§ 3.8 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Filkin)
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Filkin.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
House in Committee accordingly.
§ [The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES in the Chair.]
§ Clause 42 [Young asylum-seeker]:
§ Earl Russell
moved Amendment No. 142:Page 24, line 14, at end insert—() Any financial support made available as a result of subsection (1) above shall be paid in advance and such support for children over 16 shall be set at the same level as for children under 16.The noble Earl said: I would have said, "I rise", except for the fact that I have not yet had time to sit down. Anyway, I am deemed to have risen to move the amendment.
There is no youth training programme for asylum seekers. There is no New Deal for asylum seekers. So the reasons commonly advanced for paying a different rate for those over 16 and those under 16 do not apply. An asylum seeker over 16 who is not yet allowed to work and has not yet been here for six months is in the same position of financial dependence as his juniors. There is therefore a good argument for taking both cases together.
In the amendment, the use of the phrase "in advance" is also of considerable importance. The moment at which a claim for asylum is granted ought to be a moment of celebration for a refugee. All too often, it is one of the gravest spells of anxiety that they face. As they come off support under NASS they become eligible for benefits and that interval often can be extremely prolonged. Communication between NASS and the Benefits Agency has been very far from the best. Indeed, often the first that a refugee hears of his claim being accepted is a note from NASS saying, "Since your claim has been successful, your support has been terminated". The claimant takes the note to the Benefits Agency, which responds by saying, "We know nothing about this".
Considerable problems appear to surround the issue of form NASS 35, the signing-off form to be handed over to the Benefits Agency. I have been in correspondence with the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis of Heigham. They have been extremely helpful, but it is too soon to know whether, as a result, things will get any better. In any case, it is clear that having one's claim as a refugee recognised ought not to be a reason for immediate destitution.
If provision is made for payment in advance, one will cut off two weeks from any period of destitution, even if nothing else is done to improve the situation. 964 Taking two weeks off a period of destitution is by no means an insignificant advance. That alone would be a justification for the amendment. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Anelay of St Johns
I rise to speak to Amendment No. 142 to which I have added my name and which I see as a probing amendment. Two weeks ago I met representatives of the Refugee Children's Consortium. They believe that all unaccompanied children should receive the level of care and protection to which they are entitled, which can only be right. The consortium points out that the policy of different funding, and thus levels of support, on the basis of age is out of line with statutory guidance on the assessment and support of children under the national assessment framework. The guidance requires local authorities to undertake a full needs-based rather than age-based assessment of all children in need and provide them with appropriate support. The principle of best interest enshrined in the Children Act 1989 must also be applied.
The consortium rightly says that it is for the Government to justify the fact that the grant available to local authorities for the support of unaccompanied minors should be determined by the age of the child. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, made a powerful point when he referred to the fact that the usual arguments against a uniform rate do not apply in exactly the same way in this case.
I am aware that changes have been made to the systems of payment so that, although retrospectively, the grant is now paid quarterly in arrears. That improvement was welcomed by my honourable friend Mr Malins on 14th May, at col. 212 of the Official Report. However, we have to ask why the Government are not prepared to go the further yard or two in order to achieve something closer to a real-time reimbursement of support payments to local authorities.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
I recognise the generosity of spirit with which this amendment was moved. However, we do not think that it is necessary; indeed, in some ways it could be unhelpful.
The aim of the clause is to increase the flexibility with which the Home Office can reimburse local authorities. In our view, the amendment would restrict that. It asks for payments in advance to what is generally accepted on all sides to be a volatile, demand-led population that is extremely difficult to forecast. It means that local authorities would have to produce estimates of the number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children that they would be supporting in the future, as well as the costs that they were likely to incur. That could result in large balances being held in local authority accounts which could be used elsewhere. We do not regard that as a proper use of government funds.
As acknowledged, the Home Office has already moved to quarterly payments in arrears to local authorities for supporting adults and families. It fully intends to continue doing so for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. That will do much to remedy 965 some of the properly identified problems suffered by local authorities without the need for a complex advance payment system that would have to take account of the volatility that I mentioned.
