, that system is not costless. It is an inefficient as well as a cruel system, because it denies people not just adequate means but the choice to make proper and cost-efficient provision for themselves. A cash system, with a fair application of section 95, would be much better.

There seems to be a mantra on the part of those making decisions in Government that there should be “No more for section 4,” but the mantra should actually be “No more of section 4”. It simply does not work in any way that is fair. It results in severe destitution for many people and intense risk exposure for very vulnerable families. It is the point about vulnerability that seems to be missing.

It seems to me that the system has a tendency to see suspects rather than the vulnerable. Its treating of families and children as suspect rather than vulnerable seems to be the root cause of the problem. We should move against section 4. It is supposed to provide a measure of short-term support to deal with short-term exigencies, but, as we know from parliamentary answers given only this month, more than half the people on section 4 support have been on it for more than two years. Some, as the hon. Member for Scunthorpe said, have been on it for much longer than that, so let us not pretend that section 4 does what the Government initially said it was intended to do. Let us recognise, as the report brings out, the serious problems with section 4 and move against it.

Of course, the lack of choice over disposable means is not the only problem with section 4. There is also—pardon the pun—the tethered living that comes with section 4, with people being denied any choice in relation to accommodation and being forced into UKBA accommodation. As well as that being restricted and unsuitable living, it can lead to intrusive situations—officials can just arrive and appear in the properties where people are living. That can lead to situations that are totally inappropriate in the context of family life. Families should not have to deal with that.

The hon. Member for Brent Central referred to the recent report “When maternity doesn’t matter”, by the Refugee Council and Maternity Action. I attended the event on Monday evening and listened to the accounts of the experiences of some people who have faced dispersal. Refugees, as well as facing the worst effects of displacement from their own country, their own families and the circumstances that they are fleeing, find themselves at risk of ongoing displacement here, whether that is through the policy of dispersal or through some of the other changes that can be visited on people, as was brought out very strongly by the hon. Lady.

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Mr Virendra Sharma: My hon. Friend is making a powerful point about how the system operates. Does he agree that the present system and environment force many children, women and families into the undesirable field of racial abuse and sexual violence, as my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe has said?

Mark Durkan: My hon. Friend makes an important point. People are left vulnerable not just in a social and economic sense, but to all sorts of victimisation and alienation. That would be wrong in any instance, but particularly when we are dealing with vulnerable children. We should not visit such risks on people.

The regime is in relation not just to section 4, but to section 95, which provides for a cash support system. It makes no recognition whatever of disabled children or children who discharge caring duties for a parent with a disability or long-term condition. We would not tolerate that in any other area of benefits for any other of our constituents.

Although people complain about the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority about this, that and the other, we have made sure that there is provision even in the parliamentary allowance system for people with caring responsibilities or disabilities. One of the worst forms of inequality is to treat people in profoundly different circumstances as though they were the same. That is exactly what is happening in the situation that we are discussing.

Originally, section 95 support was pegged at 90% of income support levels. It was then moved by the previous Government to 70%, but that was never adhered to. The report brings that out. People might argue that in the current circumstances it is a relatively modest request to bring section 95 support to 70% of income support levels.

I hope that the Minister, when he addresses the issues, will take care to read all the points and experiences reflected in the report and listen to its sensible recommendations, which have come not just from the Children’s Society, which did much work to support the inquiry, but from many others, including the Law Centre and many other charities in Northern Ireland that work with asylum seekers and refugees.

10.33 am

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): It is a great delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.

I congratulate my three hon. Friends who spoke in today’s debate and all hon. Members who took part in putting the report together. I also congratulate, as my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) has just done, the various charities and organisations that work with refugees—including those whose primary work is not with refugees, such as the Red Cross—on the diligence that they have brought to the work, to try to make Parliament and the wider public understand the situation faced by many refugees in this country. Of course, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) for the work she has done in bringing the issues together, for getting the report published and for how she presented her case today.

Different parts of the country will make different responses to the issue of asylum, because some parts have more refugees and a longer history of refugee

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communities than others. I used to be a curate in High Wycombe. Many refugees had come from Poland to High Wycombe in the 1940s, and it was an accepted part of Buckinghamshire society that there was a strong support for asylum and for refugees individually.

A respect for asylum and a desire to protect refugees are essential parts of our British decency. They are things we feel proud of because of our response not only in the 1930s and 1940s, but after that. People in the United Kingdom looked at oppressive dictatorships in Spain, Portugal, Greece and parts of eastern Europe and were proud when we were able to provide others greater freedom and liberty than they were able to have in their own countries.

The hon. Member for Brent Central was absolutely right in saying—though this is not often the version portrayed in the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent or just about any national newspaper—that there is little evidence to suggest that asylum seekers choose a country because of its benefits system or whether they would be able to work. That, incidentally, is also true of other forms of migration.

It is important that we keep asylum and immigration separate and that Government rules do so, too. If someone has suddenly to leave their country, it is far more common for them to go to a country where they already know someone; that stands to reason. If this country suddenly had a dictatorial Government and people suddenly had to leave, they would probably go somewhere where they had family or friends, whose house they might be able to stay in. Alternatively, people might go to a country whose operation of the rule of law they truly respected. Our historical respect for the rule of law is another reason why Britain has sometimes been a place where people seek refuge.

The hon. Lady was also right in saying that being a refugee is tough.

Mr Virendra Sharma: I arrived in this country many years ago, but in different circumstances. Does my hon. Friend agree that, when people leave their country, they go to a country where there is a history and tradition of tolerance and where they feel they will get a sense of justice? That is also part of why they move—not the benefits.

Chris Bryant: I absolutely agree. That does not mean that we should throw out all the rules on benefits in this country. It is a simple point to make—the vectors of asylum are oppression and dictatorial regimes, not the attraction of some kind of benefits system in this country. That is not to say that we should build palaces for every single person who comes to this country—no refugee expects that—but it is important to realise why people come.

It is also important to realise that no one wants to be a refugee; everyone prefers to live in their own country. The whole Old Testament is about people who are refugees because they had to leave their own country and the oppression that they lived under. The Israelites went off into the desert because of the oppression they were suffering under the Egyptians. That is a fundamental—theological, if one likes—understanding of the role of the refugee.

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We need to do a great deal more, where we can, to ensure that our aid budget is deployed to try to ensure that fewer people around the world have to seek refuge. The number of people seeking asylum in this country and in many other parts of the world rose dramatically in the 1990s for the simple reason that there were many more dangerous places from which people had to flee.

We were hideously ill-prepared—in 1994, 1995 and 1996 there were only 50 people to deal with asylum seekers’ applications in this country—and it took a considerable period to put the situation in order. There were something like 170,000 applications a year; we are now talking about something in the region of 19,000, 20,000 or 21,000.

Richard Fuller (Bedford) (Con): The hon. Gentleman says that the number of asylum seekers increased because more places around the world were dangerous. Is it not also the case—this is not a harsh point, just one for balance—that many people who came here claiming that they were asylum seekers came for other reasons? In fact, the attraction of easier travel and better media meant that, in addition to the rising numbers, understanding whether the basis for asylum was valid or invalid become more important in the 1990s and the last decade.

Chris Bryant: That may be true, but part of my critique is that we have been very ill-prepared to make such decisions over the past 20 years. If a long time is taken to decide on someone’s asylum application—that happened under Labour, but also in the early 1990s—the danger is that we end up with people who have become stateless and without any real existence.

Among people coming to my surgery recently, one young gentleman—he is not young any more; he came here some 25 years ago—has never had an asylum decision and has simply being living here. He has not been living off the state. He lives with his wife, and he is the house husband. Sorry—not his wife, but his partner: he has decided to come clean because he wants to marry, and he cannot marry without regularising his position.

