|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
On health, I was a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights when it produced its report on asylum. Right across the party divide, as a whole committee, we became more and more profoundly disturbed by what we sawand really quite angry. Hence, we produced a rather tough report to which, if my noble friend the Minister will forgive my saying so, we have never yet seen a convincing reply. Think of how people with serious health needs are officially debarred from receiving the medical care that they should have. Think of the moral pressure and dilemmas that this places on the medical profession, including GPs who may be unable to ensure that the necessary medical attention can be made available. They may have to engage in subterfuges such as sending people to accident and emergency departments because that is the only way that any help will be provided. They may be watching sick people who could be prevented
3 Feb 2009 : Column 625
On education, one encounters traumas among children who are fully established residents, from families that have been here for centuries, when they see dreadful things happening to children with whom they have relationships and have felt to be part of their community, when those children are suddenly removed without explanation. How does the absence of legal aid help? It probably ends up with more muddle, confusion and cost.
The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, mentioned the Joint Committee on Human Rights and its report. I wonder whether we had the same sort of briefing, because he picked the two excerpts from the report that I was going to read. I shall not repeat them. However, apart from the humanitarian and moral issues, what worries me is the political issue. We live in a terribly dangerous age. It does not take many people who have been embittered to do terrible things or become caught up in them. I sometimes think that some experiences that people go through in immigration are almost designed to embitter them and make them possible targets for extremist recruitment.
But, of course, what is more important is what sort of society we want to be. We cannot appease prejudice and we certainly cannot buy off wilfully malicious press coverage. We have to look at the impact on race relations in general in society, if we appear to be subjecting people to embittering experiences in their search for asylum, particularly when, as the noble Lord rightly said, one remembers the traumas which these people have undergone.
At a time like this when the going gets tough, I suggest that this is the very time to stand firm on the principles which matter. This requires strong political leadership, not trying to appease the worst instincts in society, in which we should be behind those who carry the political responsibility on our behalf.
Twenty-eight organisations have written to some of us about the issues as they see them from church and caring organisations to voluntary organisations in the front line. These are responsible, sensible organisations that many of us support. They have sent us a very interesting and detailed brief. I give my noble friend notice that I intend to send it in its entirety to him in the hope that I can be given a detailed response from the Government on all the points it raises. But above all let us remember that history will look at us now, in an increasingly globalised, interdependent world, and judge us pretty toughly on how far the values that we say are essential to Britain, and of which we say we are proud, are really applied in the immigration and asylum process.
Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope: My Lords, we have heard two very powerful speeches. I am pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Judd, whose wisdom was demonstrated in his powerful, well argued 10-minute
3 Feb 2009 : Column 626
I wish to comment on a focused issue relating to refused asylum seekers, as we are now seeing some of the fruits of the legislation that has been promoted over the past 10 years. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Judd, that this is a difficult area for any Government to handle. However, worrying signs are emerging that some aspects of the legislation are coming home to roost in a way that should be, and is, uncomfortable for us all.
I do not want to repeat the quotations that have already been drawn from the invaluable report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Rather, I shall consider whether an entitlement to work and benefit provision acts as a magnet for abusive and potentially inept asylum claims. I was struck by the fact that the committee took no comfort from the claim of the then Home Office Minister, Mr Liam Byrne, that there was a real danger of a pull factorthat is how it is known in the jargonoccurring if people were given the right to work and access to a continuous flow of benefit income. The committee stated, in what I think is the most powerful recommendation in the report:
I freely admit that I am not an expert on the technicalities of asylum, but looking at the Home Offices own research and at my own experience in Scotland, where there is a slightly different perspective on some of this, I believe that promoting sensible levels of subsistence benefit on which people can have a chance of living over long periods does not act as a pull factor. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, made the important point that Section 4 support is meagre, but it is supposed to last only for a very limited period. However, some of these families live on Section 4 support for long periods. That was never the policy intention and it has consequences for peoples health, particularly childrens health, which the Government can no longer afford to ignore.
We need to be clear about where the Government are getting their evidence from as regards denying access to work and Section 95 benefits over a longer period for fear of people abusing access to additional services. In Scotland, people have access to secondary health provision under Section 4, because the relevant orders are different. In Scotland, there is a much more integrated approach to the whole application process. When families, particularly those with children, make an application in Scotland, there is a much more involved process, which sometimes leads to a voluntary return when people are refused entry. Families proceed along a much smoother path and receive a lot of co-operation and support that is just not available in England; I believe that the same circumstances apply in Wales. The English provision needs to be looked at again. If we were able to provide more support, we
3 Feb 2009 : Column 627
A position statement from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Improving Services for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, goes out of its way to say that the Government have done a huge amount in improving mental health services for the black and ethnic community. However, it says that there is absolutely no strategy for refugees and asylum seekers. The psychiatrists see incidents of mental illness now emerging. That is not surprising to anybody who knows the situation. The psychiatrists are now professionally concerned that mental illness is arising due to the socio-economic factors to which we subject refused asylum seekers. That matter needs to be addressed.
