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Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in this debate. The noble Earl is right that this is the greatest degree of scrutiny that this provision has had to date.

I should like to say a word in response to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, about the stage at which this matter comes before your Lordships today. As noble Lords know, we are now permitted—indeed, enjoined—to sit on all these days until at least 10 o'clock. The Committee stage has to be agreed between the usual channels. It was hoped initially that this part of the Bill would be reached somewhat earlier in the previous debate. It is simply fortuitous that it has come before the Committee at this time. Others may say that the noble Lord's comments should have been targeted at those who came before us, as opposed to those who have waited so diligently for our line to be reached today.

The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, made a number of points, with which many noble Lords have agreed but not all of which I feel able to agree with. I wish gently to make some points about the context in which some of the reports should be put. The noble Earl rightly mentioned the GLA report. Noble Lords will know that that survey used a very limited sample; the response rate was only 24 per cent and only 248 people were covered, of whom only 14 per cent were said to have been affected by Section 55. It is easy to get the wrong impression from the figures. However, I take on board entirely the basis of the noble Earl's concern: he is concerned that those who should have had succour did not receive it.

I also acknowledge what was said by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester. It is easy to take an unbalanced or one-sided view of what is inherently a difficult problem. In considering these issues, there is a tension between providing proper succour for those who seek asylum and dealing with another issue—that of economic migration. One can understand why a number of individuals in other countries seek properly to move from that country for adventitious advantage, for economic reasons. One does not blame them for so doing, but one must recognise that there is a difference between asylum and economic migration.

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This Government have taken strenuous steps to enhance the opportunity of legitimate means for encouraging economic migration in a proper, planned way. We dealt with some of those in our earlier debates on other subjects. The question is how we achieve that proper balance. Section 55 has contributed to halving the asylum intake over the past 12 months, from October 2002. It achieved its original purpose. Throughout that period, the way in which it operated in practice was kept under close review.

Earl Russell: The Minister is saying a great deal that makes sense, but can she show me any way in which Section 55 distinguishes between genuine applicants and economic migrants? If so, how?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: We have sought to say that it distinguishes between those groups by encouraging those who come to this country to make their application as soon as possible, so that we can together differentiate between one group or another.

Throughout the period, the way in which Section 55 has operated in practice has been kept under close review. As a result, as noble Lords have said, the policy was adjusted on 17 December 2003 to allow the three days following the arrival in this country to lodge the asylum claim. That has resulted in about half of those who are subject to a Section 55 decision being granted access to asylum support, as opposed to about 75 to 80 per cent being refused support, which was the position before 17 December. So it is not right to say that a significant change has not taken place; it has.

To answer the question asked by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, the Government are keeping the operation of the policy under review, including the way in which it interacts with Article 3 to ensure that, while it continues to provide the necessary deterrent, it is applied only to the extent necessary to deliver our overall aim of an effective asylum process that encourages applicants to come forward and to be frank with us. If further adjustments are necessary, the Government will make them in line with the original statement made by my noble friend Lord Filkin on 17 October 2002.

I should say to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, that the recommendation in relation to the review has been considered. It was raised by the Committee. We shall look at that. I cannot give the noble Baroness any promises in that regard but it is certainly something that the Government will bear in mind.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, mentioned the issue of the number of judicial reviews that are currently before the court. The Committee will know that there are three test cases which await determination by the court. Many of the judicial reviews that are currently pending before the court are reliant on those three test cases. Many of them are waiting almost in abeyance until they are decided. Once those three decisions are available, of course the Government will consider further what to

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do in response to those judgments and in relation to this policy. That would be an appropriate opportunity for us to look at those issues.

Lord Avebury: Has the Minister left the subject of the three-day concession? Will she give me an answer to the question of what happens to people who were denied benefit having claimed within the three days and who now reapply following the concession?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I have not left that subject. As the noble Lord will know, I try to give a comprehensive answer and take the points in order. It was convenient to tell the noble Baroness about certain issues as I was talking about whether there would be a review.

