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The Lord Bishop of Southwark moved Amendment No. 40:

Page 64, line 24, leave out subsection (12).

The right reverend Prelate said: My Lords, it was good to learn of the extra resources that the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General announced will be made available towards the end of the support scheme. Amendments Nos. 40 and 78 refer to the other end of the support scheme and have the effect of removing from the Bill Schedule 8 which provides for interim arrangements from the passage of the Bill until the main support scheme takes effect.

Because your Lordships' House supported Amendment No. 118 tabled on Report, which made Clause 92 part of the Bill, interim arrangements have already been provided by giving asylum seekers access to the full benefits system. Strictly speaking, therefore, Schedule 8 is redundant and should be removed. I realise, however, that your Lordships need to consider every eventuality and speculating, unlikely though it might be, that Clause 92 could be amended or even removed in the other place, it could be argued that other interim arrangements need to be in place. Perhaps, but not the interim arrangements spelt out in Schedule 8--for surely a mistake has been made.

The interim arrangements in Schedule 8 are designed to mirror the eventual support package, as the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General made clear at Report stage. The interim arrangements will be managed by the local authorities but within the parameters and boundaries as specified by the Government along the lines of the eventual support package. It has been made clear, not least by the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General in Committee, that these support arrangements are designed only to last for a few months. Yet the interim arrangements are precisely similar and so the time asylum seekers are on interim arrangements has to be added to the time they might be on the support arrangements. We are getting into years, not months.

It could be argued--I am sure that it will be--that anything, even the proposed interim arrangements, would be better than the present system. The interim arrangements are not better for one important group--families with children. At present, families with children who seek asylum at a port of entry

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qualify for virtually the total sum of benefits available for a citizen of the UK. If they do not seek asylum at the port of entry but later, the local social services department provides support under Section 17 of the Children Act and in most cases cash support is given to the level of income support. In all cases children at present fall under the full protection of the Children Act. Under the proposed interim arrangements in Schedule 8, all this falls away.

In Committee the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General gave this assurance:

    "I repeat what I said earlier this evening: we have listened carefully to the concerns about children. I said quite plainly earlier tonight that we have now indicated that children under the age of 18 will have a support level set at a level equivalent to income support personal allowances".--[Official Report, 21/7/99; col. 1122.]

What is proposed provides support perhaps equivalent to income support but it is provided mostly in vouchers and not cash and the protection of the Children Act is removed under the interim arrangements. The families are certainly worse off than at present.

I must confess to feeling a little let down by the proposed arrangements. I thought that the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General--again at the Committee stage--had indicated something a little different. He said:

    "I repeat what my right honourable friend Jack Straw said on Report in the other place. He confirmed that asylum seeker families with minor children would not be taken into the new support system at 1st April 2000 unless he was satisfied that the target of two months for a decision time in those cases could be achieved".--[Official Report, 21/7/99; col. 1097.]

Strictly by the letter, the Government are honouring that pledge. Families are not being brought into the support system yet. But under the interim arrangements they are being brought into a mirror image of the support scheme. It is as though the letter of the pledge is being honoured but not the spirit.

Indeed, on Report in the other place the Home Secretary went a little further than the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General has suggested. He said:

    "I also give the subsidiary but very important undertaking that, if we cannot achieve those targets for families with children, and if I am not satisfied that they can be achieved, we will not introduce those applications into the new support arrangements in April 2000. The existing arrangements will continue until we are so satisfied".--[Official Report, Commons, 16/6/99; col. 475.]

Perhaps I may repeat that last sentence:

    "The existing arrangements will continue until we are so satisfied".

But the existing arrangements are not continuing. Schedule 8 introduces another set of arrangements which I believe disadvantage children. Has the Home Secretary changed his mind? Have I missed a subtle political interpretation of what seems to be a clear promise regarding keeping families under the existing arrangements until time targets are met? Or has a mistake been made? I prefer to think the latter. For that reason, I believe that the proposed interim

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arrangements should be removed so that families can continue to have the full support that they need. Accordingly, I beg to move.

Lord Warner: My Lords, I rise to express concern about Amendments Nos. 40 and 78. We know that the Government have inherited a chaotic system of support for asylum seekers. We also heard earlier today from my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General of the surge in new asylum seekers coming into this country. The present rate is about 7,000 a month. The Home Secretary has already entered into discussions with local authorities in an attempt to reduce the pressure on authorities in London and the south east. Those arrangements are taking place largely on a basis of voluntary negotiation.

I suggest that Schedule 8 enables the Home Secretary to put on a firmer statutory basis many of the accommodation changes involving dispersal that have already been discussed in this House. My concern is that, if we vote to remove Schedule 8, we shall hold back the whole policy of dispersal from London and the south east. The effect of that would be to put continuing pressure on the London boroughs and on Kent County Council.

As I understand it, the effect of the amendment would be to introduce a set of arrangements whereby the interests of asylum seekers would not be best served; nor would the interests of hard-pressed local authorities and their home populations in London and the south east. Another concern is whether we should end up spending more money from the public purse on keeping asylum seekers in very high-cost accommodation areas in London and the south east when there is perfectly satisfactory, lower-cost accommodation elsewhere. The amendment would also make it more difficult to settle asylum seekers in areas where there are already communities from the countries from which they come.

I hope that we shall not enter into another set of changes that we have not thought through--as happened in regard to Amendment No. 118 which was passed by this House last week. It turned out that the price tag for that amendment was about £500 million. We need some assurances from the Government as to the cost of this change. We also need to know whether it would, as I suspect, hold back the application and implementation of the policy of dispersal.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, it would be helpful if the noble and learned Lord could assist us by putting us in the picture. There are a large number of uncertainties and anomalies in the area that we are now examining.

In the light of what has just been said, I understand that the Local Government Association suggests that the interim arrangements would be difficult to introduce and that it would prefer to go straight to the April 2000 new system without going through the interim arrangements on the way. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord can say something about that. As my

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noble friend said earlier, local authorities believe that, as matters stand, they are short of the money that they need to operate the interim system.

I believe that what drove noble Lords to support Amendment No. 118, which was accepted by this House, was their view that it would be helpful to hold the Home Office to the then six-month target effectively to guarantee that families with children would move from one system to another; that is, that until their cases were dealt with they would be able to continue under the existing support arrangements. Since the pledge quoted by the right reverend Prelate was given by the Home Secretary in the other place, we are no longer certain about the position of families as distinct from other asylum seekers. The noble and learned Lord may be able to shed some light on that. On the face of it, the interim arrangements look less good than the existing support system. That concerns many of us. We understood that the Home Secretary was prepared to treat families rather differently from other asylum seekers.

We do not want to make difficulties for the Government. We are grateful for the steps that they have taken. However, it would be of immense help if the noble and learned Lord could refer back to the words of the Home Secretary in the other place in June of this year. What is the exact position with regard to children during the interim period? Can he assure the right reverend Prelate and other noble Lords that provision under the interim support arrangements will be as good as under the existing system? If not, can he confirm that families will not be brought within those arrangements and that other asylum seekers may be?

9.45 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, I had not intended to intervene on this group of amendments, particularly having heard the right reverend Prelate who put the position extremely clearly. I rise only to refute the suggestion made in passing by the noble Lord, Lord Warner, that the cost of Amendment No. 118 (which was made to Clause 92 at Report stage) might be of a very large order. That estimate depends on wild guesses and highly dubious assumptions. I do not accept it for a moment.

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