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Clause 3

Volume 202: debated on Tuesday 21 January 1992

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I beg to move amendment No. 21, in page 3, line 3, leave out from 'and' to end of line 4 and insert 'informs the housing authority dealing with his application—'.

With this we shall take the following amendments:

No. 22, in page 3, leave out line 19 and insert—
'(a) are informed by the applicant that he is an asylum-seeker, but'.
No. 13, in page 3, line 31, after 'accommodation', insert
'and his circumstances were the same as when the original application was made;'.
No. 15, in page 4, line 23, at end add—
'(9) For the purposes of subsection (l)(b) above "available"—
  • (a) shall only include accommodation occupied at the time an application is made; and
  • (b) accommodation currently occupied shall not qualify as being "available" unless it is available for more than 28 days.'.
  • No. 14, in page 4, line 23, at end add—
    '(9) For the purposes of this section accommodation "however temporary" shall not include accommodation at present occupied where an applicant under Part III of the Housing Act 1985 is threatened with homelessness within 28 days from the date of his application.'.
    No. 23, in schedule 1, page 8, line 5, leave out from 'made' to 'They' and insert
    'are informed by the applicant that he is an asylum-seeker'.
    No. 24, in page 9, line 5, leave out 'or is not'.

    No. 17, in page 9, leave out lines 15 to 19 and insert
    'which the applicant receives notification under section 64 of the Housing Act 1985.'.
    No. 18, in page 9, line 29, after 'requested', insert 'in writing'.

    No. 19, in page 9, line 36, leave out first 'an' and insert 'a housing'.

    No. 20, in page 9, line 38, after Inform', insert 'both'.

    This is a large group of amendments and the proposals are not all the same, so I shall break down the group.

    Amendments Nos. 21, 22, 23 and 24 would remove from local authorities any duty to make inquiries about whether someone was a seeker of political asylum. Of course, if a local authority in the course of its ordinary homelessness inquiries becomes aware that a person is seeking political asylum, and if the facts behind his application for that asylum—that is the circumstances under which he gave up his previous home and in which he now claims to be homeless—are similar to those made in a claim for political asylum, his application for asylum becomes relevant. However, we think that such a duty is unhealthy and we know that the local authorities do not want such a task, which is effectively a duty to ask to see people's passports and to inquire about the immigration status of those asking for housing, to be placed on the housing list or for accommodation for the homeless.

    There are several reasons for our approach. One is that local authorities already feel that they are overburdened with administrative problems and they are not asking for—indeed, they are resisting—these proposals. Another reason is that, once a duty has been placed on a local authority to inquire about the immigration status of an applicant, one creates distrust and bad feeling among those who will be resident in the neighbourhood, often for many years. We all know from our constituency experience that some people find it offensive to be questioned about their immigration status, especially when they were born and bred in this country, but, because of the colour of their skin or the pronunciation of their name, inquiries about their problems begin with questions about their status as immigrants rather than with the merits of their application for housing. We believe that such matters should be decided on the merits of the housing applications; that is when inquiries should begin. Investigations should not commence with examination of passports and inquiries about immigration status.

    Once the facts have come to the attention of the local authorities it is up to them to take decisions about how to cope with housing requirements. Some local authorities will be so hard pressed to cope with homelessness that they may well feel that they cannot assist political asylum seekers whose claims have not yet been decided. However, some local authorities have a surplus of accommodation and may find—particularly if they have empty properties—that it is cheaper to deal with applications for temporary shelter by placing claimants in permanent accommodation as that will provide a rental income. That will prove cheaper than if authorities are forced to place applicants in temporary accommodation, as the Bill seems to do. Therefore, the measure should be resisted as it is the merits of housing applications that should be considered, not the technicalities of political asylum applications.

    8.30 pm

    Amendment No. 13 provides that, if the Home Office grants political asylum, the applicant's priority for housing relates back to when the application was first made. Under the Bill, someone could make an application to be treated as a homeless person and the application might be put on ice until the claim for political asylum status was determined. Once that has happened, as I interpret the Bill, consideration of the application will have to start again. Our amendment makes it clear that the priority of the application must relate to when the application for housing was first made, not when the Home Office or any other adjudicator made a decision about the political asylum application on appeal.

