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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Filkin): My Lords, I address the first part of the amendment. I have some difficulty understanding why those dealing with applications for support would need to impose conditions relating to employment when offering support. Other immigration legislation already provides powers to impose conditions relating to freedom to take up employment. We do not believe that we need more.

However, I well expect that the central thrust of the amendment is the second part. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, signalled his interest and concern in this matter before the Summer Recess when we were in Committee but without the opportunity to debate the matter. The amendment attempts to reintroduce the former employment concession for asylum seekers. The House will not be surprised to hear that we do not support that.

When we withdrew the concession in July this year, it was made clear that there was a strong concern for the need to prevent abuses of the asylum process. There is a perceived belief that those who do not have a well-founded fear of persecution but wish to come here for economic reasons are claiming asylum because they believe that this will allow them to work here. While that was not the case, we must take steps to ensure that people do not make fraudulent applications for asylum.

The Government, as the House knows, have announced plans to address skill shortages in the UK. Equally, we have made it clear that these must be seen as separate from asylum. We cannot have a situation where people claim to be asylum seekers for the first six months and economic migrants afterwards.

We believe that the amendment as worded is unworkable. All asylum seekers are issued with an application registration card or standard acknowledgement letter and both those documents state categorically whether or not the asylum seeker has permission to work. Unless an entirely new document is issued to every asylum seeker, covered by this amendment, no self-respecting employer would offer them employment.

The regulations are issued in respect of Section 8 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1996. They specify the documents that an employer can rely on to establish a defence against prosecution under Section 8. These include documents that show the person has permission to work here. Employers would not be able to establish a satisfactory defence against prosecution were they to employ asylum seekers whose documents did not confer permission to work.

However, I do not wish to respond merely on the technicality of the amendment but more on the substance. The substance is that we continue to work

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to speed up the process of initial decision making. That means that few people should be waiting longer than six months for an initial decision. Therefore, in short, we do not believe that there is the problem which the amendment seeks to address.

The ending of the employment concession—Clause 54—will not result in destitution for anyone who has children under 18, as the position of families is protected under Clause 54, so they will be able to obtain NASS support, as we have indicated previously. For those reasons, we do not believe that this amendment is necessary. Therefore, we invite the noble Earl, Lord Russell, to consider withdrawing it.

Earl Russell: My Lords, I simply fail to understand why the Minister thinks that every asylum seeker who is still here after six months must necessarily be fraudulent. I fail to hear anywhere in the Minister's remarks any attempt to make a distinction between asylum seekers who are fraudulent and asylum seekers who are not. I have never been able to see how that distinction can be made before claims have been heard.

Essentially the Minister's objection is that it would involve the Government in issuing a piece of paper. I thought that government were rather good at issuing pieces of paper. In fact, I thought that was one of the few things that they were good at. I find this a rather surprising objection. I accept the point that support shall remain available for children, but the Minister did not, I think, hear the debate yesterday on Amendment No. 109 of the Adoption and Children Bill. The question was raised of separating children from their families, which is, first contrary to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; secondly, contrary to the Children Act 1989; and, thirdly, is not good policy.

I do not see how that pledge to support the children but not the grown-ups can be implemented without breach of those perfectly serious conditions. Under the Bill, especially in conjunction with later amendments, on which I shall not now dwell, some people will receive no support and have no right to work. I draw the Minister's attention to the Labour Party manifesto for the most recent election, which contained the pledge to reduce rough sleeping on the streets. I cannot see how that is compatible with the withdrawal of the right to work from asylum seekers, of whom 61,000—I think it was at the last count—relied on social services in London. I cannot see how that can be done without putting people in a position where they have neither the right to work nor a right to support. How can the Minister deny that some people will be in that position?

