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Lord Renton: My Lords, the difficulty that arises in regard to Clause 90, and is brought to a head in subsection (2), is that an important matter is left in a state of uncertainty. We should have to wait until the circumstances had been prescribed.
An issue of this kind affects the future of an asylum seeker, the merits of the matter, and the public purse. It would have been better had the Government found some way of indicating what circumstances they have in mind in the Bill. I do not know whether it is too late for anything to be done along those lines, but it would certainly help.
Lord Ackner: My Lords, I have added my name to this amendment largely because I do know the Government's answer to the recommendation of the Select Committee on delegated powers. The committee's comments are strongly worded and require an answer. For the present, no such answer appears to have been provided.
Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, my Amendment No. 121 is in this group. The burden of the amendment is to ask the Government to clarify and, I hope, sympathise with the point that I make. It relates to the virtual ghettoisation, under the terms of the subsection which I seek to delete, of people entering this country. The subsection relates to the provision for support and deals with the accommodation that such people may be offered. The lines that I seek to delete refer to the location of that accommodation, the fact that it is temporary, and the fact that the persons concerned have no enforceable right to occupy the accommodation. Under the provisions of this part of the Bill, asylum seekers would be forced to live in areas designated by the Home Office--in my view explicitly disregarding family, friends, church and other support networks, upon which women with children depend in particular.
The matter is urgent. Many asylum seekers are severely traumatised as a result of their experience. Further isolation, and even the hostility of those around them, compound their suffering. It is vital for rape victims to have access to the support of communities, and to agencies which have particular expertise and resources, as well as to expert legal advice and specialist medical and other services, which are often not available outside London. Asylum seekers who had already been the victims of a lack of legal advice, or bad legal representation, would be further penalised. The Home office has raised corrupt, negligent legal representation as one of the justifications for the Bill, but there is a refusal to take that factor into account when deciding on asylum claims. Again, that would punish the victim.
I do not say that there is an easy solution. I simply ask the Minister and his advisers to bear in mind and understand the situation. It can be readily understood that people who can begin to justify their case that they are the victims of persecution and rape are desperately in need of communication and social intercourse with those who are either from their former country or share a common situation. Subsection (6) is
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I am a member of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Deregulation. I cannot speak on behalf of the committee, which speaks through its published reports and not otherwise. Speaking for myself, I regard subsection (2) of Clause 90 as an extraordinary provision. Subsection (1) of the clause gives the Home Secretary power, appropriately, to provide special arrangements for asylum seekers who are destitute or are likely to become so. But subsection (2) simply goes on, without any explanation, to state that a person who would otherwise fall within subsection (1) is excluded in prescribed circumstances.
We do not know what those circumstances are. It may be that there are some circumstances in which that approach would be justified. But in the vast majority of foreseeable circumstances it would not be justified to take away the last barrier between a person who has entered this country and destitution. It seems clear that, if this subsection is to remain in the Bill, it should do so only on the basis that the circumstances are clearly spelt out in which the power to avoid destitution can be removed.
I take the points which were so moderately made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, the noble Lord, Lord Renton, and latterly the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. I believe that they are entitled to the explanation which they so courteously requested.
As we know, Part VI offers the proposition that asylum seekers who are destitute--I take up the phrase of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart--may be supported under Part VI. The reason we have subsection (2) is that there are many situations where asylum seekers already have access to other forms of support. Therefore they do not need to be within the Part VI support system. For example, in April 2000, when the Secretary of State's new support arrangements come into being, some people who applied for asylum at the port of entry will be entitled to social security benefits. Others will be supported by local authorities under the interim arrangements in Schedule 8. We do not therefore intend to bring all those into the new support system all at once at the beginning of April 2000. It would be unrealistic to contemplate it. The power in Clause 90(2) is therefore included in part to deal with those circumstances, but there are others.
Some asylum seekers are nationals of countries which are signatories to the European Convention on Social and Medical Assistance or the European Social Charter. Asylum seekers who are nationals of those countries will, by virtue of provisions in the
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, they might well be destitute or likely to become destitute if they did not take up their entitlements in the way that I have described. We want the power to say: These are alternative entitlements which you must look to".
