Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am frankly astonished and greatly disappointed that the noble Lords, Lord Williams and Lord Tope, seem to presume the guilt of those people who are charged. That is frankly disgraceful. People in this country are innocent until proved guilty. They are yet to have their day in court. When that is concluded, we may comment upon their guilt or otherwise. To do so in the terms which noble Lords have used is disgraceful and a discredit to themselves and to this House.

As regards the question which the noble Lord, Lord Tope, asked, I shall certainly not question the integrity of the auditor or the accuracy of his report today. I shall not seek to interfere in any way with the proper process of law or to abuse parliamentary privilege. I am afraid that may rather restrict my answers to questions by Back Benchers but I am sure that the House will understand.

3.44 p.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, as one who many years ago had the opportunity to make some criticisms of the administration of Westminster City Council, I should like to make a few comments on the observations which have fallen from the lips of the noble Lord. I believe, and my colleagues believe, that innocence should be presumed in the absence of satisfactory proof which may culminate in legal action. But the intimation of an intention to appeal does not make the matter sub judice. When the actual appeal is entered and process has begun, then and only then is the protection afforded to the accused.

I express astonishment--this time genuine and not synthetic--at the observations made by the noble Lord. When the affairs of Lambeth and other unfortunate Labour councils were subjected to exactly the same criticism, and public criticism, by auditors, I did not notice any reticence on the part of members of the Conservative Party either in this House or in another place. One thing of which I am sure--and, on reflection, I am sure the noble Lord will have some sympathy with this--is that no Member of this House in his heart of hearts wants anything other than justice to be done. I am hopeful that on reflection, when justice is done and seen to be done, retribution will be served on those who have perpetrated those crimes against society equal to the indignation felt by those on this side of the House.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am saddened that the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, should have made those last remarks because up to that point I thought that he was being quite sensible and reasonable. A grave accusation has been made but as yet there is no proof in a court of law that there was a crime, let alone that anyone in particular committed it. That is the right principle under which we all live in this country; namely, that a man is innocent until proven guilty. In this case, it is not even proven that there was a crime. It is clear that we should all try to hold to that principle.

9 May 1996 : Column 214

In relation to the other remarks made by the noble Lord, I understand that the matter is not yet sub judice but that does not alter my opinion about how we should conduct ourselves. As regards other councils and misdemeanours, I hope that we have always been restrained in our opinions and remarks until matters are decided in a court of law.

Lord Monkswell: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. It is obviously a difficult situation for him to be in and he has my sympathy. I must declare an interest as a resident of Westminster. Therefore, I shall not ask the question about the district auditor's surcharge because, as an interested party, it would obviously be improper for me to comment. But I do have a technical question for the Minister regarding the fact that the findings of the district auditor suggest that poor people who became homeless within Westminster and who had a right to be rehoused and carry on living there were denied that right. Does the Minister know whether those people who were refused the right to live in Westminster have any redress for their individual grievances?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, the noble Lord trespasses a little on the principle that we should presume innocence. However, it is quite clear that that accusation is made. No, I do not know what individual remedy these people would have if indeed the district auditor's accusations were correct, but I shall write to the noble Lord on the matter. I should say that the noble Lord is extremely lucky to live in Westminster; indeed, it is one of the best run councils in the country. He has my congratulations.

Lord Richard: My Lords, I am sorry to trespass on Back-Bench time, but very little time has so far been taken on the matter. Perhaps I may try to lay one particular canard to rest. As I understand it, the procedure whereby district auditors investigate the affairs of local authorities is laid down in the provisions of an Act passed in 1982 when, if my memory serves me correctly, a Conservative Government were in power. The purposes of such investigations are to ascertain whether or not public money has been spent properly. The district auditor will, prima facie, investigate the matter--and may, as in this case, take a long time in doing so--and will eventually bring forward his conclusions. Under the 1982 Act that is, in effect, an alternative to judicial investigation. That is the point that the Minister has not grasped.

The legislation also provides for some form of judicial appeal from the decision of the district auditor--I emphasise the word "appeal"--but not a trial at first instance. Therefore, what we have before us and what we are considering today is not just an allegation which is being made against these people; what we have is a conclusion from the district auditor reached in accordance with the provisions of the 1982 Act passed by a Conservative Administration. To hear the noble Lord opposite tell us that that is similar to an indictment in a criminal trial is, frankly, nonsense.

