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Lord Alton of Liverpool: Before the noble Lord leaves that point, I should like to point out that the report on the front page of the Sunday Times also indicated that a report had been lodged by immigration officials with the Home Office corroborating some of the allegations. Is that the case?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: I said that I do not know about the secondary report. I understand that that was the report within the Sunday Times referred to by the noble Lord. If, before Friday, I discover anything further, I shall of course get in touch with the noble Lord as soon as I can. However, I have made inquiries and we do not have any knowledge of that report at this moment.

Several noble Lords asked about the number of disabled asylum seekers. At present I am told that there is a very small number. The phrase I have been given is that "a handful" receive the benefits mentioned in Amendments Nos. 182, 183 and 184. Perhaps I may give the reason for that. At present, those whose leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom is subject to limitation are not eligible to claim severe disablement allowance, disability living allowance or disability working allowance. That is the present state of our law and has been our law under the arrangements which derive from the Asylum and Immigration Act 1996.

Amendments Nos. 182, 183 and 184 would extend entitlement to those three benefits to all persons subject to immigration control, as defined in this clause. I do not know whether the movers and supporters of those amendments contemplated that that would apply not only to asylum seekers but to people who come to the United Kingdom in a wide range of circumstances; for example, visitors, students and business people, or if it is the intended consequence that that should be the result. It would be.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I shall try not to interrupt again. I think he can accept from me on behalf of the other proposers of the amendment that that is not the

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intention. If the amendments in any way lead towards that, they would have to be clarified by redrafting. As the Minister knows, the purpose of the amendment is directed at the group I identified in my remarks. I wonder whether, therefore, he will concentrate on that group on the assumption that we will return with an amendment that deals specifically with those involved?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: I understood that to be the purpose of what the noble Lord seeks. However, it is my duty to inform the Committee of the consequence of an amendment, if accepted.

These benefits are all non-contributory. They are not based on individual national insurance contributions but come from general taxation. Obviously, people may come to this country for a variety of reasons. Visitors, students and business people have their interests. Some people come here as ultimately well founded asylum seekers. Quite a significant majority come for other reasons. Some are genuine economic migrants. I have said before that I sympathise with their motives; I am sure that all noble Lords would. Some people come here for fraudulent purposes. Any sensibly organised system has to deal with a wide spectrum of people.

We believe that the status of a person's stay in this country should play a part in deciding to what extent he or she should benefit from the protection afforded by the social security system. Generally, when there are restrictions on a person's right to remain in Britain, that person does not have access to the social welfare system in the normal way.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, indicated privately to me--I am grateful for his courtesy--that he was concerned about the essential living needs of asylum seekers. I know that RADAR shares his concerns. Perhaps I may say to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, who raised this point, that where individual asylum seekers are able to show that they have needs beyond the general norm arising from disablement they will be able to make their claim to the support scheme for such assistance as represents their essential needs. For the reasons I have given, I am not therefore able to accept Amendments Nos. 182, 183 and 184.

I turn to Amendment No. 185. Under Clause 84(5), where an asylum seeker's household includes a dependant under 18 the family will continue to be entitled to support under the Bill scheme while they are in the United Kingdom until they are granted leave to enter or remain, or leave the country.

I remind the Committee that the cash element of the support has gone up to £10 per dependant child per week. Perhaps I may reiterate that if the average time for initial decisions on asylum applications by families has not been brought down to two months by 1st April 2000 they will not be brought into the new support arrangements. I have said that on an earlier occasion. I reiterate it in deference to the amendment and to the question asked by the noble Baroness. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, raised a number of questions.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Before the noble Lord moves

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on to the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, perhaps I may pursue a point. I understood clearly what the Minister said at an earlier stage, and I believe that the Committee welcomed it. The problem is the same as the one to which I referred in my earlier discussion with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. How does one put that pledge on to the face of the Bill so that it is clear in law what such a family is and is not entitled to? That is my concern.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising that point, which I would have returned to. We will be taking a view, very early in 2000, as to whether we can expect to meet the two-month target. If we cannot, families will continue as at present. They will not be brought into the new system. I do not believe that it is necessary to have that on the face of the Bill. It would not be politically sustainable for any Home Secretary to renege on a pledge which he clearly made and I have repeated on at least three occasions in this Chamber.

We will not put families into the scheme if we have not been able to satisfy ourselves that we can meet the two-month target. I do not think I can put it plainer than that. It is true that the more cynical might say, "Why not put it on the face of the Bill?" That is a question which has been asked on a number of occasions in various contexts. The answer is that there must be a sensible limit to what one puts on the face of the Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked a number of questions. I recorded four, not five. I am grateful for his acceptance of the increased level of support which I announced last week. That will reflect the merging of the different income support levels for children up to the age of 16. That will take us up to 1st April 2000. The noble Lord also asked about the increase of cash and the expense of vouchers; the ratio question. I am not able to take matters any further. I have gone as far as I can in that context.

The third question I recorded related to the increased uplift in a general correlation to DSS benefits. We will keep the level of support under annual review. I cannot give a commitment at this stage about the nature of the link to DSS benefits. I do not believe that any Minister could.

The final question raised by the noble Lord was perfectly legitimate, if I may say so; namely, what about people who need clothing on arrival, particularly if the weather is inclement, or, as he said last time, children have simply outgrown their shoes. We believe that the voluntary sector, which will be handling the initial reception arrangements, is best placed to give assistance with immediate replacement items where needed. That is much more helpful than people coming from a land far from home trying to make their own arrangements.

I shall return to the other questions raised. The underlying purpose of Part VI is to take asylum seekers out of the social welfare benefit system and offer them a fast, accurate delivery of support that is responsive to their individual needs. We want to be faster, firmer and fairer. I do not believe that a delayed scheme, of the sort referred to by the right reverend Prelate, is civilised; that

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is, to keep people in limbo for years. It is very important that we identify at an early stage those who are entitled to asylum. We have a duty to treat them with a decent regard to their needs. However, we have to bear in mind that their needs are not necessarily the same--in fact they will generally not be the same--as the needs of those who are otherwise destitute in our society.

I repeat that we are providing a decent level of support with furnished accommodation, pots and pans and all utilities paid for. We are providing the opportunity of a grant after the six-month period with a positive indication (I cannot say a cast-iron guarantee for every family in every circumstance) that the two-month and six-month regime will be in effect before they enter the scheme. These arrangements, properly administered in a sensitive way, are much better than what presently happens on occasions. I refer to the dumping of people in local authority areas where they meet hostility because the local community simply will not or cannot cope.

A better outcome would be to find a sensible resettlement scheme, discussed so many times in the progress of this Bill, with people from similar cultural, linguistic and ethnic backgrounds clustered together helpfully away from the pressures of the south east. It is certainly a more humane one.

The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, is right. We do not believe that income support, housing benefit and council tax benefit are appropriate or relevant. I shall not repeat what we are offering; I have made it perfectly plain.

I understand the point behind Amendment No. 186, but it refers to the case of,

    "an asylum seeker where there is evidence of persecution or torture, or both".

This is my problem: if the reference to "evidence" means evidence that the Secretary of State has accepted, then, unless the persecution has been for a reason outside the refugee convention, the individual would by then have been granted refugee status. If the noble Lords mean simply where the asylum seeker has given oral evidence or provided a document indicating that persecution has occurred, that would apply to every asylum seeker.

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