The second part of the amendment seeks to fix grant levels for all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children to the same amount without taking into account the level of support required. Costs to local authorities are much more dependent on the actual support they provide for children as assessed on a one-to-one basis rather than crudely on age. Last year the grant regime sought to recognise this for the first time by continuing the higher rate of support for older children whose initial assessment had shown that they required support under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989. The higher rate for children supported under that section, as opposed to a rate set on an age basis, reflects the care costs to meet the needs of children as assessed under very strict guidance issued jointly by the Department of Health, the Home Office and the Department for Education and Skills.
We believe that it would be wrong and possibly damaging to children to pre-empt the assessment by prescribing levels of care based on age. That would not ensure that they received appropriate care while, of course, encouraging value for money. We do not think that we could justify paying the higher rate to all regardless of need and without regard to ensuring value for money.
I can advise the House that there is a thorough review of the grant mechanism in plan and that the overwhelming requests received from local authorities are for more flexibility rather than prescription. That may well be where we differ.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, asked about delays in assessing social security benefits. I pay tribute to him for having raised this issue with my noble friend Lord Rooker. As the noble Earl pointed out, his point has had a very sympathetic hearing. We recognise and acknowledge that there have been problems. In fairness, however, officials at the Home Office and the Department for Work and Pensions have been working to reduce the scale of any difficulties. We are trying to ensure that when an individual leaves his accommodation because he has been granted leave to remain he is provided for as quickly as possible.
The noble Earl referred to the NASS 35 document. This is issued to enable Jobcentre Plus, formerly the Benefits Agency, to calculate any backdated payments of benefits and thus is not strictly required to obtain benefits. Therefore asylum seekers should go without delay to their Jobcentre Plus with the document which granted them leave to enter or to remain, along with any other identification that they may have in order to start the process.
We are working very hard to ensure that any pain resulting from the transitional phase to which the noble Earl referred is minimised and that all necessary support is put in place in the way both the noble Earl and the Government would wish to see.
§ 3.15 p.m.
§ Earl Russell
The noble Lord is correct to point out that the production of form NASS 35 is not required to receive benefits. Could he manage to make that clear to the Benefits Agency?
§ Lord Dholakia
My Lords, before the Minister responds to the question put by my noble friend, can he also tell the Committee whether he has estimated the amount of money that will be involved under Clauses 110 and 111, bearing in mind that we are referring to the same level of support as that offered to those aged 16? The Minister should bear in mind the number of young asylum seekers awaiting a decision on their applications. There should be no difficulty in working out the costs involved.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
I shall seek to clarify for his benefit the point put to me by the noble Earl and ensure that he is made aware of the position.
I do not have to hand the figures sought by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. Again, however, I am willing to seek to find out what would be the implications because, clearly, costs are important. We need to ensure that the system is cost-effective.
I return to the first and most important point that I made; namely, ensuring that we have in place the requisite flexibility. That is most important in this area.
§ Earl Russell
The Home Office is always in favour of its own flexibility and everyone else's inflexibility. One person's flexibility necessarily involves inflexibility for another. Where one has a need arising and a procedure for meeting it, which may come sometime after it, clearly there has to be give somewhere in the system. The interim gap must be filled either by the asylum seeker, by the local authority or by the Home Office. If there is any fourth possibility it has not occurred to me. If it occurs to the Minister, I shall be very glad to hear it.
The question is which of the three is best able to show the flexibility needed for carrying a debt—which is what it is—during the period before it is reimbursed. The asylum seeker is in the worst position. I was reading late last night a brief from the BMA about health problems among asylum seekers. Admittedly it dates from the unlamented voucher days but some of it is still applicable, although I would hesitate to say how much. It indicates extremely poor standards of nutrition. It also indicates extreme hardship in regard to transport. In one case, for example, a man had to go and see a psychiatrist to get evidence in support of his claim, but, because he had no money whatever left for fares, he had to walk 35 miles through the night in order to be there in time for the interview. This does not suggest that asylum seekers are best able to show flexibility while waiting for their money to come in.
The Government may be under the illusion that local authorities are rather better off. Most local authorities would not share that opinion. A shortage of money among local authorities is a problem that has 967 got worse every year I have been in the House. The argument about the budget of care homes illustrates that very clearly, although this is not the time to go into that. So if someone is to bear the strain, it would be much better if it was the Home Office.
