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Lord Avebury: I should like to say a few words about the Minister's response to a letter which I wrote to him sending representations from the Black Women's Rape Action Project and Women Against Rape. It seemed relevant to the points raised by my noble friend Lady Williams and the treatment of victims of rape and sexual violence. The Minister said that the Government are not conducting a general consultation exercise on the content of any gender guidelines to be issued but that they have agreed to discuss their proposals with the Refugee Women's Legal Group, which, he said, has taken the lead on that subject among non-governmental organisations.

The support of the BWRAP for drafting the Refugee Women's Legal Group guidelines was acknowledged by the group in its booklet Gender Guidelines for the Determination of Asylum Claims in the UK. I should like to ask the Minister whether, in the informal consultations being undertaken with the Refugee Women's Legal Group, the particular needs of that section of the asylum-seeking population for adequate accommodation will be discussed and that that matter will be specifically dealt with in the guidelines.

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3.45 p.m.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I regret that I cannot accept the amendment although I accept the spirit in which it is proposed. From the outset, the Government's intention has been that appellants should have the right of appeal to an asylum support adjudicator where support is refused or withdrawn, but that objections about the quantum or nature of support should be resolved through an internal review procedure, which we are currently establishing.

There are a number of reasons why that is the case. First, it is clear that being deprived of support has a far more immediate and direct effect than simply being dissatisfied by what is provided. We wish to ensure that those who say that they are destitute and in need of immediate support, whether by way of accommodation or provision of essential living needs, should have priority where cases are being taken to appeal.

For that reason, when an appeal is made to the asylum support adjudicator, there will be an immediate internal review of the decision taken which will be carried out while the appellate process is under way. That provision deals with cases where support is not provided or is withdrawn. A similar review will take place where an applicant notifies the Home Office that what is offered is not, in his view, adequate or suitable for his needs and/or those of his dependants.

That review will be equally rigorous, but, as I have said, we do not believe that it should give rise to a right of appeal to an adjudicator. That is because we are satisfied that issues of quantum or nature of support can be properly dealt with by people who know what is and is not available and possible, rather than being remitted to an adjudicator who will hear the case distant from the circumstances and who will have difficulty keeping in touch with any degree of certainty with what flexibility can be operated on a day-to-day basis.

Furthermore, while destitution is something which an adjudicator should be able to assess on a relatively objective level, the myriad possibilities inherent in assessing whether something is adequate or acceptable are much better dealt with by a flexible approach.

Decisions in the review mechanism will be taken by a senior officer who will review each case on its merits. Such review procedures provide effective and flexible remedies in other situations and we feel that they can properly address the situation in this case.

I shall now deal with a number of points which have arisen. If one looks at the current legislation which provides support, the National Assistance Act 1948 and the Children Act 1989, one finds that there are very few judicial reviews. There are tens, rather than hundreds, in a year. That is in the context of legislation which was not designed in the first place to deal with those particular problems, whereas this legislation is. We would not expect to see a significant increase in those numbers, given the existence of the adjudicator and a formal internal review process once the legislation has settled down.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked why the figure of 20,000 was mentioned by my honourable friend Mr O'Brien in the other place. We are expecting to

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provide accommodation for up to 40,000 households per year. If every single one of those households is entitled to challenge any aspect of their support, we should expect to see large numbers of appeals to the adjudicator. We should have thought that that would be far better dealt with by an administrative procedure--that is where it is quantum, rather than principle--than by an adjudicator.

As regards the adjudicator, I cannot recall whether the figure of 20,000 of my honourable friend Mr O'Brien to which the noble Lord referred was a figure of 20,000 if the amendment was accepted rather than if the adjudication process proceeded. If the adjudication process continues as at present, the estimated figure is 2,000. It will be far more than that if quantum were involved--that is where the figure of 20,000 comes from.

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, referred to victims of torture. The Home Office will be building up experience of dealing with such cases very quickly. We plan to take particular account of the needs of victims of torture where that is clearly demonstrated. Is an internal review adequate? We believe that internal review procedures can be effective if properly managed. I do not have the figures available to me, but I believe that the internal review procedures introduced to the legislation covering homelessness in the Housing Act 1996 has proved effective in dealing with problems of a like kind.

