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Viscount Astor: My Lords, I take this opportunity to ask some questions about how resurfacing affects utilities. It seems to me that this could be a responsibility that they might have to carry for some time. Therefore, it would be helpful if the Minister in responding to my noble friend could say something about the circumstances and the timescale that will apply to the duty to resurface roads. How long would a company be liable to resurface the road to the standard required after the works have finished? Will there be a cut-off date? This is possibly a liability that the company would have to accrue on its accounts. It would be helpful if the Minister could explain how this would work. I presume that a utility could, as it were, pass the responsibility on to someone else to carry out, or pay someone else to do it. It would be helpful if the Minister would explain how he envisages Clause 53 operating.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who contributed to the debate, although I am afraid that I have a very limited answer. On the
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question of timescale, to which the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, appropriately drew attention, we have not taken a decision. We recognise that it is an important matter, and it is under active consideration, but we have not reached a decision on it.
A number of important points were made by the two speakers to the amendment, and we discussed the issue extensively in Grand Committee when important points were also made. I reiterate that the Government envisage that the powers would be used only where serious problems arose and where a succession of works had left roads in a particularly bad condition. We hope that those will be relatively exceptional circumstances. Regulation will place appropriate limitations on the circumstances in which the powers could be used. That would obviously also involve the question of the time factor to which the noble Viscount referred.
I can give an assurance that the powers will not provide authorities with a neat way of having their roads resurfaced at someone else's expense. Indeed, as noble Lords will recognise, assurances were given in another place that we envisage that, however the costs of resurfacing will be shared between the various parties in the circumstances, the authority itself will still be expected to make the largest contribution.
The government amendments on the resurfacing powers clarify the responsibilities of undertakers to contribute to resurfacing in appropriate circumstances. They also clarify the processes involved. That, together with powers under Section 78 of the New Roads and Street Works Act, covers the aims behind Amendments Nos. 79 and 82. Those and finer details, such as of what formula might be put in place to determine which bodies pay how much, and to which works the power could apply, will be set out in regulations. I draw attention to the fact that the Bill would apply the affirmative procedure to the first set of such regulations, so there would be proper and full parliamentary scrutiny of what we all recognise are important regulations. The negative procedure would apply only to subsequent refinements to the legislation.
As and when the regulations are brought forward, they will be developed with the help of authorities and utilities, and will be subjected to public consultation. I agree that the question of how utility companies' balance sheets might reflect those resurfacing costs is a difficult one. However, the effect of the government amendments is that the liability to resurface or to contribute to the cost of resurfacing will arise only in connection with works undertaken after commencement of the clauses, irrespective of whether regulations have been made under them. That is an important point. We are not engaged in the exercise of a retrospective recouping of resources from utilities.
The Government believe that the broad powers in the Bill reflect a justifiable principle; namely, that where utilities' street works have made a significant contribution towards damaging a road, the utilities in question should contribute towards the necessary resurfacing. Amendment No. 81 will be recognised as
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a problem, as it would undermine that by limiting liability only to undertakers planning to carry out future works.
We cannot emphasise too much that the road network is one of our most valuable national assets in resource accounting terms. The Highways Agency's road network alone is valued at £65 billion, and the 10-year plan set aside £30 billion for local authorities to maintain their road networks between 2000 and 2010. We should not be content to see such valuable assets and high levels of investment undermined. With that in mind, and with the reassurance that the regulations will be brought to Parliament for scrutiny in the light of public consultation, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, of course I shall withdraw the amendment. I shall consult my noble friend on the Front Bench to see whether we can think of anything ingenious that we might bring forward at Third Reading. The Minister gives lots of reassurances, but nothing in the fundamental legislation will prevent it being used much more extensively than the Minister says will be the case initially. If we could find a way to limit things reasonably closely to the promises given by the Minister, that would be desirable, but that will take some reading and thinking. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, the regulations abolish the six-monthly single additional payments of £50 to NASS-supported asylum seekers. When the SAPs were introduced, the argument was that support was provided largely in the form of vouchers with only a small cash element, making it difficult for the recipients to save for larger purchases and limiting where they could shop. At the end of the six months, the £50 was to make up for that disadvantage.