As to the question of not relating it to age, people of 18 eat as much as people of 17; they wear out their shoes as fast as people of 17; they need overcoats for the winter in Lancashire just as much as people of 17. If there is to be a discrimination, I do not see the rationale. If the Minister could enlighten me, I would be very interested.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
The noble Earl paints a dismal picture. I do not see it the same way. The Government appreciate that there are difficulties, but we have to make difficult choices. In working a system that provides aid and support, we have tried to increase flexibility. I believe that we have done that to a great degree. We have listened very carefully to what the noble Earl has said. As I said earlier, we are grateful to him for bringing to our attention the cases that he has. If we were to listen to every single case in the same way, we would end up with an infinitely expanding system. I do not believe that that would necessarily be right.
Hard choices have to be made in public expenditure. That is exactly what we have tried to do, but with fairness and balance. We have tried to ensure that local authorities are properly reimbursed and we have tried to speed up the process. In moving away from the voucher scheme—which the noble Earl says is unlamented, and I can understand why he said that— we have tried to focus on a flexible system.
I cannot accept the amendment. I understand the spirit in which it is moved and I accept that there are hard cases. But hard cases do not necessarily make good law, and we have to understand that important point in making hard choices. I invite the noble Earl to withdraw the amendment. The noble Earl brings to this issue his experience of cases in which he is involved and, if any particular difficulties arise, it would be helpful if he would continue to do exactly that. We can then ensure that such cases are looked at closely and consider what further improvements can be made. In the mean time, I invite the noble Earl to withdraw his amendment.
§ Earl Russell
I thank the Minister for that reply. It is true that I painted a dismal picture. The bulk of the evidence for that comes from the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux and the BMA, which are two reputable organisations. That dismal picture is shared by almost everyone who has made a study of this subject. It is shared by the Christian Churches, by the National Association of Social Workers and by the National Association of Probation Officers. There are many cases in the BMA files of social services turning away asylum seekers because they were simply unable to handle their problems. I cannot think of anyone, other than the Government, who does not share this dismal picture.
968 As the BMA has stressed very strongly, one of the consequences has been the creation of a considerable amount of mental illness among asylum seekers, most of whom are already somewhat traumatised when they arrive here. As the Minister knows, mental illness is an extremely expensive condition for the Government. It may be that the Government, like Charles I, may be in the position of not being rich enough to afford economies. It seems that we are in the usual position where the Government's view is, "They are all out of step but our Johnny". I do not believe that I can shift them from that view. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 42, agreed to.
Clause 43 agreed to.
§ 3.30 p.m.
Lord Best moved Amendment No. 142ZA:
After Clause 43, insert the following new clause—
"SUPPORT AND ASSISTANCE FOR THOSE GRANTED LEAVE TO REMAIN
The following shall be inserted after section 94(6) of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 (interpretation of Part VI)—
(6A) If, on the determination of his claim for asylum, the asylum seeker is granted leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom, he is to be treated (for the purposes of the provision of support and accommodation under this Part only) as continuing to be an asylum seeker—
§ The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 142ZA, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 146A and 238A. These amendments seek to insert two new clauses into the Bill and to make a consequential amendment to the money clause. The first proposed new clause seeks to address the question of successful asylum seekers who obtain refugee status and are allowed to remain in this country but who receive a 28-day eviction notice to leave the accommodation provided for them by the National Asylum Support Service. The new clause seeks to extend the 28 days to 60 days. I shall explain my reasoning for that shortly.
§ The second proposed new clause requires local authorities to give guidance and advice, in their own language, to new refugees in accommodation who are looking for an alternative home. The third amendment is a consequential amendment to the money clause. It seeks to ensure that local authorities are reimbursed for the work involved in providing that advice and guidance to new refugees.
§ The purpose of the two proposed new clauses is to help integrate those people who are going to stay here; to help them settle and remain in the places to which they have been dispersed. This mostly means them remaining in northern conurbations, where there is a relatively good supply of affordable accommodation. It is not intended to help new refugees to return to London and the South East, and other areas which are under great pressure, where they would only add to the problems of 969 homelessness. Local authorities have an obligation to provide accommodation to homeless families in these areas despite all the pressures on them. Local authorities also have a duty to help single refugees, but probably not to provide them with a home. In the overcrowded London market that will inevitably lead to more overcrowding and homelessness.
