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Earl Russell: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham, whom I am happy to see in her place, suggested during our debates on single parent benefits at the beginning of this Parliament that some of the gravest hardships facing people on benefit fell on those who had been a long time on benefit. She has since repeated that suggestion a little more definitely. It is the sort of thing about which she is often right. I take that suggestion extremely seriously. It is that principle which underlies the thinking behind this amendment.

The thinking behind Amendment No. 118 is that a system which puts people below benefit levels is only excusable, if at all, on the assumption which the Home Office has consistently made; that is, that it is to apply only for a short time. It is certainly a thoroughly plausible view and one I am strongly inclined to share.

This is an extremely moderate amendment. It does not challenge the introduction of the Home Office system. It simply puts a “condition precedent"--as the draftsman put it--on its commencement. That condition precedent is that the Home Office should have achieved an objective which it actually set itself.

I pass over altogether the argument of whether it is proper to use the system of support to deter asylum applications to this country. In saying that, I feel I am entitled, like Clive, to,

I pass over altogether the debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Manchester, with which the noble Baroness is quite familiar in relation to the adequacy of benefit levels and therefore a fortiori the adequacy of support below benefit levels. I pass over all the arguments about vouchers. Whenever such things have been introduced they have rapidly produced a discounted, second-hand market in

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which some remarkable things have happened. I pass over altogether the problem of supply in kind. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, may remember the point I made on the initial Statement last year; that when food drops were first offered to Bosnian Muslims, they were 30 per cent pork. We see in other contexts that where provision is made in kind, the actual amount of provision is diminished because some of it is unacceptable to some of the people who receive it. I pass over also an argument of costs such that we have had to get assurances that local authorities operating this system will be exempt from the provisions of best value legislation.

We are concerned only with the reality of the Home Office's justification: that this scheme will be in force for a short time for each applicant. I rely on the Home Office's White Paper which is the background to this Bill, paragraph 8.18. Having justified the claim that there ought to be a separate system of support for asylum seekers, the White Paper then states:

    “The corollary of this is that asylum applications must be resolved much more quickly than at present, so that those who can establish an entitlement to remain in the United Kingdom are promptly distinguished from those who cannot".

I agree with the Home Office on that. When the Home Office meets its own target, which I do not believe is imminent, this amendment would allow the scheme to go forward.

I remember reading--I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, has read it also--the testimony of Sir Michael Partridge to the Public Accounts Committee on the CSA. Sir Michael said that one thing that must never happen again was to have at one and the same time a major new piece of legislation, a major administrative reorganisation and a major new computer system. I pass over whether the Home Office computer is exactly new, but it is certainly having as many teething problems as if it were. Sir Michael's reservations apply strongly to this system of support. Under the interim system, the Home Office is proposing to introduce something close to that system no more than a month from now. Introducing a system which is even now being amended fills me with misgivings. We think of the CSA and the poll tax; we do not want to be there again.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Swinfen: My Lords, attached to this group of amendments is my Amendment No. 183, which is designed to ensure that disabled asylum seekers have a right to special support for which they qualify because of their disability.

Clause 111, as currently drafted, means that no one who is subject to immigration control will be entitled to a range of income maintenance and extra cost benefits, including disability benefits. This amendment would ensure that severe disablement allowance--a meagre income replacement benefit available to those who are defined as 80 per cent disabled; disability living allowance which is an extra cost allowance for those with significant care or mobility needs; attendance allowance which provides

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for the care needs for those aged 65 and over, and the disabled person's tax credit, would be available to those subject to immigration control who meet the criteria for those benefits in terms of their disability.

Regulations have debarred asylum seekers and their families from claiming disability benefits since the changes to the benefit rules in February 1996, except for a small number who remain entitled because of transitional provisions. It is the view of disability organisations, and indeed my own view, that people with special and additional needs due to disability should have access to those special benefits in recognition of the extra costs that they face. The standard rate of support envisaged by the special support scheme for asylum seekers does not meet the needs of disabled adults and children. The simplest way for the Government to give asylum seekers that additional help is to restore to them the right to claim those benefits if they satisfy the medical tests. If the application for asylum fails, the entitlement to benefit will cease unless the asylum seeker appeals against the refusal of asylum status. Then the right to the benefit will continue until there is a final decision on the claim for asylum.

