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Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the exemplary scheme run by the National Grid in conjunction with Reading Jail
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Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: Indeed so, my Lords. My noble friend the Leader of the House was involved in the establishment of that project. There is much that we can learn, and we are developing alliances with employers to take advantage of good practice. I certainly will commend that to my colleagues in the department. Thank you.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, Her Majestys Revenue and Customs intends to respond to the ombudsmans report positively. The report makes useful recommendations on the changes to the proposed procedures for recovering overpayments which will help make them successful.
Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but it completely fails to match up to the scale of the problem. This is not about the HMRC. Do the Government accept the ombudsmans finding that complainants frequently explain how they budget carefully to avoid debt and have little or no savings to fall back on, and then how distressing it is for them that the tax credits system lands them with a significant debt at the end of the year? Do they accept the finding that the annualised system is basically a serious design fault? In particular, do the Government accept the ombudsmans call that Parliament must examine the whole structure of the tax credits system? This is not about HMRC but about a Government sorting out a failed system.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, whether Parliament addresses itself to this issue is of course for the respective Houses to take decisions on. The Government will of course present a strong case for the benefits that tax credits have brought to the countryreducing child poverty and bringing returns to poorly resourced families.
There are problems with administration which the ombudsman quite rightly addressed. When she reported in 2005, HMRC responded positively; in fact, she commented on the positive response. Of course, HMRC intends to respond to the detailed criticisms in her present report.
Lord Higgins: My Lords, were the Government not warned time and again of the danger of getting the Inland Revenue to give money away rather than collect it? Has it not proved to be the case that they have been grossly inefficient in distributing the money, and very tough indeed in how it is being collected? As a result, an immense amount of misery has been caused to a large number of the poorest members of our community. Is this not the fault of the previous Chancellor, who was determined to switch this from social security to the Treasury?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, as I have already indicated, there have been difficulties, but the House will appreciate that in the first years of the scheme the success rate was about 79 per cent. It is now up to 97 per cent in terms of accurate assessment of what the Revenue should pay or collect. Of course, we will not rest satisfied until we are as close to 100 per cent as possible. We are mindful of the fact that every weakness impacts upon our fellow citizens but we should not detract from the enormous benefits that the scheme has brought to our people.
Baroness Noakes: My Lords, the Minister just quoted a figure for accuracy which does not stand up to examination. The plain fact is that £1.7 billion was overpaid; that was the third year of the figure being nearly £2 billion. This system more regularly makes mistakes than gets it right and desperately needs a complete rethink. When will the Government deal with it?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, if the system more regularly got it wrong than right, the number of recipients dealt with accurately and effectively would, by definition, be below 50 per cent. As I have already indicated to the House, we are dealing with this on the basis of judgments being 97 per cent accurate. That does not alter the fact that the ombudsman has clearly identified weaknesses in administration. I make the obvious point that that is the ombudsmans task: she will have areas of weakness drawn to her attention. That should not detract from the success of the scheme and, as I have indicated, the value it has brought to large numbers of our people, including children in poverty.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, is not the problem we are addressing the fact that wages do not reflect family size and family need? Equally, neither do tax bands because of individual disaggregation. That means, therefore, that tax credits uniquely bridge the gap between family size and family income in a way that has transformedtransformedthe life chances of hundreds of thousands of children and thousands of lone parents who, as a result of those tax credits, now see their take-home pay doubled and that work pays.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. The House will recognise her well earned expertise in this area. The House will appreciate my noble friends long-standing commitment both on
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Lord Trimble: My Lords, the point is that mistakes are made by the Revenue. As my noble friend said, those mistakes amount to nearly £2 billion per annum. Why should the recipient be penalised for mistakes made by the Revenue?
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the recipient should not be penalised and the ombudsman identifies what the Revenue must do to improve its performance. As I have indicated, we responded positively to the report in 2005, and we intend to respond positively to her recommendations for the improvement of the scheme contained in her report published on 9 October.