    Amendment Nos. 15 and 14 deal with temporary accommodation. The view, not just of Opposition Committee Members, but of almost every social housing agency, is that the way that the Bill disqualifies an application from consideration by a local authority on temporary accommodation grounds is disgraceful. It is difficult to understand how the Government could have included words in the Bill that mean that a political asylum claimant is disqualified from receiving assistance from a local authority if he or she is in housing, however temporarily. Many people have commented on the fact that, if claimants have obtained accommodation in a church hall or are sleeping in a hall, or on a settee in an overcrowded flat, they will be disqualified from consideration by the local authority because they are deemed to be in temporary accommodation. That is disgraceful, and such proposals should be removed from the Bill.

    Therefore, amendment No. 15 seeks to modify that obnoxious provision and would allow the political asylum applicant at least to qualify for temporary housing from the local authority when the accommodation that they are currently using is so insecure that it could disappear within 28 days of the application being made. Surely that minimum requirement should be built into the Bill. Amendment No. 14 has a similar affect to amendment No. 15.

    We tabled amendment No. 17 because we believe that there is no need to mix landlord and tenant law with immigration law, which is exactly what the Bill does. It states that a person cannot have a secured or assured tenancy within a specified period of an application for political asylum.

    Amendments Nos. 18 and 20 are comparatively minor drafting amendments. As the Bill stands, notices to applicants for political asylum do not have to be given in writing, and we propose to insert the word "writing".

    Amendment No. 19 corrects what we believe to be a drafting error. While most of this part of the Bill refers to a housing authority, the word "housing" has been dropped in one place. At the heart of the amendments lies the proposition that, if someone is in need of housing, a hard-pressed local authority will not generally be able initially to meet that need with permanent accommodation. The local authority may take up to one year to decide whether the applicant qualifies for priority housing under homelessness legislation. That one-year period should be roughly the same as the time within which the Home Office—if it is to act efficiently—decides on the political asylum application. There should be no conflict between the time scale of the Home Office and that of the local authority.

    However, if the Home Office spends—as it currently does—year after year considering applications for political asylum, and if we wish to act as a civilised country, we should not abandon a claim for accommodation for so long, which is what the Bill would do. Our proposals seek to cure that problem.

    It is not only the Opposition who have criticised the Bill. We recently received a brief from the National Federation of Housing Associations which provided an adequate answer to the argument made by the Minister in Committee that one purpose of the legislation was to stop political asylum claimants exercising the right to buy. As the Minister will know, those in assured tenancies have no right to buy. In other cases, secured tenants have to reside in their accommodation for at least two years before they can exercise that right. Preventing claimants from exercising such a right seems a thin reason for justifying the Bill's provisions.

    Housing associations and, I am sure, local authorities are reluctant to be forced into terminating tenancies and evicting people who have had applications for political asylum turned down. If applications are refused, applicants will eventually be required to leave the country. That matter should properly be left to immigration law; it should not constitute part of housing law.

    I hope that the Minister will realise the anxiety that the provisions have caused, not just to applicants but to those who administer social housing and council housing. I hope that, even at this late stage, the thought that lies behind the amendments, if not the amendments, will be accepted.

    I support this group of amendments. Central to the concept of asylum is the notion of shelter, sanctuary and refuge. We cannot hope to fulfil the spirit and letter of international conventions on refugees unless we, as a receiving nation for refugees, accept responsibility for their shelter. That is a basic requirement, not only of international law, but of common humanity.

    The amendments seek to mitigate clause 3, which strikes at the notion of giving shelter and respite to those driven from their homes by political upheaval. It does so in the most obnoxious way. It is discriminatory and we have yet to hear any convincing response from Conservative Members, the Department of the Environment or the Home Office to the charge laid at their doors by the Commission for Racial Equality that the clause is discriminatory in law.

    Also—this is important—the clause seeks to confuse the role of housing authorities and the role of those with responsibility properly to regulate immigration in this country. It gives housing officers an invidious role and means that hard-pressed local authorities which are already struggling with a range of problems have to take on responsibility for an aspect of internal immigration control. That is not good enough.

