Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, perhaps the House will forgive me if I first make one or two

10 Nov 1999 : Column 1383

general points before focusing on the Bill. I believe that your Lordships' House has done itself credit in seeking to lift the debate about asylum seekers above the sometimes mean-spirited and often hostile attitudes whipped up by some sources outside the House.

Noble Lords have tried in a compassionate, yet realistic, way to ensure that the claims of people seeking asylum on these shores are not prejudiced, but are considered fairly and that, while their claims are being considered, their needs are met in a humane way. Although several of the practical proposals put forward by noble Lords and actively supported from this Bench have been accepted by the Government, for which we are grateful, sadly, many have not.

We have been given assurances that special care will be taken to assure the welfare of children as well as of adults who may be particularly vulnerable. Time will tell whether those assurances will prove to be adequate. As the Bill's implementation will begin as early as 6th December, the test of its justice will not be long in coming. Meanwhile, the most useful comment I can make is to signal to the Government a few of the areas in which I am informed that church groups working with asylum seekers have major worries.

First, there is utter disbelief that the Government's targets of processing initial applications within two months and appeals within six months can possibly be met for the foreseeable future. The far from generous provisions of the Bill, both those relating to accommodation and those relating to the level of cash and vouchers, have been justified to us again and again by Ministers on the basis that people will be affected by them only for a short period of time. For tens of thousands of people that justification simply will not stand. I am aware that the Government have conceded that in cases unresolved after six months, claimants will be given a £50 grant for replacement of basic necessities, but most people will see that as little more than a token.

Secondly, there is concern that even the inadequate assistance offered by the Bill will not extend to large numbers of asylum seekers. That is likely for various reasons. For some asylum seekers, the prospect of being shipped out with no regard for their own wishes to other parts of the UK where there may be high unemployment, poor housing, lack of educational and legal support, and, conceivably, resentment and outright abuse from local residents, may be so alarming that they may choose to stay in areas where they have friends or relatives, even if that means forgoing their entitlement to any state support.

Other asylum seekers whose perceived legitimate claims have been refused at an earlier stage will be told that the price of their wish to seek judicial review will be the loss of entitlement to state support. The only provision made for people in such situations by the Bill is the possibility of applying for charitable aid in so-called "hard cases". However, that approach has proved so distasteful that many of the most respectable voluntary organisations working with refugees have made it clear that they do not want to be part of any such system.

10 Nov 1999 : Column 1384

That issue brings me to my third point. Given the number of asylum seekers who will simply not qualify for assistance under the new system and the inadequacy of the assistance available to those who do, it is inevitable that more and more asylum seekers, even in London, will be turning to voluntary agencies, including churches, for material, emotional and spiritual help simply to survive.

Many fine words have been said during the course of these debates about the invaluable contribution of the voluntary sector and the faith communities. However, unless realistic account is taken of what they are not able to do, unless their role is properly evaluated, and unless they are provided with much more secure and adequate funding than they currently enjoy, their good will will simply be exploited, and asylum seekers will be given shabby services. I refer not so much to the larger well-known refugee organisations which are quite skilled in negotiating with governments and other funding bodies, but to local community groups, particularly churches, which quite literally currently provide a lifeline for thousands of asylum seekers. I cannot believe that your Lordships--or, indeed, the Government--would want to countenance, much less encourage, such an abuse of so valuable a resource as the care and the commitment of those small local initiatives.

I am grateful to those who have spoken in support of my Motion during this short debate. I am grateful also to the Minister for his kind words. We shall, of course, have to examine carefully what he has told us this afternoon, but I am afraid that we have not heard any further assurances, and, if anything, I am rather more anxious about the interim arrangements than I was at the beginning of our short debate.

The request of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, that the Minister's pledges should be embodied in the regulations so that they have the force of law seems to me to be reasonable. We have not been given such an assurance, but we have been promised consultation on those regulations. We are all of a mind that the care of children, whether of British nationals or of asylum seekers, must be of supreme concern. I should like to have seen further assurances on the face of the Bill, but I accept that we have taken this matter as far as is practicably possible in your Lordships' House. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion 135B.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 135 to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason No. 135A.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 135 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 135A--(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

10 Nov 1999 : Column 1385


139Clause 86, page 56, line 32, at end insert--
("( ) to enable dependants of the asylum-seeker to attend bail proceedings in connection with his detention under any provision of the immigration Acts; or
( ) to enable the asylum-seeker and his dependants to attend bail proceedings in connection with the detention of a dependant of his under any such provision.")

The Commons agreed to this amendment and proposed the following amendment thereto--
139ALine 2, leave out ("dependants of the asylum-seeker) and insert ("the asylum-seeker and his dependants")

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 139A to Lords' Amendment No. 139.

Amendment No. 139, which was made in this House, provides for the Secretary of State to meet costs incurred by the asylum seeker's dependants to allow them to attend the asylum seeker's bail hearing in the event that the asylum seeker was detained under the Immigration Acts. The reason is that, if bail was granted, the asylum seeker and his dependants would be ordered to move directly to the dispersal accommodation on release. Therefore, we wish the dependants to be able to be present at the bail hearing, so that they may travel as a group to the accommodation provided by the asylum support directorate.

Amendment No. 139A modifies Amendment No. 139 so that we can pay the expenses of an asylum seeker travelling to attend his own bail hearing. Clearly, a detainee will be taken to his bail hearing from the detention centre by the private company contracted to provide escort services for that purpose. However, it is true that the Bill allows for a person granted bail to apply to the court to have the conditions attached to the grant of bail to be varied, or for the Secretary of State to make such an application. In such cases, I should hope that the application might be decided on the papers. But we accept that there could be occasions, albeit rare, where an asylum seeker already on bail needs to attend a further hearing; for example, if the court requires attendance to discuss an application to vary the conditions of bail.

We should not want an asylum seeker's attendance to be compromised by our relocating him away from the place of the hearing. On that basis, the Government accept that Commons Amendment No. 139A is justified. I beg to move.

Moved, that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 139A to Lords Amendment No. 139.--(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, on the basis that if one cannot have a loaf of bread, a crust is better than nothing, I thank the Minister for his acceptance of this amendment. It is an important amendment in its own way because, as he rightly said, it means that an asylum seeker out on bail who had to

10 Nov 1999 : Column 1386

attend a hearing subsequently would be able to do so. In the light of our pressure throughout the debates for a presumption in favour of bail, we should like to thank the Minister and the Government for conceding this amendment.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, I also support the amendment and the acceptance of the Commons amendment to it. I wish to draw attention to the fact that 367 Lords amendments have been accepted by the Commons, but this one is even now, at this late stage of the Bill, having to be amended. One or two other amendments proposed from this Bench were also accepted by the Commons. This Bill has been so altered as to be in many respects almost a different Bill from the one which started life some months ago. I read recently of a boast in another place that more Bills were being published in draft as a result of the so-called modernisation proposals. However, this Bill was not just published in draft; it arrived from the Commons at the Lords in draft and has since been heavily amended. That is not a good way in which to legislate.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page