When I was newish in the House and had been making a big fuss in the Chamber, I was once asked how I would rate the issue that I had been raising on a scale of outrage from one to 10. I said that I would rate it as eight on the scale. I received the reply, "What, not nine or 10?" I said that I reserved nine for things that I could barely imagine would be done and 10 for things that I used to believe would never happen in this country. Today, we have a crowded agenda. I rate this issue at nine on my scale of outrage, but today I must

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reserve Divisions for those that I rank at 10—the time of the House permits no less. So I beg leave to withdraw the amendment, but were the Minister to refuse me that leave, I should walk through the Lobby as fast as possible. I hope that he shall not refuse and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 42 [Asylum-seeker: form of support]:

Lord Dholakia moved Amendment No. 2:

    Page 23, line 27, leave out paragraph (a).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this matter was discussed at some length during recommitment last week. The purpose of Amendments Nos. 2 and 3, which have been tabled by us with the support of the noble Lord, Lord Judd, is to ameliorate the Government's proposal to withdraw subsistence-only support. Amendment No. 2 would remove the Secretary of State's power to remove subsistence-only support from all asylum seekers in one fell swoop. Amendment No. 3 would oblige the Secretary of State to take into account personal circumstances of asylum seekers when deciding to withdraw subsistence-only support. Amendment No. 4 would ensure that those in receipt of subsistence-only support before the coming into force of the order would retain it. Thus, the Secretary of State could provide only that new cases were not to receive subsistence-only support.

My purpose in moving the amendment is to seek some broad assurances from the Government that they will not bring the provision into force to place people in National Asylum Support Service accommodation but that they intend to use it only when accommodation centres are up and running in which they can place people. Secondly, the Government must accept that families provide not only material but also practical and emotional support to asylum seekers and must respect the principle of family unity. The third assurance that we seek is that the Government will respect the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in implementing the provision and will not separate children from carers.

We also want the Government, before Third Reading, if possible, to place in the Library details of the number of people—especially principal applicants and dependants—claiming subsistence-only support for the week ending 13th October 2002. That would give us an indication of what expenditure the Government will incur under the provision.

Among those who have expressed concern about the provision is the Greater London Assembly. The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux has recently produced a report entitled Distant Voices, referred to during the previous debate, which identifies serious and systematic concerns. It states that,

    "more than 400 social policy evidence reports received by NACAB from CABx since 1 March 2002",


    "that the Government's stated perception of the current performance of NASS is far from reality".

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I hope that the Government will not impose extra responsibilities on that body, the performance of which is questionable. I hope that the Minister can give the assurances for which I have asked. I beg to move.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Filkin: My Lords, the power in Clause 42 is necessary to ensure that we have the flexibility in future to move to a more managed asylum policy and so that we can maintain better contact with those who are eligible for support during the asylum process. We have already made clear that, as and when accommodation centres replace the present system of dispersed accommodation, we intend to offer support only in those accommodation centres. Under current arrangements, asylum seekers eligible for support can stay with friends or relatives and claim support to cover essential living needs. We have no control over where they live, which makes it difficult to maintain contact.

Large numbers of those who take up cash-only support remain in London and the South East. At the end of June 2002, more than 23,000 of the more than 33,000 asylum seekers taking subsistence-only support were living in London. That clearly causes considerable problems and does nothing to alleviate the pressure on services in those areas, which the introduction of the dispersal scheme was intended to do.

It will be apparent to the House that we certainly do not have sufficient accommodation centres up and running to make it likely that we shall want to trigger those powers in the near future, but it is clearly our hope and intent to move to that position, so the powers are necessary. However, we have already said that in reaching decisions on when and how to exercise the power to end subsistence-only support, the Government will take account of all the relevant factors, including the points raised by noble Lords and our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. I reiterate that at present we have made no decisions and there is no timetable—for the obvious reason that anything like the required number of accommodation centres do not exist.

We should also remember that we have agreed that any order made under the clause will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, which means that we shall set out how we intend to exercise the power and there will be ample opportunity for each House to discuss it and its implementation. Although no decision has been taken about the content of any draft order or orders on whether implementation will be on a phased basis, the Government require the flexibility to be able to abolish cash-only support in all circumstances—even when it has already been provided. We need that flexibility by order, subject to affirmative resolution, should we so decide.

Turning to some specific questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, we clearly respect the principle of family unity. If by that he means, "Would it be right to separate children from their prime

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carers?", the answer is a categoric no. If he means, "Would an asylum seeker always be able to live near an extended family?", the answer is no. Similarly, we have previously made our position clear on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in legislation.

In summary, I emphasise that we believe the power to be necessary for flexibility. It would not be triggered without affirmative resolution. It may not be used, because we may apply it on a phased basis, but we believe it is right and proper that it exist.

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