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Viscount Astor: I am grateful for the Minister's reassurance and explanation. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 7, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 78 agreed to.

Clause 79 [Disciplinary charge upheld by the Tribunal]:

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 150A:

Page 51, line 26, leave out ("fine") and insert ("penalty").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 150A is a drafting amendment. On reflection we thought that it should be a penalty which is directed rather than a fine. A penalty is more apt in the context of a disciplinary charge; the term fine is more appropriate for offences.

Amendment No. 150B enables a direction given by the tribunal to a person who has been found to have charged unreasonable fees for immigration advice or services to repay to the clients concerned a portion of the fees or to pay a penalty to the commissioner; and, if it is a penalty to the commissioner, to be enforced by the clients concerned or the commissioner as if it were an order of a court, or, in Scotland, as if it were an order of the Court of Session. So in the first instance it is almost a conceptual variation; and, secondly, it gives teeth to the scheme which has been generally welcomed. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

21 Jul 1999 : Column 1025

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 150B:

Page 51, line 27, at end insert--
("( ) A direction given by the Tribunal under subsection (5) (or under subsection (6)) may be enforced by the clients concerned (or by the Commissioner)--
(a) as if it were an order of a county court; or
(b) in Scotland, as if it were an order of the Court of Session.").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 79, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 80 [Orders by disciplinary bodies]:

The Deputy Chairman of Committees: Before calling Amendment No. 150C in Clause 80 I remind the Committee that if Amendment No. 150C is agreed to I cannot call Amendment No. 151 due to pre-emption.

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 150C:

Page 52, line 4, leave out ("by a designated professional body").

The noble Lord said: In moving the amendment, I speak also to Amendments Nos. 151 and 151A.

Amendment No. 150C is linked with Amendment No. 151A. These amendments are designed to ensure that all regulatory bodies set up for the purpose of hearing disciplinary charges against members of a designated professional body, including those set up in statute, are included in the definition of "disciplinary body". That is their purpose and I invite the Committee's assent.

Amendment No. 151, in the names of the noble, Lord Cope, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Drumadoon, would widen the definition of "disciplinary body" to include those bodies set up under statute. The current definition is a body which appears to the Secretary of State to be established by a designated professional body for the purpose of hearing disciplinary charges against members of the body and specified in an order. Having considered Amendment No. 151, we accept that clarification is needed here. This is the purpose of government Amendment No. 150C, which achieves the same effect but in the technically correct manner. Therefore, the point of Amendment No. 151 having been attained, I invite the noble Lords to withdraw their amendment, and ask the Committee to approve my amendment.

Viscount Astor: As drafted, the Bill does not provide for disciplinary bodies established by statute, or the professional body itself, such as the Scottish Solicitors' Discipline Tribunal which is established by Section 50 of the Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1980. I presume that Amendments Nos. 150C and 151A cover that point in the way I sought to do in my amendment. If the Minister confirms that, I shall be happy not to move Amendment No. 151.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: Yes, I do.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 151 not moved.]

21 Jul 1999 : Column 1026

6.15 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 151A:

Page 52, line 6, leave out ("the") and insert ("a designated professional").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 80, as amended, agreed to.

Clauses 81 to 83 agreed to.

Lord Alton of Liverpool moved Amendment No. 152:

Before Clause 84, insert the following new clause--


(" . It shall be the duty of the Secretary of State to make arrangements with a view to ensuring that officials of his department and all other providers of assistance to asylum seekers and their dependants operate the provisions of this Part of this Act and exercise their functions in such a way as shall best promote the welfare of asylum seekers and their dependants, if any, who require assistance under this Part of this Act.").

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I speak also to Amendment No. 153.

We turn now to Part VI of the Bill and the support to be made available to asylum seekers. Before doing so, it is worth reiterating the concerns that I and many other Members of this Chamber raised at Second Reading about the impracticality, the bureaucratic nature, and undesirability of the voucher system. We expressed anxieties about the inevitable creation of destitution, pitifully meagre levels of support, dispersal of vulnerable families, the forced co-option of church and voluntary organisations as arms of the state with requirements to fulfil tasks which are not and never have been hitherto their responsibility, and the duty that, as legislators, we have towards children who are caught up in these nightmare situations.