9 May 1996 : Column 215

Lord Lucas: My Lords, the noble Lord's memory and imagination serve him well in all but one respect. We have always, I hope, followed the principle that when the district auditor comes out with his conclusions that is not the proof of guilt: the proof of guilt, if it is taken to appeal, is the decision by the court. So far as I know, we have not trespassed on that principle in the many other cases that have occurred under those provisions.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware that, from the very moment that the investigation started, the provisions of the 1982 Act mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, were flagrantly abused by the district auditor? I shall justify that statement. Is my noble friend also aware that the 1982 Act required that a report of a district auditor should not be published without the consent of those named in it? Is my noble friend further aware that the first report was published with the maximum of publicity, and a very highly publicised press conference by the district auditor, with no such consent and that when he was challenged as to why he had failed to observe the law, the district auditor said that it was not his report and that it was merely a draft report that he was minded to make?

Is there not some suggestion that the district auditor somehow got himself hooked on this very early on when he made such public statements? Surely that must cast some doubt as to whether his report is indeed as valid as the party opposite seems to think. The law was not obeyed in the first instance.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, neither I nor the Government will question the integrity of the district auditor, his actions or the accuracy of his report. If we wish to review this particular incident, we shall do so when the process has reached its end; and not before.

Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, will the Minister invite his noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding to repeat the points that he has made outside the Chamber--that is, outside parliamentary privilege--so that the district auditor himself can take account of them?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, should be careful of repeating what he said outside the House.

Asylum and Immigration Bill

3.55 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.--(Baroness Blatch.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

9 May 1996 : Column 216

House in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Strabolgi) in the Chair.]

Clause 9 [Entitlement to housing accommodation and assistance]:

The Deputy Chairman of Committees: Before calling the first amendment, I must inform Members of the Committee that if Amendment No. 97 is agreed to I cannot call Amendments Nos. 99 or 100.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 97:

Page 6, line 40, leave out subsection (1).

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment I shall, with the leave of the Committee, speak also to Amendments Nos. 112, 114, 117, 119 and 121. In Clause 9, we come to a most extraordinary clause and a quite extraordinary tactic of government in proposing legislation to Parliament. Members of the Committee will be aware that the Housing Bill which we are due to debate on Second Reading next week would, under Clauses 160 and 161, actually repeal Clause 9 of this Bill. In other words, Parliament is being asked to debate, deliberate, consider and, indeed, approve two different versions of government policy on the basis that whichever reaches the statute book first may be overturned by the second Bill. I find such a situation quite extraordinary, both in terms of public policy and in terms of the degree of respect which the Government appear to have for Parliament, its time and its processes.

In terms of public policy, the issue is not unimportant. We have two differing versions of what the Government wish to do with respect to the housing entitlements of those whom they offensively call "immigrants". I say "offensively" because that is what the Bill before us says, although I acknowledge with gratitude the undertaking by the Minister at a previous stage in Committee to bring forward amendments at a later stage which would remove that offensive word.

However, the result is that those who have to implement the legislation--and we are talking about local authority housing departments--have to prepare themselves for two alternative versions of the law. They have to prepare themselves in terms of briefing, in terms of understanding, government regulations, guidance and advice notes and as regards all of the procedures which they will have to observe in order to implement the law under the provisions of this Bill and under the provisions of the Housing Bill which is at present in this place. Therefore, there is a very considerable extra and totally unnecessary expense involved due to the fact that those two versions of proposed law are being put before Parliament at the same time.

In addition to the public policy aspect, I ask Members of the Committee to consider whether there is any precedent for two different versions of government policy being put forward as alternatives in two separate Bills before Parliament. If there are, of course we must examine those precedents and consider whether they justify the present situation, but my understanding is that there are not, and that Government are simply seeking

9 May 1996 : Column 217

to protect themselves against their own indecision and their own inability to pursue legislation with due diligence and speed, and they are doing so at the expense of this Chamber. Therefore when we consider Clause 9 as a whole, in a clause stand part debate, I propose to explain briefly--because I do not wish to rehearse at length the arguments I have just been putting--why it is improper for this clause to be in the Bill at all.

Having said that, I consider that it is our duty to look at Clause 9 in detail and to consider the extent to which the proposals made in the clause can be justified or ought to be amended. These amendments seek to remove one of the two principal elements in Clause 9. Clause 9 is designed to exclude those people who are called "immigrants" first of all from the provisions of what is called the "accommodation part" of the Bill and, secondly, from the provisions of the "homelessness part" of the Bill. However, I should not refer to the Bill in this regard but rather to the relevant legislation in England and Wales, in Scotland and in Northern Ireland. We are concerned in these amendments with the accommodation part, which is what in ordinary terms we would refer to as the allocation of houses and the waiting list. I remind the Committee that the term "immigrant" which is still in the Bill includes, under the definition in Clause 12, all of those who not only require leave to enter or remain in this country but also those who have leave to enter or remain in this country. That is qualified in Clause 9 which refers to those who also fall within,

    "a class specified in an order made by the Secretary of State".

