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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, has as ever touched on a very sensitive issue that, obviously, we in Government have had to consider carefully. Obviously, one understands where the noble Earl is coming from. We accept as a given that there has to be a generosity of spirit about these matters.

However, we do not find the amendment acceptable because it would prevent us withdrawing support from certain accommodation centre residents. Although it may seem a hard thing to do, there may well be circumstances in which that is desirable.

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The Government's clear message to those who seek refuge here is that we will not tolerate abuse. To that end, it is essential from our perspective and for the better protection of the public purse that on certain occasions we should be able to consider withdrawing support from those who fail to abide by the conditions of residence in accommodation centres. We must have some form of sanction for asylum seekers who do all that they can to play, or perhaps manipulate, the system—those who do not want to remain in touch with us or to comply with the asylum process. In those circumstances, rare as they may well be, it is reasonable to have the option of withdrawing support.

That may sound harsh, but the Government are not trying to be harsh or hard-nosed; nor are we looking for any or every opportunity we can find to deny support to destitute asylum seekers. I could make a respectable case that this Government have gone a very long way to ensure that we make adequate provision for those rightly and properly seeking asylum in this country. I invite the noble Earl to support the notion that there may well be occasions on which people abuse the asylum support system. We make no apology for dealing firmly with them in those circumstances.

Clause 24 makes clear that the Secretary of State may stop providing support to a person if he or his dependants fail to comply with any directions as to the time or manner of travel to or from an accommodation centre. That provision reflects our experience of operating the dispersal system. No doubt noble Lords are aware that asylum seekers' failure to travel to dispersal accommodation has been a major headache for NASS during the early days of its operation. Asylum seekers accommodated in emergency accommodation in London have sought to avoid dispersal by failing to travel. We do not want to repeat that experience. We do not believe that it is in anyone's best interests and we certainly do not think that it would be in the best interests of those who end up using the services of accommodation centres. It is therefore right in our estimation that, as a matter of last resort, we have the ability to withdraw support.

We do not take such decisions lightly. Withdrawing support is a very serious measure. I assure the House that we will take great care in making those decisions. They will be made on a case-by-case basis, looking carefully at the individual circumstances of each case and deciding on the merits before making a decision to withdraw support. It is right to put on record that any such decision will rightly attract a right of appeal before the asylum support adjudicator.

I can well understand where the noble Earl is coming from. I have heard his argument before in other policy areas. He is seeking to create the ultimate safety net for those who are here and are truly destitute. On the one hand that is a laudable intention, but on the other hand, as the noble Earl mentioned, there are personal responsibilities. We will not place unreasonable requirements on asylum seekers. If those who are destitute comply with our reasonable requirements—if they have not deceived us as to their means, if they travel to their allocated accommodation centre as

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directed and if they comply with their conditions of residence when they get there—they will be properly provided with support while their asylum application is considered.

However, it is not unreasonable to set out clearly what those reasonable requirements are, for them to be understood and for there to be an element of encouragement and compulsion if those conditions are seriously breached. If individual asylum seekers do not want to comply with the system, we do not consider it unreasonable to suggest that their situation would be self-imposed.

The asylum support system—both in the provisions in the 1999 Act and in the proposals in this Bill for accommodation centres—is intended to be a basic system of safety net support. We have, as I explained, the further safety net of a right of appeal. Clause 44, which inserts new Section 122 into the 1999 Act, provides that in the event that asylum support is withdrawn from a family with children, there is a further safety net for the children of support from the local authority under the relevant child welfare provisions. In this instance, those provisions are Section 17 of the Children Act 1989, Section 22 of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, and Article 18 of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. In those circumstances, the local authority is obliged to offer support if the children would otherwise be at risk.

The noble Earl has raised the issue of the implications of Article 3 of the ECHR. Article 3 provides that no one shall suffer inhuman or degrading treatment. It is an absolute right and provides a safety net. We do not consider that simple destitution alone engages Article 3 as it would not meet the minimum level of severity required under Article 3. However—this is an important assurance—we shall very carefully take Article 3 into account in deciding whether to withdraw support. The noble Earl has made some important and powerful points in regard to that point today, and they are points on which we shall have to reflect further. I should add that the Secretary of State has a discretion to reinstate support at a later date if he thinks that there is an emerging danger of a violation of Article 3.

