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Lord Falconer of Thoroton: Let me deal with the points raised during the course of the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, seemed to suggest--I hope it is not an unfair paraphrase--that my pre-emptive strike was based upon the implication that we suggested that all asylum seekers are attempting to cheat the system. Let me make it absolutely clear that that is not the position at all. If anything I said suggested that, I unreservedly withdraw it; I certainly did not intend that. The fact that we have a Theft Act in this country does not imply that we think everyone in the country to be thieves. We simply recognise that we must have provisions to deal with circumstances which may arise.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, supported by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said that we should insert the word "material." The noble Earl, Lord Russell, then referred to love letters. With the greatest of diffidence I asked him what part of the Bill permitted one to ask for love letters. He referred to the fact that love letters may be required to show that someone was genuinely married. That would be relevant to the question of whether or not

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they were in the country lawfully in the first place, but of course that has nothing to do with this part of the Bill, which is about support for people pending the process of asylum hearings.

I do not accept that I was wrong in relation to that. But let us suppose that the example the noble Earl gave demonstrates the point that that kind of question, in order to be askable, must be material. That is the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I do not accept that the example is accurate but, even if it were, it demonstrates, first, that the example is bad; secondly, if it is a good example, it shows the need for materiality; and, thirdly, if I am wrong about all of those points and there could be a circumstance in which love letters were asked for--assuming that they had nothing whatever to do with the issue before the authorities; namely, support--the question would then arise of whether the person had a reasonable excuse for not providing them. Answer: plainly yes. As the noble Earl is aware, an offence is committed under Clause 98 only if a person intentionally delays etc, "without reasonable excuse".

4.15 p.m.

Earl Russell: Does the noble and learned Lord accept that this exchange is proof that the question of what is material may be susceptible to argument.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: With the greatest respect, I would have thought it was quite the reverse. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, seeks to insert the word "material." Even if it were susceptible to argument, the mischief with which the noble Lord seeks to deal is unnecessary. I do not think that there is much between us in relation to this matter. It is more a drafting point than a point of substance.

Let me now deal with the other points raised in the debate. The noble Earl raised the question of the removal of any penalty for this offence. The noble Earl does not suggest that there should not be an offence; there should therefore be a penalty. The penalty imposed by the subsection he suggests should be removed is up to £1,000. The noble Earl, powerfully, persuasively--and totally misleadingly--refers only to the one side of the coin; that is, a person who does not have any money who is convicted of an offence. In those circumstances the court is well able to take such matters into account in determining the fine, which is a maximum of £1,000.

What would be the noble Earl's response to a person who gets support by telling a farrago of lies to disguise the fact that he has millions of pounds available to him in this country? In those circumstances, would he regard a fine of a maximum of £1,000 as unjust?

Earl Russell: Obviously there must be a punishment. I thought that the Government--and especially the noble and learned Lord--might have more expertise than I in what should be an appropriate punishment. I assumed that if these words were removed they would have substituted others; I would have been happy to discuss that.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: With the greatest respect, the noble Earl has not answered the point at all.

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We have proposed a fine of up to £1,000. In the case of a destitute asylum seeker, a minimal fine would be imposed by the court. In the case of someone who had told lies and had money, a fine of £1,000 does not seem unjust. That is why we inserted it in the Bill. The noble Earl has not come back with any counter-proposal.

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, says that if we are all thinking alike, why do we not put such a provision on the face of the Bill? I think as we go through the Bill we will see that the relevant protections are there, both in terms of what is an appropriate offence and in relation to the rights of a defendant. If one puts unnecessary words into a statute--as the noble Baroness suggested--it would simply lead to confusion and unnecessary prolixity.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: Will the noble and learned Lord readily agree that there are absolutely no unnecessary words in this very long Bill?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I cannot give such a guarantee. We have tried our best not to include unnecessary words. Whether we have succeeded, I do not know.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton moved Amendment No. 175B:

Page 61, line 42, after ("person") insert ("under any provision made by or under this Part").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 96, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 97 agreed to.

Clause 98 [Delay or obstruction]:

[Amendments Nos. 176 to 180A not moved.]

Clause 98 agreed to.

Clause 99 [Failure of sponsor to maintain]:

[Amendment No. 180B not moved.]

Lord Falconer of Thoroton moved Amendment No. 180C:

Page 63, line 7, leave out ("section 85") and insert ("any provision made by or under this Part").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 99, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 100 agreed to.

Clause 101 [Payments to local authorities]:

Lord Falconer of Thoroton moved Amendment No. 180D:

Page 64, line 1, leave out ("an authority") and insert ("a body").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton moved Amendment No. 180E:

Page 64, line 3, leave out ("authority") and insert ("body").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 101, as amended, agreed to.

