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Lord Avebury: At the time Section 55 was introduced by the Government, I believe it was generally understood that the intention was to deny benefit to those who had entered the UK in some other capacity and who claimed asylum either when they reached the end of the road of their permitted leave to remain or at some point after their leave had expired and when they were detected as overstayers. That was certainly how Mr Neil Gerrard, the chairman of the All-Party Refugee Committee in another place, thought it was supposed to operate. The Minister did not contradict his assertion that people had been denied support even if they applied the day after arrival. My noble friend has given an example of someone who applied on the very day of arrival, but was denied support.

In Committee in the other place the Minister, Miss Beverley Hughes, referred in the last few words she spoke before the guillotine fell to the December 2003 concession, under which people who applied within three days were supposed to be given support. She did not say whether people who had applied within three days prior to the concession and had been denied benefits would have them restored. As the noble Baroness may recall, the Inter-Agency Partnership found that almost half of those refused support under Section 55 between November 3 and 21 last year had actually applied either on the day of their arrival or the

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day after. The Minister said nothing about why someone who applies within three days should be considered meritorious, while someone who applies within four or five days would be considered undeserving of benefits. I should be grateful if the Minister could explain the Government's thinking on these points.

I believe that the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, mentioned the communication we have all received from the Mayor of London saying that the 72-hour concession was not likely to make a significant difference because it was only a presumption which had to be confirmed by National Asylum Support Service caseworkers, who have not been particularly generous in their interpretation of Home Office guidance. The Mayor pointed out that a great many people with well-founded claims do apply more than 72 hours after entry, and they will continue to be destitute.

I want to draw attention to a matter notified to us by the Children's Society; that is, the large number of asylum seekers from the A8 countries who are about to be added to the pool of Section 55 indigent. NASS wrote to local authorities on April 1 saying that, from the end of this month, those people will lose their rights to benefits and accommodation. They will of course acquire the right to work, but not only will they have to find a job by the end of the month and satisfy an employer that they are lawfully able to work, they will also have to find living accommodation with a landlord prepared to wait until the arrival of the first wages payment or salary cheque. In the real world, landlords ask for a deposit up front. None of these people will have that kind of money.

We have already discussed the problems arising from Schedule 3 to the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 in relation to another group which has been made ineligible for benefit under it: those whose immigration claims have failed. The same problems arise with all of the classes of person denied benefits; that is, the duty to support children, if not the parents, and the duty to support any person where failure to do so would breach their rights under Community law or the ECHR. But in the case of the A8 nationals, no provision has been made for NASS to conduct an assessment to ensure that those rights would not be affected by an abrupt withdrawal of support. Some of them would be incapable of work because of pregnancy or their duty to care for young children or sick relatives.

In the past few weeks, as we have heard, practitioners have received an avalanche of claims from agencies and individuals with either Section 55 refusals or, now, EEA support withdrawal crises. Mr Jean Patrick of Brent Initiative Community Action has told us that he had 16 Section 55 refusals in a single day, half of them having claimed on the day of their arrival. So it appears that the December concession has not yet dawned on NASS officials in Brent. But Mr Patrick says that he is unable to take on

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any of the Section 55 cases submitted to him in the past two weeks because he is absolutely swamped with A8 cases.

Does the duty to support people where their community or ECHR rights would otherwise be breached extend to NASS itself as well as to local authorities? If so, why is it not conducting assessments of the 2,571 A8 asylum seekers on its books instead of handing over the entire responsibility to local authorities on 1 May?

Among this A8 group there are some who had become eligible for indefinite leave to remain under the backlog clearance programme. Some had even been sent forms and returned them, but the forms had yet to be processed. Others had not yet been sent the forms. What is the benefit and accommodation situation for these people?

The combination of Section 55 and the dumping of EEA nationals by NASS at the end of this month without transitional arrangements or an agreed mechanism for looking after those unable to work or whose rights are in jeopardy, threatens chaos for local authorities, agencies and the courts, and an increase in the numbers sleeping rough without the means of providing themselves with the basic necessities of living, as described by the IAP. Will the Minister agree to meet us, together with representatives of local authority and non-governmental organisations, to discuss all these problems as a matter of urgency?