It is my understanding that the Government's intention in such an order is to exclude from the scope of this clause those who have leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom. I invite the Minister to confirm that when she responds to this debate. But even if she confirms that, it does not explain the extraordinarily roundabout way in which the Government reach a definition of who is to be covered by the clause. First of all, they define those people widely in Clause 12 and then that definition is restricted by order in Clause 9. Even if the Minister says that that is the intention of the Government, I am afraid that will not satisfy me that the Government's intention is adequately restricted and that there is not power for a future Secretary of State to take a different view of who should be covered by the order because the power is given in Clause 9 as drafted.

I must make it clear that in housing legislation we must be careful not to state that entitlement--that is, housing need--should allow the possibility of different treatment for different kinds of people. Those who have equal housing need ought to be treated equally as regards housing legislation. It should not be a matter of their immigrant status, the colour of their skin, or any other consideration. Yet the clause as drafted makes it possible for one group of people with equal housing need, who may be neighbours of another group of people with equal housing need, to be treated differently. That is simply not acceptable. Housing legislation should be about housing need and not about immigration policy.

9 May 1996 : Column 218

It is not as if a significant sum of public funds were involved. As we know, over the years public subsidy for public housing has been diminished almost to the point of non-existence. Public housing is no longer heavily subsidised in this country. The argument of the protection of public funds is not a valid one with respect to this clause, or any part of it. The Conservative Party is supposed to be the party of the family. According to the definition in Clause 12, we are talking now about people who are legitimate, permanent, or long-term residents of this country. We are saying that their right to housing of a quality which is necessary for good family life will be inferior to that of other people with the same housing needs. I cannot think that that is the correct policy for a party which claims to be the party of the family. This is legislation which sets priorities not on the basis of housing need or of family need but on the basis of the colour of someone's skin or someone's immigration status.

Where does this legislation leave us? We are left in a situation where local authority staff do not know which Bill they should pay attention to. They are faced with costs not only in the provision of accommodation but also administration costs which are quite unnecessary. In addition to the indecision to which I have already referred, we are left with the possibility, when this legislative exercise is completed, of severe injustice and the distortion of housing need. I suggest to the Committee that we should not allow this part of the clause, or indeed any part of the clause, to pass into law. I beg to move.

4 p.m.

Earl Russell: Before I say anything else I wish to thank the noble Baroness for the concession she made on the use of the word "immigrant" in the Bill. That is a welcome concession, but to understand the significance of this clause we shall have to wait to see exactly what form of words is to be put in its place. That, I understand, we may hope to discover at the Report stage.

The next point that concerns me, if I want to discover who exactly will be covered by this exclusion from housing waiting lists, is the phrase to which the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, has referred; namely, someone,

    "who is of a class specified in an order made by the Secretary of State".
It is a little like the famous example of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, of the company promoted during the South Sea Bubble, for a purpose hereafter to be disclosed. It is of course also true that we do not know what will happen in the way of future Secretaries of State. We do not know how long this clause will be on the statute book, if indeed it gets there. Whatever the intentions of the present Secretary of State, we have to take into account that we are creating the vires to do something which may be far-reaching and which may affect people who pay tax and national insurance and work here and have been here a pretty long time.

9 May 1996 : Column 219

I am sure that the Minister will have a great deal to say about the interests of the taxpayer. Before she does so, I remind her that I am a taxpayer myself. However, one should take into account the interests of actual taxpayers who may suffer under this clause.

We need to think also about the difficulty of turning local authorities into immigration officers. We have been over all this ground in the debate on the British Airways amendment as regards Clause 5, and in the debate on Clause 8. It does not make the points any less true that we have said them before. We have already had reports in the Department of the Environment's research on the application of the code of guidance, published quite recently, that the immigration checks required of local authorities under the 1993 Act are putting a pretty significant burden on local authorities. I do not think that we all appreciate quite how desperate the burdens on local authorities now are, nor how much worse they will be made by the Bill. The Minister, I am sure, in her reply will make reference to illegal entry. But that is entirely redundant because under a 1993 judgment, those who enter illegally, or who have overstayed their leave, are not entitled to any local authority housing under the existing law. The Minister looks puzzled. The 1993 judgment to which I refer is The Secretary of State v. Tower Hamlets. The new effect of the clause will only be in respect of those who have a perfectly legal right to be here, some of whom may be living here for the remainder of their lives.

