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Lord Alton of Liverpool: I shall be brief in my response. The Minister should not get a complex about

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this. He may recall that in my introductory remarks I paid tribute to what he said in Committee last week about the position of children. I hope that in all parts of the Chamber we have been fair to the Minister. I also asked him last week whether he would meet children's organisations. Within seven days he has done so and been able to report back to the Committee.

So there have been immediate responses on a number of occasions and the Minister has taken seriously all the issues that have been raised. The issue at the heart of our anxieties is the one expressed by several Members of the Committee in this debate; that is, what should be on the face of the Bill. The Minister told us, for instance, that in 1996 disability benefits were taken away from disabled people and we would be reverting to the pre-1996 position if we were to do that.

Clearly this provision was on the face of legislation prior to 1996 and did not include all categories of all visitors; it included those people to whom it was directed. That is the purpose that lies behind this amendment, although I am happy to accept what the Minister says about the wording being improved. I asked the Minister to indicate whether he would be prepared to go back to a pre-1996 position when it came to the question of how disabled people are dealt with. He indicated in his reply that it is not the Government's intention to do that. Obviously I am disappointed by that reply and know that many others will be also.

The Minister said in his response that we are talking about only a handful of people. Whether we are talking about the children mentioned in the course of the debate on Amendment No. 185; the disabled people mentioned in the course of the debate on Amendments Nos. 182, 183 and 184, or the victims of torture, they comprise relatively small numbers; yet they are crucially important categories to whom we should extend every possible assistance. I know that many Members of the Committee who opposed the 1996 legislation--including some now sitting on the government side of the Committee--did so because they knew that such groups were worth keeping within the context of the law and safeguarding. I believe therefore that this will be an issue to which we shall return on Report.

We are being asked to make a leap of faith by not writing these safeguards on to the face of the Bill. However much we may respect the integrity of the Ministers who have spoken during our Committee stage, it is not their integrity and it is not their probity which is at issue. It is how these categories and groups of people will be treated in the future, possibly when there are Ministers in office who will be less receptive to these concerns than has been this Minister of State.

My final point before seeking to withdraw the amendment--awaiting the opportunity to divide on these issues on Report--involves the issue of discrimination. We have gone to great lengths to pass laudable legislation on issues such as discrimination against disabled people. We passed the 1989 Children Act--one of the better pieces of legislation passed during the past decade; yet we are setting aside that legislation to say that the one group of children who will not be protected by the Children Act will be the children

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of asylum seekers, and the one group of disabled people who will not be protected by legislation affecting disabled people in the United Kingdom will be disabled people who are asylum seekers. That is discriminatory and I suspect it will be open to challenge in the courts in due course. I hope therefore that between now and Report stage the Minister will continue to listen to the representations being made to him and give these matters further consideration. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 183 to 186 not moved.]

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 186YA:

Page 66, line 29, leave out subsection (5).

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 106, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 107 [Amendment of section 21 of the National Assistance Act 1948]:

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 186ZA:

Page 66, line 35, leave out from ("person") to ("may") in line 36 and insert ("to whom section 106 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 (exclusion from benefits) applies").

The noble Lord said: Amendments Nos. 108ZA and 186C are drafting amendments designed to standardise the terminology used throughout Part VI of the Bill. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

On Question, Whether Clause 107, as amended, shall stand part of the Bill?

Earl Russell: I am relieved to know that the Minister's amendment was a purely technical, drafting amendment. I have not been able to work out any major purpose in it or substantial change. It adds a little elegance to the Bill and that is to be welcomed.

But the substance of Clause 107 is an altogether different matter. Considering that clause, I am reminded of the sad story of Mrs Jones's funeral. Mrs Jones, one day, collapsed; became unconscious; her pulse stopped; she was pronounced dead. The undertaker was called in; she was placed in a coffin and the funeral was organised. They carried her in procession down the hill and as they turned the corner into the gate of the churchyard, they bumped against the corner. A noise of tapping was heard from inside the coffin, which was opened, and Mrs Jones, very much alive and extremely angry, was taken out of it.

