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Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for bringing this matter before the House for due consideration and discussion. While I am grateful to the noble Lord for highlighting this highly topical issue, we on these Benches cannot support the line that he is taking, although the noble Lord has, at least, given us an insight into the disorganised state—or the not "joined-up" state, to use the current phrase—of the asylum legislation in this country. Somewhat vicariously I look forward to seeing whether the Minister and the noble Lord can settle their arithmetical differences.

I should like to take this opportunity to raise other grave concerns about the state of asylum in this country. We how have a situation where, on the one hand, the Government are withdrawing single additional payments to asylum seekers, while at the same time we read in the press that approximately 25,000 properties rented to asylum seekers are empty due to a lack of tenants, allegedly costing the Government £110 million a year. My noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour raised this matter yesterday at Report stage on the re-committal of the Asylum and Immigration Bill, to which the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, in cols. 38 and 39 of Hansard, gave a spirited, but not wholly convincing reply. In a period of acute housing shortage and at this huge cost, this is a failure of resource management on the part of the Government on a massive scale and I hope that the Minister can give us some more information on how the Government propose to address the problem.

It appears that the Government have never been able to develop a proper system of asylum that benefits both the applicants and the country at large. Apart from the well-documented difficulties in processing applications and tracking their progress, it is becoming increasingly difficult to remove failed asylum seekers due to the implementation of the Human Rights Act. Currently the Government face a major court defeat
 
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over a ruling that a policy denying shelter to asylum seekers breached human rights law. This is yet another example of the chaotic asylum situation that we have in Britain today.

On these Benches, we would urge the Government to think through the implications of their policy instead of pushing through asylum Bill after asylum Bill and ending up with challenges in the courts due to their ill thought-out policies. We all know that the Home Secretary does not like challenges in the courts.

Once again, I thank the noble Lord for introducing this interesting debate. I look forward with interest to hearing the Minister's reply.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for raising this issue. I congratulate him on doing so with his customary charm and precision. He is good at following up these points and it is right and proper that we, as the Government, are held to account for what we seek to do with the asylum process and the improvements and changes we make.

It is worth reminding ourselves where we have come from and put on record how the Government see the position changing. On 3 April 2000, we revised the system of support for asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute. This provided that support would mainly be provided "in kind", through vouchers. These were exchangeable for goods at shops affiliated to the scheme. They were issued to supported asylum seekers. A small amount of the support entitlement—£10 for each supported person—was issued in cash.

Vouchers were unpopular with many asylum seekers and their representatives and many working in the voluntary sector who give aid to asylum seekers. Concern was expressed that the use of vouchers was socially divisive and demeaning. Asylum seekers complained that the limitations on the number of outlets affiliated to the scheme limited their choice. Asylum seekers could not, for example, purchase food from markets or use low-budget and charity shops to obtain necessary clothing.

The Home Secretary ordered a review of the voucher system and published its findings on 29 October 2001. At the same time, he announced that all asylum seekers would be issued with application registration cards—ARCs, as they have become known to the trade. The voucher scheme was to be superseded once these cards were introduced. The Home Secretary said that,

Application registration cards were introduced much more quickly. Goods vouchers ceased to be issued in March 2002 and from April 2002 all regular support payments to asylum seekers have been made in cash.

The purpose of paragraph 2 of the Asylum Support (Amendment)(No. 2) Regulations is to remove the now obsolete references to vouchers in the Asylum Support Regulations 2000. That has been broadly welcomed. This amendment is solely aimed at tidying
 
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up the regulations as vouchers have not been issued for over two years. It is therefore appropriate to remove references in the 2000 regulations to voucher support and to replace them with terms relating to the provision of cash support.

Paragraph 4 of the same regulations revokes Regulation 11 of the Asylum Support Regulations 2000. This provided that asylum seekers and their dependants in receipt of support for a continuous period of six months could apply for a single additional payment of £50. That has caused the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, to table this Motion.

As the noble Lord acknowledged, asylum support is set at 70 per cent of the income support levels for adults and 100 per cent for children. The level of asylum support is intended to reflect the fact that NASS-supported asylum seekers do not have to meet the cost of accommodation, furnishings or utility bills. Single additional payments have previously been payable to asylum seekers after six months if their claim was still outstanding and thereafter at six-monthly periods to asylum seekers whose claims were awaiting a final determination.

On 25 March this year, Beverley Hughes, the then Minister, announced in a Written Statement that single additional payments to asylum seekers and their dependants supported by NASS were to cease. Single additional payments were introduced when support was provided mostly in the form of vouchers exchangeable for goods, with only a small cash element. The six-monthly payments of £50 in cash were intended for the purchase of renewable items such as clothing. Now that support is provided entirely in cash, asylum seekers are no longer limited to where they can shop and can get better value for their money by visiting markets and charity shops. That point was argued in discussions and debates on the need to replace vouchers.

The payment of support in cash gives those who receive asylum support a greater amount of flexibility and choice in how they spend their support and allows them to shop at a wider range of outlets. As a result, they can budget more effectively and shop at the most competitive retailers.

Asylum seekers can still apply for a £300 maternity payment and since March 2003 additional support for pregnant women and children under three has meant that the level of asylum support has increased overall for these more vulnerable groups.

We intend to phase out these payments over six months following their abolition to ensure that final payment is received by all of those eligible up to the date of abolition. The changed effected by the Asylum Support (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2004 are intended to improve the Government's system of asylum support.

Some concern has been raised about the difference in the way support is paid to asylum seekers as opposed to income support and jobseeker's allowance, which is payable to UK residents. There is no direct
 
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comparison between asylum support and income support or jobseeker's allowance, which are intended to serve different roles in supporting people.

Asylum support is paid to eligible asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute and is intended to provide a safety net for those who are in need of help while deterring those who may attempt to abuse our asylum system for the economic benefit it may bring. The level of financial support paid to adults is, as commonly agreed, set at 70 per cent of income support levels. Children receive 100 per cent of the personal allowance paid for children and families in receipt of income support. This level of support is intended to reflect the fact that NASS-supported asylum seekers do not have to meet the cost of accommodation, furnishings or utility bills.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord can help the House. I gave some calculations based on recent statistics published by the Government showing that the value of the accommodation, furnishings and utility bills paid by the state on behalf of the asylum seeker did not come to 30 per cent claimed by the Minister or by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. They came to 23 per cent and therefore the asylum seeker was out of pocket to the tune of 7 per cent as compared with someone receiving basic income support. Will the noble Lord address that part of my arithmetic?


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