In exercising the duty to conduct immigration checks, local authorities are under conflicting pressures. On the one hand, they must not infringe the clause. On the other, they have a duty under the Race Relations Act 1976 to promote harmonious relations between the communities in their local authority area. So either they must have a series of checks which are so officious that they cause considerable resentment, or they have to risk discriminating against specific racial groups, and putting themselves in danger of the lot. They are, if I may so put it, "damned if they do and damned if they don't". It is a burden from which I believe they will have some difficulty finding their way out.

I wish to cite a case about which I wrote to the Minister yesterday. It bears on Clause 8 rather than Clause 9, but the principle is the same. On Monday, I stood at a bus stop and looked at the window of my local Jobcentre. I observed an advertisement for waiters or waitresses, all of whom of any nationality were being required to produce ID and passports. Not every British subject possesses a British passport. It costs £20 to obtain one and not everyone on income support can afford £20 to get a passport. Shall we have a burden like that--proving your immigration status--under Clause 9? The noble Baroness shakes her head; I am glad to see that she does. However, if that shake is to be compelling, she must tell me exactly what local authorities are supposed to do to check immigration status under this clause. That would make the answer compelling; and I would find that interesting.

We are told that one of the reasons for the clause is to make seeking asylum in this country less attractive. I am not sure that seeking asylum is ever a particularly attractive prospect. Neither am I sure that the details of

9 May 1996 : Column 220

local authority housing eligibility in Brent are necessarily common knowledge in the back streets of Jaffna or in East Timor. I am not quite certain whether the proceedings of our House really receive that much attention. We risk flattering ourselves.

I also believe that we risk severely exaggerating the attractiveness of our welfare system. I once said that the Department of Social Security regards itself as a honey pot surrounded by benefit-seeking wasps. That attitude now seems to be spreading into the Home Office and indeed, as appears from this clause, into the Department of the Environment. The level of our welfare benefits is one of the lowest in the European Union. If people are being attracted to claim asylum by the generosity of the benefits and the social protection that they receive, they will be drawn to Norway, Sweden, France, Belgium and even Ireland long before they are drawn to this country. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, shakes his head. I shall look forward with a great deal of interest to hearing his reasons for saying that I am wrong.

Moreover, a great many such people were much better off in the countries from where they came than they are ever likely to be now. Some noble Lords may remember the evidence from Turkish doctors to which we listened in the debate on torture before the Division as regards Clause 1. Two of those doctors will go on trial in Turkey next Friday on the charge of running an illegal medical centre. Running an illegal medical centre means that they did not tell the security forces all about the medical details of the victims of torture whom they were treating--so they were being required to commit a breach of medical confidentiality. When those doctors escape ultimately from prison, as I hope they will do in due course, should they apply for asylum in this country I do not believe that they will be drawn to give up the life of a doctor in Turkey by the prospect of accommodation in the Chalk Hill estate in the London Borough of Brent. It really defies belief.

We need to remember that many of these people may be in this country for the rest of their natural lives. They may eventually become British. It is the way that many of our ancestors arrived here and the way that I hope many people will continue to arrive in future. It does not mean that they come to this country with the idea that it is a particularly generous place. Bearing in mind that all the English are immigrants within the British Isles, and that there is a great deal of feeling now about what happens to Englishmen with second homes in Wales, the Committee may understand what I am getting at when I say that this clause sounds as though it has been drafted by Meibion Glyndwr.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Hylton: The noble Earl, Lord Russell, made an important point when he told us that illegal arrivals and over-stayers in this country do not have a right to local authority housing. We should all be grateful to him for that.

I am sorry to say that I am driven to the conclusion that Her Majesty's Government have become completely hostile both to asylum seekers and to a

9 May 1996 : Column 221

variety of classes of immigrant. First, they will not allow such people to take work even if it were available to them during the first six months of their stay. Secondly, they deprive them of social security benefits. In this clause they now seek to deprive them of all access to local authority housing.

What are likely to be the consequences of these measures? It seems to me that there will be destitution, despair and suicide; and there is already some evidence for that in recent events. For example, an asylum seeker tried to throw himself into the Thames from, I believe, Tower Bridge.

The consequences in the case of asylum seekers and immigrants with children will be the breaking up of families and the taking into care of children. I support the amendments.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page