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The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 10, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 11 to 15. The purpose of the amendments is to ask the Government to put on record some explanation about their new loans for refugees and how they will be operated. I live in hope.
"currently conducting detailed work across departmentsincluding the Department for Work and Pensions and, obviously, the Treasuryto establish how the loan might best be delivered. I am not in a position to give that information today".[Official Report, 15/6/04; cols. 67374.]
Amendment No. 10 returns to the familiar theme of asking the Secretary of State to be required to take actions based on objective rather than subjective grounds. I accept the assurances given by the Minister to my earlier amendment, with regard to the fact that he considers that the Secretary of State is bound to act reasonably. Subsection (3) provides that regulations shall specify matters that appear to the Secretary of State to be relevant when he is deciding whether a loan should be made.
I have kept the amendment not only because I did not have reassurance on it previously, but because, when I considered the drafting of subsection (3) a little further, I wondered whether it was curious in terms of its construction. Does it accurately reflect what the Government intend? It makes it look as though the matters that the Secretary of State shall specify do not have to be those that appear relevant. That cannot be what the Government intend, but it is simply a result of the way in which the subsection is constructed. The reference to relevance is in the subsidiary part of the sentence, which seems to refer to only the additional matters, not the main ones. Might the Minister ask the draftsmen to have a look at that before Third Reading?
Amendment No. 11 has been tabled to ask the Minister to explain why the Government have restricted so closely the list of criteria set out in subsection (3)(a). The list illustrates the reasons why someone might receive a loan. My amendment says that the Government should also take into account the refugee's family responsibilitieswhether he or she is responsible for a child or dependent adult. It also includes in the criteria consideration of whether the refugee has a partner or spouse with assets or income that can properly be taken into account. One assumes that that would be relevant to the criteria. Surely there would not be occasions when the Government would wish to avoid taking such matters into account.
One could be awkwardI enjoy being awkwardand say, if that is the case, why have a list at all? The Government must have started to think about the criteria, because they have started to have a list. There is always the same old problem as soon as one has a listimportant issues appear not to be on it. I am certainly not arguing for the absence of a list. I am arguing for greater cogency from the Government about explaining to the House how they will make their decisions.
Amendment No. 12 would give the Secretary of State the ability to make the loan available by paying it in instalments rather than in one lump sum. Might the Government not consider that to be a useful tool? Surely there will be times when a person's financial circumstances change for the better shortly after the award of a loan. It might then be appropriate to give
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the Secretary of State the chance to stop paying any further amounts, rather than having to pay the whole lump sum in one go and then have all the attendant problems of trying to recover amounts later on, if that is what he decides to do.
That raised two questions. First, for what reasons would one not charge interest? Secondly, could the clause be used to charge some people interest and not others, at different levels? If so, could the grounds on which that decision was made by the Secretary of State be challenged as unfair and, if so, how?
Amendment No. 14 is an old friendthe changing of a "may" to a "shall". In this case it is simply there to ask the Government to explain the purpose behind paragraph (e), which gives the Secretary of State the power,
The last amendment in the groupAmendment No. 15deletes subsection (3)(i). I remarked in Committee that I think the paragraph an extraordinary part of the clause. So far as I can see, it gives the Secretary of State discretion to do whatever he likes, regardless of what is in the rest of the clause. It looks as though the Government decided that they could no longer work out what the clause should provide and therefore it is a catch-all to say that the Secretary of State can do what he likes.
I remain convinced that this is too much of a blank cheque but I am open-minded. I hope that the Minister can give us further information on why this apparently blank cheque has a bit of writing on it to which one can sign up. I do not want to see a system put in place that forces the Government to provide loans whatever the circumstances. Equally, I want a system put in place that is fair to the beneficiariesthe refugees we are trying to assist to become integrated in this country.
At col. 680, the Minister offered to give further consideration to the drafting to which I referred in Amendment No. 15. I tabled that amendment simply to give him an opportunity to fulfil that commitment. I beg to move.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, Amendment No. 15 concerns the discretion which is given to the Secretary of State under paragraph (i). Will it be exercised differently for the three classes of asylum seekers according to the incomes they received when their applications are under consideration?
As a result of the withdrawal of the backdating, we will have, first, people who have received the full support, the equivalent of 90 per cent of income support; that is,
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subsistence payments plus accommodation costs. Secondly, there will be people who have received only of subsistence; that is, 70 per cent of income support. Thirdly, there will be people who, unfortunately as a result of Section 55, have received no support and will have been living on thin air during consideration of their application. The discretion of the Secretary of State under paragraph (i) could be applied differentially in favour of people who have been kept on short commons during the period of their application.
However, under subsection (3)(a)(i) and (ii), a person's income or assets and his likely ability to repay the loan must be taken into consideration by the Secretary of State. Therefore, a person who has been kept on the lowest possible incomeor zero income because of Section 55is likely to be denied a loan because the Secretary of State will be doubtful of his ability to repay. Such a person will have lost out twice. He will first have been deprived of support during the whole period of his application and then when he asks the Secretary of State for a loan he will be refused because his ability to repay will be in doubt. Was that really the intention behind the provision?
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, if the Government decided to have a loan scheme, they must have considered some of the aspects raised by my noble friend Lady Anelay in these amendments. It will be interesting to hear how far the Government have gone on the thinking behind these provisions and to hear the Minister's reply to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, who knows at first hand how the interaction of benefits with such a loan will work.
I am particularly interested to hear the response to Amendment No. 15 because the wording of paragraph (i) is extraordinary. The Secretary of State seems to be able to do anything he likes about anything. Reading the Bill, I cannot see how the discretion is limited.
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