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15 Mar 2010 : Column 447

Lord Newby: The Minister referred to violence being used by loan sharks at the bottom end of the market. Is he satisfied that trading standards officers and the police have the resources that they need to crack down on loan sharks where they are known to operate?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, since 2004, the Government have committed £16.5 million to tackling illegal money lending. Initially, that covered two pilot areas-Glasgow and Birmingham-but was rolled out in 2007 to cover every region of England as well as Wales and Scotland. The Government will continue to fund an anti-loan-shark team in every region until March 2011.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, is it not the case that district and circuit judges have a wide discretion to brand as unconscionable high rates of interest and indeed any other oppressive condition in such a contract? Is it not time that every opportunity should be made to exercise that discretion, which enables courts to clamp down considerably if they are so minded?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: I would not demur from the point made by the noble Lord.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: Will my noble friend encourage our ministerial colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions substantially to increase the loan facility of the social fund, which makes credit available to people on lowest incomes, including benefit incomes, at virtually nil rate and reasonable terms of repayment? That would surely be an appropriate way to drive out some of the completely hazardous and disgraceful rates-not just 500 per cent but 1,000 per cent at the lower end of the market.

Lord Young of Norwood Green: I agree with my noble friend. There has already been some increase in the social fund and we will continue to try to ensure that that provides an opportunity for people to ensure that they get loans at a reasonable rate, especially at the vulnerable end of the market.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead: My Lords, in the continuance of support for credit unions, do the Government have any initiatives to assist in their start-up in localities and communities? One of the most difficult periods is in the earliest months of a credit union. It would be a great help to the public-spirited people starting them up if the Government could show some initiative in helping them, perhaps with preferential council tax on the premises that they often have to take at expensive rates in high streets.

Lord Young of Norwood Green: I agree with my noble friend. We have taken some steps, as I said in Answer to the right reverend Prelate, to support credit unions. We have taken steps to make them more accessible to vulnerable consumers. As I said, the growth fund has enabled credit unions and CDFIs to make more than 230,000 loans worth £100 million to financially excluded people. We will do everything we can to assist the establishment of credit unions.

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Earl Attlee: My Lords, what is the most extortionate example of a home credit agreement in the Minister's brief?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: I have already answered that, as best as I can. The figures available tell us that rates of interest are extortionate. I have suggested 500 per cent, some have suggested that they are even higher than that and they may be right. These are illegal activities and, with a range of measures, we are doing our best to stamp them out.

Lord Teverson: Is it not the point that even credit card companies, which are supposed to be respectable banks, are still charging extortionate rates in double digits-up to 20 per cent APR-when we have a base rate of only half a per cent? Is that not even more outrageous in the terms of financial services?

Lord Young of Norwood Green: It might be a high rate of interest, but if we could reduce it from 500 per cent to the rates the noble Lord suggested, the people concerned might find that a considerable improvement.

Asylum Seekers: Support Payments


3 pm

Asked By Lord Avebury

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): My Lords, on 5 October 2009, we removed the distinction between rates of asylum support provided to single adults aged 18 to 24 and those aged 25 and over. The new unified rate was based on the lower rate provided to 18 to 24 year-olds, uplifted by 5.2 per cent. The rates paid to children and couples were also increased by 5.2 per cent. We continue to provide the over-25 rate to those who were in receipt of it prior to 5 October 2009, so no individual saw a reduction in their rate of support.

Lord Avebury: Is it still the Government's policy to provide for the essential living needs of asylum seekers awaiting their decisions? Can the Government give the calculation on which the reduction from £42 to £35 for an adult over 25 was based? Would the noble Lord agree that following the consultation on asylum support, the unfettered discretion of the Secretary of State to decide these amounts should be replaced by a process of scrutiny by Parliament to make sure that they are adequate to meet essential living needs?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the reasoning behind the change was that asylum seekers who otherwise would be destitute are given access to rent-free accommodation, plus all utilities paid and council tax included. Therefore, we felt that the difference between being 24 and 25 was nothing-it was exactly the same. All those things are provided, and this is an addition of money on top of that.

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As regards the other point, it is fair to say that it is something that needs to be looked at. I cannot give a promise that we will do that, but I certainly believe it is something that should possibly be looked at.