It is vital that we make swift decisions, and it is important that the Government do whatever they can to reach the target of all asylum decisions being made within six months. In some cases, we have to be very careful. In particular, I hope that the Minister will look at the new evidence about Sri Lanka. When we return people to Sri Lanka, where they face oppression and persecution, we need to be careful in our relations with the Sri Lankan Government, let alone with others. There can be no greater instance of the trauma involved in someone’s having to leave their country as a refugee than the case of the 92 Burmese refugees who died after being at sea for 25 days off the coast of Thailand.

I am absolutely certain that the vast majority of the British people would be scandalised, upset and shocked by many of the stories told and much of the evidence presented to the group, especially about those for whom no decision has yet been made. The warmth of feeling of the British people, however, is somewhat diminished for those on section 4 support, when it has already been decided that people should go home.

I also think, as I know from an e-mail I had from a constituent yesterday—about a story in the Daily Mail, which makes me slightly hesitant—that there is less

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support for those in this country who decide to take on further family responsibilities after it has been determined that their asylum claim will not be accepted. I merely note that five of the people we have talked about are women who became pregnant after their appeal had been rejected.

Sarah Teather: The hon. Gentleman will recall that his hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe said that, under section 4, people cannot buy condoms.

The Minister for Immigration (Mr Mark Harper): Yes they can.

Chris Bryant: That is perhaps a point for the Minister. I want to say to some religious organisations that it is time they understood the reality of the modern world and abandoned their views about procreation.

Sarah Teather: That is not relevant to the point I just made.

Chris Bryant: I hear what the hon. Lady says. I do not know whether what she has reported is true or not, which is why I hope that the Minister can reply. He said from a sedentary position that it was not true.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to refer to the hideous conditions in which many people live. We need to do far more in this country to crack down on unscrupulous and poor landlords, who put people into housing that, frankly, is not fit for living. It has been a disgrace that successive Governments have not concentrated enough on that. Multiple removals are a waste of time, money and energy for the organisations involved, leaving aside the effect on families, and particularly on children who have to change school. I have already referred to slow decision making, and to how important it is that decisions are made swiftly so that people can organise their lives accordingly.

I want to ask the Minister what impact the bedroom tax will have—

Richard Fuller: It is not a tax.

Chris Bryant: I have heard the Prime Minister say that the bedroom tax is not a tax, which rather seems to give the game away.

Richard Fuller: Stop misleading people. It is not a tax.

Philip Davies (in the Chair): Order.

Chris Bryant: The point is that neither will that measure redistribute scarce resources from the over-supplied to the under-supplied. I assure the hon. Member for Bedford that it is not a form of socialism. Child asylum seekers, if they come here under the age of 18, are normally fostered. As I understand it, the Government have admitted today that foster carers’ additional rooms will be counted as additional to their requirements. I fear that that will again crack down on families who want to provide legitimate support for people. What assessment has the Minister made of that?

I hear everything that my hon. Friends have said about the Azure card and section 4 support. I will not declare a new Labour party policy, I am afraid. Of

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course, the Government have to keep the concept of the card under review, because if it is genuinely more expensive to provide than the savings it brings, that is obviously to cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face. I will not make a new financial commitment today. The Government must, of course, review the amounts, and it is time that they got on with that this year.

I want to make a point about paperless children. A significant number of children who come to this country as asylum seekers say that they are 15, but the system says, “No, you aren’t 15; you are 18 or 19. You are an adult and should go through the adult process.” One difficulty is that many people destroy their papers the moment they get on an aeroplane. I wonder whether there is any means of ensuring that airlines scan the documents required to be shown before people can get on an aeroplane, so that if the documents are destroyed on the aeroplane, they are not entirely lost to the system, and people cannot thereafter claim that they are completely and utterly paperless and therefore stateless.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent Central on advancing this issue. Having seen, when Labour was in government, several ex-Ministers find conviction about policies that they did not necessarily exhibit when they were in office, I hope that she will retain her commitment when she returns to office, which I am sure the Prime Minister will want to enable very swiftly.

10.48 am

The Minister for Immigration (Mr Mark Harper): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) on securing this debate. As she said, she and I met to discuss the report put together by her group of parliamentary colleagues, and I had the chance, both before and after that meeting, to consider it carefully. It will certainly go into the Government’s review specifically on asylum support rates. I thank her for her work and for the evidence. Two of the Members who took part in that work—the hon. Members for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) and for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin)—are here today. In the time available, I will deal with both her points and those made by other Members who spoke or intervened.

Let me first deal with the financial support. One point made by the hon. Lady today, and one of the key points in her report, is that the amount of money given to both asylum seekers and failed asylum seekers is very low and does not meet families’ essential living needs. It is worth setting out for the House exactly what is available. The legal test is whether it meets people’s essential needs, which are food, toiletries and clothing. A family of four receiving section 95 support, which is that given to those who have an asylum application that has not yet been decided, would get £178 a week to cover those essential costs. A family on section 4 support, which is where a decision has been made and they do not have a right to remain in the country, get £151 a week. It is worth remembering that they have furnished housing with no bills to pay. I accept that it is not generous, but I do not think it is ungenerous. It is lower than the income support equivalents, but people who are in asylum support accommodation do not have to pay any utility bills, buy furniture or meet some of the other costs associated with running a household.

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The hon. Lady touched on the relationship between the section 95 support and income support levels, which is worth mentioning. For children, the rates are much higher than the 70% she talked about. For children, the rates range between 81% and 89% of the income support levels. It is true that the rates are less generous for adults. If we look at how we compare with other European countries on families—and therefore on children—we are rather more generous than most of our equivalent European neighbours.

Sarah Teather: The Minister will perhaps recognise that the rates vary according to the children’s age and tail off significantly at 16, where it would be expected that those children would be in full-time education, especially given the Government’s own policy to encourage everybody to be in education beyond 16. I have discussed the German constitutional court case with him in private. I do not know whether he has had a chance to look at it, but I am happy to send him the details. The support rates there were deemed to be inadequate to meet a family’s basic humane needs. It is difficult to compare our asylum support rates with those of other European countries, because they partly depend on how long someone is on them. It is worth noting that one of our neighbours has had to review its asylum support rates.

Mr Harper: I accept that point. It is worth making the point on the German case that our rates for families are rather more generous than the German rates. The hon. Lady is right that there was a court challenge and the Germans have had to make their rates more generous. Ours are significantly more generous. The point she makes about 16 and 17-year-olds is correct, but it is still worth noting that her report and, I think, others have referred to the rates being at least 70% of the income support rate. That is still the case for young people of 16 and 17, where it is 71%. It does fall below that for adults. She will be aware—she and I have discussed this—that we are in the process of reviewing the asylum support rates to confirm that they meet essential living needs. The initial work that we have done suggests that they do, but that work is under way. When we have completed it, we will make an announcement in due course.

The hon. Lady and others, particularly the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall, referred to individuals who have higher living costs, especially those with disabilities or complicated medical problems, who might need particular extra care or equipment. The correct way that they are supposed to be supported is through local authorities using their powers and duties under both the National Assistance Act 1948 and the Children Act 2004 to provide that extra support. It sounds like the hon. Gentleman has encountered some cases in his surgeries with constituents, and there were also some in the evidence given to the panel producing the report, where that does not always happen. Obviously I am happy to look at specific cases, so that we can ensure that local authorities are following up on their legal obligations.

Once people have made an asylum claim, if that claim is accepted and they are given refugee status and are permitted to stay in the UK, they have access to the full range of public services and benefits on the same basis as a British citizen. There are some issues about

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the transition from asylum support to those mainstream benefits, and the UK Border Agency and the Department for Work and Pensions are looking at those to see whether we can smooth that move from asylum support to mainstream benefits for those who are granted refugee status.