In relation to the review procedure, it is our intention that reasons will be notified to the parties as to the result of the review. Experience of decisions of the internal review procedure will be taken into account in keeping under review the guidelines for case workers. There will be guidelines which will be published so far as it is appropriate. I hope that that deals with all the questions raised and that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, the noble Lords, Lord Dholakia and Lord Avebury and, indeed, the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, for the support that they have given to the amendment which is before the Committee this afternoon.

The Minister said that he would like a flexible approach; indeed, Ministers invariably like flexible approaches. However, people who are on the receiving end of decisions often like to see it written down in black and white, so that they know precisely what their rights and opportunities are likely to be. I do not doubt the good faith of the Minister, but I am not entirely convinced by his arithmetic. I suspect that the system being introduced is also likely to generate many appeals. I do not honestly understand how he can arrive at the differential between 2,000 and 20,000. Only experience will tell whether the Minister's calculations are right or whether the calculations of those who supported the amendment are right.

Therefore, when the new system is introduced, I hope that the Minister will keep this open and that the approach will not become too hard and fast as regards

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saying that the adjudicators will not have this as part of their remit. In due course, and on the basis of experience, it may perhaps be possible to give this proposal further consideration. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 94 agreed to.

Clause 95 agreed to.

Clause 96 [False representations]:

Lord Falconer of Thoroton moved Amendment No. 175A:

Page 61, line 42, leave out ("under section 85").

The noble and learned Lord said: The government amendments in this group, Amendments Nos. 175A, 175B and 180C, make slight drafting changes in relation to offences under Clauses 96 and 99. They ensure that the offences apply to the interim arrangements in Schedule 8, and to the temporary support provisions in Clause 89, as well as to the main support scheme in Clause 85.

It may be convenient if I turn now to the other amendments in this group; namely, Amendments Nos. 176 to 180B. The purpose of the offence established under Clause 98 is to prevent the work of administering and operating the asylum seekers' support scheme from being hampered by obstruction and delay on the part of other people.

The first amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, Amendment No. 176, would place on the face of the Bill a requirement that, before any conviction could be obtained under this clause, the prosecution would have to prove that the person concerned knew that he was refusing or neglecting to provide the information requested of him. It is difficult to see how someone could refuse to provide information without being aware of the fact that he is refusing to provide information.

As far as concerns negligence, I refer the noble Lord to the words which appear at the beginning of Clause 98(1) at line 38 in the Bill: for there to be an offence, the act complained of must have been committed "without reasonable excuse". Someone who did not know, for example, that a particular piece of information was required of him might well be able to show, on the balance of probabilities, that he had a reasonable excuse for neglecting to provide the information. Thus, while reasonable excuse clearly goes beyond mere lack of knowledge, to encompass other possibilities, in many circumstances it is likely to cover that which the noble Lord seeks to protect. In the circumstances, I hope that the noble Lord, will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

I turn now to the noble Lord's second amendment, Amendment No. 177. Perhaps I may, once again, refer the noble Lord to the opening words of the clause, and to the requirement that offences charged under this provision must have been committed "without reasonable excuse". Perhaps I may also refer to the fact that the phraseology of the clause has been taken from

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Section 111 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992, which deals with a like offence in the context of the social welfare benefits system.

The offence in question is committed where a person, without reasonable excuse, neglects to answer a question, give information or produce a document when required to do so. This is clearly somewhat broader than refusing to do these acts, but not greatly so. The intention behind this offence is to put the onus on a person who is required to provide information under Part VI to turn his mind to the matter, not simply set it to one side and forget it. We consider that this is valid, given that the information in question is required in connection with the support of destitute asylum seekers and their families.

We need both limbs of the offence because, whereas to "refuse" is an active step, "neglect" is a passive step. We do not want to create a position where an asylum seeker escapes sanction or other consequences where he merely "neglects" to tell us that, for example, he has won a massive prize in a lottery, or has had some other change of circumstances which radically alters his need for support under the scheme.

Further, this offence extends to corporate bodies by virtue of Clause 100. In the context of a corporate structure, it may be difficult to prove a refusal to provide the information but much easier to show that, for no good reason, officers of the corporate body neglected to provide the information requested. It is the view of the Government that both limbs of the offence are necessary for it to be an effective disincentive. Therefore, I am unable to commend the amendment to the Committee.

