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Lord Rooker: My Lords, before I start, I reiterate not only on my own behalf but on behalf of others as well that we hope to see the noble Earl, Lord Russell, back in his place as soon as possible.

I know this is totally out of order, but in this place there are no rules, so you can get away with it. Regarding the earlier debate we had on Zimbabwe, unfortunately we do not collect information on the voluntary returns on a country-specific basis, but I have asked officials to see whether they can obtain a figure from the International Organisation for Migration, and I will naturally follow that up in writing for noble Lords who have been present today.

Read literally, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, was including me in his term "gesture politics". First, the package is not gesture politics and, secondly, I assure him that I would have no part in sucking up to the ragbag people who run the Daily Mail. Sincerity is a zero sum on this issue. We cannot prove that any part of the changes in the Immigration Rules and procedures in the past few years has been the only or key part, but we know the total effect of the changes of the package of which Section 55 is a part has been a halving in the number of asylum claims since the autumn of 2002. Therefore, while we cannot be precise about the individual components, we see no justification for disturbing the package that has been put together. We cannot be absolutely certain that the signals sent back down the supply chain of people traffickers on one part of the package are translated to another part of the package to get the right effect. Nevertheless, it is not gesture politics; the package was designed for a purpose. We still claim, and rightly so, that the whole issue is proportional to the situation the country found itself in.

The central point about Section 55 is that we were not prepared to use taxpayers' money to support people who make speculative asylum claims, or indeed anyone who has some other means of support. I freely admit that not every person who claims asylum also claims financial support, but the number of speculative asylum claims was high. We think Section 55 has been effective in tackling that kind of abuse to send a signal to those who are simply economic migrants: first, that there are other ways and, secondly, that if they use the speculative route they will not be supported at the taxpayer's expense.

I am pleased and grateful that the noble Earl has brought these amendments forward. It is the right and proper thing to do. However, I am obviously fairly constrained in what I can say, because this year the Court of Appeal gave its judgment in those three test
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cases concerning the application of Article 3 of the ECHR in cases where support had been refused under Section 55 and dismissed the Government's appeals in the individual cases. In giving guidance on the issue, the Court of Appeal was divided as to the correct approach, as indeed was the High Court before it. In his minority judgment, Lord Justice Laws points out that the relevant principles in this area are "more than usually elusive". Clearly, these cases raise issues of general public importance and legal complexity.

The Home Office maintains that Section 55 strikes the right balance between fulfilling our obligations to genuine asylum seekers and protecting the system against abuse. We have therefore sought, and been granted, leave to appeal to the House of Lords against the Court of Appeal judgment of 21 May, although I understand that this will not be heard by the Appellate Committee of your Lordships' House until much later in the year. In the mean time, we have issued new interim policy guidance, to which the noble Lord referred, and we will continue to make decisions in line with the judgment expressed in the Court of Appeal.

Section 55 is a tough policy. It was designed to be, in order to face a serious issue. The section has been kept under close review since it was introduced, and, where appropriate, has been amended, as demonstrated by the change of approach announced by the Home Secretary on 17 December last year, whereby in general a person who applies within three days of arrival in the UK would be considered to have applied as soon as reasonably practical. Quite why they could not have applied when they reached our shores at the port, heaven only knows, but that is the issue everyone always asks about—"Why not?". There are good reasons why some people cannot apply immediately, but within three days we think they ought to be able to.

There are already a number of safeguards built in to protect vulnerable people, and those with care needs continue to be supported by local authorities. Moreover, it is open to anyone who may receive a negative decision under Section 55 to request reconsideration of their case. Emergency accommodation will be provided in what we believe are seriously arguable cases in the small proportion of reconsideration decisions that cannot be made on the same day. Each case is considered on its merits. Where the period is longer than three days, people's circumstances will be fully taken into account. We fully accept that, in some cases, three days may not be reasonably practicable.

There is little evidence of a rise in rough sleeping as a result of Section 55. Rough sleeping on the streets of London has been cut by about 70 per cent since the Rough Sleepers Unit—now the Homelessness Directorate of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister—was set up. A count is taken, but we have no evidence that Section 55 has caused a rise. Both officials and outreach workers are out on the streets on a regular basis, not just on the nights of the counts, and I have spent one night with them—although I cannot really claim that it was a night, as I knocked off just after midnight. I had to be introduced as Jeff, a researcher from Birmingham, because if I had been introduced as the Minister no one would have talked
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to me. I did not find any asylum seekers, but that was just one evening for a few hours. The point is that we monitor the situation of rough sleepers because, having achieved a 70 per cent reduction, we want to go the whole hog.

We accept and freely admit that there were some initial problems with the operation of Section 55, and, where required, we have made changes. The recent Court of Appeal judgment does not alter our view that the policy has been effective or that we have sufficient provisions in place to protect people who are vulnerable. We certainly do not consider that it would be the right to abolish Section 55 altogether, bearing in mind that we have given notice of appeal to the highest court in the land, and that is where it will be decided. In the mean time, we will operate the policy in line with the judgment given down by the Court of Appeal. I hope I have made the position clear. The provision is not totally flexible, but it can be reasonably practicable for the period to be over three days because we judge each case on its merits.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, said that Section 55 was continuously under review, and the Minister has confirmed that today, which is very welcome. I accept and welcome his flexible approach, and the fact that every case will be looked at on its merits, possibly even after the draconian three days.

This is not a party political matter, and it is partly for that reason that I am speaking from the Cross Benches. Many others are involved in this, and, if it came to a vote in a future Bill, I hope that vote would be free. This matter causes a lot of concern outside this House, among voluntary organisations and those working with asylum seekers. I was tempted this morning to press my amendment to a Division, although of course it would be only a protest vote. But the numbers outside this House are more convincing evidence than those inside it. We will just wait to see what the effects of the Bill are.

I thank all the noble Lords who have taken part and supported this amendment. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for speaking on this occasion, and because she has said that the Conservative Party is going to give this matter much more thought, which is also very welcome. The Government have moved, albeit under pressure from the judges and, I hope, from some of us. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 12 [Refugee: back-dating of benefits]:

Lord Rooker moved Amendment No. 9:

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 9, I wish to speak briefly also to Amendments Nos. 10 and 11.

These amendments make minor consequential changes to the regulations applying in Northern Ireland to ensure consistency with the other
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regulations referred to in Clause 12. Clause 12 expressly revokes the regulations that set out the current back payments system established under the powers contained in Section 123 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. We discussed that scheme at some length both in Committee on Recommitment and on Report. As I say, these amendments make purely minor consequential changes to the regulations applying to Northern Ireland. I beg to move.

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