The scheme was ended in April 2002 when the vouchers were replaced by cash payments equal to 70 per cent of income support£38.96 for a single person over 25, and £61.11 for a married coupleplus their accommodation and utility bills. When the order abolishing the vouchers was debated in March 2002, my noble friend Lord Dholakia asked the noble Lord,
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Lord BassamI am glad to see that he will reply this eveningto explain the arithmetic. The Minister then said:
"The calculation has been made that the discount, the 30 per cent, is approximate to the value of housing accommodation which is fully furnished and has all the necessary utensils and furniture in place. It is felt that 70 per cent is a fair reflection of the true cash needs of asylum seekers and that the 30 per cent covers utility payments such as rent and so on. It is assumed that that is all included".[Official Report, 14/3/02; col. 1018.]
The Minister was evidently confused by the difference between utility payments and rents, so can we get that straight from the start? From the initiation of the voucher scheme in the 1999 Act, both the rent and the furnished accommodation were provided, and the utilities were paid for separately. It was calculated that the support provided was equivalent to 90 per cent of income support, as was explained by the Home Secretary at the time, Mr Jack Straw, in another place on 16 June 1999.
When the vouchers were scrapped in 2002 because the Government finally conceded that cash benefits did not after all provide an incentive to come here for non-genuine claimantsas Mr Straw said that he strongly believed less than three years beforethe value of the package remained unchanged. Therefore, people on NASS support still received 10 per cent less than if they had been entitled to ordinary income support and housing benefit. For a single person, that comes to £434 over the six months before which he becomes entitled to the SAP £50.
In response to the representations made by my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby about the hardship felt by people who had been on NASS support for more than six months, Lord Williams of Mostyn explained that the Government had,
It was acknowledged that long-term asylum seekers would not have the money to replace essential household durables, or buy expensive replacement items such as children's shoes. In that respect, they were different from natives or persons settled here, who were entitled to income support. No one suggested, as the Government do in the Explanatory Memorandum attached to the order, that the £50 would actually make asylum seekers better off than UK citizens. That is a specious argument worthy of the Sun or Daily Mail.
Utility bills were always paid from the inception of the national scheme in 2000. It was that, together with the value of fully furnished accommodation, that took the NASS-supported asylum seeker up to 90 per cent of the level of those on income support. Now the Government come along and sayas the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, did on 15 June when we debated the ending of back-paymentsthat the value of those items comes to 30 per cent, not the 20 per cent of the income support with which it is compared. NASS pays for the bare necessities, and the model contract does not specify, as some malign commentators have suggested, that telephones, TVs, new cookers or washing machines would be provided. For a married couple, it is assumed
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that basic utilities and household durables will come to 30 per cent of income support of £87.30 a week or £681 over six months, the difference between the NASS payments and income support.
I want the Minister to listen carefully to my arithmetic, because it is the basis of my challenge to the regulations. Comparing the £87.30 with the detailed household expenditure figures for the bottom 10 per cent of households by income in table 1.3 of Family Spendinga report on the Expenditure and Food survey, for 200203, published this month by the Office for National Statistics, household goods and services less routine maintenance, such as cleaning materials, came to £9 per week and electricity, gas and water to £11.80 per week. The total of those items for six months was £540.80, compared with the difference of £681, which I have calculated before, between NASS payments and income support. So the payments made on behalf of the asylum seeker couple leaves them short of £140 at the end of the six months, compared with their counterparts on income support. The continuation of this payment of SAP£50 to eachwould still leave the couple out of pocket to the tune of £40.