I wish to make three suggestions focused on the background that I have just explained. First, we should consider allowing Section 95 cover to continue throughout any claim from beginning to conclusion, whether a voluntary or a forced return to a home country is involved. I shall explain why that is sensible financially in a moment. Secondly, I suggest that we should permit legal entry to work after 26 weeks. Measures with which the Minister and I are familiar such as welfare to work and the right to bid for contracts to get people off benefits and into work can work on a spend-to-save basis. If we could demonstrate that people on Section 95 support could trade themselves off benefit and support themselves for the duration of the rest of their claim, irrespective of whether there is a forced or a voluntary return, there would be an absolutely cast-iron cost-benefit analysis case to make for taking such an approach. Thirdly, I hope that the Minister and his department have considered the experience in Scotland, where an integrated partnership approach is taken. I have seen CoSLA reports dealing with forums that encourage people to return in a co-operative and supportive way. I believe that such an approach would improve the situation for returnees. In Glasgow, there is an assisted family return project.
The case for taking out Section 4 and Section 9, as my noble friend mentioned, but particularly Section 4, is that Section 4 costs the public purse extra for a number of reasons. First, accommodation has to be found, which can be very expensive for local authorities. Secondly, the administration costs of the hated voucher scheme are a complete waste of money and an expense for nothing. The scheme forces people into misery; it is not effective and it does not work. Thirdly, the review of those entitled to Section 4 payments costs money. The review and appeal costs add to the totality of the present systems costs. The caseworker resources tied up in the administration of Section 4 are a waste of money, particularly given the review of the 200,000 cases that the Home Office are looking at. Those resources are important. Finally, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said, NHS support in England, where people are sent bills if they receive secondary care, costs money.
My final point relates to supporting these changes and abolishing Section 4. The cost of removal on a voluntary basis, as we know from Home Office figures, amounts to £1,000 on average. The cost of a forced
3 Feb 2009 : Column 628
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, for securing this dinner hour debate. I should declare my interest as an employer of seasonal workers from other countries within the EU at different times around the year. They represent a small but significant percentage of our workforce, which changes with the seasons. Most of them go home as the work ends, although many return regularly. I might add that our workers from Poland and such countries are hard-working, conscientious and prepared to apply their intelligence to the job in hand. I can also assure noble Lords that we are an Investors in People company and care equally for all our staff.
This debate is a sequel to last Wednesdays Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, which covered similar ground. However, I come to this subject from a very different direction from that of the noble Lord and, indeed, the noble Lords, Lord Judd and Lord Kirkwood. There is much concern about this issue. It cannot have helped the acute sensitivity of the subject when the Prime Minister chose to raise the issue of,
If ever a soundbite came back to bite its owner, this was it. What does the Minister have to say on this? Similarly, the Immigration Minister, Phil Woolas, has said that entitlements to benefits should be for citizens of our country, not other people. Does the noble Lord agree?
According to government figures, there are 199,667 non-British citizens in receipt of state benefits, including child benefit, jobseekers allowance and housing support. Given the current climate, does the Minister expect this figure to increase and, if so, what estimate has his department made of the increase? Of course, it is possible that the economic recession may persuade some migrants to return home, but there is an equal possibility that they might stay and become benefit dependent. After all, Tom Wlodarski of the East of England Polish Community Organisation said:
For many the answer is to bring their family here where they can support them with the higher UK wages and government support. Families are almost always better off ... as there is the generous welfare state.
The numbers are significant. Home Office figures state that some 895,000 eastern Europeans have been allowed to work in the UK since the EU expanded to
3 Feb 2009 : Column 629
I am pressing the Minister hard on this, because it is a sensitive issue and the Government can defuse this sensitivity only by being open about the scale of the problem, the issues involved and their intentions. The soundbite messages of the Prime Minister and Mr Woolas do not help the Government to gain the confidence of the British people. However, we should be happy that the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, has given us all the opportunity to debate the benefits of migrant workers. I look forward to the Ministers reply and his response to my questions.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Lord McKenzie of Luton): My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for initiating this debate and to all noble Lords who have contributed. As set down, its scope was wide, although in some respects it has focused on asylum seekers, so my response will seek to cover all aspects.
We fully recognise the impact that inward migration has had in boosting economic growth in the UK, in particular helping to meet previous shortages of labour and skills in the UK labour market. The diversity that this brings has enriched our culture. We also know that those suffering oppression around the world have long looked to the UK for safe haven.
Against this background, and consistent with our international obligations, it is important that we provide adequate support for people entering this country, especially when they come here to work. At the same time, we need to be aware that there are people entering the UK who will seek to take undue advantage of our social security and other care and support systems, so we need to balance the support we provide for foreign nationals entering the UK with protection of our internal support systems and the taxpayer. The rules we have in place, combined with immigration controls, seek to meet these aims. They balance help where appropriate with measures to protect our financial and care systems. As my noble friend Lord Judd said, sometimes these are difficult tasks.