It is worth mentioning at this point the speed of decision making, which is important both from a human perspective and to ensure that people do not use the asylum system as a method of economic migration. I agree with the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant): both our parties have been clear when in government that there is a distinction between providing refuge for people fleeing persecution and for people who move, perfectly understandably, for economic reasons. My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) alluded to that. We now make 50% of asylum decisions within 30 days and 63% are made within a year, and we continue to apply pressure to maintain that progress.

Several hon. Members talked about whether asylum seekers should be able to work. Our view is that they should not be able to, to keep that clear distinction. However, under our obligations under the relevant EU directives, if we take more than a year to make a decision, an asylum seeker is able to apply to work, and we will usually grant them the ability to do so.

Mr Virendra Sharma: Does the Minister agree that when asylum seekers are not entitled to work, they sometimes find illegal work, which furthers the black market and disadvantages people who work in that field?

Mr Harper: The hon. Gentleman’s point would be correct if we were prohibiting people from working and not providing them with any support. While we say they cannot work, so as to maintain that important distinction, we do provide them with housing where the bills are paid and a basic level of subsistence to support them in the period before we make a decision.

In the four minutes I have remaining, I will say a little about the difference between asylum seekers and those who have failed in their claim. That is important and I have made this point to the hon. Lady. If we are to maintain the proud record that the United Kingdom has in giving people refuge from persecution, it is important that those who have gone through the appeal process through the tribunal system, where we will have looked at their cases carefully, and been found not to require that support leave the country. It is important to distinguish that those on section 4 support are those who have been found not to require our protection. They should be leaving the country. We support those cases where there

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is a temporary barrier to them doing so, but frankly they should not be here. I know that that is a difficult message for people sometimes, but we have looked carefully at their cases and they do not need our protection. They should return home.

Sarah Teather: I am aware that the Minister does not have much time, but does he recognise, particularly in the case of Zimbabwe, that people were left in a situation where the courts would not return them because it was unsafe, and for a prolonged period of time they were left on very tiny amounts of support?

Mr Harper: As I have said, if there are temporary barriers to their removal—I do not know the particular cases that the hon. Lady was talking about—we will support them, but if they are found not to require protection, it is right that they leave. That is why we have a different regime for those who have no right to be here from that for those seeking asylum.

We do not think that the Azure card is more expensive than administering cash payments. It can be used in major supermarkets, chemists, children’s and clothing retailers, and some charity shops, which deals with the point made by the hon. Member for Scunthorpe. The hon. Lady made a point about purchasing birth control or sanitary products with the Azure card, which she raised when we met. I have checked it, and there is no restriction on purchasing those products, although there are rightly restrictions on purchasing alcohol and tobacco. I agreed to look into those cases and have checked them, and there is no restriction on birth control or sanitary products, which is right.

I will deal with some of the points raised in the debate. On accommodation and people moving around, we have specific restrictions in our new Compass contracts on how many times people can be moved. People will normally go into initial accommodation when they first make a claim and then will be moved into their dispersal accommodation. They will be moved from that only if there is a good reason, such as if the property becomes unsuitable or if they request it. Under the contract, they are only allowed to be moved twice in an 18-month period. We should not see people being moved about frequently, because that raises a range of issues.

The hon. Lady also referenced the recent report by the Refugee Council about the dispersal of pregnant women. We changed our policies last August, which she acknowledged, and 19 of the report’s 20 case studies were prior to our policy change. That change should have dealt with some of the issues that have been raised. This has been a good debate, and I am sorry that I have not had time to deal with all the issues.

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Londonderry and the City of London

11 am

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): It is a great pleasure to open this debate on the 400th anniversary of the start of the relationship between the City of London and County Londonderry. This debate provides an opportunity not only to mark the past but to discuss the future, as Londonderry faces the need for a renewed economic impetus as it continues to emerge from the decades of the troubles.

I suppose that my own experience and knowledge, having been born in the mid-1960s, was of Northern Ireland being the centre of all the troubles, and we are all very grateful that those terrible days—certainly the terrible death toll during the troubles—are behind us. I particularly recall the terrible death toll of 1972 when, as a young boy, Northern Ireland seemed to be a watchword only for these issues. Of course, we cannot be complacent. Only this morning, we hear news of certain issues—not in Londonderry, but in Belfast—that ensure that the security services and others must remain watchful and vigilant in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, we can all be glad that the terrible days that scarred the Province and made such an impact on my own generation are now thankfully behind us.

This year—2013—is the 400th anniversary of the foundation of County Londonderry by a royal charter from King James I.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman from the very depths of my heart on securing this tremendously important and timely debate, and it is a very historic debate at that. He talked not only about the past but the future, and he is now moving on to discuss the events of 2013 and beyond. Does he agree that the recent event in the Guildhall in the City of London was a tremendous marker of the 400th anniversary and that we can build on the links between London and Londonderry to ensure that the economy becomes the driver, to ensure that young people who are deprived are given the opportunity for employment and to ensure that we really build on the history and legacy of the past 400 years?

Mark Field: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and naturally I will come on to this issue later. I only hope that the coffers of the City of London will be strong enough to ensure that we will not have to wait another 400 years until there is another such glorious dinner in the Guildhall.

Of course, part and parcel of the creation of Londonderry was the creation of the Honourable the Irish Society, which was created by the same royal charter of 1613. I am sure that everyone here in Westminster Hall today is aware that the relationship between London and Londonderry is one that has had its fair ups and downs during the past four centuries. More importantly, however, the relationship between the City of London and Londonderry presents unique opportunities. In many ways, with the recent focus upon the Northern Ireland economy, the timing for this debate could not be more apt.

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I am sure that hon. Members are conscious of the economic problems that we face in Northern Ireland today. The massive imbalance between the public and private sectors is the largest in any British region, and that has created a reliance on public funding that gives rise to some real challenges, particularly in the current economic climate. That imbalance, combined with below-average employment, means there is a strong and pressing need for increased private investment across the region.

I think that all parties in the House accept that urgent action is needed to help to remedy this problem, and I am pleased that the Government have assembled a working group to assess ways in which such investment can be achieved. Although I obviously do not represent a Northern Ireland constituency, I hope that I can play a small part in trying to ensure that that process bears some fruit. I have no doubt that the Treasury and the Northern Ireland Office, alongside their counterparts in the Northern Ireland Executive, are working very hard to find solutions to these problems. A growing, strong and resilient Northern Irish economy will benefit the whole UK.

As Northern Ireland looks for opportunities to boost its economy, this year presents County Londonderry with a distinctive position to begin to address some of the issues that I have mentioned, by utilising and building upon its historic connection with one of the centres of global business, finance and the arts. It is towards this purpose that the City of London, the Honourable the Irish Society, Derry city council and Coleraine borough council have been working together to mark the anniversary with a lasting economic and cultural impact.

Earlier this month, the City of London hosted a day of activities designed to boost County Derry’s visibility as a place to invest in among businesses and investors here in London. That day included an inward investment seminar, organised under the auspices of Derry city council and Coleraine borough council and their respective chambers of commerce, with valuable help from Invest Northern Ireland. The seminar was addressed by a series of business representatives, as well as by Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and the mayors of both Derry city council and Coleraine borough council. It highlighted the potential of the growing technological and digital sectors in the region, as represented by the dedicated digital development projects of Digital Derry and Digital Causeway in Coleraine.

We only need to look at the evidence. The completion of the Project Kelvin communications link will provide County Londonderry with the fastest data link with north America in the whole of Europe. Derry city council is committed to becoming the first city in the UK with 100% fibre-optic broadband availability, and of course the university of Ulster is an industry-focused university with world-class technology research facilities and a dedicated school of creative arts. The digital sector can act as a key selling point upon which to build a modern vibrant economy for Londonderry and for Northern Ireland as a whole.

