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Lord Clinton-Davis: I wonder whether my noble friend would agree with this. It is not so much a question of a balance of language; it is a balance of commitment and attitude. The way in which certain Ministers in the Home Office in the past dealt with their responsibilities, in my view, fell short of what is desirable or even acceptable. I do not know how we legislate for that situation.

I have every confidence that, as a Minister, my noble friend shows every indication of sympathy for the arguments adduced on these issues. I am sure that in so far as it falls to him to administer these matters, they will be dealt with sympathetically. I would feel aggrieved, in fact, if any Minister in this Government adopted any position other than that. The difficulty arises in being able to formulate this commitment in a statutory form acceptable to the community at large. It is important that we generate within the community a respect for and understanding of the way in which refugees arrive in this country. We must not do anything to create a rift or lack of understanding--there is enough misunderstanding already. It is the job of government to try to deal with that situation, but not necessarily by statute.

That is the appeal I make to my noble and good friend Lord Judd. I share his sentiments, though I am not sure I arrive at the same conclusions in relation to whether or not the statutory form giving rise to those sentiments can be set out. There is considerable difficulty in imposing that duty. My noble friend dealt adequately with that point and I accept his reasoning in relation to it. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, will accept that I agree with much of what he expressed but do not feel that he necessarily chose to go down the right route.

Lord Dholakia: Perhaps I can add a further question to that asked by the noble Lord, Lord Judd. Will the Minister accept that we are dealing with an unusual situation? We have a backlog of between 70,000 and 80,000 asylum applications. Many of them, on his own estimate, are people who may be economic migrants to this country. However, the present Bill locks all doors through which asylum seekers can come to this country. At some stage, before long, we shall be dealing with only a handful of refugees and asylum seekers. Why therefore do we need a voucher system which has not worked in other parts of the country? Why do we need effectively to create a bureaucracy on the basis of the inability of the previous and present governments to clear the backlog and one that will cost more to run than the system presently available to asylum seekers?

The Lord Bishop of Ripon: As we seem to be putting a number of questions to the Minister at this stage, perhaps I can press him on one further matter in relation to the figures with which he provided the Committee on the levels of benefit. He claimed that with additional resources being made available the benefits payable were

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largely comparable to those being paid to people on income support in this country. He will be aware that those figures are contested.

I believe I am right in saying that with the additional provision, the Minister said that around 90 per cent of the true benefit is being paid. The claim is being made elsewhere, on good grounds, that that figure should be 80 per cent. Furthermore, that is a level of income benefit which is widely recognised as being inadequate for the proper and reasonable support of people in this country. The Minister is therefore taking a figure which is widely regarded as low and reducing it further. Under those circumstances, is it not going to be difficult for people to maintain, with any dignity and reasonableness, the kind of life to which they ought to be entitled in this country?

The Earl of Sandwich: My noble friend is itching to get back on his feet once the Minister has sat down. I shall try not to anticipate what he is going to say.

What is not in dispute is the courtesy of the Minister; a courtesy which, as my noble friend said, was shown when we came to see him in his office. But he did not use the big guns that he has just brought out; he was using more moderate tones and, in particular, as my noble friend said, the word "flexibility". But it was the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, who suddenly brought me back from the idea of flexibility to the principle that we are facing when we are thinking of the universality of children and the best interests of the children. Those phrases lead me back to the Children Act; they do not lead me to the asylum support directorate.

We are talking about a different kingdom when we go along that route. I recall the words of the noble Lord, Lord Judd. He asked what signal the Government were sending. I refer briefly to one small signal in Written Answers this week in reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger. On the question of free school meals for children of asylum seekers, the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, said

    "If the Asylum Bill currently before Parliament is enacted, it will remove the right of asylum seekers to claim these benefits".

The Minister continued,

    "However, their children and unaccompanied children seeking asylum will be eligible for free school meals".--[Official Report, 19/7/99; col. WA 86.]

Children have the same basic living needs whether they are asylum seekers or resident. This kind of signal to the Committee and society at large seems to me to be in contradiction of the principles agreed under the Children Act.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: Before the noble Lord, Lord Alton, considers his final remarks in response to the Minister perhaps I may raise another issue. The Minister has quite fairly pleaded with us to limit ourselves very much to particular points in further amendments. Therefore, in a sense he has invited us to talk more widely on these two amendments and to limit ourselves thereafter. I shall abide by that.

There is one other issue which is very close to the one raised by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, which relates again to children. We welcome what the Minister has said

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so far. But one of the assumptions made in the provisions for support within Part VI of the Bill is that there will not need to be replacement of the possessions of asylum seekers in this country.