To develop the question asked, there may be other circumstances. We are considering with some care how we deal with someone who has made himself intentionally destitute. I do not believe anyone would sensibly contend that in those circumstances there ought to be the automatic right to the Part VI support if he makes himself intentionally destitute by spending recklessly whatever money he brings into the country with him. If someone is being supported under Part VI, is it legitimate to consider withdrawal of support, for example, if he wilfully mistreats the property in which he is housed virtually to the point of destruction? We may need to rely on that power, Clause 90(2), and the provisions of paragraph 8 of the new schedule under Amendment No. 124 to make regulations on those matters.
There is no sinister plot being considered or engineered. Those are the kind of circumstances in which we would want the regulations available to be made to deal with them. I say quite unambiguously that we have no intention of using the power arbitrarily to deny--
Lord Ackner: My Lords, can the Minister assist us as to why the categories he mentioned cannot be put on the face of the Bill? For example, a prescribed situation would be where there are reasonable alternative sources of funds. Alternatively, as the noble and learned Lord said, it could be where the destitution had been brought on by the applicant's own unreasonable behaviour. Those are all circumstances which can be identified and prescribed.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, that is right as a blunt point. But I do not believe that restricting ourselves to the circumstances which we envisage at present being on the face of the Bill, in the way the noble and learned Lord suggests, is the correct answer.
We want the regulatory power in order to deal with circumstances which are not arbitrarily denying support to people who have no other means of alleviating their destitution; that is, except possibly in extreme circumstances where there has been real misbehaviour. That is the policy purpose behind Clause 90(2).
I turn to Amendments Nos. 120 and 122. They are drafting amendments to achieve consistency of the regulation-making powers in subsection (5) with those elsewhere where similar formulations are adopted.
Amendments Nos. 121 and 122A have been debated on a number of occasions. They concern the test of the adequacy of the accommodation that an asylum seeker has when he seeks assistance. Amendment No. 122A invites us to delete the matters to which the Secretary of State may have no regard but would leave us with the option of re-introducing any or all of them by regulations under subsection (5)(b). That is counter to the criticism which we have heard on many occasions, including this evening, that we are not setting out enough of our proposed policy on asylum support in primary legislation. We think the principles set out--absence of security of tenure, sharing, the temporary nature of the accommodation and its location--are sufficiently central to the policy that they ought to be set out.
I do not dismiss the concerns raised on Clause 90(2). I wish to reflect on them, though I have to say as my immediate response to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, that we may still want secondary legislation for fine detail. Perhaps I may leave it in this way. The questions that have been raised are legitimate. I wish to consider them with my noble friend Lord Bassam to ascertain whether we can accommodate both our purposes. I can give no guarantee, but we will look at it together.
I was dealing with the later amendments. Asylum support is to be a last rather than a first resort. If there is other accommodation that meets their needs, they should not expect accommodation under the support scheme. For example, if someone is staying with friends or relatives who are willing to accommodate him, that should suffice, though under Clause 90 (6) he would not have a,
The directorate may not take into account the sole fact that accommodation is shared with another household. Shared accommodation may be quite adequate. We would not ignore real or serious overcrowding or the fact that a large number of people were relying on very limited shared sanitary or cooking facilities. Equally, temporary" accommodation can be quite satisfactory for some during the limited period of their asylum claim. I do not say that this is ideal but at the moment homeless families, as citizens of this country, live quite adequately in temporary accommodation under the homelessness legislation for substantial periods of time. They are often longer than the periods that we contemplate here.
Location is not a matter to which regard should necessarily be had. If an asylum seeker has available accommodation provided, for example, by a relative in Birmingham, the fact that he might wish to be accommodated elsewhere is not of itself to be a determining factor in assessing his destitution. We are still considering whether to prescribe other factors under subsection (5)(b), and if we do, similar considerations would apply.
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