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Clause 102 [Grants to voluntary organisations]:

Lord Glentoran moved Amendment No. 181:

Page 64, line 12, at end insert--
("( ) In the exercise of the power conferred under subsection (1) the Secretary of State shall ensure that as far as possible similar support is available in Northern Ireland as in Great Britain.").

The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 181 standing in my name, I shall also speak to Amendment No. 211. Both amendments specifically refer to Northern Ireland.

Amendment No. 181 deals with support for asylum seekers. As I said earlier in Committee, I was well briefed by the new upstanding Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. That commission has told me that it is particularly unhappy about the part of the Bill relating to support. Northern Ireland is remote from the centre of things and has only about 400 asylum seekers a year. The voucher system may be adequate where there are plenty of asylum seekers, but problems occur when the vouchers are not recognised and people do not know what to do with them. In addition, there is a severe shortage of management in that part of the world; hence the wording of Amendment No. 181.

Amendment No. 211 refers to equal opportunities. As the Committee is probably aware, the Equal Opportunities Commission for Northern Ireland specifically lays down what needs to be done to conform to its requirements. We are concerned that the Government have not considered those provisions in the light of the equality duties that are conferred on all public authorities in Northern Ireland in terms of Section 75 and Schedule 9 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. In that regard, the commission urges the Government to conduct an urgent audit of the possible impact of the proposed policy on the equal opportunity of people in Northern Ireland. I beg to move.

Lord Hylton: It seems to me that the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, could have made a stronger case. Perhaps the Government could completely reconsider how Northern Ireland should be treated in the context of the Bill, given the very small number of asylum cases and given, I imagine, the fairly small number of immigration cases that occur there each year. Perhaps it would be better to leave matters as they are now, at least as regards support systems, vouchers and such matters.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I am grateful for the opportunity that Amendment No. 181, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, gives me to explain our proposals for the support of asylum seekers who are located in Northern Ireland. The Bill applies equally to all parts of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. To the extent that there is a need for support for voluntary organisations in Northern Ireland, Clause 102 will provide for that and it will be used in that way.

We see an important role for the voluntary sector in Northern Ireland. At present, it is not our intention to relocate asylum seekers into Northern Ireland. So the extent of support arrangements in place there will reflect only the number of asylum seekers who present themselves to the authorities in the Province. That

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means that arrangements are likely to be relatively small scale. Therefore, rather than set up large-scale contracts with commercial providers, we shall, in all probability, set up smaller-scale ad hoc arrangements with the existing voluntary sector to cater for asylum seekers who arrive in the Province of their own accord although we shall use our powers under Clause 85 for that purpose rather than the grant-making powers under Clause 102. That will ensure that asylum seekers in Northern Ireland receive the necessary assistance with accommodation and essential living expenses.

We see an important role for the voluntary sector in Northern Ireland. We propose to treat it on broadly the same terms as the voluntary sector elsewhere in the United Kingdom. On the basis of that assurance, I hope that the noble Lord will not press his amendment.

Amendment No. 211, also proposed by the noble Lord, opens up the prospect of a different time-scale for the implementation of Part VI in Northern Ireland.

Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act imposes certain statutory obligations on public authorities carrying out functions relating to Northern Ireland. They must have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity in terms of a number of categories, including racial group. Without prejudice to that obligation, they must also have regard to the desirability of promoting good relations between persons of different religious belief, political opinion or racial group. Schedule 9 to the Northern Ireland Act sets out a framework for implementing those obligations. In particular, it requires public authorities to submit equality schemes to a new equality commission for Northern Ireland within six months of the schedule coming into operation. Those equality schemes will include the public authority's arrangement for assessing and consulting on the likely impact of policies on the promotion of equality of opportunity.

Those provisions of the Northern Ireland Act have not yet been substantively commenced. The new equality commission has not been appointed and it is unlikely that the equality scheme system will be in operation until next year. When it is, the Act lays out a system for complaints about the implementation of equality schemes to be considered by the equality commission. The Northern Ireland Act does not include provision for individual equality impact assessments to be laid before Parliament.

The amendment tabled by the noble Lord does not indicate who should carry out an impact assessment of Part VI of the Bill. It is not clear whether that would be required from Northern Ireland public authorities, such as the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and the Department of Health and Social Services for Northern Ireland, or whether the Home Office would be required to carry it out. There is provision in the Northern Ireland Act for Section 75 to apply to UK departments, but only after they have been designated by order. No final decisions have yet been made on which departments will be so designated.

I believe that this is also an appropriate time to mention that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission had previously raised concerns with the

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Government about the provisions governing the support of asylum seekers contained within the Bill. I take this opportunity to say that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has written to the chief commissioner responding to his points and, I hope, providing reassurance that we believe that the approach contained within the Bill concerning support for asylum seekers will meet all of our international obligations, and that it will give complete support to those who are genuinely fleeing persecution, wherever they seek asylum within the UK.

I hope, in the light of my earlier comments relating to Amendment No. 211, that the noble Lord will not move that amendment.

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