Lord Grocott: My Lords, with the permission of the House, my noble friend Lord Davies of Oldham will repeat a Statement entitled International Financial Market Instability at a convenient time after one oclock.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I start by paying tribute to the careful and painstaking work of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. It examined and took evidence on the whole subject of the treatment of asylum seekers and drew the attention of Parliament to particular aspects of the Bill. I regret that the Government have accepted few, if any, of its recommendations, just as they rejected virtually all the amendments over which we laboured in Grand Committee.
Amendment No. 13 is designed to implement the recommendation in paragraph 236 from the Joint Committee. This is referred to in section 39 of the Governments response to the JCHR, to be found in House of Lords Paper 134 of 5 July this year. Sections 36 to 38 and 40 are also relevant to this vexed and complex issue which, as the Minister admitted in Grand Committee on 12 July at col. 273, is a difficult area for government. He went on to say that we as a country should treat decently people who are seeking refuge and who claim to have suffered torture. The noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, confirmed that in a recent Written Answer that stated:
The problem is, as the Joint Committee pointed out, that a wide gap exists between policy and practice over the detention of vulnerable adults, which was revealed by the evidence taken. That is confirmed by the knowledge that many of your Lordships already have concerning individual cases and by the particular cases that I quoted in Grand Committee on 12 July at col. GC 263. I therefore agree with the Joint Committee that the detention of innocent but vulnerable adults continues despite the repeated assurances to the contrary given by Ministers in successive Governments, which I have previously detailed.
On 12 July, the Minister said, at column GC 277, that the appropriate procedures were being followed. That may be so, but, I suspect, only in the sense that allegations and suspicions of previous torture and rape are recorded and passed on up the line with appropriate receipts being given. What happened about the 57 torture reports in the first half of 2006 from the Harmondsworth centre alone, as detailed by Her Majestys Inspector of Prisons? Despite the procedures, verification is seldom done. This should happen through references to the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture or to other experienced doctors. It appears to happen too seldom or only after excessive delays. A different sample of 56 cases analysed by Medical Justice, which was quoted by my noble friend Lady DSouza at col. GC 266, was convincing in highlighting the gap between theory and practice.
This amendment is both narrower and wider than the one I moved in Grand Committee. It is narrower because it does not focus on allegations of torture, which may be false or imaginary, and it is wider because it embraces all groups who should objectively be considered as vulnerable. They should include torture survivors, and the Government might like to add words in the Bill or in later guidance concerning prompt verification of torture claims leading to release from detention. The amendment also specifies pregnant women and cases of serious physical or mental ill-health. I have provided for the Secretary of State to add additional categories; for example, women who have suffered gender persecution. The first duty imposed by the amendment is to prevent the detention of the vulnerable. In the nature of things, some mistakes will be made and some vulnerable adults will probably still be detained. There is, therefore, a second duty to ensure their release.
I submit that this is a better and more practical amendment, one that is fully in line with the recommendations of the bipartisan Joint Committee on Human Rights. I urge the Government not to reject it out of hand but to honour the many assurances they have given in the past, so that theory and practice will from now on go hand in hand. The responsibility for closing the existing gap surely rests with the Secretary of State. She can do this either by legislation or by administrative means, provided that the latter actually work and produce the results we all want. The Secretary of State therefore has a choice.
Will the Minister take away my amendment and come back at Third Reading with something that is satisfactory to all? As a refinement perhaps I may suggest that subsection (2) of my amendment reads to ensure the prompt release of vulnerable adults held in detention.
Lord Judd: My Lords, I hope my noble friend will be able to give a convincingly reassuring response to the amendment. It relates not only to detention centres but to the whole of our penal policy. Anyone who has had anything to do with prisons knows that they are
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However, we should be focusing our attention on two things: those who should not be in any kind of detention because of their psychiatric or mental condition, or, indeed, those who are the victims of torture. I do not think that it is possible to overestimate the significance, the trauma and the appalling scars for people who have been subjected to torture. They need all possible humanitarian support and assistance, whatever the situation that confronts them.