§ Previously, the time allowed for people to make their own alternative arrangements and leave their NASS-provided accommodation was 14 days. This was increased to 28 days in April but there were only weak obligations on local authorities to provide any support and assistance to those people in their search for a new home, or with the other requirements upon them if they are to integrate into the local community.
§ Since the Second Reading debate in your Lordships' House I have visited the North East to talk to people engaged in helping refugees. I have spoken to the north of England refugee service, the refugee advisory committee on Tyneside, the regional refugee forum and the North East consortium for asylum seekers' services. I have talked to people in local authorities in Newcastle, north Tyneside, Redcar and Cleveland. I have talked to representatives providing accommodation in the private sector and I have talked to refugee community organisations which look after the needs of Kurdish, Congolese, Somali, Angolan, Iraqi and other groups. I have also had a presentation from the University of Sunderland, which has undertaken a survey of the aspirations of asylum seekers in terms of their future housing needs.
§ The conclusion that I have drawn from all that is the good news that dispersal is showing some signs of working. Those who have been sent to northern cities are prepared to make a go of it and stay there; 40 per cent said that it would be their preferred choice to stay in the area to which they have been sent; and nearly 40 per cent more say that they would be willing to stay and give it a try. Therefore, 80 per cent of asylum seekers would stay in the area to which they have been dispersed, rather than head back immediately for the overcrowded South.
§ The bad news is that all those to whom I spoke agreed that it is bound to take more than 28 days for people to get themselves sorted out once the news comes through that they have been given leave to remain in this country. They have to get a national insurance number, which alone can take two to three months. Without that number they cannot legally obtain a job or benefits, nor can they open a bank account. They need to visit the Jobcentre if they want jobseeker's allowance and will have to fill in all the necessary forms. They have to go to the local authority if they require housing benefit which is notorious for its administrative problems.
§ Having sorted everything out under all those headings, they need to go into the marketplace to look for a private landlord, or possibly persuade a local authority, to find them accommodation. I have a daughter at university in Newcastle, so I have been through the process of finding privately rented accommodation there, and I can tell the Committee 970 that that takes more than 28 days. All the students going back for the next academic year who have any sense have already secured their accommodation. They cannot do it within 28 days, and students do not have to seek housing benefit; they have parents to act as guarantors for private landlords. It is setting people an insuperable task to expect them within that short period to find accommodation and put down roots to remain and settle in the area.
§ My first proposed new clause would extend that period to 60 days, and the second would put an obligation on local authorities to provide advice and guidance in the language of the refugee household, to assist in the process of becoming assimilated and integrated into the local community.
§ The Minister has kindly written to me following the Second Reading debate and has made the point that rather than extending the 28-day period, it would be good if the process of issuing the national insurance number were speeded up. I entirely agree that that would be desirable, but even with people receiving their national insurance number faster, and cutting two to three months to something far less, I cannot see that all the processes could be reasonably accomplished before the eviction time arrives and people have to leave. The Minister suggests that the best agencies for advice may be local voluntary and community bodies. I agree, but it seems wise to place the obligation on local authorities and for the Secretary of State to reimburse them for providing that advice and guidance, even though they would discharge their duty often through local agencies.
§ Far more people are affected by the dispersal policy than are ever likely to be affected by the new accommodation centres. The policy is a critical part of the Government's efforts to handle questions of asylum seekers and refugees. Dispersal policy is showing signs of successfully persuading people that the new places to which they have been sent—away from the pressured South—are suitable for their long-term needs. That good work will be undermined if we are impatient and demand that people leave the accommodation too quickly and we do not give them the support and guidance that I hope those proposed new clauses will provide. I beg to move.
§ Lord Dholakia
We support the amendments. In doing so, I was delighted to hear the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Best, whose experience of charitable work, especially in housing, is exceptional. His speech should therefore carry considerable weight.
The noble Lord made a good case for his sensible amendments. I would make three points. First, we are talking about asylum seekers who are no longer waiting in the queue but who have been granted leave to remain. Therefore we are not talking about someone whose rights about staying in this country have not been determined. Secondly, I want to explain why our support is so vital. When we consider the history of anyone who has come to this country, the sooner they can be integrated and absorbed into the community, the better not only for the asylum seekers but for the community.
971 I shall make an analogy. It may be rather difficult for the Committee to equate it with asylum seekers, but let us consider the resettlement of offenders who come out of prison and the social exclusion report that was published last week. The Government have conceded that they must help people who desperately need it. If such help is not given serious problems are created. We need to ensure that the people who will settle in this country are given adequate help.
