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Earl Russell: Some weeks ago I was approached by members of the Rationalist Press Association. They asked me to subscribe to a press release arguing that a reformed House should not include any Bishops. To their utter dismay, I refused point blank to do any such thing. We have heard tonight some of the reasons why I did so. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon has brought to our debates on the subject not only a wealth of pastoral experience but a philosophical position that, because it is oblique to those normally held by politicians, has immeasurably enriched our debates on this subject. We are privileged to have him here and I was delighted to listen to him.
On the matter of the amendment, I am reminded of an occasion when I was new in my lecturing job. The college maintained that it could only manage to pay us once every two months, because it was far too difficult to do anything else. A senior professor who was expert in accountancy was allowed to examine the books. He came back rubbing his hands in glee, saying that he had heard that there was once such a system of accounting but he had never thought to be privileged to see it in operation.
That is very much the way I feel when I look at paragraph 8.19 of the White Paper. It indicates that the Government are committed to providing such a safety net, but they are determined to do so in a way which minimises the incentive for abuse by those who do not really need the support or who would make an
A little over 24 hours ago, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford was in the Chamber and spoke extremely powerfully in a debate on an amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, about the inadequacy of our benefit levels. He and I were among many speakers in every quarter of the Chamber who supported the proposition of the Acheson Report, itself a reputable enough source, that our benefit levels are now too low to sustain good health. If we look at them in a comparative dimension, they are on the low side of the EU benefits. I understand that Eurostat figures create technical problems with which I shall not detain the House, but whichever way we look at it we are somewhere in the bottom half of the EU as regards generosity of benefit levels. According to methods of calculation, we come probably somewhere between ninth and twelfth; either just above or just below Ireland, depending on the method of calculation chosen.
If benefits are acting as an incentive to draw people to one country in the West rather than another, one would expect the flow of applicants to this country to be rapidly diminishing because our levels of benefit are not among those which are particularly generous. I have previously given reasons for doubting how much they know in the back streets of Jaffna about British benefit levels. But if they do know, it is not working. If they do not know, it never will work. In any case, it gives me some apprehension to think of conducting a Dutch auction between the prosperous countries of the world as to which can lower their benefit levels fastest in order to make themselves least attractive to asylum seekers. If it is a Dutch auction, we are near enough to winning it not to need to put in a bid to undercut ourselves!
In the case of China, we have some interesting evidence about how far benefit levels attract or deter. Before the benefit changes, 71 per cent of Chinese asylum applications were at ports. In 1997-98, when only port applicants received benefits, those figures had dropped to 26 per cent and 25 per cent. Clearly, these people are not acting as a classic free-market economic man either because the need to live is more important than the level of benefits or, more likely, because they do not know the information.
Whether it is really a good idea to deter and make less attractive when we are already in the bottom half and people do not know what is happening anyway is a difficult issue. The level of benefits is low enough already, but it appears to me that what is being offered here, whatever the Government may say against it, is lower than the benefit level that is available to other people.
The Government make several points about utensils and so forth, but there is a vital principle involved in the possession of cash; namely, choice. If you are supplied with all your own equipment, as I am sure all
Let us take the case of the Chinese asylum seekers to whom I referred just now. How many of them will move into social housing in Newcastle or Salford and find that they have been provided with a wok? I would guess not very many. That sort of problem will be repeated over and over again. Utility costs are quoted, but the percentage of a budget which goes on utility costs varies quite sharply from household to household. The calculation of a standard amount will be wrong in a great many cases.
It is argued that we can have a lower level of benefit because there will be no need to replace items. As the right reverend Prelate touched on, that is true only if the Government genuinely achieve their targets and people are on benefit vouchers in the short term. But in fact, even in the short term, it will not be true anyway. We know that many people who came out of Kosovo came carrying only what they could grab in a few seconds as they turned to run. For those people, replacement costs will be an extremely high proportion of their budget. There is no allowance in the vouchers for any equivalent of access to the Social Fund. That alone would make the figures very far from reliable.
