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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, my right honourable friend acted honourably in this instance. He acted in British interests and I believe that he is right.

Asylum Seekers: Benefits

3.39 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Security. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about the regulations to reform benefit arrangements for asylum seekers, sponsored immigrants and others. I have today laid before the House the regulations together with the accompanying Command Paper.

"The aim of these reforms--together with the measures in the Asylum and Immigration Bill--are to ensure that the United Kingdom remains a safe haven for those genuinely fleeing persecution; to deal more speedily with their claims; and to discourage unfounded claims from those who are actually economic migrants.

"Of course, genuine refugees come to the United Kingdom to escape persecution, not to obtain our benefits. Their rights to asylum will not be altered in any way. And anyone who arrives here as a refugee and seeks asylum at the port of entry will continue to have access to benefits while their claim is considered by the Home Office.

"However, over 90 per cent. of those claiming asylum are eventually found not to be genuine refugees. The vast majority of asylum claimants are economic migrants. The number who come here is influenced by the ready availability of benefits. Relative to Britain, other European countries offer more limited benefits, less opportunity for work, and have tightened up the procedures applying to asylum seekers. As a result, since 1993 the number of asylum claims in western Europe as a whole has fallen by over a third. Yet in Britain it has doubled. Consequently, the proportion of all asylum seekers in Europe who come to Britain has more than trebled over the last decade. The huge number of unfounded applications means the tiny proportion of claimants who are genuine face an unnecessarily long process. And the total cost of social security benefits alone for asylum seekers already exceeds £200 million a year. Yet more than 90 per cent. of this money goes to people who are not genuine refugees. No responsible government could ignore this growing misuse of taxpayers' money.

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"One way to address the problem is to speed up the processing of asylum claims. The revised procedures in the Asylum and Immigration Bill will speed up the processing of claims. But it is crucial that the new procedures are not in turn overwhelmed by a rising tide of unfounded claims. So benefit changes are essential to discourage unfounded claims.

"Under the new benefit regulations, those who enter the country as refugees--declaring themselves to be asylum seekers at the port of entry--will still be entitled to claim benefit while the Home Office deals with their claim. So will people who claim after entering the country as visitors if there has been a significant upheaval in their homeland since their arrival. But at present some 70 per cent. of all asylum claims are made by people who entered the United Kingdom as tourists, students or businessmen. As such, they demonstrated that they have the means to support themselves while here. And they accepted that they would not be entitled to claim benefit. Yet when they subsequently apply for asylum, under current rules, they become entitled to benefit. We propose to end entitlement to benefit for those who entered the country saying they were not here to seek asylum but subsequently change their story. From now on there will be no benefits for those who misrepresent their case. British citizens do not receive a benefit while appealing against its refusal. Successive governments have upheld that policy. Otherwise, every unsuccessful British benefit claimant would have an incentive to appeal against refusal of benefit. However, under the present rules for asylum seekers, they are entitled to retain benefit during an appeal. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of asylum seekers do appeal against rejection. Yet 96 per cent. of their appeals turn out to be unfounded. I therefore propose that once an asylum seeker's claim has been considered and rejected, entitlement to benefit will cease. They will no longer be able to prolong entitlement to benefit by appealing against refusal of refugee status. In that respect, asylum seekers will in future be treated in the same way as United Kingdom citizens whose claims for benefit are refused.

"Particular concern has been expressed at the prospect of large numbers of asylum seekers losing entitlement on the day the new arrangements come into force. Of course, I understand those concerns. When the proposals were announced last October, there was an obvious danger of a surge of pre-emptive claims during the consultation period to get on to benefit before the new regulations came into effect. To discourage this we announced that those who made in-country claims or appeals after 11th October would lose benefit entitlement once the regulations took effect. This announcement does seem to have dampened the surge of pre-emptive claims. I have taken note of concerns about handling a large number of benefit terminations simultaneously and the transitional impact on local authority finances. I have therefore decided to amend the transitional

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arrangements significantly. No one will now lose benefit at the point when the new regulations come into effect on 5th February 1996.

"The 13,000 or more asylum seekers who have made in-country claims or appeals since 12th October 1995 and are receiving income support, housing benefit or council tax benefit will continue to get benefit unless or until their claim or appeal is subsequently rejected. This transitional protection will substantially reduce the potential impact on local authorities.

"However, the Government also propose to assist local authorities with any unavoidable additional costs arising under homelessness legislation or the Children Act. My right honourable friends the Secretaries of State for Health and Environment will be discussing the details with local authority associations shortly. I believe this fully meets the most pressing concerns put to the Government by the Social Security Advisory Committee and local authorities. Taken together with measures proposed in the Asylum and Immigration Bill, and further work between my department and the Home Office on improving asylum decision times and priority setting, these changes will make a significant contribution to addressing the problem of bogus asylum seekers.

"The Government further propose that people from abroad whose leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom is subject to some limit or condition, for example, that they should not have recourse to public funds, should be excluded from non-contributory benefits. This will bring these benefits into line with the exclusions which already apply under income support, housing benefit and council tax benefit. The arrangements whereby people are allowed into this country on the understanding that a sponsor has promised to support them has been widely abused. Nearly half the sponsors renege on these agreements. The regulations will hold sponsors to their agreements. Benefit will only be payable if the sponsor dies or the sponsorship agreement breaks down after five years. Finally the Government propose to amend the arrangements to remove the discretion of the Secretary of State to make interim payments in some circumstances.