Thirdly, there is the matter of housing and applying for benefit in languages other than English. It is most important that local authorities would be encouraged to assist in this exercise if they knew that funds were ultimately available from the Secretary of State. In other words, the Government should back up this kind of initiative by local authorities to help people who will be part and parcel of the community. We are delighted to support the amendment.
§ Earl Russell
I, too, welcome the amendment warmly and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Best, not only on the clarity of his remarks but on his exemplary patience in waiting through hours and hours of our proceedings in the previous sitting of the Committee, only to be denied the chance to move it in the end. He has proved himself a good House of Lords man; I only hope that he does not have to do that too often, but I admire immensely the way in which he has done it.
The amendments meet exactly the difficulties that I outlined a moment ago. The moment of acceptance as a refugee should be one of rejoicing, but it is a moment of coming down with a bump. It reminds me of the sad story of the step-father of one of my undergraduate friends who was parachuted into Arnhem and broke his leg on landing. He succeeded in concealing himself in the bushes while the Germans hunted noisily around him. He got out of the area and into France, leapt out of his hotel bedroom just as the Gestapo came in through the door, got into a pipeline and made his way to the Swiss frontier. Just as the frontier guards were approaching him, he found that the French Resistance had planted spying documents on him which would have led to his being shot. He finally made his way to Switzerland, and then to Lisbon. After a six months' wait he got a flight back to England, bringing with him one bottle of sherry—which the Customs impounded. His words were: "And then I knew I was home"! I suppose that that is tolerable for British subjects with an honourable military record, but for people for whom this is the first experience of accepting life as a British citizen, it really is a bit of a shock.
The proposed 60-day period is exactly what is needed. It reminds me of the extended period of eligibility for housing benefit introduced by Mr Kenneth Clarke in the Budget in 1993. One person to whom I was talking, who was at the time on benefit, said that this one concession was worth all the rest put together.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Best, that if the Government accept these amendments, as I very much hope they will, it is worth keeping an eye on how they 972 are administered. In regard to the Kenneth Clarke concession it was by no means always made clear to applicants that if they did not apply for it within the first eight days, they would not get it at all. There is always a wheeze somewhere in the background—for which I believe Ministers are not to blame. Eternal vigilance will be needed here as elsewhere.
I agree with everything that the noble Lord said about national insurance numbers, but the delay in allocating national insurance numbers has been a standing problem for as long as I have been a spokesman on social security—which is a great deal longer than I care to count. Eight years ago, I became the longest-serving social security spokesman in any party in either House.
I remember when my party began to complain about the delay in allocating national insurance numbers. The Government said that this was grossly exaggerated. They said that we were painting a dismal picture. What they did not know was that our spokesman's researcher had had her national insurance card stolen with her handbag and, six months later, had not succeeded in obtaining a replacement. So we knew perfectly well that it was a real problem. The problem is with the Government's ability to handle software, and that extends a great deal beyond our responsibilities. The noble Lord, Lord Best, was right to say that, although we must try to do better in regard to national insurance numbers, that is not an adequate answer to the problems that he raises.
The amendment probably will provide an adequate answer. I certainly cannot think of a better one. I welcome it warmly and I hope that the Government accept it.
§ Lord Hylton
At Second Reading, I advised the Government to listen carefully to what my noble friend Lord Best was saying. Perhaps I may congratulate him on his research in the field and on producing three quite detailed but practical amendments. I just wonder whether 60 days will be long enough in every case, but this is obviously a step in the right direction. I underline strongly the reference in Amendment No. 146A to giving advice in the language appropriate to the new refugee's understanding. Having been deeply involved over many years in housing aid and advice, I am sure that that amendment is absolutely on the right lines.
I hope that the Conservative Front Bench will support the amendment and I trust that the Government will accept it.
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ Lord Judd
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Best, for having introduced this subject into our deliberations. I ask my noble friend the Minister, when he replies, to take the issue behind the amendments extremely seriously.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, referred to the need to celebrate the gaining of the status of acceptance. But there is another, equally important issue. That is: how 973 in those initial days and weeks the foundations can he laid for a successful life in the future. If we are serious about wanting asylum seekers to make a success of their lives in our community and to be able to become fully integrated, we have to have specific and positive policies in place to help them in that transition. To have them totally mesmerised and preoccupied with the anxieties and issues of trying to find even a roof over their heads will not help.