    It is offensive also because it puts in an intolerable position those organisations in our society that seek to meet the needs of refugees. Let me give a practical example of how the proposed law would undermine the work of the many voluntary organisations that are concerned with the refugee problem. Some time ago my own church—the Methodist church in Harlesden—took on responsibility for a number of Kurdish families who were in a crisis. The families had arrived recently and dreaded homelessness. Harlesden Methodist church is not rich, and it is in a deprived area of London, yet it took on responsibility for those Kurds.

    What will happen when people housed in Church premises or temporarily in the homes of local church people apply to a local authority? Under this legislation as drafted, they will fall foul of the law. It is worth looking in detail at the wording of clause 3, under which such people cannot be deemed to be homeless because accommodation, however temporary, is available to them.

    I should like the Minister to be able to tell me that my interpretation of clause 3 is wrong, that refugees such as those that the Harlesden Methodist church could not possibly house indefinitely would not, under this legislation, lose their right to local authority housing. The view that I am expressing is that not just of the Opposition but also of the Housing Law Practitioners' Association, the Law Society and the Children's Legal Centre—professional bodies that deal with housing issues day in and day out. Their reading of the legislation as drafted is that such persons would lose the right to local authority housing. In the sort of society that we hold this one to be, that cannot be right.

    There is a question that this House will have to address in all seriousness: in those circumstances, what is the moral distinction between our treatment of Kurdish refugees—this being a relatively prosperous, secure and stable society—and the Turkish Government's treatment of the Kurds whom they allow to rot on their mountainsides? It is quite clear that there is a distinction in terms of scale, but what is the moral distinction? We could do better, and we ought to do better. All that these amendments seek to achieve is a situation in which applicants for refugee status are treated in the same way as all other applicants for housing. That is all that is asked. We are not asking that such people be given special treatment or any advantage.

    What is particularly offensive about this clause in an abhorrent piece of legislation is that it is so blatantly discriminatory, so blatantly unequal. It seeks to achieve a purpose of which we ought to be ashamed. It seeks to make life that much more unpleasant for refugees in this country. It seeks to make life that much more intolerable for them as a group, presumably for the purpose—and it is a squalid and shameful purpose—of deterring people from fleeing to this country. That is the only interpretation that any objective reader can put on this legislation, and it is one that, for the sake of this House and of the nation, we must address.

    Over many years, this country has established a tradition of receiving refugees, and, in general, we do not have much to apologise for. The tradition has been a bit battered and skimping of late, but it is still markedly better than that of many other countries. Even at this late stage, we must seek to avoid undermining it as fundamentally as this legislation would do. By the blanket way in which, in terms of housing, it treats applicants for refugee status, it puts us in danger of breaching our international treaty obligations under article 19(4)(c) of the Council of Europe social charter and of convention No. 97 of the International Labour Organisation. The Bill would put us in danger of breaching those provisions of international law.

    My hon. Friend does not exaggerate at all. In Committee, we gained the impression that, as a result of these amendments, the Government will be forced to denounce those conventions.

    8.45 pm

    The situation is as stated by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser).

    I agree with my hon. Friend, to whose contribution we look forward—it is a shame. The British Government's representatives in the Council of Europe, the International Labour Organisation and the other bodies that have been mentioned are being put in a position that no representative of this country ought to be put in. This is against the letter of international law, but, above all, it is against the spirit that we in this House ought to cherish.

    The Government say that asylum ought to be about shelter, about respite, but this obnoxious clause undermines that whole concept, and we should reject it by adopting these amendments. The Government can be sure that, if it is not rejected here and now, we shall return to the matter in the aftermath of the general election, and that the provisions will then be rejected resoundingly.

    As my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), in his typically eloquent and forceful manner, has said, this is an obnoxious piece of legislation. Particularly obnoxious is clause 3, to which these amendments relate. The introduction of this provision marks the first occasion since the introduction of legislation on homelessness on which a particular group of people has been singled out for the application of a lower level of rights than is enjoyed by anyone else in the country. It treats all asylum seekers as a guilty group. It requires them to prove their innocence before they can have a roof over their heads.