Lord Skelmersdale: Will the Minister confirm that by the end of next year, 2011, the UK Border Agency aims to conclude 90 per cent of new asylum cases within six months of application-in other words, to try and make this subvention as short as possible? There have been criticisms by the UNHCR and the Centre for Social Justice that six months is far too long. What is the noble Lord's response and what guarantees are in place to ensure that this target will be met?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, as the noble Lord says, our aim is that we will conclude all such cases within the six-month target. At the moment we have reached about 60 per cent, and we are marching towards achieving the target. Also, we are doing very well getting rid of the backlog that we had in these cases. It is very important that we look at these people very carefully and accurately, and I think we do that. The tightening of our borders has reduced the number of asylum seekers who are not real asylum seekers-people who are coming here because they want to work here and for other reasons-to about 24,000 in 2009 compared with 84,000 in 2002. This is a dramatic reduction in numbers. We have a very fair system. Real asylum seekers who deserve asylum are looked at very thoroughly and carefully and get asylum in this country. Those who come here for other reasons do not, as is appropriate.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, the Minister, in answering my noble friend Lord Avebury, justified increases for all categories by 5.2 per cent but not for people aged over 25. He did so on the basis that utilities costs did not apply to this category. Do they not apply to other categories as well? In other words, he can uprate for all other categories but this category. His explanation does not work.

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, perhaps I did not make myself clear. The reasoning behind it was that it made no real difference whether a single asylum seeker, who was already getting his accommodation, council tax and all utilities paid, was 21 or 22, or 26 or 27. It made sense to have that as one amount of money. That was the basis on which it was done.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds: My Lords, does the Minister support the sanctuary pledge, promoted by Citizens for Sanctuary and based on the findings of the Independent Asylum Commission, that people seeking sanctuary can have access to essential support and public services?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I have to admit to being not absolutely au fait with that specific issue. I think I can promise that we always make sure that we look after people who come here to try to gain asylum. We give asylum to genuine asylum seekers. That is something that we can be proud of in this country. I will write to the right reverend Prelate on the specifics of his question.

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Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the tragic case of the three failed asylum seekers in Glasgow, who committed suicide? Can he confirm that Glasgow is the only local authority taking on the huge burden and responsibility of looking after asylum seekers in Scotland? Will his department now reopen discussions with other Scottish local authorities to make sure that that responsibility is spread more widely?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I cannot speak in detail on that case because what exactly happened is still being looked at. It is incumbent on all parties to make sure that these things are looked at closely and are dealt with. It is necessary for all of us to look at these things closely to make sure that such horrible events do not happen.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, of the figures given by the noble Lord, how many applicants are successful every year and how many applicants are returned overseas?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I do not have that specific figure at my fingertips, but I think around 13 per cent were being returned and around 30 per cent were successful. Any expert in mathematics can work out that that is not 100 per cent. That is because many of these cases involve dual counting, duplication, wrong names and so on. There are a huge number of those. We have to take into account all of the backlog as well as the people currently coming in. If I have a specific figure for those coming in now, I will write to the noble Lord.

British Airways: Industrial Dispute

Private Notice Question

3.07 pm

Asked by Baroness Hanham

The Secretary of State for Transport (Lord Adonis): My Lords, passengers will be seriously inconvenienced if a strike goes ahead. The Prime Minister and I have urged the union to call off the strike and urged both sides to seek to reach an agreement. We continue to do so. However, British Airways is a private company and the resolution of the dispute is a matter for the company and its staff. The Government have no powers to impose a settlement.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. While we welcome his words and those today of the Prime Minister in roundly condemning Unite's action, we want to know what else can be done to prevent the lives of millions of passengers being badly affected. Is not the real problem over this and the Government's ability to handle it that the Government have turned a blind eye for months to the growing crisis because the Labour Party

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has been funded by Unite to the tune of more than £11 million since the Prime Minister became leader, and Mr Charlie Whelan-one of the so-called forces of hell identified by the Chancellor of the Exchequer-is political director of Unite and up to his elbows in Labour's general election campaign? Will the Labour Party now stop taking donations from that trade union? Are the Government hampered in taking any action because of these donations?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, the noble Baroness's remarks were well below the level of events. This is an industrial dispute; it is not a political dispute. I deeply regret the attempt by the Conservative Party to politicise the dispute, which will make it so much more difficult for it to be solved in the way we all wish it to be. The Prime Minister's statement this morning could not have been firmer. My statement yesterday could not have been firmer. We wish to see this dispute resolved by negotiations, not by strike action. I continue to call on the union to lift the threat of the strike and get back to the negotiating table.