Amendments Nos. 152 and 153 go to the heart of those issues in setting out the duty of the Secretary of State towards asylum seekers. Amendment No. 153 deals with his specific duty towards children.

At Second Reading, the Minister graciously promised anyone who was a Member of this House or of representative organisations dealing with issues concerning asylum seekers that he would make himself available to discuss their concerns. My noble friend, Lord Sandwich, and I took him at his word, and he kindly made time available to us last week. We were accompanied by the indefatigable Mr Mike Kaye from the Refugee Council who has done so much during the proceedings of the Bill to keep the Committee alerted to the practical effects of many of the clauses we have been discussing.

Following that meeting, notwithstanding 'flu--his extraordinary power of recovery this week has been commented upon--the Minister found time to reply to some of those questions and to set out his reasons for questioning the desirability of placing a duty in the Bill. He has placed a copy of the full response in your

21 Jul 1999 : Column 1027

Lordships' House. Perhaps I may be permitted to refer to the second paragraph of that letter. The Minister says:

    "You asked why we had framed the provisions on the support for asylum seekers as a power rather than a duty. We feel that a power gives us rather more flexibility in the manner in which we set up the support arrangements. But this does not in any way lessen our commitment to ensuring that proper support arrangements for asylum seekers are developed. We have made clear commitments on our plans both in parliament and elsewhere. Indeed, it is inconceivable that with all the provisions we are building into this Bill, we would not be planning to establish proper support arrangements. While I understand your concern about the nature of the Government's commitment, I doubt that changing a power into a duty would significantly affect this. What you and others will quite properly want to look at is the way in which the support is delivered and the practical safeguards for asylum seekers within this".

The argument, therefore, revolves around whether it is desirable to give Ministers and the Home Office the flexibility to which the Minister refers in that response, or whether we should instead place a proper duty on the Minister. That is what Amendment No. 152 seeks to do.

It is not that anyone doubts the sincerity of this Minister of State, nor indeed the Home Secretary, Mr Jack Straw. But they will not always be in office. It is, therefore, important to place on the face of the Bill more than goodwill and more than just an expectation that because they are benign others in the future may not be malign in their interpretation of the legislation. Therefore duties do count. We place duties on Secretaries of State in other legislation. I know that the Minister is not keen to use legislation as a system of semaphore. Nevertheless, it sends signals that if Ministers do not accept a duty in this regard, it will be assumed that they are trying to avoid their commitments to the most vulnerable in our midst.

The purpose of Amendment No. 152 is to impose a duty on the Secretary of State to operate the system to the benefit of its recipients. The wording of the amendment derives from the former government's legislation underlying the supplementary benefits legislation which was in force from 1980 until 1988. The aim is to ensure that, notwithstanding the temporary nature of the support on offer and the fluctuating numbers of recipients and other practical difficulties likely to be encountered, those who operate the scheme do not lose sight of the fact that they have been entrusted with the welfare of vulnerable human beings.

In answer to the amendment that was tabled in the Special Standing Committee in the other place--on its 24th sitting on 18th May, columns 1588 and 1599--the Minister, Mr Mike O'Brien, stated that it was unacceptable because it did not make reference to the interests of the taxpayer and provide for them to be weighed in the balance. I shall return to that point. But when I examined further the Minister's comments, I was concerned by two statements. On the then Clause 76, he said:

    "If we allow things to remain the way they are, all sorts of legal challenges may be mounted under the Children undermine the way in which the Asylum Support Directorate provides accommodation in particular areas, offers financial support and operates the dispersal policy".

On the then Clause 99, he said:

    "Everything would be subject to judicial review. The state would have to be far more careful about decisions to offer accommodation and take much greater care in its analysis of circumstances".

21 Jul 1999 : Column 1028

The Committee will understand that comments such as those further make the case for reminding the support directorate, which it is intended will have responsibility for people who have been tortured, for children and for others who have fled persecution, that it has a duty and a responsibility to those people, all of whom are reliant upon it and a substantial proportion of whom will receive recognition as refugees or grants of exceptional leave to remain and hence the opportunity to remain in and contribute to this country.