    The same thing applies to the regulations that accompany the Bill. They too treat these people as guilty by providing that, immediately on entry to the country, they may, against their will, be held in a detention centre and fingerprinted. To my mind, the Minister has not allayed our misgivings about fingerprinting. I wish to underline the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South.

    Housing should have no place in the Bill. There is no need for clause 3. People awaiting a decision on whether they are to be classified as genuine asylum seekers should enjoy the same rights as anyone without a roof over his head who presents himself to a local authority as homeless.

    A whole raft of organisations have made just that point to the Home Secretary, but apparently to no avail. I am talking about a group of highly respected organisations—Shelter, the Shelter Housing Aid Committee, the London Housing Aid Group, the National Association of Citizens' Advice Bureaux, the Law Society, the National Federation of Housing Associations, the British Refugee Council, and so on. Those organisations are experienced campaigners in such matters and at looking after people who find themselves in the near-impossible position of not having a home, yet their opinions have been ignored, as have those of the Commission for Racial Equality, which has stated unequivocally that it believes clause 3 to be racially discriminatory and
    "in direct conflict with all existing statutory guidance on the homeless and race relations legislation."
    Coming from a Government-funded body, that is a serious charge, but it has been quite simply denied by the Government with the brush of a hand. The Government's position has not been explained or defended. No one is convinced. The Government need not think that they are off the hook. If the Bill becomes law, a number of organisations—not least the Commission for Racial Equality—will continue to do their job and expose its pernicious nature.

    A thinly disguised vein of racism runs right through the Bill. It is a bit like a stick of Blackpool rock in that respect. Throughout the Bill, interspersed with apparently reasonable propositions are entirely unreasonable and racially motivated proposals. In the case of clause 3, the racial aspect is not even thinly disguised.

    Throughout the Bill, the Government's assumption is that most, if not all, asylum seekers are really economic refugees—people with little to fear, who simply want to find a better standard of living in this country than exists in their own. For generations, many of my fellow Scots have chosen to emigrate to Canada, Australia or New Zealand in search of a better standard of living. The Government tend to view asylum seekers in similar terms, but the parallel is a fallacy.

    If any proof were needed, the Government's own figures assist in demolishing the argument. Since 1980, 83 per cent. of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom have come from nine countries—Ethiopia, Ghana, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Poland, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Uganda. It will not have escaped the attention of the House that all those countries have a recent history of political oppression or civil war. That is no coincidence, and it renders it even less likely—if it was ever likely—that people from those countries simply fancy a better standard of living and so present themselves on our doorstep.

    That fallacy is undermined again by a Home Office paper produced in June 1990, listing those countries or territorial entities whose nationals or citizens need visas for the United Kingdom. Of a total of 77 countries, only seven are countries where the population is predominantly white. They are Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania and the Soviet Union. Since the list was issued, Uganda and Jamaica have been added. The import of that is perfectly clear. Even if the Government could convince us that the intent of that list published by the Home Office was not racist—I maintain that they have failed to do so—they cannot escape culpability, because the effect of the legislation is racist. The same is true of clause 3 of the present Bill.

    The amendment would rid the Bill of what I believe to be a major block, and would at the same time ensure that parity of housing treatment was afforded to asylum seekers. There is no reason why they should not enjoy that right. The Government should accept the amendments outlined in detail by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser), first, to ensure that the current situation under the homelessness legislation—whereby applications from asylum seekers and other homeless applicants are treated equally—was maintained. That has been the position until now, and there is no reason why it should not continue to be the position.

    That should apply even before the Home Office decision on refugee status has been made. When asylum seekers have crossed that hurdle, they find another immediately facing them. They continue to face discrimination, being required to wait 12 months before enjoying a secure assured tenancy in the way that other homeless applicants do when they are granted accommodation. Surely that cannot be justified, and the Under-Secretary should have the good sense and good grace to admit it when he answers the debate.

    Finally, local authorities should have the freedom to assess homeless applicants on the basis of housing need alone. That is the thrust of the legislation introduced as a result of great need throughout the country. Under the Bill as drafted, however, housing authorities will be forced to make the decision on the basis of having sought clearance from the Home Office on the status of the claimant. Surely, unless the claimant actually chooses to disclose the fact that he is seeking asylum, there is absolutely no need for that information to be passed to the housing authority attempting to house that person.

