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Lord Chesham: My Lords, we are hopeful that an airport agreement can be concluded. It is a difficult and unusual situation in that it takes three to tango. There is no need to terminate the agreement. We have already

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said that we will not impose it on Gibraltar unless Gibraltar is perfectly happy that it should come into place.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, do the Spanish Government still seek to interfere with the operation of the airport?

Lord Chesham: My Lords, the Spanish Government insist that the existing declaration should first be implemented before it can be amended. That will not be imposed on Gibraltar. Gibraltar does not want it and therefore it will not take place.

Lord Merrivale: My Lords, can my noble friend answer my first question as to whether Spain is still insisting on joint control of the airport?

Lord Chesham: My Lords, the existing declaration, which covers joint control, will not be imposed on Gibraltar but Spain is insisting that it is first implemented. Therefore, by inference, it continues to insist on joint control.

Lord St. John of Bletso: My Lords, I fully support the approach of the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Merrivale, last Monday that quiet diplomacy is needed in the delicate negotiations over the future of Gibraltar. Does the Minister agree that the approach of the new Chief Minister, Mr. Caruana, to curbing drug and tobacco traffic between Gibraltar and Spain is to be welcomed, and that unless the airport agreement is updated any chance of Gibraltar developing itself into a financial centre will be substantially curbed?

Lord Chesham: My Lords, yes, I agree that the atmosphere in Gibraltar has greatly improved. It would be of great economic value to Gibraltar if the airport could be freed up and we would definitely welcome any proposals which would make that effective.

Lord Monson: My Lords, is it not contrary to international treaties to prevent the civil aircraft of friendly countries from over-flying one's territory?

Lord Chesham: My Lords, I would need notice of that question.

Asylum Seekers: Benefits

3.22 p.m.

Lord Dubs asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What advice they have given local authorities following the recent High Court decision regarding social security and other benefits for asylum seekers.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege): My Lords, the Government take very seriously the recent High Court ruling that social services departments should provide residential care. We recognise the

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concerns expressed by local authorities and we are appealing against the ruling. Officials from relevant government departments are working with the local authorities most concerned to assess the scale of the problem.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, is the Minister aware that in the High Court on 7th October, the judge said that he found it impossible to believe that Parliament had intended that an asylum seeker lawfully in this country should be made destitute, should be starving or should have his health and life put at great risk? In the circumstances, does the Minister agree that an enormous additional and urgent burden has been placed on local authorities, even while waiting for the appeal? As the situation is desperate, will the Minister meet soon at least with the London local authorities, which face the larger part of the responsibility, in order to ascertain what progress can be made urgently to deal with those destitute people?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, clearly, I do not wish to go into the court case of 7th October because we are appealing against the decision. We believed that it was a reinterpretation of the National Assistance Act 1948. The noble Lord is correct in saying that the judgment causes problems for local authorities, and we are working closely with them and monitoring the situation.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, will the Minister accept that, originally, the Government expected that they would save £200 million by cutting benefits to asylum seekers but that local authorities expect that next year the cost will be in excess of £190 million and that only a fraction of that will be reimbursed by government? Is it not clear that the Government's savings are being exported to local authorities as costs and that in order to make very slender net savings in public funds we are inflicting a huge amount of needless misery?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, I believe that the noble Baroness has underestimated the savings. The information that we have from local authorities suggests that by the end of the year they may face costs of about £16 million. However, the estimates are changing all the time and the number of people being placed by the London authorities is somewhat lower than originally predicted.

Earl Russell: My Lords, further to that point, is the Minister aware that the London Government Association estimates that next year the costs in London alone are likely to reach £100 million? Is she further aware that the directors of social services, meeting in Edinburgh on 16th October, stated that they could not find the sums for which they are legally liable without raiding their community care budgets? Is that what the Government wish?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, the Government wish to win their appeal, which they are taking again to the courts, because they do not believe that the judgment was right.

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It is very hard for local authorities to be accurate in their estimates, as I said in reply to the noble Baroness. However, I believe that it is interesting to look at the figures on this issue. The number of people seeking asylum rose from 4,000 to 44,000 in seven years. Furthermore, there appeared to be a significant fall in the benefit claims between March and August; there was a reduction of 35 per cent. when the benefit changes came into operation. When the benefits were restored after the Court of Appeal judgment, applications from asylum seekers already in this country rose by 82 per cent. in one month.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords, as this was a decision of the European Court of Justice, can my noble friend tell the House whether it is applying the same rule to all the other member states of the EU to which it should apply, and will it cost them as much as it is said it will cost us?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, it was not a judgment of the European Court; it was a judgment of a domestic court.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, will the Minister accept that the longer the delay the more the burden will fall on the Churches and the voluntary organisations? Will the Government make special provision in that case?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, we have no evidence that that is the case. However, as I said in reply to earlier questions, we are monitoring the situation.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington: My Lords, does the Minister agree, as she stated on 4th March 1996, that even if the Government win their appeal, under the Children Act they are responsible for ensuring that the social services departments look after the children?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, yes, we are making provision for that. The noble Baroness is right in saying that under that Act we have a responsibility. What is in question is the National Assistance Act.

Lord Renton: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that vast numbers of asylum seekers are coming to this country and that some are genuine but many are not? Is she further aware that those who are not genuine are placing the Government in the absurd position of having to spend vast sums of money on them which could be much better spent on other social services?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, your Lordships will know that, really, I am an old softie and that I give in to many requests. However, I believe that in this case my noble friend is right. I do not believe that taxpayers should have to support unlimited numbers of people arriving in this country without the means of support. Of course, those who are genuine can, on entry, claim social services benefits and housing and we support that.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, will the Minister give an undertaking that, if by any chance the Government do

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not win their appeal, soon after the court's decision they will come to the House and explain what they propose to do to help local authorities in this difficult situation?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, yes, of course we will have to review the situation if we do not win on appeal, and I am sure that the noble Lord will be ready with another Question.

Welfare of Broiler Chickens [H.L.]

3.29 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, I beg to introduce a Bill to protect the health and welfare of broiler chickens kept in indoor husbandry systems. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a first time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a first time.--(Lord Beaumont of Whitley.)

On Question, Bill read a first time, and to be printed.

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