The new clause makes reference to provision in Part VI and to the functions of the officials concerned, and thus it recognises that a duty exists within the statutory framework of the obligations on a government department to spend money wisely. Therefore the Minister's earlier comment about getting value for money does not apply. There is always a duty on the Government to obtain value for money, but refugees should not simply be viewed through the prism of expenditure. Treasury interests must be held in tension with our duty to care for the vulnerable.

The purpose of Amendment No. 153 is to require the Secretary of State to have regard to the standards of the general law in respect of children. The wording of this amendment derives from Section 1(1) of the Children Act 1989. The onus should surely be on anyone who wishes to assert that the welfare of the children of asylum seekers merits a lower standard of consideration to justify that position. The onus therefore is not on those of us who support this amendment but on the Government to say why the safeguards that have always been in place have been removed. The status of the child should not be inferior because he or she is a refugee.

The world can be a hard and bitter place for a child. We have only to consider the situation of children in countries such as Colombia or the Philippines to know the truth of that. As I said on Second Reading, a few weeks ago I was privileged to be part of an Anglo-Israel Association visit to Jerusalem. While we were there, we visited Yad Vashem. That memorial contains a special sanctuary to the memory of the 1.5 million Jewish children who died during the Second World War which brings home to one the need in every generation to renew our sense of duty and commitment. Recorded at Yad Vashem is the story of how the British people through the Government of the day turned back a boat carrying children which was fleeing from Vichy France. As a consequence of our actions, the children were eventually deported to Auschwitz. In every generation, we have a duty to safeguard the welfare of children above all other interests.

In the past 10 years we have seen a fascinating shift in perceptions about rights and duties, not least because of the work of men such as David Selbourne in his excellent book The Principle of Duty. That much-needed shift should also be recognised in the sense of duty and responsibility that governments must have as we try to displace some of the flaccid language of rights.

21 Jul 1999 : Column 1029

Among the groups supporting Amendment No. 153 are some of the most respected organisations that deal with children's issues in this country. The Children's Society states:

    "The Children's Consortium ... supports this amendment which would place a duty on the Secretary of State to take the welfare of any child involved in asylum proceedings into active consideration when exercising his powers under Part VI of the Bill. The amendment would do much to assuage many of the Consortium's concerns in relation to part VI of the Bill, as it would ensure that the Asylum Support Directorate was obliged to actively consider and act in the best interests of children at all stages of its proceedings".

It continues:

    "This amendment would bridge this gap between promoting children's welfare and preserving the integrity of the asylum support system, by ensuring that the Secretary of State has a duty to actively consider and safeguard children's welfare in providing support for families. As such, it would ensure that the Secretary of State has a duty to consider compassionate circumstances when determining support arrangements for children and families".

The amendment is also supported by the Medical Foundation, which helps the victims of torture. It states:

    "The Medical Foundation considers that this amendment should in no way be regarded as controversial. It echoes the Children Act 1989, and the government has claimed that provision under the Support Directorate will place children in a position no less favourable than they would be under the Children Act".

If that is so, why can we not incorporate this as a duty in the legislation?

The Medical Foundation states that in its evidence to the Special Standing Committee it expressed its concern that the impact of the UK reservation to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child--which was criticised by the Committee on the Rights of the Child as apparently incompatible with the convention and which allows us to legislate on immigration without regard to the convention--could be extended to the detriment of asylum-seeking children by the inclusion of welfare matters within the province of the Home Office and of immigration control. The foundation states that it continues to call for the UK to remove the reservation which puts both children and this country's international reputation at risk.

UNICEF states:

    "The United Kingdom ratified the Convention in 1991, simultaneously entering several reservations including one pertaining to nationality, immigration and asylum. In effect, the reservation has severely limited the operation of the Convention in several areas, with the effect of impeding the three theoretically inalienable guiding principles of the Convention: those of non-discrimination ... the primacy of the best interests of the child"--

a point that the amendment tries to draw out--

    "and the importance of the child's wishes in matters that concern him/her".

It continues:

    "British law has in these ways had the effect of depriving many children of the fundamental rights set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, both directly through discriminatory or inappropriate legislation and indirectly through insufficient provision of protection for vulnerable children in difficult situations".

The opportunity exists in Amendments Nos. 152 and 153 to put that situation right and I commend them to the committee.

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