It is not proposed that we should use retrospectivity in relation to those cases which were dealt with before December. Those decisions were lawful within the context. The noble Lord will remember that we had three cases dealing with whether it was or was not appropriate to make that determination at that time. The authorities supported that action. We do not intend to go back over those but we certainly took fully into account the comments that were made by a number of agencies and individuals about their operation. It was for that reason that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department, David Blunkett, made the statement regarding the change in relation to three days. Since that period it has operated as I have just indicated.

The noble Earl, Lord Russell, also asked whether we had advertised. We have done so. Before implementation these provisions were advertised overseas. The posters have continued to be displayed since then. It is quite clear that there is an active appreciation and interest about what the provisions are in individual countries to which people seek to move. Therefore, this information is a matter of some importance.

The number of judicial reviews has reduced now compared with those before Christmas. Before Christmas there were 50 or 60 a week. There are about 10 a week now. Effective reconsideration of the process since 24 November 2003 has provided an efficient and timely review mechanism. That has helped. As I have indicated, the three-day process eased the situation in which people found themselves.

It is important to remember that Section 55 was part of a wider package of measures contained in the 2002 Act aimed at creating a more streamlined and cohesive asylum system. It was designed to tackle abuse of the asylum system and send a clear message to those who are simply economic migrants that they will not be supported at public expense. It also seeks to bring about a change in behaviour so that genuine asylum seekers should make an asylum claim immediately at the port of arrival or as soon as reasonably practicable afterwards. Section 55 has played its part in reducing asylum claims.

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It is a tough policy but there are safeguards to protect the vulnerable. Families are exempt from Section 55 and support will be provided, as noble Lords know, if it is necessary to avoid a breach of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, even if the claim was not made as soon as reasonably practicable. Unaccompanied asylum seeking children are not affected by Section 55—they are supported by local authorities under the Children Act 1989. Those with care needs are also supported by local authorities under the National Assistance Act 1948. It is open to anyone who receives a negative decision under Section 55 to request reconsideration, as I have indicated.

In relation to NASS support—

10 p.m.

Earl Russell: I am sorry to return to the point, and I am grateful to the Minister, but can she give me any reason at all to suppose that Section 55 has caught more economic migrants than genuine applicants?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: It has certainly helped to differentiate those who have a bona fide claim and those who do not. That is my understanding. Whether the figures go further, I know not. I certainly undertake to write to the noble Earl if there is a better answer to be had that is not available to me now.

I was also asked about the NASS support for accession nationals. Members of the Committee will know, not least from our Friday debate in relation to an order on the subject, that we have now written to all accession nationals supported by NASS or a local authority under the interim provisions to explain their options. NASS outreach teams are following that up with home visits to ensure a smooth transition.

Accession nationals currently supported by NASS or a local authority will have three options. They can register as workers under the Home Office workers' registration scheme, and will be eligible for only certain DWP benefits and social housing. They can remain in the United Kingdom as jobseekers but become self-supporting—that is, stay with friends or relatives. Alternately, they can leave the United Kingdom, and local authorities will have the power to provide temporary accommodation to families, and make travel arrangements to their country of origin both for families and singles.

The work registration scheme will go live on 1 May. A designated, dedicated casework team has been recruited and training is under way. Accommodation for the team and the IT systems are in place. We went through the details of that on Friday. We hope that the scheme will come into operation on 1 May smoothly.

I understand the concern expressed in relation to Section 55. The Government's view is that it has utility and has been amended to make it respond more creatively and effectively to the needs identified. We will continue to review it, and certainly will review it when the matter comes for further consideration as a result of the cases currently before the Court of Appeal.

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One specific point to which I did not respond, and which I should have mentioned, was in relation to pregnant women. The noble Baroness will know that they are a group of people who are very vulnerable and are always given very careful consideration. If they are visibly pregnant and in advanced stages, Article 3 provides the safeguard. Caseworkers have been trained to take great care in considering all potentially vulnerable cases, so it is very much an issue that is at the forefront for those who make such decisions. I hope that the noble Baroness will feel a little comforted as a result of that.

I invite Members of the Committee not to press the amendment. Particularly bearing in mind that it is now two minutes past 10, I shall say no more.

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