Although there do not seem to be official figures on the number of asylum seekers or refugees who are disabled, disability organisations' experience supports the view that the incidence of disability and ill health is much higher for this group than for the population in general. For some, direct experience of oppression, imprisonment, ill treatment, beatings or torture results in disability. For example, beatings around the head can cause permanent damage to the inner ear and loss of hearing. Rape and other forms of sexual abuse often result in permanent damage and recurring health problems. For others, disability results from untreated wounds or malnutrition experienced when fleeing persecution or war. The loss of limbs as a result of land-mines is a major cause of disablement in some parts of the world which are, or have been, experiencing warfare. Those asylum seekers with existing conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or haemophilia will have had them exacerbated by stress and the inability to obtain regular and safe medical care or treatment. It is extremely common among asylum seekers for a physically disabling condition to be accompanied by mental health problems.

As the House will know, there is an accepted body of research which substantiates the fact that disabled people face extra costs as a direct consequence of their disability. That is accepted by the Government and is reflected in the social security system through the provision of extra cost disability benefits, such as disability living allowance and attendance allowance. There is also some limited recognition--in the form of disability premiums and disabled child premium for income support within means-tested benefits--that extra financial help is necessary for those families with a disabled member.

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The Lord Bishop of Lichfield: My Lords, I should like to press this point in relation to children. I work closely with the Children's Society in this matter. We are very concerned about the plight of families with young children whose circumstances are so grave that they can conceive of no other solution than to uproot themselves and flee. I am not clear what the position is as regards under 18 year-olds. Perhaps I may put it as a question. Can the Government assure us that asylum-seeking families with young children will not be provided for under these new interim arrangements but will continue to receive support under current arrangements until we know that the targets will be met for determining asylum claims?

Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, Amendment No. 184, which falls to be spoken to in this grouping, has been tabled in my name. I shall preface my remarks by harking back to the debate in which I took part on Monday evening. At that time, I pleaded the case strongly for special consideration to be given to women who, as well as having many other sadnesses as regards their circumstances, also allege that they have been raped. The case that I made was brought to my attention by the Black Women's Rape Action Project and Women Against Rape, which operate out of Crossroads Women's Centre in Kentish Road.

I took great heart and comfort from the manner in which it was explained to me that the burden of their complaint is that rape, which amounts to persecution, had been insufficiently taken into account as regards the circumstances of women in that class. I am very grateful indeed because I felt that there was some sensitivity in the reply of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer on Monday night and an indication that the issue is well understood.

My amendment seeks to exclude asylum seekers from a number of categories set out in Clause 111. It says:

    “Subsection (1)(a) to (k) of this section shall not apply to an asylum seeker where there is evidence of persecution or torture...including rape or other sexual violence, who shall be paid income support at the urgent cases rate as prescribed".

The case has been made from different points of view, but it is all the same. The purpose of the amendment is to restore cash benefits to asylum seekers where there is evidence of persecution and/or torture, including rape or other sexual violence. Again, I refer to my noble and learned friend's words on Monday night from which I detected that this was accepted as persecution.

I believe that it is urgent to ensure that the same standard of treatment is applied to victims of rape and other torture seeking asylum as rape victims in Britain. This includes access to cash benefits, reverting to the situation that existed prior to 1996.

The voucher system administered not by the DSS but by the Home Office would stigmatise women and their children. This system forces women and children to live on inadequate and inappropriate food, seriously undermining their health, which is likely to have been significantly damaged by the torture from which they have fled. It will impose hardship and

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inestimable stress and anxiety on mothers who will have no cash for essential items such as nappies, medicines, and so on. It is also urgent to restore access to healthcare and social services to victims at a time when they need it most, as they are traumatised by rape and other torture as well as recovering from physical injuries or illness.

I believe that the case stands on the words that I have used. I am sure that noble Lords are not short of human feelings and that they recognise the dreadful situation of women who find themselves in such circumstances. I am also well aware that the Government do not have a bottomless purse and that they have to set priorities and make judgments--indeed, harsh judgments at times. However, the case I have made on behalf of these unfortunate women merits the most sympathetic and, I hope, generous response.

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