    If the Government fail to accept the amendments, they will continue to stand accused, and rightly so, of introducing a Bill which, at best, is discriminatory and, at worst, racist. I repeat that clause 3 is completely unnecessary and will not even assist in achieving what the Government claim to intend. The amendments represent an attempt to rid the Bill of some of its most pernicious provisions. If the Under-Secretary refuses to accept them, he will be sending a clear and, I say, shameful message to the rest of the world about the status of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom.

    I fully endorse the remarks of my hon. Friends the Members for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng), for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Watson) and for Norwood (Mr. Fraser). Having sat through much discussion of the matter in Committee, I think that this is a shabby and nasty clause. If the homeless persons legislation can be altered in this underhand manner, what will happen next? If the Bill goes through in its present form and asylum seekers are no longer entitled to permanent housing, it will overturn the principle of the homeless persons legislation, dating from 1977, which was the principle of universal access to housing for those in housing need. The Bill will defeat and weaken that principle. What might the next stage be? I do not know what goes on in the minds of those who draft Bills such as this, which further restrict the right to public sector housing.

    As my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood said, when asylum seekers arrive, they are admitted and their case is then processed. I know from experience that processing can take several years. Some of the cases with which I am dealing have been with the Home Office for many years—five years or more—yet clause 3 provides that asylum seekers can be housed only in temporary accommodation by local authorities. In my local authority area, if they are lucky, "temporary housing" means a property that the council has leased, usually for six months to a year at a time, so each six months to a year that family would have to move. I said, "if they are lucky" because that tends to involve a fairly reasonable standard of accommodation. If they are unlucky, it means hostel accommodation or bed and breakfast.

    Who exactly is the Bill designed to punish? Has the Minister ever seen children growing up in bed-and-breakfast hotels? Has he seen the signs of depression among parents trying to keep a family together in a bed-and-breakfast room, looking every day at the same washstand, wondering whether breakfast would be any different that day from any other day, the lack of play space, the family rows that develop, and the enormous cost as well? The clause does not actually save any money—it costs a great deal more to local authorities. One wonders what the motive behind the Bill is, other than, as my hon. Friends have pointed out, the punishment of asylum seekers who wish to obtain housing, having been admitted into this country.

    In Committee, there was a fairly unusual set of circumstances in which hon. Members raised points of order about the way in which the clause contravened the Race Relations Act 1976. When it was pointed out that it appeared to be in contravention and that the Commission for Racial Equality, a statutory body, issued a statement to that effect, Law Officers were eventually unwillingly brought along to the Committee and forced to try to defend the position. They did not make a very good job of it. The CRE was established under the Race Relations Act 1976 specifically to attack discrimination in this country, be it by an employer who refuses to employ black people or an institution that operates policies that systematically discriminate against a certain group of people. The Government are now adopting a policy in law which systematically discriminates against those who are seeking political asylum. I shall not repeat the facts that were given by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central in his excellent contribution, but he pointed out where most asylum seekers come from.

    9 pm

    What is to be the future relationship between local authorities, the Home Office and the immigration service? Were people appointed to work in local authority housing departments to be agents on which the Home Office could rely? A housing officer in a local authority, when interviewing a housing applicant, must ask whether he or she is an asylum seeker. A housing officer will not know, when a family walks through a door, whether they are asylum seekers. They will be seen as a family. Any black family who seek assistance from the local authority housing department will be asked to produce a passport or a form of identity so that a check can be made within the Home Office. There will be a system of passport checks or identity checks for non-white applicants or foreign applicants. That is how it will work. What does the Minister think that that will do to the relationship between local authority housing departments and those who require housing?

    Local authority associations have pointed out the increased costs that the Bill puts on them. For authorities that actually have a surplus of or ready access to permanent housing, it is much more expensive to keep families in temporary accommodation than in permanent accommodation. But there is a moral case as well. The morality behind the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 was that society had a moral obligation to ensure that everyone in need—for example, those with dependent children, the elderly, or those at some risk—had a right to be housed. That Act represented an important step forward. This legislation, particularly coming from the Government's hand, is the start of the erosion of that principle.

