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Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I remind your Lordships of the amendments in this group which comprises Amendments Nos. 118, 149, 150, 151, 183 and 184. As has been observed by more than one of your Lordships who have spoken, these are topics that we have discussed on past occasions in Committee.

I start with Amendment No. 118. I have to say that the tone of what has been said in respect of all these amendments is one that I recognise as being entirely based on legitimate motives. However, I suggest to your Lordships that some of the fears are misplaced when one considers the problem a little more closely. The whole point of the new system is to provide for asylum seekers to be supported separately from the main social security system. The point made by my noble friend Lord Warner is a valid one. Some people claim asylum for financial reasons. I shall deal with that matter briefly. I am not being harsh and dismissive. We do not have an open door policy in this country. I do not believe that the majority of people in this country would support such a policy. I know I am repeating what I said on previous occasions, but if we do not have an open door policy for those who are motivated by economic reasons, then we must have a strategy to deal with those who come here for reasons which our political policy does not accept.

I repeat, if I lived in poor conditions in an eastern European country and I had young children, I would want to travel to this country, to Canada or to the United States. I do not despise that motive; I hope I fully understand it. However, while we understand and respect those motives, it is not government policy to accept them. It is not sensibly in prospect that any government would have a policy whereby we deal with economic migrants in the same way as we deal with those who are eventually demonstrated to be genuine asylum seekers. I hope that that does not sound harsh--it is not intended to be--but it is the essential underpinning of government policy. I repeat, I do not believe that any prospective government of any political colour is likely to alter that policy. We are not

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living in the age when the United States, for instance, throughout a great part of the 19th century, was able to say,

    “Give me ... your huddled masses yearning to breathe free".

That is not the situation in which we find ourselves or are ever likely to find ourselves.

Going on from that matter, if there is a cash-only system, an economic pull is thereby generated. I am not saying that is discreditable; it is a necessary incident of the human condition that if one thinks one can do better elsewhere--economically, financially and in prospects for one's family--one is likely to think about doing so.

Part of the point of the voucher system is to provide a viable alternative to cash benefits; it will allow asylum seekers who turn out to be genuine to support themselves properly, without economic migrants being able to make unreasonable gains from the system. I do not think I can define our policy more plainly. I recognise that others in the House may have a different view. It is from that basis of policy that we derive the present structure of the Bill and our entire approach.

I repeat what I have said so many times to your Lordships, our intention in doing this is to ensure that asylum seekers are supported in this way for a short period of time only. I have given assurances to your Lordships and the Home Secretary has given assurances absolutely unambiguously in the Commons. He has undertaken that the new support arrangements will be based on bringing down the length of time it takes to resolve an initial application in asylum cases to two months, and for the resolution of any appeal a further four months. The noble Countess is right--we have to speed matters up. That is one of the central purposes of the Bill. I am informed that the Immigration and Nationality Directorate is well on the way to achieving that target.

I am not sure that all of your Lordships will remember that Mr Straw has given a further undertaking that, if the two-month target is not met, families with children, who are often the most vulnerable--I agree with the right reverend Prelate--would not be brought into the new support arrangements until the target is being achieved.

I understand the point of Amendment No. 118 but it is not practicable. There will certainly be a lead time to setting up new arrangements or to continuing with the existing ones. We cannot delay the decision--which is long overdue--until the day before the new arrangements are due to take effect. My quarrel with Amendment No. 118 is that it is unduly rigid and restrictive.

In any event, I do not accept the implied proposition that the new support arrangements will be any less satisfactory for the genuine asylum seekers and their families than the present piecemeal ad hoc support arrangements that have grown up, even if the

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occasional circumstance may arise where asylum seekers are constrained to remain within the support system for rather longer than six months.

Perhaps I may advert to what my noble friend Lord Warner said. The genuine asylum seeker, by definition, requires decent treatment. Our system proposes all-found accommodation, free; with pots and pans, linen and so forth provided; with utilities provided at public expense; with a voucher provision, made for the reasons I have indicated; and a cash payment of £10 on top. I am not pretending--none of my colleagues ever has--that that will enable anyone to live a life of luxury. However, taking a decent, fair view of all the interests involved, I suggest that it is not unreasonable to provide such a system for a relatively short period of time. If some of your Lordships disagree with that, I respect the disagreement but we shall have to part company in our policy approach.

We are trying to achieve a systematic structure which deals with people who are in serious difficulties on a proper, efficient basis. No government so far has succeeded. The noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, has been scrupulous on these occasions not to make any party political points. Nor shall I. No one has managed to deal appropriately with these difficulties. The noble Lord was generous enough to say that he welcomed the general approach behind the Bill.

Again I have to put a matter plainly; I hope it is not regarded as harsh. One way of making the system more prompt and effective is to reduce the flow of unmerited applications. One way of doing that is to mitigate, if not to remove entirely, the pull factor of cash benefits and unrestricted choice of residence. I do not think that I can illustrate our approach more clearly. If we disagree, we disagree.

Turning to Amendments Nos. 149 and 150, it is a fundamental principle of the Bill that support for asylum seekers should no longer be available in the form of cash for the reasons I have set out. We have found that after the Immigration and Asylum Act 1996, when those who did not claim asylum at port of entry became ineligible for benefits, there was a fall in the numbers claiming asylum after they had arrived in the United Kingdom.