As the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) mentioned, the seminar at the Guildhall was followed by an absolute first for the city of Londonderry: a dinner at the Guildhall hosted by the City of London corporation and facilitated by Invest NI, on the theme of inward investment. At that dinner,

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Northern Ireland’s First Minister, the Deputy First Minister, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the lord mayor of the City of London and the governor of the Honourable the Irish Society all spoke. As someone who was there, I was glad that the speeches were relatively short and the toasts commensurately long, which is the right way round. It was an occasion that should not be underplayed, and it signalled the intention of all those involved in the Northern Ireland Executive, the City of London and—I hope—here in Westminster to move forward and foster a strong working partnership between County Londonderry, Northern Ireland as a whole and the City of London at the highest possible levels.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Although I represent a Belfast constituency, I am proud to say that I was born in Londonderry and lived there for the first 11 years of my life, so I want to see it do well and succeed. Does he agree that with the initiatives that he has referred to—the dinner and the special events, particularly this year—it is important that there is follow-up and follow-through on the part of Invest NI and others? I say that because, wearing my hat as a former Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland, the thing that I learned very strongly is that the follow-up to any action is absolutely key, as I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree.

Mark Field: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct in that regard. Achieving follow-up is an inevitable problem of government, and not just within Northern Ireland. For example, one can look at the important initiatives that the UK Government are making in India. Without following those initiatives through, there is a difficulty. It is not simply a matter of a whole lot of politicians putting on a good dinner and everything else, and thinking that the problem is solved. There needs to be concerted action. I very much hope that all members of all parties in Northern Ireland will play their part in that action, and I also hope that, within the City of London, we ensure that we take on this responsibility, too.

It seems to me that, in recent months, the Honourable the Irish Society has been directly engaging with Digital Derry, Derry city council, Coleraine borough council and other local stakeholders. I am pleased to say that that engagement has resulted in the signing of a unique memorandum of understanding between Digital Derry and the Tech City Investment Organisation in London. It is unique in the sense that it is the very first such agreement to be signed between Tech City and any other UK-based digital cluster. Therefore, it gives a great opportunity, as the right hon. Gentleman correctly suggests, to drive this process forward before other parts of the UK have their chance.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Certainly, Londonderry has come a long way since the days of King James. However, to encourage young people to stay within the city of Londonderry and, indeed, within Northern Ireland, we need to encourage the skills side of things. The economy is starting to move forward, but we need to encourage our young people. As my colleague—my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds)

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—has already said, we need to follow up on these activities to ensure that our young people stay in Northern Ireland.

Mark Field: Of course, as I am sure any of the hon. Gentlemen sitting in Westminster Hall today would be keen to point out, Northern Ireland’s education record is actually fantastic; it is the best of any part of the United Kingdom. It is perhaps the flipside of having such a strong public sector that teaching as a profession is rather more highly regarded in Northern Ireland than is possibly the case in other parts of the United Kingdom. As I say, Northern Ireland has a fantastic record on education. However, as the hon. Member rightly points out, ensuring that that education is built upon with skills that are relevant for the 21st century, particularly in the key global industries that I have referred to, is vital.

Following the signing of this memorandum of understanding, a number of angel investors and media outlets have already expressed a serious interest in the development of the cluster to which I have referred. The signing of this agreement is just the first part of a long-term business plan for further development of the tech cluster in County Londonderry. I hope this will culminate in developing deeper connections to funding networks in and around the City of London, with the intention of creating an investment fund for businesses, supported by Digital Derry, and the development of Digital Derry’s Culture Tech festival and the Ebrington creative hub, through closer engagement with the Tech City businesses.

A renewal of this historical relationship would not be complete without reference to the huge potential not only for economic exchange, but for cultural exchange, especially given Derry’s proud record of and status as the UK’s first city of culture. Throughout the year, there will be a huge number of events designed to feed into this, to mark the history of the Honourable the Irish Society and reflect its present role as a cross-community charity.

June will see a joint performance of a specially commissioned anniversary cantata, “At Sixes and Sevens”, which will be performed simultaneously in the two guildhalls of London and Derry-Londonderry. I am a liveryman at the Merchant Taylors, which is one of the sixes and sevens. Hon. Members may be aware that there is a long-standing dispute, going back more than 400 years, between the Merchant Taylors and the Skinners, which has given us this phrase about being at sixes and sevens. That performance links into City history, and it will be a great success in June. The cantata will be performed by Camerata Ireland and the London Symphony Orchestra, in conjunction with the specially formed community ensembles, presenting a musical representation of the shared history of our two cities.

There will also be a programme of lectures, both in the City of London and in Derry, on the history and development of County Londonderry over the last 400 years.

It would be remiss of me to fail to mention the commendable and important work of the Honourable the Irish Society, whose anniversary has provided such a strong impetus for the programmes that I have detailed today. Each year, the society provides around 100 grants to community organisations across Derry, ranging from

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local sports clubs to youth organisations and senior citizens’ groups. It works closely with a number of schools and has worked with the university of Ulster, to help disadvantaged pupils from local secondary schools to achieve their potential. It also continues to manage and maintain the Bann river system, which contributes so much to the natural beauty of the area.

I am sure that this year will mark a new era for Londonderry and its wider relationship with London. The prospects on which to build an economic and cultural collaboration that benefits all parties are there. Through the hard work and dedication of those involved—at the Honourable the Irish Society, in Derry and in the City of London—I am sure that this anniversary can provide a genuine catalyst for future growth and prosperity.

Philip Davies (in the Chair): The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) and the Minister have both kindly indicated that they are happy for hon. Members from Northern Ireland to contribute to the debate. I am happy to facilitate that, because I appreciate that they want to do so. However, we need to leave some time for the Minister to respond, in fairness to him and the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster.

11.13 am

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Thank you, Mr Davies. I appreciate your urging brevity.

I commend the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) on his initiative in securing this debate, which provides a timely parliamentary opportunity to acknowledge the unique, although not always perfect or agreed or agreeable, relationship between the city of Derry, or Londonderry, and London and the wider county. Of course, the plantation remit given to the City of London was not just confined to the city, although a bespoke charter was given in respect of the city.

It is not a day to try to do a “Horrible Histories” version of events, suggesting that it was all just raucous fun and we can laugh about it now. Like others, I do not want to dwell on the past. I am not here to assert the restoration of the Gaelic ascendancy, or anything like that. We will do that on another day in a digital form, I am sure. However, it is important to recognise that the City of London has been making positive commitments to and engaging positively with not just my constituency of Foyle, which embraces the city of Derry or Londonderry, but the wider county. It is not just the City of London corporation that is involved, as the hon. Gentleman said, but the Honourable the Irish Society.

This is not a new interest contrived on the back of the 400th anniversary—the series of 400th anniversaries—that we have been celebrating in recent years, and it is not just occurring since the onset of the peace process and the more benign environment. The Honourable the Irish Society has engaged positively during the difficult times of the troubles with the Inner City Trust, for example, which worked to preserve the fabric of buildings, and helped restore some that had been damaged in the mad IRA bombing campaign that destroyed so much of the heart of Derry city. The Honourable the Irish Society was supportive in a discreet and sensitive way.

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The society has a strong relationship with a number of schools in the city, not least some girls’ schools, helping them nurture some of their specialisms, including in science, culture and the arts. In the wider arts field, the City of London corporation and the Honourable the Irish Society have supported the Playhouse and other key parts of the cultural infrastructure of the city, including the Verbal arts centre and other amenities, all of which helped to create the pedigree that was part of the successful bid for the city to become the first UK city of culture. The society and the corporation supported the city in that bid and were helpful to many people who supported and contributed to it.