On the first amendment on this part, the Minister said that we must take account of costs. I agree with him. I have often said so in this Chamber. But one of the objections to the Government's proposals is that, considering the cost of administration, the costs of the Government's proposals are actually higher than those of using an existing benefits system which has a well-established administration to run it. The Government are spending more in order to give less. In my book, that is not good value for money. When one considers cost, I believe that that is an argument for deferring what the Government are doing.
The Minister also said that we should take equal account of those who are destitute in our own country, and that we should not attempt a higher standard of provision than we give to them. I believe that that was roughly the purport of his argument. If he said anything like that--it is my recollection that he did so--
Lord Williams of Mostyn: I said quite clearly that when discussing the level of different sorts of benefits to be given to those who come from other countries, it must be in the general context of what we provide for our own. I am happy to repeat that.
Earl Russell: I entirely accept that proposition. It is to that proposition that I was arguing yesterday. I believe that that provision is itself inadequate. Our provision for asylum seekers should not be more inadequate than that. However, I believe that the Government's current proposals are indeed thus. I take the point already made by the Minister that in this case we are dealing with single people, not with families with children. The concession made on children today is one which I welcome very warmly indeed.
But single people have rights too. The tendency to assume that single people cannot be in hardship is one that I increasingly deplore. Of course one must care for children. But if you are single and your stomach is empty, it hurts just as much.
Lord Clinton-Davis: I put my name down to the amendment, but with all my characteristic ingenuity, I can think of nothing to add to the speech made by the right reverend Prelate or to that of the noble Earl opposite. Therefore, I do not wish to say anything more.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: I fear that clapping will break out sharply throughout the Chamber. I should like to add a few words in support of the right reverend Prelate's amendment. I echo the remarks by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, in paying tribute to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon. Many of us know that he will shortly be retiring from the House and indeed will not be here for the Report stage of the Bill.
I believe that we shall be the poorer as a result of that. I also believe that asylum seekers and refugees, who have benefited so much over the years from contributions made on their behalf, will be the poorer as well. We hope that there will be many more platforms on which to advance their cause in the future.
In opening the debate the right reverend Prelate referred to the stigmatising effect of vouchers. I was struck by some remarks made to me by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, hardly a radical organisation trying to drag down the Government. That organisation took a long look at the voucher system.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: I shall refer to their relevance to the amendment in due course, if the Minister will forbear. The right reverend Prelate, in introducing the amendment, referred to vouchers. That was not commented on by the Minister. As this amendment deals with eligibility for social security benefits while awaiting asylum decisions, and the new system will incorporate vouchers into that limited system, it seems perfectly relevant and in order to refer to them. A few moments ago, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, described at some length the disadvantageous effects of the voucher system. I shall simply add a few remarks of my own.
The issue of value for money was raised by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. I agree with him. I want to draw the attention of the Committee to the evidence given to the Special Standing Committee by Kent Social Services that the voucher system was,
I also want to support the remarks made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, about the level of these entitlements that will be made available to people in the United Kingdom in future. In a comparison with our European neighbours, we do not appear very high in the league table. Although Germany receives twice as many asylum applications as we do, it provides £38.63p a week compared with our £27.90p a week, of which only £10 a week is paid in cash. Switzerland and the Netherlands, which take about the same number of asylum seekers as we do, provide £41.07p and £46.58p respectively. Therefore, it is clear that we are not over-generous in our provision for asylum seekers, as the amendment standing in the name of the right reverend Prelate recognises.
The voucher system has been tried and found wanting in other countries. In the early 1990s, Switzerland, for example, operated a system that allowed refugees to be given vouchers, but it was found to be administratively cumbersome. The agency that co-ordinates the work of refugees in Switzerland, the OSAR, was not aware, when asked, of any district still using the voucher system. The system has been abandoned because it was demeaning for asylum seekers and impractical to operate.
For all those reasons, I feel that the system that the Bill introduces will fail, that it is ineffective, and that it will stigmatise. For the reasons advanced by the right reverend Prelate, I hope that noble Lords will support the alternative that he has offered.
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