    Does the Minister honestly think that that is a fair, moral and just way of administering a housing policy or treating people who have come here to seek political asylum? I invite him to meet asylum applicants. They are not living very well; they fear being returned, and they are concerned about what has happened to their families. I deal with many asylum applicants. One sees the fear on the faces of those people. They know that their families are at risk in Somalia, Zaire, Uganda or wherever they have attempted to come from. They know that they may never see them again—obviously, they hope that they will. They know that they will be treated as second-class citizens. They receive 90 per cent. of income support instead of 100 per cent., again for no good reason other than as a form of punishment, and temporary housing, again for no good reason other than as a form of punishment.

    I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South and I hope that, even at this late hour, the Minister will be prepared to reconsider, in the light of all the representations, the strength of feeling and the declaration by the Commission for Racial Equality that clause 3 is wholly wrong, wholly misguided, immoral, and should be withdrawn.

    I do not entirely agree with the points that were made by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), but I am rather puzzled by one feature of this clause, and that is the statement in lines 25 and 26 on page 3. I do not understand why it states:

    "and, accordingly, so long as he remains an asylum-seeker, any need of his for accommodation shall be regarded as temporary only."
    I do not understand why it is not enough simply to stop after the words
    "shall not continue after he ceases to be an asylum-seeker".
    Is there any particular point in introducing at this stage the notion of "temporary" and in saying "shall" be regarded as temporary only instead of "may" be regarded? I should like to know why these two lines appear in the Bill.

    I am glad to have the chance to reply to the debate. I think that it would be helpful if I took the opportunity, since the housing provisions were scarcely touched on in the Second Reading debate, to explore, before getting into the detail of the amendments, some of the principles behind the provisions in clause 3 and schedule 1 to the Bill.

    The proposals modify the duties on local authorities under the homelessness legislation—part III of the Housing Act 1985—in relation to asylum seekers. The effect of the measures is to be fairer to a group of people who have not been referred to in this debate at all, that is, the people who are on the local authority waiting lists, a group of people about whom I am sufficiently concerned to see what effect this Bill has on them, although no one else who has spoken in the debate——

    If I may develop the point a little more, I will give way in a moment.

    It is important that we consider how the Bill affects those people whose right to permanent residence in this country is not in question and some of whom may have a long-standing connection with the area of the local authority on whose waiting list they remain. The effect of these measures will be to treat those people more fairly than they have been treated up to now, while continuing to give the protection that we all agree should be given to asylum seekers in genuine need.

    The Minister really ought not to take those who have contributed to the debate to task for neglecting the concerns of the people they represent in relation to the bloated and inflated housing lists and the housing deprivation in the areas that we represent. These are people that we see day in and day out. They are people about whom we write to his Department week in and week out. We are very concerned about them.

    If he is concerned to do them justice, the Minister would do well to look at the practices of his own Department when it comes to grant-funding for local authority housing. He would do well to look at the disgrace of empty properties which his Department does nothing whatever to ameliorate before suggesting that we are not concerned about the people we represent. We are concerned about them; but, like them, we are also concerned about the fairness and equity of legislation that comes to the House—and the Minister should be concerned about that too.

    That intervention went on longer than I have been allowed to speak so far, but as the hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) has made reference to empty properties perhaps I may point out that in his borough, while it was under Labour control, there were no fewer than 937 empty properties on 1 April last year; 5 per cent. of the housing stock run by Brent council was empty.

    I am going to have some say in this debate.

    Brent council had more uncollected rent than any other local authority in the whole of England and Wales—this was during the last year that it was under Labour control. I have no doubt that if it remains under Tory control long enough the figures will improve—they could hardly get worse. Forty-four per cent. of the rent—£15 million—was uncollected. So we need not take lessons from the hon. Member for Brent, South when we see what his Labour colleagues on that council did when in charge of the housing resources there.

    I do not yield to the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) one iota in my anxiety to get people out of unsatisfactory temporary accommodation, particularly bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I share his concern. It is precisely because I do that I find it deplorable that we have so many Labour-controlled local authorities with huge numbers of empty properties. There are more local authority properties in this country that have been empty for more than 12 months than there are families in bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

    One way of helping to limit the extent to which people are placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation is to ensure that those who have access to permanent accommodation in this country are people who have also established a permanent right to remain here.