It would he wrong to make an absolute comparison, but there is an approximate comparison with the successfully rehabilitated prisoner leaving prison and coming back to start life as a positive citizen. There is a major issue in our society in that context. So often, it goes wrong because generous, practical support is not there at the critical time. Whether or not these particular amendments are the right ones, the issue is a very important one. I do not merely hope but am sure that, in replying, my noble friend will want to be able to indicate that the Government take these matters seriously and are determined to have practical measures in place to meet the need.
§ Baroness Anelay of St Johns
The objectives behind the amendments are wholly laudable. I simply have some difficulty with the detail of the practical application that the proposed new clauses might entail. Therefore, I have one or two questions for the noble Lord. Lord Best. He may be able to address them in his final remarks on the amendment, or he may prefer to write to me on these matters.
Amendment No. 142ZA requires that,for a period of 60 days; or…until [a person] secures adequate accommodation and support, whichever is the sooner",the support should continue. I wonder what the definition of "adequate accommodation" is in these circumstances, and who decides what is "adequate"; and, indeed, whether the term covers the quality, size or location of the accommodation. This could be a sensitive issue.
It may be asked who could possibly object to Amendment No. 146A; namely, to the idea that someone should receive housing information and advice free of charge and in the language suited to that person's needs. One would hope that that is best practice and that all local authorities now follow it. If they do not, they jolly well ought to get on and do it.
I come from a town where the local authority has made its best efforts to provide such information over many years. I know that the advice has not always been perfect, but the authority tries to cover such languages as are commonly used in the area. Twelve per cent of the population in our constituency do not have English as their first language.
I have a couple of questions on Amendment No. 238A. It points out that any increase in spending as a result of these duties ought to be payable by the Secretary of State. I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Best, has been given by those briefing him an estimate of the annual cost of this proposal in terms of the increase over the next five years, so that one can understand just what kind of costs one is looking at. 974 The question that I have to ask from the LGA's point of view is: would these sums be ring-fenced? The local authorities are keen not to have sums ring-fenced because of their intention to be as much in control of local funding as possible.
As those are detailed questions, I shall be happy if the noble Lord would prefer to write to me rather than attempt to answer them now.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
I join in the tributes on all sides of the Committee to the noble Lord, Lord Best, for bringing forward these amendments and for the way in which he has addressed the issues. His insights and experience will greatly refresh our debates in such matters and expand our range of experience in dealing with some difficult issues.
Having said that, and underlining that we fully understand the concerns raised by the noble Lord, I have to conclude that we believe them to be unnecessary. As has been acknowledged, we have extended the period from 14 to 28 days so the period of grace is longer. That was in the light of experience which suggested that it was an important point to match.
We are also working closely with all interested parties through the national refugee integration forum to promote the better resettlement and integration into the community of successful asylum seekers. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, properly raised the need to take the issues seriously. The Government do so. For that reason we have this legislation in place. For that reason, we have put in place a battery of measures to ensure that those who seek, quite properly, to stay here as asylum seekers are cared for and are integrated fully into our communities.
The Home Office is working closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to improve the arrangements for enabling asylum seekers to transfer from central government support to mainstream benefits or to enter the labour market. We acknowledge—the noble Lord, Lord Best, made the point well—that there have been some difficulties with national insurance numbers. We recognise that there have been delays but we are working hard with the DWP to improve performance and ensure that people are properly accorded a national insurance number and can enter the labour market when they wish with all the support and guidance that they require.
Amendment No. 146A seeks to help asylum seekers with leave to remain into accommodation and ensure that they have proper allocation of accommodation. We want to ensure that that is so. In the Homelessness Act 2002 an amendment to Section 166 of the Housing Act 1996 requires the local housing authority to secure that advice and information are available free of charge to persons in its area about the right to make an application for allocation of housing accommodation; and that any necessary assistance in making that application is available free of charge to persons in the area who are likely to have difficulty in doing so without assistance. That measure was aimed at ensuring that people in the circumstances described by 975 the noble Lord are given all the help they require. It seems to me to meet the principal aims of the noble Lord's amendment.