More recently, the City has helped to forge the partnership between the Digital Derry ventures initiative and Tech City. As the hon. Gentleman said, that partnership is full of all sorts of possibilities into the future.

During the 400th anniversary, people are creating and forging a new relationship—not hung up about the historic issues around the original relationship or any of the history or experience relating to that, but focused on the now and the future. That is why the event in the Guildhall earlier this month, which the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) mentioned, was so important and positive. It was important not just because of the distinguished people who were present —the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, the mayors and the governor—but because there was an inclusive presence, including all sectors in the city and all sections in the larger county, as well. It was positive in that sense and people have gone away with positive ideas and ambitions and a real sense of commitment, which we will, of course, be holding the City of London to. We will be constructive partners who will contribute in a positive way to the City of London, not just by asking for interest and connections, but by encouraging investment and positive engagement by our own businesses in the life of the city and the wider economy here, as reflected in the spirit of remarks at the dinner, and as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster indicated.

11.18 am

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I support the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) in his debate. Like the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), I, too, pay tribute to the City of London and the Honourable the Irish Society on the magnificent event, both the inward investment part of it and the evening part in the Guildhall recently. I do not want to pre-empt what might be said, but some announcements are in the pipeline as a result of that, and hopefully those will be the first of many announcements.

This issue unites communities across Londonderry, the county of Londonderry and all of Northern Ireland, because this is a positive legacy for the future. As the economy rises out of the recession we have all had to endure, people want us to build on that 400-year legacy. We have to drive forward the skills base alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). We have to create end products and jobs. We have to motivate the small and medium-sized sector to ensure our connections with the

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City of London blossom into something viable and progressive for young people, and there are already emerging economies, particularly in the digital sector.

We are getting there, but we need more progress. We need Invest NI to be very committed, and it is. We need to see the end product. This is a tremendous day, and I thank the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster and others for their contributions, which I am sure will be welcomed at home.

11.20 am

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mike Penning): It is a pleasure to work hard under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is an honour and a privilege as Minister of State for Northern Ireland to participate in this debate to celebrate 400 years of history. As hon. Members alluded to, the relationship has not been the easiest at times, but we are where we are today, and we can take things forward for young people and the community in Northern Ireland.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) on securing the debate. In the short time I have been in Northern Ireland, one thing I have witnessed is people’s warmth and enthusiasm for moving on, particularly when I went to Londonderry for the first time. Actually, there was a bit of enthusiasm and warmth for me, which was interesting—people were very welcoming and friendly. More importantly, however, people were saying, “The past is the past. We can’t remove the past. The past is there. But we have to go forward.” The positive way in which Londonderry or Derry/Londonderry—if I get into the semantics, I will get told off again, but there we are—has dealt with the past, and is dealing with the future, could easily be replicated in more parts of the community, and it is important that people do so.

As we have heard, there are 400 years of history. Some of the language early on was interesting. The Honourable the Irish Society got its royal charter in 1613, but some of the language in it would be deemed somewhat inappropriate today. My researchers found a reference to

“the wretched state of the province of Ulster”.

That was 400 years ago; thank goodness we can talk about the Province in a completely different way now. Her Majesty summed things up when she was in Dublin castle. She said:

“With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all.”

Certainly, in terms of some of the language of the early days, including the plantation, and all that wonderful history—I say “wonderful” in inverted commas—Her Majesty summed things up brilliantly with that short sentence.

Things are very positive in Londonderry and Northern Ireland. We really have to pinch ourselves when we see where we are and how far we have come from the really difficult, dark times Northern Ireland went through. At the same time, as my hon. Friend alluded to, we must not take our finger off the pulse, and we must make sure that we do not drift back into those difficult times. I, too, praise the work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and our security services in continuing to keep the peace. What we saw on the TV again this morning indicates that we must remain vigilant and move forward.

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This is not just about the celebrations; there are so many things being announced this year that we are going forward with. The G8 is coming to Northern Ireland, and that was the Prime Minister’s personal decision. That is a huge fillip for the economy of Northern Ireland, and it says to the rest of the world that Northern Ireland is open for business; it is a place where people can come and do business. Only three weeks ago, I met the seven biggest Japanese business men in the UK, who had come to Northern Ireland with their ambassador to see how they could invest. I do not want to pre-empt some of the announcements that will come from the county of Londonderry and Londonderry itself, but I know investments are coming from that visit—those involved have told me that those investments will go forward. We need to do more of that and to sell the benefits of doing business in Northern Ireland and, in the context of this debate, Derry/Londonderry.

Mr Campbell: Does the Minister agree that one opportunity, as part of the 400th anniversary this year, relates to the fact that Londonderry is the UK city of culture? We can start, on a straightforward cultural basis, to build inward investment and events such as the one the Minister alluded to with the Japanese business people.

Mike Penning: I completely agree, and I will come on to the city of culture in a few moments.

The Northern Ireland Office and the Treasury have been keen to ensure that we invest. The Secretary of State has taken a particular interest in the city’s broadband technology, and funding has come from central Government here in Westminster to help facilitate that. While I praise what is going on in the devolved Assembly, therefore, we are also trying to do our bit, and we are encouraging people to go forward.

Another important event taking place in Northern Ireland in the near future is the police and fire games. For those who do not know just how important those games are—as an ex-fireman, I would say this, wouldn’t I?—I should point out that they are the second-largest athletic event in the world, behind the Olympics. They are taking place in Belfast later this year, and they are a huge event. In that context, I remember, as a young man, standing in admiration of Mary Peters as an athlete; I now stand in admiration of her for driving and doing things in the community. Very early in my time in Northern Ireland, I was standing on the tarmac at Belfast city airport waiting for His Royal Highness the Duke of York to come in. I had about 15 minutes with Mary Peters, who is the most inspiring person; it is no wonder she became such an athlete when she has so much drive and personality.

David Simpson: The Minister talks about how far Northern Ireland and the city of Londonderry have come, and I mentioned the days of King James earlier. The Wolfe Tones have now invited my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) to one of their events, although, unfortunately, he is very busy. However, that shows how things have moved on. Will the Minister congratulate the cultural organisation the Apprentice Boys of Derry on their contribution in terms of the history of Londonderry and, of course, the famous walls of Derry?

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Mike Penning: I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating all the groups he mentioned on the work they do in the community. We were talking about how forward-thinking Londonderry is. As the marching season approaches, people can look across the Province at how it has been dealt with sympathetically and with trust and understanding. There are just as many marches, but the community has said, “We want to move on. We want to celebrate our culture and our history, but, at the same time, we want success for our young people and the community.” As the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) alluded to, it is the young people who matter. We are going to hand things over to them in a very short period; life moves on very fast. However, we must make sure that what we hand over is right and proper for any young generation that comes forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster mentioned the society, and I pay tribute to its continuing work, some of which it has carried out over years and in difficult circumstances. That work is not just financial, but involves mentoring in schools and elsewhere. I hope that continues.

The main comment I want to make relates to something that has been touched on several times. It is all well and good having a lovely reception, with lots of nice speeches, and it is all well and good putting the finance together so that such things can take place. That is great: everybody can go out in their bling, and everybody is happy—but then what? Let us make sure that there is truly momentum to take things forward. The momentum we have at the moment can be accelerated. We should not wait for another celebration or centenary to come along, because that will be too late. The announcements the hon. Member for East Londonderry alluded to are coming soon, but let us build on them and go forward as fast as possible, so that we have a better future for everybody across the community. In that respect, I pay tribute to the way in which the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) contributed to the debate. This has nothing to do with divisions; it is about the future, and that is all that matters.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended.