    Under the current homelessness legislation asylum seekers can qualify for permanent housing from a local authority if they meet the same tests as anyone else—that is if they are unintentionally homeless, or threatened with homelessness and in priority need. In general, this means families with children, pregnant women or those vulnerable for some other reason. In my view, and in the view of many other people, it is illogical that someone whose right to remain in the country permanently is still under question and has not been established can secure permanent accommodation in that way.

    Current estimates are that up to 5,000 asylum-seeker families are likely to qualify for housing help under the homelessness legislation in this year alone. However, the absolute numbers, while disturbing, are not the overriding problem. The real problem is that those asylum seekers impose a disproportionate burden on certain local authorities, particularly in London, because asylum seekers tend to concentrate either at the point of arrival or in areas where there is a refugee community already established. Some local authorities are having to accept a duty to secure housing for 250 or more asylum-seeker households a year. That exacerbates existing housing pressures and means that local people on waiting lists will have an even longer wait for permanent housing.

    Under our measures we propose two extra tests for asylum seekers who are waiting for their asylum applications to be decided. First, do they have reasonable accommodation at the moment, even if it is only temporary? Secondly, is there any other accommodation they could reasonably go to?

    The Bill provides that, if they meet all these tests, the local authority has to provide only temporary accommodation until the asylum application is decided. It will be up to the local authority to decide how to fulfil its duty to provide temporary accommodation, which might be a short-term tenancy in its permanent stock.

    I should like to correct a recurring misconception that has been repeated this evening by the hon. Members for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) and for Islington, North—that requiring an authority to provide only temporary accommodation to an asylum seeker does not mean that that asylum seeker must be placed in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. As a matter of fact, it does not mean even that the local authority has to put such a person in temporary accommodation. The local authority has discretion, which it can use, to put that person in permanent accommodation if it so wishes. If it desires—

    I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again because this is exactly the point that I have been trying to raise. I repeat that lines 25 and 26 of clause 3 state:

    "accordingly, so long as he remains an asylum-seeker, any need of his for accommodation shall be regarded as temporary only."
    I thought that my hon. Friend said that the local authority could provide temporary accommodation, or whatever form of accommodation it wanted; but that is not what the Bill says.

    I would have come to my right hon. Friend's point in due course but, as he has raised it now, I shall deal with it now. The lines to which he has referred are intended to make it clear that by providing accommodation on a temporary basis the local authority will, indeed, be fulfilling its statutory duty to the asylum seeker, but the Bill does not compel the local authority to provide only temporary accommodation. If it wishes, it can use its discretion to do more than that and to offer permanent accommodation. We are simply saying that, to satisfy its statutory responsibility, it will be sufficient for the local authority to offer only temporary accommodation to the asylum seeker.

    I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply, but I urge him to look again at those words because they do not seem to match what he has been saying. I still think that the paragraph could have ended at the beginning of line 25 with the word "seeker". I still cannot see the point of the remaining words.

    I know that my right hon. Friend has a close interest in housing and remember that he participated in the last housing debate in which I spoke. I shall certainly look again at the wording, but I am quite clear about our intentions. If our intentions are satisfied by the wording as it stands, we would not wish to alter it. The intention is to make it clear to a local authority that it has no duty further than the provision of temporary accommodation to an applicant for housing who is an asylum seeker. It has discretion to go further than that, but no duty to do so. If the wording to which my right hon. Friend has referred does not achieve that, I will of course look at it again.

    Surely the reluctance to allow the local authority discretion is also reflected in paragraph 5 of schedule 1, which says that the accommodation, if the local authority chooses to provide it, cannot be secure for within one year of offering the accommodation. Does that not reinforce the point made by the right hon. Gentleman?

    9.15 pm

    No. The answer is the same. The Bill is designed to make clear the local authority's statutory obligation. It is, as I have said, to provide temporary accommodation. If the local authority, in its own discretion, chooses to go further than that, it will be free to do so. This is just setting out what the minimum provision by the local authority has to be in order to satisfy its statutory responsibilities.