In respect of arrangements made for passengers who stand to be severely inconvenienced, British Airways has put out a statement setting out how it intends to handle flights if the strike goes ahead. The statement on its website at the moment says:

"We plan to operate all British Airways' flights from London City airport, including long-haul services to New York. From Gatwick, we plan to operate all long-haul services and about 50 per cent of short-haul. From Heathrow, we plan to operate a substantial part of our long-haul and short-haul schedule ... We are also in the process of obtaining seats on flights operated by other carriers to enable thousands of customers to fly to their chosen destinations".

BA will give further details later today or tomorrow about precisely which flights will operate and which ones will not. BA is clearly therefore doing all it can to get early information to passengers. In this House, we should do all we can to urge both sides to reach a settlement so the strike does not take place.

Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, I thank the Secretary of State. We support the statement he made over the weekend which has been endorsed by his right honourable friend the Prime Minister today. Reports in the press indicate that the RMT union is planning serious disruption on the railways at Easter. This sort of action both in British Airways and on the railway is an attempt to blackmail employers, using the travelling public as a weapon. I know the difficulties which exist with private companies but I want the Secretary of State to exert every effort possible to ensure that disputes such as these are dealt with through arbitration rather than through the unacceptable measures that the unions are taking. These are not down-trodden and exploited workers. Many of them are among the better paid people. I really think that they and their unions have a duty to provide the public with the service they pay for.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord that passengers should not be held to ransom in seeking to resolve industrial disputes. That applies to the railways as much as to the airlines.

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Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I speak as the president of BALPA. Does my noble friend agree that the Government should use their influence on both sides so that they abandon their preconceived views, which are not helpful? It is imperative that they engage urgently in talks designed to resolve this absolutely stupid dispute.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend on the importance of both sides talking. They were close to a settlement last Thursday. If they could return to the negotiating table it might well be possible to avert this strike. I urge them to do so immediately.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, I declare an interest as a past chairman of the Air Transport Users Council. What part has the present Air Transport Users Council played in this strike?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, it has been urging that flights should continue. I am not sure that it has any locus to help bring the sides together or enable them to reach an agreement but I know it has spoken up strongly on behalf of the interests of passengers.

Lord Ryder of Wensum: My Lords, can the Minister explain what the Unite union is doing in its dispute with British Airways that is inconsistent with its overall responsibilities as a trade union and duties to its members?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, the question is whether it is possible to reach a settlement which meets the concerns of the unions without needing strike action. The two sides came very close indeed to such a settlement last Thursday. If they return to the negotiating table there is every reason to believe that it would be possible for them to reach a settlement which meets the interests of the members of the union without requiring strike action and the massive inconvenience and disruption that will be caused to the travelling public.

Lord Richard: My Lords, my noble friend has made his position and that of the Government perfectly clear as regards their attitude towards the union. Do the Government feel that British Airways should now retable the proposals it tabled last week and withdrew? I may be wrong but I understand that those proposals got within a whisker of being agreed by both sides. Should we not therefore be pushing British Airways, as well as the union, to do something?

Lord Adonis: My Lords, if both sides come together for negotiations, I am sure that the offer that was on the table last Thursday will be one of the matters that they wish to discuss. However, they need to get round the table and start negotiating seriously before that is possible.

Lord Hamilton of Epsom: My Lords, does not the fact that Unite is such a major donor to the Labour Party, which is very significant in the run-up to the imminent election, make it very difficult for the Government to condemn the trade union in the way that perhaps they should?

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Lord Adonis: My Lords, if I may say so, that is a ridiculous question. It is equivalent to saying that, because some noble Lords opposite give very large sums of money to the Conservative Party, the Conservative Party should not be regarded as a legitimate force in this House. There is a proper system in place for party funding; everything is done within the law; and, as I said, this is an industrial, not a political, dispute.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, is it not better that the parties be allowed to settle their dispute in the proper way? The TUC has already been involved, as is perfectly proper, but surely it does not help if the dispute becomes involved in party politics. As the Prime Minister did this morning, we should be urging the parties to get together to have realistic negotiations, leading, it is to be hoped, to the resolution of a very difficult problem.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, that is precisely what the Prime Minister and I are urging both sides to do.

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