The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, rightly pointed to good practice in local government. I am certain that most local authorities will do all they can to ensure that advice, assistance and support are given in the most appropriate form. My former local authority did that because we believed it to be extremely important. We recognised the vulnerability of people inexperienced in the ways of the local authority and local authority bureaucracy.
Best practice is to be celebrated and encouraged. As a Government, we shall play our part in doing that. Great progress has been made. Local authorities are to be congratulated, as is the Local Government Association on the important work it has done in that field.
The noble Lord wishes to ensure that Amendment No. 146A is accepted. Local authorities should receive extra funding from central government for advice in respect of housing where it involves people who have been granted leave to remain following an application for asylum. We are not clear how in practice one can identify that expenditure, a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay; and how one would separate that expenditure from other expenditure on housing advice in order accurately to attribute costs. We also wonder whether it would be appropriate for such a distinction to be made in the first place. The point has been well made that local authorities are nervous about and do not take easily to the exercise of ring fencing. I know that local authorities have lobbied firmly against it in the past. That is not to say that extra help should never be given to local authorities if they are faced with new and unusual pressures.
The Government have responded in the past. We have ensured that those supporting asylum seekers under the interim scheme have been given support. We wish to ensure that that support is there in the future. However, in general the Government would not want to disturb the usual arrangements for providing central government support to local authorities under the revenue support grant.
That said, if a case were made for extra funding, we already have a provision in Section 110 which will allow for the Secretary of State to fund local authorities for expenditure, in connection with,persons who are, or have been, asylum-seekers; and … their dependants".If we thought that it was appropriate, payments could be made using that power. It is there for that express purpose. In all those circumstances, I hope that the noble Lord will not press his amendment but will withdraw it.
§ Earl Russell
Before the Minister sits down, can he name for me one person knowledgeable in the subject and not on the government payroll who shares his opinion that these amendments are unnecessary?
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
With the greatest of respect to the noble Earl, it is a somewhat fatuous 976 point. The Government have been putting in place a framework of measures and powers which make the system work to the best interests of those affected. In answering the noble Lord, Lord Best, I pointed out that we have powers and measures in place which enable local authorities to carry out the functions asked of them. I believe that we are providing adequate powers and measures to deal with the problem which the noble Lord, Lord Best, makes quite properly in this Chamber.
§ Lord Best
I am most grateful to the Committee for the support I felt from many quarters for these amendments and in particular to the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for his comments. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, asked two questions. The first was on the definition of "adequate" regarding accommodation. Guidance from the Government would need to accompany the Bill when enacted. The definition of adequate accommodation may not be a very great hurdle to cross. Properties would need to comply with the fitness standard, not be overcrowded, and meet the environmental health requirements. But one is not suggesting that this is a passport to particularly special housing in any sense. I do not believe that that is likely to be too big an obstacle.
Secondly, if local authorities are required to provide such advice, would the costs reimbursed to local authorities for providing such advice be ring fenced? The Minister said that it may be possible for funds to be paid under Section 110. That may well be a better route. If we foist upon local authorities more duties and responsibilities but without provision for those to be paid for by central government, it may be a deterrent for them to do what is required of them.
The cost of providing advice can be quite high if specialist interpreters have to be drawn in. I suspect that those costs would fall disproportionately on specific authorities where there are clusters and concentrations of refugees. Through amendment already made to the Homelessness Act the local authority has an obligation to provide such advice. For those extra costs to fall entirely on local authorities without recognition that they could be reimbursed might be unfair.
I have a final point to commend the amendment. The process of speeding up decision-making on the granting of refugee status to asylum seekers is entirely admirable but it is likely, in the view of those people with whom I talked in the North East, to mean that the problems with the 28-day rule will become more severe. People will have less time in which to learn English and become familiar with the area to which they have moved before they get their notice, and are allowed to stay if they are successful or have to leave. The view from the North East, at any rate—I am sure that it is typical of other regions to which people have been dispersed—is that the 28-day rule will increasingly cause a crisis for those endeavouring to help refugees and for the refugees themselves, who are likely to turn tail and return to the communities in 977 London and the South East where at least there will he a floor to sleep on and they will be among others of the same culture, language and so on.
This group of amendments requires further serious consideration. We should perhaps return to the matter at the Bill's next stage. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
I beg to move that the House do now resume.
Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.