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Lord Rooker: My Lords, there was one phrase used by the noble Lord which I wish he had not used. My response to it is this. The British taxpayer is forking out over £1 billion a year for asylum seekers. To say that we are short-changing asylum seekers is just the kind of thing that plays into the hands of those friends at the Daily Mail, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord McNallybecause they will twist it. To say that we are short-changing asylum seekers, when we are spending over £1 billion by way of taxpayers' support, is extravagant language in the extreme and sends out all the wrong signals regarding the policy we are trying to address.
In the letter dated 30 June which he wrote to my noble friend Lady Scotland the noble Lord made a number of points, and I am grateful to him for making these known before the debate. He has not yet received a written response from the noble Baroness, and I do not say that the response is winging its way from the Home Office, but it is being put together. I will now try to answer those points.
The first point the noble Lord makes is about the arithmetical equivalence or otherwise of the benefits available to asylum seekers in NASS accommodation, as compared with UK nationals. As has been said in the exchange of letters, the Government's assessment is that the difference is on average 4 per cent. In the debate on 29 June on the Asylum Support (Amendment)(No. 2) Regulations, the noble Lord set out a calculation which concluded that the difference is 7 per cent for a married couple with no children.
The Government will happily set out the assumptions by which they have arrived at the figure of 4 per cent. I will not go through them line by line, but the Government do not wish to make a point of disputing the noble Lord's detailed calculations. It so happens that we have used slightly different assumptions and have come up with a slightly different conclusion.
At the risk of falling foul of the noble Lord, I have to make the point clear. The fundamental difference between the Government and the noble Lord is not whether the answer is 4 per cent or 7 per cent. The question is whether any difference is acceptable at all. That is implicit in what the noble Lord said, and I see that the noble Lord agrees with me. In the Government's view, a difference of 7 per cent, such as is estimated by the noble Lord, is acceptable. However, we do not say that the numbers add up
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exactly. Our argument is that the two regimes are broadly the same in material effect. We are not arguing about the percentages.
I also make the point that access to income support opens up another avenue completely. I said at an earlier stage of this legislation that, in the long run, it might have been cheaper not to have had NASS support in the first place. However, I repeat that we are running a system that is costing over £1 billion in support of asylum seekers.
The noble Lord also said in his letter that we have ignored asylum seekers who have opted for subsistence-only support, and those denied any support at all by virtue of Section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. Neither of these groups will have had any support in kind from NASS. If those in accommodation are out of pocket to the tune of 7 per cent, those on subsistence only will be out of pocket to the tune of 30 per cent, and those denied support altogether to the tune of 100 per cent. We have not ignored these cases.
In so far as Article 23 may be relevant, the Government's view is that it requires only that the treatment of refugees and nationals be broadly the same in material effect, not identical. Mainstream benefits are intended as a basic safety net to ensure that the poorest have a roof over their heads and sufficient money on which to live. Asylum seekers on subsistence-only support will have this.
Applicants who do not claim as soon as reasonably practicable after entering the UK are still able to access National Asylum Support Service support in the usual way, if they do not otherwise have means of support available to them.
In Clause 12 the Government are proposing to abolish a discredited and retrospective system of back payments, which rewarded time spent stringing out the asylum process. I have explained today how advisers sometimes become involved in that process. We are seeking to stop that.
In Clause 13 we are replacing this with a new, forward-looking system of refugee integration loans. The Government are satisfied that this is within both the spirit and the letter of the Refugee Convention, and we hope that it will result in a better deal for refugees.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, the argument is not one solely between myself and the Minister. The argument is between me and the UNHCR on the one hand and the Minister on the other. The Minister has to satisfy the UNHCR that he is in compliance with Article 23 of the Convention.
He says that it is okay to short-change the asylum seekers by 4 per cent or 7 per cent and, as he says, we are not arguing about the exact figure because we can attempt to reconcile the arithmetic "off-line", as it were.
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I stick by the figures I gave and I have told the colleague of the noble Lord where the figures came fromthe Government's own statistics. If his calculation comes up with a slightly different figure, we will not argue about that detail. However, the noble Lord is now saying that to be in full compliance with Article 23 it is sufficient to give the asylum seekers something less than equal treatment with British citizens. That is not what the Convention says and not what the UNHCR's interpretation of the Convention confirmswhich the noble Lord has seen.
Although we will not take this any further this evening on the Floor of the House, I can assure the noble Lord that he has not heard the last of it. It will be necessary for him to satisfy not just the UNHCR representative in the UK but UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.
It is a matter of principle. It is the difference between the noble Lord, who says that something which is roughly equivalent, but is less than full equal treatment by 4 or 7 per cent, complies with the Convention, and the authorities of the UNHCR, who say that equal means equal. It is a matter we will not resolve this evening, but I am sure that the noble Lord will hear a great deal more of it hereafter. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I hope that I can be very brief on this. It may also be for the convenience of the House, given the time we have needed to discuss such important matters this afternoon, if I indicated that I do not need to move Amendment No. 14. I have notified the Front Benches and the ensuing speaker.
Amendment No. 13 gives the Government the opportunity to carry out a commitment they gave at a previous stage of the Bill when, on 28 June at col. 44, the Minister said that the Government were intrigued by the proposal of this amendment; that they would look at it, and come back with further clarification at Third Reading.
The Clause enables the Government to provide an integration loan to refugees, which will replace the backdating of benefits. The question I asked was whether it would not be convenient for the Secretary of State to have the power, in making a loan, to be able to make that loan by way of instalments rather than in one lump sum, particularly if a fairly large sum of money were involved.
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, I, too, greatly look forward to hearing the Minister's reply. After reflecting on this matter it seems that we do not yet know the nature of the loan scheme or how much it will cost the taxpayer. It will be fairly expensive. However, it could be, without in any way incommoding a refugee, that much money could be saved if it was possible to pay a certain amount of the loan and then proceed later with other sums by instalments. As my noble friend said, a person's circumstances may change and we hope that many refugees, having received a loan, will find a job and begin to earnperhaps well and will not need the further loan instalments. Will it be possible to incorporate this provision in the loan scheme?
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