How many safety nets do we need? We think that we have to have sufficient to catch those who are genuinely in need. We also think that it is widely accepted that we have for the most part managed to ensure and provide for that.

We also think it crucial that, as a bottom line, we must have a sanction for those who are taking liberties with the hospitality of our system. I invite the noble Earl to consider this point. There may well be those who seek to abuse the system—I think that he would have to accept that there are circumstances in which that occurs. I ask him to consider what sort of sanction he thinks would be suitable in such circumstances. We feel that in most circumstances this provision will be a sanction of last resort and that it is not unreasonable in the circumstances.

The noble Earl also made some points about the element of compulsion. He asked how free people would be to come and go at accommodation centres.

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The answer is that there will probably be great flexibility. However, there will be a reporting restriction, and we would expect it to be a daily restriction. Consent for travelling away from the accommodation centre to visit perhaps friends and relatives will, of course, not be unreasonably withheld. Nevertheless, we would quite properly expect those using the services of the accommodation centre to seek the consent of the management of that centre. As I said, however, that consent would not be unreasonably withheld in the circumstances.

10.15 p.m.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Russell asked the Minister whether he could set out in detail the conditions that will be imposed by the regulations. This is an issue of some importance as it was raised by the Joint Committee on Human Rights in paragraph 39 of its report. The Committee said that it was theoretically possible that very restrictive rules about a person's ability to come and go from the centre could constitute a violation of Article 5(1). What we are talking about here is the declaration of benefits for someone who is in breach of the rules. It is therefore extremely important that we know exactly what will be in these regulations and how strict they will be, so that we can see whether we think that they comply with Article 5(1). The Joint Committee on Human Rights was, of course, talking in the absence of knowledge of what is in the Government's mind as regards the detail. Could the Minister therefore produce a skeleton of what will be in these regulations, so that we can look at it before Third Reading?

Lord Hylton: My Lords, before the Minister reflects on that matter, will the Government undertake to look again at the word "suspect" in Clause 24 at line 20? It is important that there should be some proof of an offence before such draconian sanctions are invoked even if there is a complicated right of appeal.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, of course we will always actively consider the wording. The noble Lord makes a good point. Suspicion has to be engendered by behaviour. One would expect careful consideration to be given to someone's behaviour before the power was exercised.

We fully recognise the validity of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. We have no intention that conditions of residence at an accommodation centre should be so stringent as to amount to de facto detention. That is part of the core argument advanced by the noble Earl, Lord Russell.

We have yet to settle the precise details of reporting and residence restrictions at the centres but, as I said earlier, it is our opinion that there will be a requirement to report daily and to attend all scheduled appointments relating to the asylum claim. I do not believe that that is an unreasonable condition. Much of the debate in your Lordships' House today has been about ensuring that we stick to timetable in completing the processing of asylum claims. One amendment

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encouraged the Government to ensure that it would be carried out within four months; another amendment not moved sought that claims should be processed within 10 weeks. It is in everyone's interest, particularly the claimant's, that we ensure that appointments are kept so that the process can be speedily expedited.

We take the issue seriously and understand its sensitivity. We will ensure that we give it full regard when we come to set the conditions of residence in the accommodation centres. I am not going to promise across the Dispatch Box to produce drafts before Third Reading; that would place an unreasonable burden on us. But the points raised are fair and proper. We will reflect carefully on them and do all that we can to spell out in more detail how the conditions of residence will work and what they will be.

It is our intention that accommodation centre residents will be able properly to request permission to be absent from the centre and that such permission will not be unreasonably withheld. Members of your Lordships' House should understand that regulations under Clause 28 relating to conditions of residence will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure so there will be the proper and full opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny and further debate, as there should be. We cannot have that debate this evening. However, we undertake to ensure that Members of your Lordships' House and of another place will have the opportunity to give those procedures close scrutiny as soon as possible. I hope that the noble Earl will feel able to withdraw his amendment.


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