In the debate on back payments, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said that, on the basis of the number granted asylum and the average wait for decisions of six months, the cost of back payments came to about £11 million per year. I worked out a cost of £1 million on 16,000 successful appeals and on an average wait of three months. I took the number of successful appeals dealt with by the IAA in the first quarter of 2004 and multiplied that by four, which is likely to be an overestimate given that the rate of appeals is declining and will be reduced still further as the backlog is cleared and non-suspensive appeals kick in.
Regarding the wait, the Government are to be congratulated on speeding up initial decisions so that 80 per cent of cases are now dealt with inside two months. In 200203, 87 per cent were dealt with within six months. If one took 13 per cent of the 575 favourable decisions on initial applications in the first quarter of this year, it would come to 75 per cent. If those 4,000 successful appellants had been waiting for an average of six months, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, suggested, it could be assumed that half of those would have qualified for that payment. That is also an overestimate, given that the average figure is weighted by the small proportion of appellants whose cases take much longer to resolve. The total cost would then be about £100,000 per quarter and falling. That is a small amount, but not insignificant in the budgets of people who have been trying to exist for the previous six months on levels lower than income support.
Another way of looking at the 30 per cent claim made by Ministers in recent months would be to examine the number of people who receive support from NASS, the length of time that each recipient is supported and the total cost. Unfortunately, NASS does not maintain its accounts in a way that would enable such an assessment to be made. The independent review of
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NASS, submitted to the Government in May 2003, but published only recently after a nine-month delay, said that the authors found,
Two months after beginning of the financial year, NASS did not even have a budget for the current year, 200304. That was because the IND was still engaged in discussions with the Treasury about its own budget. A figure of £35 million as its running costs was mentioned in the review, but that did not include payments to the asylum seekers.
The review gave some statistics on the applications for NASS support and the numbers receiving subsistence only and, respectively, full support, but there was no indication of the length of time for which they were receiving that support. If the original targets in the White Paper are reached, the majority of asylum seekers would not be in receipt of NASS support for more than six months; and a diminishing number of SAP claims would then be made.
I hope that the Minister can assist the House, first, by telling us what the NASS budget is for 200405 and, secondly, by telling us the calculations on which that budget is based. There are no figures whatever on the NASS website, which is one of the least informative that I have looked at of any public sector organisation. In the past year I must have looked at several hundred websites relating to local and national government. How many people, is it assumed, will be on subsistence-only benefit and how many will be on full support during the year and for what average time? The Minister must have had those figures, otherwise it would have been impossible to construct the budget. If we knew the figures we could assess the Minister's claim that the value of utility payments and household expenses amounted to 30 per cent of income level and not to the 20 per cent originally stated by Jack Straw.
Two further reasons were given by the Government for abolishing the SAPs in an e-mail to stakeholders on 11 May. First, the Government said that it would be difficult to continue to make the payments given that UK citizens receiving income support had no access to additional payments. That is wrong. In fact, people on income support have access to Social Fund payments, which depend on individual circumstances and needs; and they may also apply for community care grants if, say, they have an unsettled way of life or their households face exceptional pressure. That grant could be used to pay for the same article or service every 26 weeks, which is the same interval between successive payments of SAP. Asylum seekers have an unsettled way of life, by definition, and face exceptional pressure. Unlike most people on income support, they left behind them when they fled their countries a lifetime of possessions and usually arrived in the UK with few clothes, household items or standard belongings, such as radios and TVs.
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Secondly, it was said that the administrative costs of processing the SAP claims was disproportionate. I do agree with the Government in that matter. The solution is to make the payments automatic, like, say, winter fuel allowances for pensioners. Even if the Government's 100 per cent claim was correct, it would not apply to those who opt for NASS subsistence-only support or who receive cash payments amounting to 70 per cent of income support. That was confirmed in a Home Office fact sheet, published in May. Nor does the 100 per cent claim apply to asylum seekers who fail to apply within three days of arriving in the country. Whatever the reasons for the delay, they receive nothing at all and have to live on thin air while they wait for their applications to be decided.
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