The other point is to make sure that where people who are in these categories need to be detained, there is appropriate detention which meets their needs. The tragedy is that in some placesperhaps in too many casesconditions are made worse by the experience of detention and therefore problems accumulate for the future. I hope that my noble friend will take very seriously the issues raised in this amendment and be able to assure us that the Government are thinking hard and constructively about what should be done in this area of policy.
The Lord Bishop of Winchester: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and also to the noble Lord, Lord Judd, for this amendmentwhich, as each of them pointed out, is yet another of these amendments which from different vectors comes into the heart of the issues with which we are dealing. The reality is that, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, just noted, most people in this position are in one respect or another vulnerable. Last year, or possibly the year before last, this House attended to what was then the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill. Elsewhere in society a great deal of attention is now being given to vulnerable people in one situation or another, whether in their own homes, in elderly peoples homes or in hospitals. I wonder whether everybody concerned with detention centres has been CRB-checked and all those kinds of things, as every vicar and every minister of religion who visits old peoples homes is as a matter of course.
We have to realise that a very large proportion of those seeking asylum, if genuine, as many of them are, will have had serious and damaging experiences of detention, even if those fall short of torturethose are difficult distinctions to make. As we noted the day before last when we debated these matters, and as both the noble Lords, Lord Hylton and Lord Judd, said, the likelihood is that, at any rate, most women in that position will have suffered at least severely inappropriate treatment, if not rape, at one point or another, because in many of the areas from which asylum seekers come, ill-treatment of womenrape and still worse thingsis basic to the way that a range of militia, ill-disciplined, police forces and the military behave. There are many forms of ill-treatment short of torture.
As the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, noted, there are far too many people in the system whose probably genuine record of torture and ill-treatment has simply not been passed onnot noted or, if noted, not properly recorded and passed on. There are also people who are vulnerable because they have not received the right
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Finally, I was recently given the figureit will be interesting to know how the Minister responds to itthat more than 50 per cent of those presently in detention centres are there because they are foreign national prisoners awaiting repatriation. I was told that their presence radically affects the tone and feel of detention centres at present, making them more dangerous, less secure places for adults, let alone children, as we heard two days ago, who are already vulnerable. On all those counts, the amendment is critical and I very much look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment No. 26, which is grouped with, but more limited than, the proposal advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, and which is supported by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and the right reverend Prelate. I must congratulate the noble Lord on the persistence with which he has raised the subject most effectively over a great many years. He has extended his concern today to pregnant women and those with serious physical and mental health conditions, for whom I agree that detention is inappropriate, except possibly when they are part of a family. In his reply to a similar amendment moved in Committee, the Minister acknowledged that a history of torture would normally make it inappropriate to detain the victim, other than in exceptional circumstances. The Operational Enforcement Manual requires officials to consider a history of torture and physical or mental ill health as factors against detention without going as far as prohibiting it altogether, but specifically requiring a separate decision to detain, not merely a consideration of the matter as part of the examination of the application, as has sometimes happened in the past.
The difficulty is that, as the Minister hinted in our previous discussion, some people make false allegations of torture in the expectation that it may reinforce their claim for asylum. As we noted before, it appears from the reports of the chief inspector on Yarls Wood, Dungavel, Campsfield House and Harmondsworth that they all completed the Form 35 letters which report the allegations of torture to the case holder, but then there was a lack of feedback from the case holder to the management of the IRC on the further action that should be taken. The Minister agreed that that issue needed to be looked at and addressed. Our Amendment No. 26 suggests a way in which that can be done.
I am grateful to the Minister for his letter of 9 October in which he says that, following the review of procedures on Rule 35 of the Detention Centre Rules, a central log of Rule 35 letters should be kept at every immigration and removal centre, and that BIA staff have been reminded to acknowledge the letters and to take them,
I am asking that they go further and report on the specific action they take, which might include not
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