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Lord Elton: My Lords, will the noble Lord tell us what children should play with if they do not have toys? Why cannot discretion be given to the officials who are dealing with the case, as it would be if they were applying social security?
Lord Bach: My Lords, as I understand it, there is nothing to stop a charity giving toys. However, the regulations are concerned with essential living expenses. They exclude a large number of items. They exclude books; they exclude toys. It would be surprising if they included toys. I do not claim for a moment that the amount of money that is being given means that there is huge spending power; of course there is not. That is part of the point of the exercise. Claimants have a discretion to buy toys if that is what they want to do. It is not considered to be an essential living need. If noble Lords consider the matter--
Lord Judd: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way. He is giving us an extremely considered reply and I do not want to raise hares. But does he not agree that the tremendous emphasis that he is placing on "living" demeans the word and that, in fact, he is talking about survival expenses?
Lord Bach: My Lords, I do not accept that. I ask my noble friend to remember the point behind the exercise, which is to try and get decisions made in those human cases as soon as possible, but not to encourage people to come to this country when they have no real chance of achieving asylum status.
The Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for responding to the point about toys. He says that there is nothing to stop a charity giving toys. If it did, would that in any way be taken off the benefits, the voucher system, of the people concerned? Would there be any question about the value of the toys exceeding a certain limit?
Lord Bach: My Lords, the answer to the right reverend Prelate is no and no. I do not mean to sound peremptory but the answer is no. Charities can and no doubt will give toys. Members of the public may seek to do that also. I am trying to explain why that is not a special living expense. In my submission, it makes reasonable sense.
Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I apologise to the Minister and thank him for giving way. The Minister probably saw that I had my nose buried in an envelope which contains within it an e-mail which I have just received from the Diocese of Brentwood. It has asked me how far support given by a church or other charity for a refugee family--in this case, a family referred to it by the social services department of the Borough of Brentwood--would be taken into account in relation to levels of support. It has been asked to assist a family with an amputee 13 year-old girl with a new baby on the way. There is a belief and fear that such support may come straight off the support which exists under the ASS.
Lord Bach: My Lords, obviously, I cannot give the noble Baroness an answer about that particular case and I do not seek to do so. Clearly, where there are disabilities and extra difficulties, exceptional circumstances, the scheme is flexible and not as rigid as the regulations seem to have been interpreted by noble Lords this evening. However, I invite the noble Baroness to refer that case immediately to the Home Office and we shall try to get her an answer in a very short period of time.
I take issue with the noble Baroness when she says that the Government made promises during the passage of the Bill which, somehow, they have just thrown away. Her first example was in relation to the two-month period but no more than six months. We are still striving to achieve that. That is not a fair example of the Government going against their word.
The noble Baroness will know that many more people are now employed in the business of trying to make those difficult decisions on individual asylum cases. Each one must be decided individually. That is still the Government's aim. We want a two-month turnround. Of course, we shall not achieve that immediately but I ask the noble Baroness to be patient and moderate with her criticism, as she always is, in relation to that matter.
I need to deal with the issue of access to lawyers because it has been raised by a number of noble Lords and it is important. We are now prepared to fund travel expenses incurred in connection with bail applications and asylum interviews. That provision is in Section 96(1) of the Act. To that limited degree, those travel expenses will be paid. I have limited the degree, but I must add that the Legal Services Commission will fund practitioners to visit clients or hold surgeries in cluster areas. I do not suppose that that meets all the criticisms made, but that will be the position. Noble Lords will know that more firms specialising in that kind of work have been given contracts in the course of the past few weeks. Those that are of the quality to receive contracts have received them. There has been an increase in the remuneration such firms can receive under what used to be called Legal Aid, then the Legal Aid Board, but now--from 1st April--is called the Legal Services Commission.
I am conscious of the time. I have spoken for a long time, but I hope that that demonstrates that the Government do at least take seriously what has been said today. Of course there are concerns about the scheme we have just started to implement. I hope that my comments have met some of them. The main features of the scheme are not negotiable; they form part and parcel of our policy aimed at making the system faster, fairer and firmer, hopefully to give pause to those who wish to come here for a better standard of living than they can enjoy in their own country. The strategy was set out in the White Paper as long ago as July 1998. Its key legislative provisions were included in the Act last year.
The present regulations provide the framework for the support scheme outlined in the Act and reflect the policy of the Government that asylum seekers in need of support should receive it pending determination of their claims, but that it should not be provided in a way which encourages people to use the asylum system for purposes for which it was never intended.
Before I sit down, I promised the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, that I would give him some figures. At the close of play yesterday, Wednesday 19th April, 440 applications had been received; 289 applications had been dealt with and the number of claimants dispersed was 232, including dependants. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, will withdraw his prayer to annul.
The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, I am not sure that I have heard a categorical assurance about the role of charities and the way in which the Government are to take account
Lord Bach: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl. In shorthand, gifts in kind, such as toys--to use an example that we discussed a few minutes ago--will not have any effect on the vouchers. Gifts in cash would have such an effect. I accept that that is a shorthand answer. I shall write to the noble Earl and make sure that all other noble Lords who have taken part in the debate receive a copy of the letter.
Lord Dholakia: My Lords, I am grateful to almost all noble Lords who have spoken and expressed their concern about the regulations. For the purpose of clarity and for the record, perhaps I may clear up one issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, about the position of the Liberal Democrats in relation to detaining people. Our home affairs spokesman was reported to have said:
This is not the time to go into the large number of arguments that have been put forward in the debate. I plead with the Minister to look at what has been said. I do not believe that all the legislators in this Chamber are wrong about their interpretation. It may be that the regulations have not had much time to take effect.
I can promise that we shall keep a close eye on this matter. A large number of decent people and refugee organisations are working hard to try to make this process more humane than it is at the moment. Will the Minister undertake to consult those organisations on a regular basis to ensure that the correct interpretation is made and to see how we can improve on it?
I could dispute what the Minister has said in a number of areas, but this is not the time at which to do so. However, perhaps I may quote from a letter from the Diocese of Brentwood Refugee Development Project which says:
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