The noble Lord has also proposed three amendments--Amendments Nos. 178, 179 and 180--which would have the effect of adding an additional requirement to the offence created by this clause; namely, that the information being sought is "material". With deep respect to the noble Lord, I would suggest that there is little or no need for these amendments. While a person is applying for or receiving support under the support scheme, which the Bill seeks to establish, it is difficult to think of any information about his or her circumstances which might not be "material". Certainly, on the advice which I have taken, the sorts of information which we propose to seek, whether from asylum seekers themselves or perhaps from their advisers or helpers, about the circumstances in which the asylum seekers and their families and dependants find themselves, will all be material to the assessments which will have to be made for the proper administration of the scheme.

I certainly do not anticipate that a refusal to supply irrelevant information, or to answer a question that proved utterly immaterial, would be pursued under this paragraph. Prosecutors would have far better things to do. Nevertheless, we do not wish to dilute the force of the provision by establishing additional criteria before a prosecution can be mounted. To do so would risk sending out a signal that the Government were willing to overlook the withholding of information unless it could be shown that it made a material difference. We wish to be able to learn of all the issues which affect

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asylum seekers supported by the Bill, so that we can continue to support them effectively. For those reasons, I invite the noble Lord to withdraw these amendments.

I should now like to address the amendment proposed by the noble Earl, Lord Russell. Amendment No. 180A would affect a clause of the Bill which, as I have already said, has been drafted to maintain consistency with the provisions of the Social Security Administration Act 1992, where a like offence exists. The offence involved is one of obstruction or delay. The offence is committed when an individual--or, under Clause 100, a body corporate--intentionally delays or obstructs someone exercising functions under this part of the Bill, or refuses or neglects to give information when required to do so by virtue of provisions under this part. For example, this could happen when a supported person declines or refuses to give details of his assets in an attempt to retain access to support to which he is not entitled.

We wish the asylum support scheme to be firm, fair and fast. For this reason we require an offence and a sanction to deter and protect against the instance where the administration of the scheme is being impeded. The penalty which the noble Earl would delete is a fine not exceeding Level 3 on the standard scale, which equates to a maximum fine of £1,000. We are providing for summary trial, and for only a monetary penalty. Members of the Committee may wish to know that, for the offence of obstructing a police officer, Parliament has provided for a like maximum penalty of a fine of up to £1,000.

However, under the Police Act 1996, there is an alternative penalty of up to one month's imprisonment, which we do not propose to replicate in this instance. The existence of an offence implies a penalty. I consider that the maximum we have set is a proper quantum, not least because it is a maximum, not a tariff. Magistrates hearing cases will fit the penalty to the circumstances--we are merely setting down a ceiling within which they must exercise their judicial discretion. Again, I ask the noble Earl not to press his amendment when the time comes.

Finally, I should like to turn to Amendment No. 180B, which has been proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby. I fully understand and sympathise with the reasons why she has tabled this amendment. However, I wish to give the noble Baroness my assurance that it is not the intention of Clause 99(1)(a) to catch those who, despite their best efforts, have found themselves unable to maintain and accommodate someone for whom they had previously provided a written undertaking of support. There would be no question of prosecuting an individual who, for example, found himself or herself unemployed and therefore genuinely unable to continue maintaining and accommodating someone.

Clause 99(1)(a) catches those who wilfully refuse to fulfil written undertakings of support which they had previously provided and thereby cheat the system. To go back to the example I have just given, someone who is unemployed and is unable to fulfil his obligations could hardly be said to be "refusing or neglecting" to

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maintain a sponsorship agreement. He would just not be able to do it. This is similar to the offence of "failure to maintain" which exists under Section 105 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992. I understand that proceedings would not be taken against someone under this legislation who, through no fault of his or her own, found themselves unable to fulfil a sponsorship agreement. I hope that that allays the concerns of the noble Baroness which gave rise to the proposed amendment. In the light of my reassurances I hope that she will be minded not to press her amendment when we reach it. I beg to move.

4 p.m.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Murton of Lindisfarne): The Question is that the amendment be agreed to. As many as are of that opinion will say "Content"--

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