My noble friend Lord Dholakia has pointed out that in the much more stringent system which this Bill will introduce those who are likely to arrive in this country will probably be the most extreme cases of desperation among refugees. This country responded relatively generously to the refugees from Kosovo. They were literally run out of their homes, some with 10 minutes notice, and took nothing with them. Evidence has attested to the fact that they did not even bring another set of clothes, a pair of shoes, a handbag or anything of that kind.

More than anyone else, children require the replacement of essential articles. Children grow out of their shoes. They need replacement nappies. They need new clothes as they grow. They need to attend school without being stigmatised as the kid that comes wearing nothing but a pair of old gym shoes with holes. That is another aspect of our concern about children. The replacement of goods for children is particularly acute. Alas, the singling out of children by their peer group is often an act of common child cruelty with which most of us are familiar.

The right reverend Prelate pointed to the way in which vouchers stigmatise children and so they do. Yet, if the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, is correct, they will have no access to school meals and there will be problems in receiving the kind of support they need. In his response perhaps the Minister can address this aspect of a problem which concerns many of us.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: I shall. I hope that I shall not be accused of bringing up the big guns. I am saying that we have to bear in mind that there are competing demands that need to be attended to. A great number of the questions which have been raised I addressed in a quite lengthy letter to the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I shall come back to them because it may be that some Members of the Committee have not seen them.

In the second paragraph of the letter I set out the nature of the accommodation that will be provided. It states,

    "Some asylum seekers will be given hostel accommodation with full board and lodging, and will need cash only for incidentals. Where they are given self-catering accommodation, this will come with the utilities paid for, and with full equipment (which a normal tenant might be required to provide for himself) provided by the Home Office. Taking these factors into account we are clear that our support would generally be equivalent to around 90% of what is available to people on income support. But we are thinking carefully about whether the present package will meet all the needs of asylum seeker families".

That is dated 15th July and today I have given an indication of what we are going to do about increasing the cash.

Questions have been raised about the accommodation of asylum seekers in unsuitable areas. I said in that reply,

    "we are genuinely concerned about the pressures that current arrangements are placing on housing in London;".

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If anyone suggests that that is not true they are living in a different world. I did not put that in the letter. That is my observation and it is true.

    "these are unsustainable in anything but the short term. We therefore feel it would be better to re-house the asylum seekers in areas of the country where there is less pressure on housing. We envisage that the areas we select will build on the experience that the Local Government Association and local authorities are now developing.... As we indicated some months ago, our criteria for areas suitable for receiving asylum seekers will be, firstly, that there is a reasonable supply of suitable accommodation; secondly, that there is a viable multi-ethnic community or at least a history of racial tolerance in the area; thirdly, that there is a potential for developing viable support arrangements for asylum seekers. Certainly we do not wish to see asylum seekers left isolated or at risk of threat or attack".

All those points depend entirely on the points that the noble Lord, Lord Judd, raised. I did not read them all partly because I sent the letter so recently. I do not believe that one can say that one is bullying, intimidatory or using the big guns. I am simply saying that we are approaching this matter in a humane way.

I turn to one or two other points that were made. There are other questions discussed in our meetings with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, about access to medical attention and care. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, also raised them. I hope to be able to give some positive news about some of their queries.

Perhaps I may deal with one or two questions and phrases used. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, asked about school meals. I intend to bring forward at Report stage an amendment to allow asylum-seeker children free meals. I am not claiming that as a virtue; I am simply saying that we have genuinely listened to the kinds of questions, including the general spectrum, raised recently by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams.

When I was replying at some length earlier I said that we would be looking to provide a full range of support and assistance, education, free school meals, milk vouchers, healthcare, free prescriptions and access to the social services. Both my noble friend Lord Judd and the right reverend Prelate said that some of the figures were in dispute. I do not believe that an up-to-date calculation has been made on the figures that I gave this evening because it was not possible to do it. Both the right reverend Prelate and my noble friend Lord Judd said that I was comparing something that I was offering with something which is fairly minimalist anyway. That underlines my point.

In this country we have a system of support for those who would otherwise be destitute. I am saying--I hope not in a disagreeable way--that what we are trying to offer people who come to these shores in need is something roughly comparable in terms of support to what we give our own citizens who are also destitute and who can sometimes be seen sleeping rough in London or begging at railway stations.

When I say that no government can deliver what Amendments Nos. 152 and 153 demand, I am simply telling the truth. It may be a disagreeable truth, but I am not prepared to say things which are hopelessly unrealistic and which raise and then cruelly shatter people's hopes. I appreciate that we are discussing amendments, although by general consent we have gone off into a wider review on a Second Reading basis.

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As regards Amendment No. 153, the child's welfare should be the paramount consideration. But it is not unkind or threatening to say that no government that I know of can deliver that. There is no point in putting matters in Bills which become Acts of Parliament to make us all feel better. That helps no one.

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