The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, I should like to identify myself in general terms with all noble Lords who have spoken thus far. This is an extremely serious issue in our midst. As has been mentioned, individual church groups often get involved in caring for those who have no other means of support and subsistence. It does not happen much in my diocese—it is a long way from the main ports and it does not have the large immigrant communities to which people often go—but I know from talking to others and receiving correspondence just how difficult and critical the stories are of people who are directly affected.

At the same time, I have sympathy for the Government. They face a most difficult question. One of the problems is that the question tends to get caught up in political debate. It seems to me that we have to search for cross-party agreement as to what to do with a problem that, ultimately, we cannot control. It is impossible to control in advance how many people will come to this country with a genuine claim for asylum, a point made previously by the noble Earl. It is absolutely right. I can understand the political pressures on the Government which lead to the setting of targets—the Prime Minister stating that numbers will be halved by a certain date and so on—but, frankly, the thought that we can control all the problems in our midst is a modern myth that does not face up to reality.

There are great questions about global warming, terrorism, what to do with despotic regimes and how to control large flows of population from one country to another. The flows will get greater and greater in the

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years to come as transportation gets easier and language barriers are less. In a society which more and more operates on the basis of freedom of opportunity—something that I am happy to welcome—you will always have a bigger difference between the winners and the losers. Societies based upon freedom always generate an underclass. That is the story of America in many ways and it has become true in this country in the past 20 or 30 years on the back of considerable economic prosperity.

This problem will not simply go away. We should admit that and try and find a way in which we can achieve some cross-party understanding which can be presented, in those terms, to our country, and avoid getting caught up in political debate. Once that happens, the people who lose are the asylum seekers. One thinks of the questions we remit to Select Committees or Royal Commissions. This strikes me as a question which must get beyond the party political debate.

I can see that simply removing the section by amending the Bill in this context will not in itself solve the problem, but the problem will not easily go away. As the noble Earl said, every society is judged by the way it treats the weakest in its midst. That is a deep truth in every society. That is why what goes on in our prisons and young offenders' institutions is such a scandal. I recently visited one and was absolutely horrified at what happens. Eighteen and 19 year-olds in a young offenders' institution were routinely sworn at by the prison officers and banged up 16 or 17 hours a day. This is another debate which has to be taken out of the to-ing and fro-ing of party politics.

While I support all the speeches that have been made so far, I have great sympathy with the Government's position. Somehow we must find a better way of addressing these issues.

9.45 p.m.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, was kind enough to telephone me last week about his amendment. I made it clear that I was not in a position to be able to support him. However, I recognise, as have other noble Lords during the debate, that this is a highly sensitive and complex issue that will, as the right reverend Prelate said, not go away. It is right that the noble Earl has tabled this amendment. It holds the Government—any government, of any political party, who have to consider these issues—continuously to account.

It is not only right that there should be continuous parliamentary scrutiny of these matters, but it would be useful if the Government looked again at the recommendation of the Select Committee on Home Affairs in January this year that there should be an independent review of Section 55. I agree with the right reverend Prelate that there are advantages, in some issues, of going outwith the normal party political argument. This may well be one such issue. I shall be very interested to hear how the Government have reflected on that recommendation since January this year.

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I am also grateful to the Refugee Children's Consortium for the careful briefing it has given noble Lords on the amendment. One issue which was referred to fleetingly is the fact that when we pass such measures, there can be unintended consequences, and I would like to draw the Minister's attention to one. The Refugee Children's Consortium refers to the fact that pregnant women can be deprived of all manner of support under Section 55, which can place both them and their child at risk. Have the Government looked at that particular problem since the operation of Section 55 and, if so, what has the result been? If the Government's attention has not been drawn to that, might they be prepared to consider it and receive representations from the Refugee Children's Consortium?

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