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Letting Agents

[Annette Brooke in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Sarah Champion (Rotherham) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke.

I requested this debate because of my concern about the growing problems faced by tenants and landlords across the country at the hands of unregulated letting agents. I am concerned that the Government appear to be making no moves to address those problems. We need a regulated sector for the protection of all. I make it clear that I am criticising not all letting agents but a minority who bring the profession into disrepute.

My parents have been in private rented accommodation with the same landlord for the past 30 years. They receive an excellent service, pay a fair rent and have clarity on their position. Increasingly, however, that is not the case for all. I find more and more constituents are being exploited by unscrupulous agents.

With the economy flatlining, we are facing the biggest housing crisis in a generation. The Government’s housing and economic policies are making that worse. House building is down; homelessness and rough sleeping are up. We have a market in which people struggle to get mortgages, and, unfortunately, most of us cannot rely on the bank of mum and dad.

A result of the growing housing crisis is that more and more people are locked out of home ownership and are forced to live in the private rented sector. I have no objection to that per se. In most of Europe, the private rented sector is the norm, but tenants over there do not suffer at the hands of cowboy letting agents, which is the big difference.

In the UK, the private rented sector is now bigger than the social sector. Last year, the private rented sector overtook the social sector for the first time in nearly half a century. Five million people, however, are on local authority waiting lists, and young people are now forced to wait well into their 30s before they can buy their own home, if they can ever afford to do so.

The Government should be building more homes and better supporting tenants and families. The gap between supply and demand is ever increasing. The private rented sector clearly has an important role to play in meeting housing needs, but to do so it must be a market that works for tenants and landlords, with no room for rogue letting agents and rip-off fees.

There are now 3.6 million households in the private rented sector, and a third of those families have children. Private renting is not just for young professionals. The Resolution Foundation predicts that by 2025, if the economy remains weak, 27% of low to middle-income families will be living in private rented accommodation. That is why I urge the Government to act now to impose regulations, because the problem is not going away; it is growing.

What are the issues of private renting? Many of those looking to find a home in the private rented sector, or who already live in the private rented sector, have to use a letting agent. The evidence shows that too many tenants are being ripped off by opportunist letting agents who fail to protect tenants’ money and who charge exorbitant fees that are completely opaque.

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A report by Citizens Advice found that 73% of tenants are dissatisfied with the service provided by their letting agent, with a significant number having difficulty contacting their agent and suffering serious delays in getting repairs. There are cases of agencies, even large and well established businesses, running into difficulties because they have no client money protection, with the money of both landlords and tenants being lost. Shockingly, that has not prevented the owners of companies that have gone bust from resuming their activities at a later date.

Ryan Lee, a 24-year-old Cheltenham letting agent, has today been sentenced after pleading guilty to taking £13,500 from 13 customers. Husband and wife Chris and Lucy Mallows were among Lee’s victims. They handed him £900, which they believed would go into a secure deposit scheme. They also discovered that money they had given to Lee to pay their first month’s rent had not reached their landlady. At the time, Lucy and Chris were setting up their own oven-cleaning business, and they could not afford to lose the cash. When they first realised they had been conned and went to the letting agent’s office to investigate, they found the shop stripped of computers and in complete darkness. Lee spent 10 months on the run overseas before being caught. Responding to the case another local agent said:

“There have been incidents recently, all local and reported in the press, of three letting agents disappearing with thousands of pounds of clients’ money.”

Unfortunately that is not only a Cheltenham issue but a national issue.

Individuals who are trying to invest for their future represent the biggest increase in landlords in recent years. That novice group are easy pickings for rogue letting agents. Novice landlords have expressed the pressure that letting agents put on them to raise rents. Shelter finds that one in four landlords has raised their rents because a letting agent had told them to do so. Letting agents put pressure on landlords to issue very short contracts, which benefit only the letting agent as they can charge more fees for re-letting the property.

Letting agents are preventing tenants from directly contacting their landlords. There are no safeguards to protect tenants, landlords or reputable agents. All I request is that the Government create a level playing field in which tenants are treated fairly and landlords have fair competition. Currently, good landlords are being exploited and good letting agents are being undercut by rogues, which cannot be allowed to continue.

More than 4,000 managing and letting agents are estimated to be entirely unregulated. At present, it is still possible to set up a letting or management agency with no qualifications whatsoever. There is no need to conform to requirements of conduct or to provide mandatory safeguards for the consumer. There are no obligations on letting agents, unlike estate agents, to register with a redress scheme enabling awards to be made against agents for quantifiable financial loss to clients. Letting agents, unlike estate agents, operate outside of any legislation. As the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors puts it, letting agents operate in the property market’s “Wild West.”

A local agent commented in the Bristol Post:

“It’s all well and good to seek out an agent who belongs to a voluntary licensing scheme, but the average man in the street would reasonably expect consumer protection from any operator in our industry.”

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He is right. People do not start their property search by looking for which letting agents have the most kitemarks; they search online for a property in a certain area that is within their budget. Once a desirable property is found, it is difficult to walk away, and I am certain the letting agent’s track record is not even considered.

Voluntary schemes have obvious drawbacks. The good agents comply with such schemes, and the cowboys ignore them. In 2002, the previous Government established the national approved letting scheme as an independent voluntary regulatory body. Industry-led bodies such as the Association of Residential Letting Agents and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors have done good work in encouraging a responsible regulatory approach. Although the principles are laudable, however, at no time have the majority of letting agents in England been members of such schemes. Self-regulation has not delivered and we now need something stronger.

Steve Reed (Croydon North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that it was wrong of the Conservatives on London councils to scupper plans for a pan-London registration scheme for landlords and agents so that tenants could have had assurance that they met minimum standards?

Sarah Champion: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I completely agree.

Across the industry, there is a problem with rip-off and opaque fees charged by letting and management agencies. A national survey of letting agents found that 94% impose additional charges on tenants on top of the tenancy bond, rent or rent in advance. The citizens advice bureau in Dorset reported a client who was considering renting a three-bedroom property. He was shocked to find hidden in the tenancy agreement a requirement for him to pay £94 every six months for “search fees.”

The national survey also found huge variations in the size of such charges. Charges for checking references ranged from £10 to £275, and charges for renewing a tenancy ranged from £12 to £220. In some cases, additional charges for a tenancy amounted to more than £600, which is a vast amount of additional money for anyone to find. The fact the fees vary so much shows that those charging the premium are clearly making a huge profit.

Lucy Powell (Manchester Central) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree that letting agents’ charges to landlords are also absolutely extortionate? It is not just tenants who face charges; many landlords, when tenancies are renewed, must pay 10% a year in ongoing charges. I get many complaints in my constituency, as I am sure she does, from landlords who feel that the market needs regulation.

Sarah Champion: My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is both tenants and landlords who suffer from unscrupulous letting agents, and we must do more to protect them. This cannot continue.

Up-front fees present a significant barrier to low-income people looking to rent, in some cases with serious consequences. The charity Crisis contacted me about Danny, a 34-year-old man who became homeless after a family break-up. Danny was given a list of letting agents who were happy to take housing benefit tenants.

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He called them daily for several weeks, looking for a property. He was eventually offered a flat and told that he could move in after six weeks.

Danny secured a crisis loan to help him pay rent in advance. The agent asked him for a £250 administration fee, refusing to confirm in writing what the fee was for or to provide a signed tenancy agreement. The agent then told Danny that others were interested in the property and asked for an additional £800 holding fee to keep the flat off the market. He knew Danny’s situation but refused to reduce the fees. Although he tried to scrape together the money, Danny could not take up the tenancy. Having forgone his place in a winter shelter, he slept rough before going to Crisis. He is now living in a hostel and looking to move into private rented accommodation again. I would love to say that Danny’s story is unique, but it is not.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. She is telling a harrowing story about the individual whom she named. Does she agree that regulation must include transparency and clarity about any additional charges, so that potential tenants and landlords can be absolutely clear what they are being charged and why?

