Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Hamwee: I accept what the Minister has said about the intentions of the Government. Taking the issue more broadly than my amendments, on the one hand I am reassured but, on the other, I have become less assured. The clause provides that the local housing authority shall allocate accommodation only to qualifying persons and provides that the Secretary of State can prescribe not only those who qualify but those who do not.

The comments of the Minister about criteria having to be met bothered me. They sounded almost equivalent to rights having to be earned. It is perhaps inappropriate to criticise too much without seeing precisely what the Government intend to do. I am about to break a self-denying ordinance by saying that if we were able to discuss the details of the regulations at this stage the debate might be more helpful. Having made that point, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 263ZAN:

Page 89, line 39, at end insert--
("( ) Nothing in subsection (1) above shall render ineligible under this part any asylum seeker.").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move Amendment No. 263ZAN and to speak also to Amendment No. 263C. These amendments are similar, in that Amendment No. 263ZAN is narrower, covering asylum seekers; whereas Amendment No. 263C covers all persons who are not unlawfully in the United Kingdom. The aim of both amendments is similar. The aim is to prevent certain groups of people from being excluded from the housing register in order that they may become eligible for local authority housing allocation. I appreciate that some time ago we went over this ground in debating a different Bill, the Asylum and

19 Jun 1996 : Column 335

Immigration Bill. But this puts the policy on a permanent basis and therefore is to be condemned even more so for that reason.

I refer first to Amendment No. 263ZAN. The amendment seeks to ensure that asylum seekers are not prevented from being covered by the housing register. The argument is very simple. These people are lawfully in this country. These people may be vulnerable and have no prospects of any other decent accommodation. It is a discriminatory measure which will impose--and, in so far as it has been applied under the other measure, has already imposed--on local authorities a difficult set of choices in terms of whether individuals, who by all other tests are in desperate housing need, will still be excluded from consideration because of the Government's new proposals, whether in this Bill or the other Bill.

My understanding is that at the moment when an individual goes on the housing list in some London boroughs it may take two years or longer for his turn to come up. It may take 18 months in some urban areas outside London. That is a long time. In order to start the process that person has to be accepted on the housing register under the new scheme. Even if an asylum seeker has waited perhaps a year or two to have his or her eligibility to stay here as a refugee settled by the Home Office, the individual has to start the process again, because only at that point will he or she be allowed to get on the housing register. It may take a very long time before people who are vulnerable, and who by all standards ought to be considered for local authority housing, can get into the process at all. Two years may be required to get into the process and there may be another year and a half to wait before any decent accommodation is provided.

I believe that this measure will make life very difficult for asylum seekers. What are they to do? Where are they to sleep? There is a limit to the number of night shelters that can be provided by organisations like the Refugee Council (for whom I used to work). There is a limit to the number of units of accommodation that can be provided by the churches in church halls and elsewhere. What are these people to do? These people have quite properly arrived in this country and applied for asylum and need some kind of accommodation. In other countries there are different arrangements. Hostels or camps may be provided. I do not say that camps are particularly desirable, but I can think of very few West European countries that provide neither hostel or camp accommodation nor the equivalent of public housing. We are saying to people who in other countries would be housed in one way or another--perhaps not very wonderfully--that we do not even consider it at all.

The Minister may say that when the Secretary of State makes the regulations he will provide some opportunity for those asylum seekers who claim asylum at the point of entry. We have considered this argument before. Perhaps that will be his answer for some asylum seekers, but he will be aware of the counter argument that it will still leave others equally in need who, on the basis of Home Office statistics, are more likely to be allowed to

19 Jun 1996 : Column 336

stay in this country than those who claim asylum at the port of entry. Those people will still be denied any access to the council housing sector.

I turn briefly to Amendment No. 263C which is the wider amendment. It states that,

    "subsection (2) shall not exclude from the class of qualifying persons a person who is not unlawfully in the UK".
That will include asylum seekers and other groups of people, among them those who fail the habitual residence test, which this place has discussed on a number of occasions, and those who may fail the immigration status test.

More people than asylum seekers are affected, but the principle is the same. People who, by any test, would be judged to be in housing need will not be allowed to go on the housing register. That is wrong in principle; it will have undesirable social consequences. We as a country surely do not want people who fail the habitual residence test or who have come here as asylum seekers to be forced to sleep in the streets. Goodness me, one needs only to walk along the Strand or Tottenham Court Road during the early evening. I do not say they are asylum seekers. But we surely do not want to add to the number of people who already sleep in the streets. It is my contention that that will be the effect of the Bill. I beg to move.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: I find the amendments extraordinarily wide-ranging. They seem to include pretty well anyone who is not unlawfully in this country. That is a wide definition. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said that in other countries hostels or camps are provided. That is something we tend to overlook. There are parts of this country where there is spare accommodation; there is no reason why an asylum seeker should have to go where there is an already overcrowded housing list. It may be desirable to have some way of directing them to where space is available.

I wish to ask the noble Lord a question on a point about which I am not clear. When he says asylum seekers, does he mean people granted asylum or just anyone who might apply? I understand that only a small percentage is granted asylum.

Lord Hylton: This country has a long and honourable tradition of accepting and welcoming people from overseas who have suffered persecution or are in immediate fear of it. It is highly desirable that that tradition should continue and continue to be honoured. The Government must make up their collective mind as to how that will be made possible. Either local authorities shall use their system, if not immediately, at least after the appropriate delay, to make accommodation available, or, if that is not to happen, central government will have to take the matter in hand and make provision. There is a choice. The amendments are important. They offer one way out, and I support them.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale: The Committee has had an admirable discussion of these amendments from the point of view of asylum seekers and persons who are

19 Jun 1996 : Column 337

illegally resident in this country. I express some puzzlement about the drafting both of the clause and of the amendments as they have impact on the clause.

I say at the outset that I realise that my difficulty may be that I am not thoroughly conversant with the Bill, although the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has set me some homework on it, or with the asylum Bill. Having listened to the debates on the asylum Bill, it seems to me that the right to asylum has been abused. On the other hand, the way to deal with abuse is surely not by operation of the housing law.

I turn from that to the structure of the clause. Subsection (1) precludes the local housing authority from allocating housing to persons other than qualifying persons. I put it in the negative way. Subsection (2) gives the Secretary of State power to prescribe by regulations the classes of persons who are, or are not, qualifying persons. The baleful eye of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has understandably fallen on that subsection.

Subsection (3) provides that, subject to the regulations made by the Secretary of State, a local housing authority may decide what classes of persons are, or are not, qualifying persons. One then goes back to subsection (1). The local housing authority may only allocate to persons who are qualifying persons, but it should determine who are qualifying persons. That may be what is intended, but it is not a very neat way of dealing with the matter.

One then comes to the amendments. Amendment No. 263ZAM operates on subsection (1). Amendment No. 263C operates on subsection (2). But neither operates on subsection (3), although the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, may say that that is taken care of by the inter-relationship, which I have tried to describe, between subsection (1) and subsection (3).

The other difficulty is that the second amendment is not in the same terms. It goes very much wider, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, explained, than the first amendment. I suggest that what he has in mind could be much more neatly carried out by one amendment dealing with the whole situation. He may consider it desirable to withdraw the amendment, and proceed, possibly along the lines I have suggested, on Report.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page