Access to social security benefits is a complex topic which cannot be dealt with comprehensively in the time allowed for this reply. Different considerations apply for contributory benefits, income-related benefits and non-contributory benefits, such as attendance
3 Feb 2009 : Column 630
Contributory benefits are payable to anyone who satisfies the contribution conditions and other conditions of the benefit, regardless of nationality or length of stay in the UK. Most non-EEA nationals, are excluded from income-related benefits and non-contributory benefits, because they are subject to immigration control, which includes a requirement that they have no recourse to public funds. However, vulnerable individuals with certain types of leave to enter or remain in the UK can be eligible for benefits, provided that they are habitually resident in the UK. This can include those granted refugee status and humanitarian protection. In general terms, EEA nationals with worker status have recourse to public funds and may be entitled to claim income-related benefits. This could include housing benefit and council tax benefit. Should they fall out of work but remain in the labour market, they may claim jobseekers allowance.
However, matters are more restrictive for accession country nationals, A8 and A2. They have worker status while they are working and are registered, as appropriate, with the registration or authorisation scheme. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, asked about the fee. The registration happens when the worker is in employmentemployment has to precede itand the fee is paid only on first application. However, workers retain this status only if they have been working and registered for at least 12 months. Should this not be the case, entitlement to JSA and housing and council tax benefit will fall. Similar considerations apply to access to child benefit and tax credits. These situations can generate some of the problems around rough sleeping, which is why we are working with colleagues in accession countries to raise awareness of the eligibility rules and discourage those unlikely to find work from coming to the UK.
Asylum seekers, as the noble Lord has identified, are subject to immigration control and have no recourse to social security benefits until they have been granted leave to remain in the UK. However, those who are destitute and have childrenI will come to this latercan apply through the UK Border Agency for both financial support and help with accommodation. The level of support reflects its temporary nature and the fact that supported asylum seekers do not pay council tax or utility bills.
Last year, we extended support to cover facilitation of travel to medical appointments, the nutritional needs of pregnant mothers and young children, and clothing for children. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, posed several questions, particularly about asylum seeker applications and the average times taken for decisions on asylum claims. We are making decisions quicker than before and beat our target of concluding 40 per cent of cases within six months by the end of last year. Indeed, we are on track to conclude the
3 Feb 2009 : Column 631
The noble Lord also asked how long failed asylum applicants had to wait before they were removed. In 2007, we removed one person every eight minutesmore than 63,000 people in total. We have been clear that our top priority has been public protection, as part of a wider enforcement agenda.
Most migrants are privately housed, and around 95 per cent of householders who have arrived in the UK in the past two to three years live in the private rented sector. We know that houses of multiple occupation are a key source of housing for significant and often vulnerable groups in society. We also know that sometimes the housing conditions faced by migrants are poor. The introduction of mandatory licensing in 2004 of all privately rented HMOs, and discretionary arrangements for local authorities, should help to alleviate these issues.
The focus of provision of social housing is based on need. In framing their social housing allocation schemes, local authorities must ensure that reasonable preference is given to households that are homeless, overcrowded or have medical or welfare needs, including grounds relating to a disability. This applies equally to British citizens and eligible non-British citizens.
Inevitably, some people from abroad slip through the net, and in some cases end up sleeping rough on the streets. We recognise that this is a particular problem in London, and, to a lesser extent, in places such as Peterborough and Reading. We are providing funding to support local authorities in helping A8 nationals find work and, in some instances, pay for travel back to their own countries. We are also supporting Homeless Link to reduce rough sleeping among EU migrants in London and, as I said earlier, are investing in an extensive information campaign in accession countries to ensure that prospective migrants are aware that they will not have immediate access to social benefits.
Refugees are particularly vulnerable, and we are working with our partners to secure good housing outcomes for refugees and other migrants through developing the housing element of the UK Border Agency Refugee Integration and Employment Service and through the Housing Associations Charitable Trust Opening Doors initiative to improve the capacity of housing associations and refugee organisations.
Healthcare, too, is an important issue for migrants, as it is for all our citizens. The rules and procedures for eligibility to free NHS care for non-British residents balance the principles of fairness, humanity and affordability with the full treaty rights of all EEA citizens, and support for the legitimate movement of people to and from the UK. EEA citizens who take up residency in the UK for a reasonable period have full entitlement to both GP and hospital care. Shorter-term visitors receive all necessary treatment free of charge while they are here. However, this does not apply to pre-planned treatment without special arrangement.
We have bilateral health agreements with more than 30 other countries, including some in eastern Europe, Eurasia and many Commonwealth colonies. We have further exemptions for visiting students and workers
3 Feb 2009 : Column 632
I should like to make it clear that we do not provide routine free healthcare for unregulated illegal migrants or other visitors who may come seeking free healthcare. However, it is important to state that urgent treatment should never be denied to, or delayed for, any person, irrespective of their legal status or financial position. They should be charged subsequently for their care and we take reasonable steps to recover the cost. Our regulations are designed to protect the NHS, a free service established primarily for British residents, from inappropriate access by overseas visitors, while providing appropriate entitlements to EEA citizens and other current residents.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|