Sarah Champion: I completely agree, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. What I am asking for most is a shopping list of fees, so that people can go in with their eyes wide open. What I am finding is that people—whether tenants or landlords—enter a tenancy agreement, and then additional fees are sprung on them, which is unacceptable.

According to Which?, some tenants are being charged up to £90 to renew an existing tenancy: that is, to stay in a property for which they have already undergone checks and been paying rent. Equally insultingly, some letting agents charge £120 to check out of a property; let us hope that the hotels do not catch on to that scam.

I recently encountered a case in Rotherham in which a vulnerable couple with dependent children paid a month’s rent in advance and a £100 administration charge to the letting agent. They were not given receipts. The couple were informed that the property was available and were given a date to move in. However, the house was in a state of disrepair. There were structural problems and exposed wiring and damp, and it was not suitable to live in without work.

The couple did not waive their rights to a seven-day cooling off period, and decided not to move into the property. They telephoned and wrote to the letting agent to cancel the agreement within the designated time limit, but the letting agency made it difficult for the clients to get back their deposit and administration fee. It took considerable time for the letting agent to agree to refund the advance rental payment. No mention was made of refunding the administration fee.

A report by the independent Resolution Foundation found three key areas of concern regarding fees and charges levied by unscrupulous letting agencies. First, there is a substantial disparity in the fees charged by different agents for similar services, but no apparent difference in the quality of the service received. Secondly, moving into the private rented sector generally entails

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significant up-front costs due to fees and charges. Thirdly, charges are too often hidden in the small print and people are exploited by unfair fees that they were unaware they would face.

All those issues were highlighted in an investigation by the Office of Fair Trading whose findings were released two weeks ago. The OFT found that although the lettings market is a significant part of the UK economy, it generates an extraordinarily high level of complaints. The investigation found that the main areas of concern for tenants were surprising and high charges, confusion about holding deposits, misleading advertising, repairs not being carried out and the non-refund of security deposits. The OFT also found that landlords’ concerns focused, among other things, on agents not doing what was agreed in the contract and not passing on collected rents to landlords.

As a result of its investigation, the OFT has called for better up-front information, including clear tariffs of fees and charges at the start of the process and certainly before any contract is signed, and a redress mechanism so that landlords and tenants can sort out problems when they occur. The OFT has also called on the Government to require agents to sign up to a code of practice or join a redress scheme, and it questions whether the level of consumer protection provided by law is right for the sector.

With such a weight of evidence, why is it that despite the reports from Citizens Advice, the Resolution Foundation, Which? and now the Office of Fair Trading, despite the calls for action and support for change from millions of tenants and landlords and despite calls for change from the industry itself, including the Association of Residential Letting Agents, the Labour party and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the Government have so far not been moved to act? They voted against the Labour Opposition motion last month calling for action on the private rented sector, including on letting agents. The Government did not accept Baroness Hayter’s amendment in the Lords to include letting agents in redress schemes, which would have been a small step towards greater protections for tenants and landlords, and one of the first actions of the then Housing Minister, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), was to scrap the last Labour Government’s proposals to regulate letting agents.

I hope that this Minister for Housing, the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), despite having voted against Labour’s proposals last month, will now consider changing course. Action to regulate letting agents would benefit tenants and landlords, providing protection for their money and appropriate redress mechanisms. It would also benefit the industry as a whole, protecting the reputations of responsible agents, and the economy: a report by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors found that regulation of the industry could generate more than £20 million in benefits per year to the UK economy. Given that millions of families throughout the country are living through the biggest squeeze on living standards in a generation, action on fees would ease the pressure for tenants.

Will the Government act now to protect tenants and landlords by regulating letting and management agents? It is not a party political request; regulation is supported by the industry itself. Will the Government act now to end letting agents’ confusing, inconsistent and opaque fees and charges by ensuring transparency and comparability?

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Will they undertake to review the fees that letting and management agents can charge? Labour has repeatedly called on the Government to act now to change the private rented sector so that it works for all. There is no better place to start than with the lettings industry.

2.47 pm

Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this debate and on her speech. She raised an incredibly important point. For me, one of the interesting things about this debate is why our private market is failing when there are many different agents who charge different fees and many properties available. One might expect that people would shop around in that situation and go to better landlords and agents that charge lower fees, but that does not seem to be happening. My speech will focus on why I think the market is failing and what we can do about it.

The point is well made about the disparity in fees, what they are for and why they are charged. I got someone in my office to conduct a mystery shopper exercise in Folkestone, in my constituency, and was interested in the results. I will not pretend that every agent was asked, but I was amazed by the range of fees charged by different agents.

To give an example, an inquiry was made regarding a standard joint tenancy for two adults in work in a flat in Folkestone. The rent for such a flat might typically be between £500 and £600 a month. One agent, when asked, said that their fee structure included a £220 administration fee, a £50 if there was a guarantor and a £120 additional charge on contract completion, totalling £390. There was then a month’s deposit up front, which is standard for most properties, plus £100. Someone paying all the fees could easily pay nearly £500 in charges apart from the deposit, or more than £1,000 just to move in. That is before they have walked through the door. Many people would find it impossible to raise the kind of money to move into such a property, and there are moving costs on top, so someone could easily be paying more than £1,500 just to move into a property. Someone on a low income would not be able to raise such money.

In that example, the fees for the property were quoted by a company called Evolution Property Lettings, which operates in Ashford and Folkestone. I was interested to see whether its fees were typical: it was charging £390 in fees, plus an additional £100 on the deposit, so £490. Another agent, Fell Reynolds in Folkestone, was charging £60 per person in fees—no other administration charges or renewal fees—and only a month’s deposit, without the additional £100.

Someone would save several hundred pounds in fees simply by using a different agent. I am sure such companies have reasons for their fee structure. Jenny, one of my constituents who is thinking of renting a property through Evolution Property Lettings, asked it why it charges those fees, what they are for and why they are different from other agents’ charges, because there is clearly a massive disparity in fees charged for a similar amount of work.

The challenge is why people do not have the information or the confidence to ask around. Does more guidance need to be given to people to suggest what fee structure

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different agents charge, that they should shop around and ask, that they should go to a reputable agent and that they should challenge agents on the fees that they charge? We should certainly be suggesting that as elected politicians and local authorities should do the same; with citizens advice bureaux, therefore, we are all people who can give advice and, I hope, shame some organisations into being more transparent about their fees and, where possible, into reducing them.

The culture of fees being charged—as I said, the fact that it might cost someone £1,000 to move into a property—blocks up the private rented sector, and that leads to such market failure. The hon. Lady gave an example of tenants who live in a property in a poor state of repair, and I am sure that Members of Parliament throughout the country could all give plenty of other examples from our constituency casework. People live in run-down properties—perhaps containing a category 1 or 2 hazard, as defined by the Housing Act 2004, which would give the local authority the power to intervene—but why do they not move?

One of the reasons why people do not move out of such properties is that they cannot afford to. The managing agents know that, and they will therefore happily sit there and do little to intervene. By the time the local authority inspects the property and requests that the agent or landlord carries out work, many months will have passed. The landlord might then propose to carry out the work but not do it, and so it would not be atypical for more than a year to go by before any definitive action is taken. We have to look at how to clamp down on that element.

How can we make people do the work that they are supposed to do? How can we empower tenants to exercise their rights? There are two elements to that. First, we should all be concerned that most of the worst cases are paid for by the taxpayer, because most of the people pay their rent out of housing benefit, even though they rent in the private sector. Why are we paying housing benefit through poor letting agents to slum landlords? Why do we allow things to continue for a long period before anything is done?

