Assylum Seekers Question

House of Lords debates –Thursday, 19 March 2009

Asylum Seekers — Question

Lord Avebury (Liberal Democrat)To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the allegation in the paper Underground Lives by Positive Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (Pafras) that up to 500,000 asylum seekers in the United Kingdom are destitute.

Lord West of Spithead (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office; Labour)My Lords, the Government’s support policies are such that no person who has sought protection need be destitute while they have a valid reason to be here. Accommodation and subsistence are available to avoid destitution until an asylum seeker has had their claim fully considered, including appeals. Beyond that stage, there is support to avoid destitution for families, vulnerable people and those with a genuine barrier to going home immediately. 

Lord Avebury (Liberal Democrat)My Lords, does the Minister acknowledge that this report demonstrates that there are in fact tens of thousands of people, largely those who are classed as legacy cases, who are in this inhumane position of being destitute as a result either of their claims not being considered or being put on the shelf for many years, because no one quite knows how to deal with the huge backlog that accumulated under the previous system? In these circumstances could the Government not get on with the consultation that they have signalled to all the refugee agencies about supporting failed asylum seekers and legacy cases? Meanwhile, would they consider extending Section 95 support to families who are in this desperate position? 

Lord West of Spithead (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office; Labour)My Lords, first I should say that we do not actually recognise this 500,000 figure referred to by Pafras, which is quite a small group which we have not engaged with yet. In fact, it would have been very useful if it had engaged with us and maybe talked with us, as we do with many other organisations already, before this report came out. I imagine that the 500,000 figure relates, as the noble Lord mentioned, to the figure of about 450,000 that the then Home Secretary in 2006 referred to as a backlog. It was wrong that that backlog built up, we have put huge effort into addressing it, more than 155,000 of those people have been dealt with, there are case officers dealing with each block, and we are clearing the backlog at a rate of 10,000 a month and really addressing that area.As I have said, our policies are absolutely such that no person who has sought protection need be destitute. We are engaged in dialogue, we need to do that, but we are quite clear that we must maintain a distinction between people who are seeking asylum and those who are coming here for economic reasons. We believe that balanced migration is absolutely crucial for this country. immigrants have brought huge value to it, but we cannot just allow economic migrants to come here on any scale that they would like to. 

Lord Alton of Liverpool (Crossbench) My Lords, how does the Minister respond to the withering criticism in the 10th report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights? It stated:“We have been persuaded by the evidence that the Government has indeed been practising a deliberate policy of destitution of this highly vulnerable group”,and concluded that:“The system of asylum seeker support is a confusing mess”.Would he not do well to listen to the constructive suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, that we should have a more humane, more efficient, less expensive way of approaching this problem by leaving asylum seekers on Section 95 support, which is about 70 per cent of income support, until they are removed or integrated into society? 

Lord West of Spithead (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office; Labour) My Lords, we are in dialogue with a number of people. We need to continue that. We plan to introduce proposals to reform asylum support under the draft simplification Bill, and a consultation document will be going out shortly. However, when a decision has been made that a person does not require international protection and there is no remaining right of appeal or obstacle to their return, we expect unsuccessful asylum seekers to return voluntarily to their country of origin. Indeed, we are very generous in the package that we give them to assist them to do that. We work with the International Organization for Migration, we pay for asylum seekers’ flights back and we give them a package of up to £4,000 to enable them to resettle and to start their lives again in that country. I think that as a nation we are actually amazingly generous in that way, and we have to be very careful; this is a wonderful country and I should think that there are probably millions of people around the world who for economic reasons would rather live here—and we have to have some sort of control on this. 

Lord Morris of Handsworth (Labour) My Lords, is the Minister aware that a large number of children are separated from their families as part of the immigration process? A lot of these children will be thrust into destitution as a result of the Border Agency’s decision to withdraw funding. Will the Minister look again at the decision and enable organisations such as the Refugee Council to continue to support these children? 

Lord West of Spithead (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office; Labour) My Lords, I am not aware of the Border Agency separating children. I cannot imagine that that is done specifically by the Border Agency, because we are very clear in our responsibilities towards children; but I certainly will look into that and come back to the noble Lord with an answer. 

The Bishop of Ripon and Leeds (Bishop)My Lords, does the Minister share the concern of many of us for the psychological health of destitute asylum seekers and the views of the Royal College of Psychiatrists that the health of asylum seekers worsens on contact with the UK asylum system? What does he propose to do about it? 

Lord West of Spithead (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office; Labour)My Lords, the right reverend Prelate raises an important point. From my contact with the UK Border Agency, I can say that we have a group of very dedicated people who are trying their best to look after the cases with which they deal. Post the new asylum model in April 2007, a person is allocated to every single one of them and they do their best to look after them. I am aware of all the pressures but I go back to what I said: we have to have a proper way of managing this situation and I think that this is a sensible way of doing so. I have said before on the Floor of the House that each individual case is a real and personal tragedy, and it is. Clearly these people do not want to go back to where they came from, but a large number of them came here as economic migrants and we cannot afford to allow this country to be open to all those who would like to come here as economic migrants.

Baroness Hanham (Shadow Minister, Home Affairs; Conservative) My Lords, as it was a previous Home Secretary of this Government, David Blunkett, who managed to get the French Government to close the Sangatte centre at Calais because of the number of asylum seekers trying to get into this country—many of whom did, and they contribute to the number already mentioned—can the Minister tell us why the Government are now about to co-operate in the reprovision of a similar centre or centres?

Lord West of Spithead (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Security and Counter-terrorism), Home Office; Labour) My Lords, I am not aware of the full detail of that, so perhaps I may get back to the noble Baroness in writing. When I was in Calais, I was very aware of the huge number of people who want to get into this country. That goes back to my previous point: this is a wonderful country, so no wonder they all want to get over here. There were many hundreds of them by the fences and so on whom we had to stop getting in and we have been very successful in ensuring that they do not cross the Channel. They are in France or elsewhere in Europe and they should stay there if that is where they have got to and where they want to be, but somehow they seem to want to come over here.

Lord Dholakia (Liberal Democrat) My Lords, does the Minister accept—

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Minister of State (Sustainable Development, Climate Change Adaptation and Air Quality), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Labour My Lords, I know that the noble Lord is trying to get in, but I am sorry: we have hit 30 minutes.