Amendment No. 149 may be technically defective. That is not my argument; I am simply indicating that the amendment is defective in the drafting, probably because there is a word or two missing. I am trying to be helpful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton. If he wants to come back with the amendment he will be able to say “I have cured the deficiency". However, that is not my point. My point is that we differ in the fundamental approach.

We wish to honour our international obligations. We are obliged to provide a safe haven for those with a well-founded fear of persecution. Equally, we are not minded to continue a system which provides for those who seek to, or do, enter the United Kingdom simply for economic advantage. I repeat, we believe that essentially these needs can be properly met by the provision I indicated.

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I turn now to the Amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, Amendment No. 151. He has not spoken to his amendment, but it may be helpful if I deal with it at this stage. I am perfectly happy not to if the noble Lord does not wish me to do so.

Under the new arrangements, vouchers will be issued to the main applicant, who will usually be the person who has claimed asylum, and not a dependant or other nominated person. That will ensure the secure and efficient delivery of the vouchers to those in need. It is important where there are children that the responsible adult is required to receive a substantial number of vouchers. I do recognise that there may be exceptional circumstances--which may be what the noble Lord had in mind because he referred to this earlier--where the main applicant may be unable to collect or use the vouchers. In such cases we shall make arrangements for the main applicant to have his voucher allocation issued to another family member or nominated person.

I cannot accept Amendment No. 183, but I hope that my explanation will be sufficient to satisfy noble Lords, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, who spoke to that amendment. I accept that suffering a physical challenge may bring special needs. There is nothing between us on that. We have taken the power to make provision in the regulations on the circumstances in which support may be expected at levels other than that which is provided as a general rule. I refer to paragraph 3(b) of the new schedule to be introduced by Amendment No. 124. That will ensure that appropriate support can be given to asylum seekers with such needs, and to their families.

Where an asylum seeker or his dependants have special needs that require additional support, that will also be taken into account in the assessment of accommodation and essential living needs. It is possible that that could result in a higher level of spending power being made available in particular circumstances. We would certainly want to reflect the particular needs of a disabled person in deciding, for example, what kind of accommodation should be provided. The most obvious example would be the provision of level access for wheelchair users, but one needs to be flexible. Asylum seekers with disabilities would also be able to look to local authorities for assistance under the appropriate social services legislation. I reiterate what was said by my noble friend Lord Warner. There is, of course, an entitlement to use the general facilities of the National Health Service.

The amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton, Amendment No. 184, is the last with which I need to deal. His amendment addresses those cases where there is evidence of persecution or torture or both. Those would be tests that give an entitlement to social security benefits rather than support under Part VI. It is inherent in seeking asylum that one is alleging persecution or a well-founded fear of it. I would suggest that that is a claim properly to be assessed by the Immigration and Nationality Directorate rather than the Benefits Agency. For that reason, I cannot accept the

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amendment, but I should like to give such comfort as I may to those who are troubled by the same concerns so well articulated by my noble friend a moment ago.

We recognise that there will be a number of asylum seekers who have particular problems as a result of past torture. Perhaps I may refer to the helpful conversations I have had with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and remind noble Lords of our discussions in Committee when I believe that I was able to meet their concerns quite significantly, if not absolutely entirely. We are continuing to consider these matters. I repeat my earlier tribute to the work of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. We are still in active discussion with the foundation. Our conversations with the noble Lords I have mentioned have not stopped with the announcement I was able to make in Committee. We are having talks with the foundation about how to ensure that the new support arrangements can ensure that clients are able to continue to have access to their services.

I did take on board the further points made by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord about location near to specialist services. Part of that was met by my comments on expenses for travel. That may not be the full answer, and in a certain limited number of cases it may well be necessary to locate those who have suffered in this way close to the main sources of treatment. However, I should say immediately that that would run counter to our overall philosophy of moving asylum seekers away from London and the south-east. However, in a certain number of cases we shall be giving consideration to that, in conjunction with the foundation.

I realise that I have spoken for a long time, but I have done so in the main to honour all the concerns that have been expressed. I believe that we have provided a proper system. Perhaps I may turn to one or two specific questions which I shall deal with quickly, but if I should omit any points, I shall send detailed letters and, as I have always done, I shall place copies in the Library so that all noble Lords may have the benefit of reading them.

The noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, asked about staff in relation to the voucher system. The figure of 300 new staff does not cover simply the voucher system, but is to run the asylum support system as a whole. Further, we have more than 200 new caseworkers to consider asylum claims. Over the next three years--I revert to the point made by the noble Countess--we shall be investing £120 million to speed up the system.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, asked me about items such as stationery. That will be covered by the level of spending power available through the vouchers. It is no different from that with which an asylum seeker presently drawing social security has to contend.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, asked me about cash exchanges for vouchers. That is not currently planned. As I said in Committee, we are looking at the possibility of the redemption of vouchers in charity shops, and of course the fact is that £10 per head shall be made available.

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Questions were asked about the voucher system itself, its profit levels and so forth. Those details will become clear only when the tendering exercise presently being conducted has been completed.

The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, asked about facilities for HIV and AIDS victims. There is undoubtedly a problem there and we are not in disagreement on that. We are actively considering the issue, and I am grateful for her reminder. We are considering it in collaboration with the Department of Health and the voluntary sector, which has such an important part to play. Those sufferers will undoubtedly need special provision, and we are putting our minds to that.

I hope that the explanations I have given have done justice to the concerns expressed, even if I have not managed to persuade all of your Lordships of the virtue of the course we have adopted.

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