I sympathise greatly with the case made by the hon. Lady, but we may diverge because I think that registers might not be enough. Registers have to be enforced; people have to inspect the properties. The problem that we face is that the inspection work has not been done. Local authorities have the power to inspect properties to force change, but why is that not being done?

When the subject was debated in the main Chamber last month, it was pointed out that it is sometimes difficult to identify who the landlord is to get them to take action. The one thing that we control, however, is the money supply. If we can turn off the money, we would find that the landlords will act pretty quickly, because most landlords want high occupancy in their properties. If they were told that they will not get their money for a month or two and that the work only costs up to £1,000 or so, they would pretty quickly carry out the work. If the agent did not receive the rent on behalf of the landlord, we can be pretty sure that the landlord would soon want to know what was going on. The best way to police rogue letting agents might be to make landlords more challenging about the way that their money is spent in the fees they pay.

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I am asking the Minister whether, in the reforms proposed, we are looking to empower tenants to take control of the housing benefit paid out in their name. Should we consider what additional protection we can give to a tenant who tells a landlord or letting agent, “You are not maintaining this property correctly. It is a hazard to me and my health. I believe you are in breach of our contract. Therefore, I am going to withhold the rent I pay to you—the housing benefit you would receive through me”? I believe that many people would be fearful of taking that course of action—fearful of eviction or legal action taken against them—so should we consider how to empower and protect tenants in that situation, so they can withhold their rent or housing benefit?

Lucy Powell: The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point about housing benefit recipients and their relationship with landlords. Does he agree that, under universal credit, with the money going to the tenant rather than directly to the landlord, the onus on the tenant to take action against unscrupulous landlords will be even more challenging than in the current climate? Therefore, will he support Opposition amendments to universal credit, so that we keep the system of paying rent direct to the landlord?

Damian Collins: I understand the hon. Lady’s point. The mechanism of making direct payments to landlords could be seen as an incentive to landlords to meet their obligations, because it is massively in their interest to have direct payment of housing benefit: they have sitting tenants; there is massive demand for property; and they are given a guaranteed income, which effectively comes from the Government, one way or another, rather than from a tenant. I can understand how that works in the existing system. With the reforms, however, we can tell tenants, “You will receive the benefit. You can make that decision, but perhaps you need more understanding of your rights and what protection in law you have.”

I do not want to use this opportunity to make up Government policy on the hoof, not that I am in a position to do so anyway, but I have a suggestion. If extra protection is needed, should there be a rent order or something that a local authority can issue to say, “We do not believe that any more rent should be paid on this property by the tenant until the work is completed”? It could also state, “We believe that the tenant in this case is protected in law and cannot be evicted. No legal action can be taken against them until the work is completed. We will inspect it.”

Given that we are paying out of our taxes for failure in the private rented sector and that we are paying slum landlords through housing benefits, how can we use the mechanism of the money that we control to encourage them to invest in their properties more promptly? If they do not, they might otherwise risk losing the benefits. If housing benefit was not paid out, I would prefer tenants to be able to use the money instead for a deposit on a new property that they might wish to rent and to pay for some moving costs. They would then be empowered in the market, so that they could pick up and go elsewhere. At the moment, they are restricted from doing that; they cannot afford to move out of their rented property because of the charges.

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My question to the Minister is, how can we work with the proposed housing benefit and universal credit Government reforms to empower tenants, so that the private rented sector works as a proper market and so that tenants are in a position genuinely to pick up and move and go somewhere else—to a different property or agent—if they feel that they are being ripped off or being made to live in slum conditions that are not tolerated and that are in breach of the 2004 Act? That could be a more empowering mechanism for the tenant, and much easier to deliver, rather than having an army of local authority inspectors running around after and chasing up letting agents and landlords.

With the best will in the world, that regime was enabled by the Housing Act introduced by the previous Government, but it has not solved the problems, because the scale of enforcement is so great. However, if we can empower tenants to take action and protect them as they take that action, by taking their business elsewhere, that could be a ready solution to the problem. That is the thought that I suggest. We control the money supply, so perhaps we can use that to stand up for tenants in dire straits, in poor housing and on low incomes. We can protect their interests by standing up for them against the landlords who exploit them.

Before I finish, I apologise to the House. I should have referred to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests before I made my speech. I hope that you will accept my apology, Mrs Brooke, and my reference to the register at this point.

2.58 pm

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing the debate and making such a comprehensive and convincing case for regulation. I am also pleased to follow the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), because there seems to be a cross-party consensus on the need for action and the depth of the problem, although we might not be at quite the same point in some of our conclusions.

My hon. Friend made an important point about the growing importance of the private rented sector in a housing market in crisis. She said that 3.6 million households are in the private rented sector, and by the end of the decade about 20% of households will be in that sector.

Crisis, the charity for single homeless people, has said that for many households, including those on low incomes, the private rented sector is not fit for purpose—a devastating criticism. It highlights the conduct of letting agents as a major issue among a range of problems. They charge extortionate fees—typically for reference checks on tenants, contract preparation, deposit handling and tenancy renewal—that are often disproportionate and lack clarity because they may not be charged until after the tenant has signed the contract or paid a deposit, a practice known as “drip pricing”.

Holding deposits are often required from tenants who have decided to rent a property, but it is not always clear in what circumstances and how much of the deposit will not be refunded if the tenant decides not to proceed with the tenancy. In some cases, letting agents have taken holding deposits from two or more tenants for the same property.

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Crisis raises a number of other points, which make clear the depth of malpractice by letting agents. That does not apply to all letting agents, but to a significant enough number for Citizens Advice research to come up with the conclusion that 73% of tenants were dissatisfied with the service they were providing. That is a devastating figure.

My city centre constituency has many houses in multiple occupation and faces many of those problems. I am sure that many hon. Members will make points about different sectors of the community that face difficulties; I want to highlight students because I have about 32,000 of them living in my constituency.

Student accommodation has a certain image, perhaps embedded in our memories from the classic images of Neil, Rick, Vyvyan and Mike in “The Young Ones”. However, in reality, students want and deserve a decent standard of accommodation. Some students in Sheffield are fortunate if they have accommodation provided by our two universities. Students voted the Sheffield university accommodation the best in the United Kingdom—

Lucy Powell: Beating Manchester.

Paul Blomfield: Sheffield beats Manchester in many ways—[Interruption.]Not at football at the moment, but I dream on.

Most students spend some time in the private rented sector, particularly after their first year. Good quality accommodation is available in the private sector, but there are numerous cases of quality not being good enough. The student advice centre at Sheffield Hallam university student union has raised several issues of concern that students are reporting.

First, students are encouraged to sign up for tenancies early and are misled by letting agents into believing that there is a shortage of accommodation and that it is a landlords’ market, when it is not. They are encouraged to sign up for tenancies in October or November in the year prior to the start of the tenancy, which for first-year students is just after they have started their course. They are asked to make choices nine months or so before occupying the accommodation, which leads to a range of issues with disrepair because letting agents, on behalf of landlords, make promises of improvement work to secure the tenancy, but then simply do not carry out the work or, if repairs are done, they may not be done by the time the new tenants move in.

Letting agents encourage students to sign up to tenancies early because students worry about not being able to find somewhere else to live, and that often forces them into joint tenancies with people who may be first-week friends and between whom there is no lasting bond. That can cause real difficulties when people try to get out of contracts but are unable to do so. Some students sign up too early to take account of how their course is going. They may not proceed with the course, or they may transfer to another university or take a year out, but they are still locked into their contract if they sign it within a few weeks to going to university.