Twenty years later, Mrs Jones was pronounced dead. The undertaker was called in. They arranged the funeral; they organised the funeral procession; they carried the coffin down the hill to the corner by the church gate. As they carried the coffin in, Mr Jones said, "Be careful not to bump against the corner"!

On the last occasion that benefits for asylum seekers were restricted, the corner that they bumped against was the National Assistance Act 1948. This Government are now not merely careful to avoid bumping against the

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corner but are actually taking down the corner. This principle of the whipping boy is rather a drastic application.

I should apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, for discussing the duties of local authorities under the National Assistance Act 1948 when she is in the Chair and cannot take part. I have listened to her, with benefit, many times on this subject. I would like to take as correct everything that she has said on the subject.

The National Assistance Act was not an ideal vehicle for dealing with the situation. Indeed, very far from it. On the other hand, it was, as experience taught us, a safety net. Whoever removes a safety net is either an optimist or a sadist. I shall not speculate on--and I believe that the rules of order forbid it--which of those the Ministers concerned might be. However, I always think the best of them.

The wording of the clause is very curious. Clause 108 totally disapplies the National Health Service Act 1977. However, it makes only a limited disapplication. It does not disapply the National Assistance Act for other needs, such as pregnancy, disability and old age. It disapplies it solely for the purpose of destitution. Clause 107 states:

    "A person ... may not be provided with residential accommodation under subsection (1)(a) if his need for care and attention has arisen solely because he is destitute".

The Bill therefore clearly envisages that destitution may possibly result. The Bill may not expect it. It may simply be an example of belt and braces. However, the Bill certainly considers that this is possible.

The Bill therefore seriously considers the possibility that destitution may result and may be unrelieved. It sounds a little unfortunate. Were I to discover such a document in isolation, I would be very tempted to put the worst construction upon it. The need to relieve real destitution, where one finds it, is part of our common humanity. It is part of the same impulse that makes one pick up survivors at sea following a shipwreck or makes one try to rescue people from a burning building. If those impulses were dead, the world would be a very much poorer place than it is. It would indeed diminish us all. I cannot see why the clause needs to envisage this. I cannot understand what useful purpose is served by leaving destitution unrelieved.

I understand, of course, all the basic points regarding economic migrants. There is no way of ensuring that this clause will bite only on economic migrants and not on genuine asylum seekers. That is simply not within the realm of administrative possibility. On Second Reading, the Minister said:

    "It is not motivated--to answer the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell--by the desire to make everything more unpleasant".--[Official Report, 29/6/99; col. 249.]

I very warmly welcomed that assurance. However, I oppose the clause standing part of the Bill.

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6 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: I believe that the noble Earl wanted me to put myself in the sub-category of either opportunist or sadist; optimist or sadist. I hope that that was not a Freudian slip!

I believe that we are trying to be humanitarian and realistic. I do not believe that I can expand on the policy difference here. Our intention is to take asylum seekers from the mainstream welfare system and put them under the new arrangements of the support. Clause 107, by way of insertion after the reference to the National Assistance Act 1948, states:

    "A person subject to immigration control ... may not be provided with residential accommodation ... if his need for care and attention has arisen solely because he is destitute".

As I have already explained, our intention is to provide an intact scheme for those in that category, separate from the mainstream welfare system, in what I believe is a more responsive and sensitive way. I believe that it is a prudent way and one which will be more effective.

At the moment, local authorities accommodate over 15,000 asylum seekers under the 1948 provisions. I do not believe that anyone who has looked at this matter with any care could dispute that there is an intolerable strain on a small number of social services departments. That is not fair to them, it is not fair to the local communities, and it is not fair to those who are in the position of having to rely on this small number. I repeat that in future they will be relieved of the burden and asylum seekers, defined by Part VI, will be able to apply for support under the new scheme.

All destitution needs will be met by the new scheme by virtue of Clause 85. One does not have to meet destitution needs under Section 21 of the 1948 Act. I am aware that the noble Earl has said that he is alarmed. However, I do not see any cause for alarm. If the matter is put to the Committee, I would urge such of your Lordships who have followed the earlier arguments in some detail not to agree with the noble Earl's proposition.

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