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Lord Hylton: My Lords, these government amendments give me an opportunity to make a special appeal to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. Would he be so kind as to use his influence in the Home Office on a Northern Ireland matter? What is happening at present is that small numbers of asylum seekers are being imprisoned in Northern Ireland, sometimes for rather long periods. This is something which makes the management of Northern Ireland prisons, which is already extremely difficult, rather more complicated than it need be.
I suggest to the noble Lordperhaps he will discuss this with his colleagues both in the Home Office and in the Northern Ireland Officethat there is a fairly simple solution; namely, to commission a housing association in Northern Ireland, of which there is quite a range, to provide accommodation that is semi-secure, under curfew, or under whatever restrictions the Government wish to impose, so that these people can be held in a known place while their cases are considered rather than having them in prison. I hope that that appeals to the noble Lord's good nature.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, certainly, it is news to me that asylum seekers are being held in prison as asylum seekers anywhere in the UK. I did not know about that situation in Northern Ireland. I shall ensure that the matter is taken up by my ministerial colleagues in the Home Office who have policy responsibility for the matter. I am but their mouthpiece here, but nevertheless it is a matter for which I am answerable as a government spokesman. I shall ensure that we try to achieve a satisfactory solution to the point raised by the noble Lord.
"( ) Regulation 11(1) and (2) of the Social Security (Immigration and Asylum) Consequential Amendments Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 (S.R. 2000 No. 71) (which make similar transitional savings) shall cease to have effect."
"( ) No such order shall be made unless the Secretary of State is satisfied that the amount of benefits paid to or on behalf of the refugee while his application was under consideration or under appeal was equivalent in total to the amount a person would have received by way of income support and housing benefit for the same period and for accommodation of the same value."
The noble Lord said: My Lords, as the Minister may perhaps have gathered, this amendment is designed to resolve the arguments that we had several times during the course of this Bill, as well as on the asylum support regulations a week ago, on the value of the NASS full support package for asylum seekers waiting for their cases to be decided, and whether or not if it comes to less than they would have received on income support, the Government are in breach of their obligation under Article 23 of the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees to,
We have said all along that asylum seekers do not get the same treatment as our own citizens, and in 2002 the Government conceded that the voucher scheme constituted inferior treatment not only because the vouchers could be cashed only in certain shops, but also because, as the then Home Secretary Mr Jack Straw frankly acknowledged that,
When the vouchers were scrapped in 2002, they were replaced by cash amounting to 70 per cent of income support, and the payment of utility bills and household costs continued, as before. So the value of the total package must have remained at the 90 per cent of income support declared by the then Home Secretary, unless for some unexplained reason the utility and household costs for people on income support had increased from 20 per cent to 30 per cent of their expenditure. That seemed to be the claim of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, when he said:
But there was never any attempt to justify this astonishing increase from 20 per cent to 30 per cent in a period of less than three years. When the matter came under closer scrutiny on 15 June and again last week, first the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and then the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, contented themselves with repeating the bare assertion, without giving any of the underlying arithmetic.
"The Government has not provided Parliament with the detailed evidence which demonstrates that the value of the benefits in kind provided to asylum-seekers is equivalent to the value of the back-payments being abolished".
The Government did not provide any evidence and they still have not done so, though it was not the back payments themselves that were at issue; it was whether the total package was equal to 90 per cent, 100 per cent, or some other percentage of income support.
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The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, has acknowledged at last, in a letter dated 25 June, which I did not receive until the day after the previous debate on this clause, that the package is not worth 100 per cent after all, and that the assertion made on at least three occasions was wrong. The JCHR ought now to consider, in the light of that admission, whether there is a significant risk of a breach of Article 23 of the Refugee Convention or Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights in conjunction with Article 1 Protocol 1. The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, now tells me in this letter that the value of the package is,
I made it 7 per cent, and I gave the details of the calculation, which the noble Baroness has not done, but whether it is 4 per cent or 7 per cent, asylum seekers are worse off by that amount than British citizens on income support levels.
Ministers have also stated, incorrectly, that putting asylum seekers on level terms with those on income support means that they should not be eligible for payments other than bare NASS support. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, did not respond when I pointed out last Tuesday that people on income support have access to other discretionary payments which are not available to asylum seekers.
The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, in this letter, acknowledges that UNHCR has been critical of the Government's proposals in Clause 12, but she now advances a novel interpretation of the convention, which she has not discussed with the UNHCR, which is under international law the guardian and interpreter of the convention. She has not discussed it with the JCHR either, and its conclusions on Clause 11 were based on the assumption that the Government's previous statements about the arithmetic of their proposal were correct. The noble Baroness now says that short-changing asylum seekers by 4 per cent is,
I have taken advice on this, and, as I hope the noble Lord will be aware, the UNHCR has explicitly contradicted the noble Baroness's assertiona very unusual, if not unprecedented, occurrence. In its letter to me of 2 July it says:
"UNHCR does not consider that provisions which have 'broadly the same material effect' are sufficient to meet the standards required by the 1951 Convention . . . UNHCR considers 'same treatment' in Article 23 to mean exactly equal material benefits. This accords with the common usage of the word 'same' as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary. Equal treatment is fundamental to the spirit of the 1951 Convention, and there can be no degrees of equality".
Clause 12 puts asylum seekers in a benefits regime inferior to that required by Article 23 of the convention, and the Government must not deliberately enact a measure which makes the UK non-compliant with an important requirement of international law. This would be especially heinous, considering that we are members of the executive committee of the UNHCR, with a responsibility to set an example in upholding the standards set by the convention.
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This amendment would give us the breathing space that is needed to undertake proper consultations and to redesign the NASS package, so that it provides asylum seekers with the same treatment as our nationals and not something which falls short of that obligation. I beg to move.
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