"No responsible government could fail to tackle a situation where well over 90 per cent. of benefit is not going to genuine refugees. These reforms will ensure that the UK remains a safe haven for genuine refugees. They will help deal with their claims faster. And they will discourage bogus claimants who are bettering themselves at the taxpayers' expense. The changes I have made will end concerns over the transitional arrangements, alleviate burdens on local authorities and protect the British taxpayer. I believe the measures are both fair and necessary. I commend them to the House."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

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3.49 p.m.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, first I wish to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. I wonder whether he begins to understand the concern, fear and anger the proposals have aroused. The revised regulations vary in only two ways from the original draft regulations. It is hard to be sure because we received such little notice of them. The new regulations vary in that they apply only to new arrivals and there will be some reimbursement of local authorities.

The original regulations were scrutinised in considerable detail by the Government's Social Security Advisory Committee, which sought the views of some 225 organisations and individuals: Churches, charities and local authorities. And what were the conclusions of that government committee? On page 12 of its report it stated:

    "It is difficult to see how asylum seekers who are unable to work or find alternative sources of funding could survive through such long delays without support from the social security system. We are in agreement with the point made by the majority of our respondents that it is very likely that many would be forced to abandon the struggle and risk returning to their own country, possibly to imprisonment or worse. Arguably, the combination of the proposed benefit changes and Home Office delays would effectively deny such people the ability to pursue their rights under immigration law in the UK, also their rights according to the letter and spirit of international law".

Almost without precedent in my experience, the Government's own Social Security Advisory Committee has called in paragraph 66, and it has not done so lightly, for the unconditional withdrawal of these regulations.

The concern, fear and outrage relayed to the Secretary of State by the advisory committee, which he has largely ignored, was compounded in this House, first, by the way the parliamentary timetable was handled. The regulations, affecting some of the most vulnerable, threatened, frightened, sick and inarticulate people, were laid 21 days before 8th January. Eighteen of those 21 days occurred during the parliamentary Recess. Noble Lords will understand if the only conclusion we can draw is that the Government were anxious to smuggle the regulations through with as little debate, parliamentary scrutiny and discussion as possible. I acknowledge that the Government Whips in this House helped to persuade the usual channels that this was not the right way to proceed, and we are grateful for that. But it is no way to treat regulations of such significance affecting so many vulnerable people.

Our concern and anger have been compounded by the assumption, very clear throughout the Minister's Statement, of fingering the victim. The reason for the problem is the delay at the Home Office in the processing of applicants. Will the Minister confirm that the following figures were given by the Home Office in response to a parliamentary Question in the other place on 4th December? Will he confirm that 15 per cent. of the initial application decisions from 1991 have not yet been determined; 15 per cent. from 1992; 15 per cent. from 1993; 25 per cent. from 1994; let alone the more understandable 25 per cent. for 1995? The reason we have a problem is the backlog of undetermined initial

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decisions, which take on average eight months and may take two, three and in some cases even six years to resolve. Meanwhile under the new proposals, asylum seekers are supposed to linger on the streets without income or support. We ask how they will survive.

Will the Minister also accept that the distinction he draws between the 30 per cent. of refugee status seekers at the port of entry and the 70 per cent. who subsequently apply after entry, whose applications he calls bogus, is itself bogus? That is made clear in paragraph 38 of the report of the government advisory committee. The committee states that those who come to court are certainly not scroungers but will often have a lack of knowledge of our procedures, will be confused and frightened, will have genuine language difficulties, and may come with a well-founded fear of officials and police. They will have a reasonable need of advice and guidance. It is therefore sensible and safer for them to apply for asylum once they have entered this country.

So says the Government's Social Security Advisory Committee. The problem is due to Home Office delay in processing. It is unreasonable to penalise those who enter the country and apply for asylum once they have entered. As the committee states, that is a sensible and safer way for them to proceed.

Why, then, is it being done? It is being done in order to save £200 million in cash and to appeal yet again to the knee-jerk right-wing majority that is, unfortunately, increasingly making itself heard in the other place.

The Government estimates that they will save £200 million on the original proposals. Perhaps the Government will confirm that that figure still stands. The cost of keeping a family of four on reduced social security benefit (just income support) for a week is about £100. The cost of taking one child into care when that family no longer has an income is £870 a week. Yet the Government intend to withdraw income support, housing benefit and council tax benefit. The costs for children in care, and the damage to the health of those children and their families, will be immense and immeasurable. The cost of homelessness will soar, as probably will the cost of detention in prison. I put it to the House in all good faith that the costs incurred will far outweigh the savings that the Government seek to make--all to assuage the far right, xenophobic wing of the Tory party.

I conclude with the words of the Social Security Advisory Committee on these proposals at paragraphs 61 and 62. I ask noble Lords to take these words very seriously:

    "We do not see how these people would be able to support themselves. As they have qualified for income-related benefits they are by definition without adequate income or capital on which to live. They are unlikely to return home. For many it would be too dangerous and the majority will simply not have the means. Nor can it be assumed that they will be taken care of by the network of support services provided by local authorities, voluntary groups or charities".

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Local authorities have made that clear.

    "Even if they had the resources, they do not have sufficient planning time".

The report continues:

    "The reality of the proposals is that thousands of men, women and children will be left with no means of providing themselves with food or shelter. Many will have no option but to live on the streets of our major cities and ports. Health professionals have warned that, given the vulnerability of many asylum seekers due to their already precarious physical or mental health, some may die".
That is the advice, not from me, not from the welfare groups, not even from the Churches, but from the Government's own Social Security Advisory Committee. Can we make one last plea to the Government and endorse what its own committee called for; namely, that these regulations be withdrawn?

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