    I return to the misconception, which was repeated by the hon. Members for Norwood and for Islington, North, that temporary accommodation means bed and breakfast. I was very glad to have the acknowledgement of several Opposition Members that there are local authorities with a surplus of accommodation; they do not always acknowledge that quite so readily. Unfortunately, in practice, not many of the areas with large numbers of asylum seekers coincide with areas where there are surpluses. Nevertheless, it is nice to have the recognition that they sometimes do. Those local authorities are perfectly free to allocate their housing, which would be an ordinary council house or flat, to an asylum seeker on a temporary tenancy. So there is no question of an authority which has a surplus in its own stock having to send asylum seeker applicants to bed-and-breakfast accommodation; it will of course use the stock that is available to it.

    That is a misconception that we heard in the Standing Committee and have heard again this evening, and I am glad to have an opportunity to make it clear that a local authority will fulfil its duty by providing accommodation which could be a short-term tenancy in its permanent stock. The local authority could also arrange a tenancy in the private sector. It could be in a hostel, or, in those areas where no alternative could be found, it could be in bed and breakfast. But it does not have to be if there are alternatives, and I believe that all hon. Members will agree that it is preferable to avoid bed-and-breakfast accommodation if possible.

    If asylum seekers are subsequently recognised as refugees or otherwise granted leave to remain in the country, they will have the same rights under the homelessness legislation as anyone else. If they are refused leave to remain in the country, they will not have rights under that legislation.

    Amendments 21, 22 and 23 seek to deny the housing authority the opportunity to inquire of an applicant under the homelessness legislation whether he is an asylum seeker and say that instead it should rely on the asylum seeker to volunteer the information.

    Given that under the proposals in this legislation the local authority will have a different duty under the homelessness legislation to an applicant who is an asylum seeker as compared with any other applicant, it is imperative that a housing authority, in order to carry out its duty, be able to establish whether an applicant is an asylum seeker. It would be unreasonable not to allow an authority to ask an applicant whether he was an asylum seeker. The lack of this ability might result in an asylum seeker who had not revealed his status to the local authority being provided with permanent accommodation to which he was not entitled. The hon. Member for Norwood expressed great concern about the fact that these decisions would be made on the merits of housing issues. Let me say again that one of the factors which determine the merits of a housing application will be whether the applicant is an asylum seeker.

    The Bill will make it simple for the authority to establish whether an applicant is an asylum seeker by applying to the Home Office for information, which the Home Office will have a duty to supply. This will assist authorities in establishing the facts. Perhaps I had better deal with the confidentiality point when we discuss how the information will be obtained and whether it is in writing or otherwise. But we have already touched in Committee on the safeguards which we intend to put in place to ensure confidentiality of information.

    Amendment No. 24 illustrates the absurdity of the proposals on identifying asylum seekers. Paragraph 4 of schedule 1 provides that anyone who gives false information, or withholds information about whether a homelessness applicant is an asylum seeker, with the intention of misleading the authority is committing an offence. The amendment seeks to limit the circumstances in which an offence is created to a case where the applicant, or indeed any other person, tells the authority that the applicant is an asylum seeker when he or she is not.

    It would no longer be an offence for the homeless applicant to deny that he or she was an asylum seeker when that was the case. That is clearly absurd. It is hard to think of any circumstances in which an applicant for help under the homelessness legislation would say that he was an asylum seeker when he was not. It is equally absurd that an asylum seeker should be able to lie about his status with no fear of prosecution.

    Amendment No. 13 seeks to make ineffective our proposal that the local authority should have the opportunity to reconsider a homelessness application when the asylum seeker is granted leave to remain in this country.

    The principle behind clause 3 is that it is reasonable to distinguish under the homelessness legislation between an asylum seeker who has only a temporary right to remain in the country and someone who has a right to live here permanently. Under our proposals an asylum seeker who is homeless and in priority need will have a right only to temporary accommodation until the asylum application is determined. Subsection (4) provides that in the case of a successful asylum seeker a new application under the homelessness legislation is deemed to have been made immediately before the asylum case was determined. That gives the local authority the opportunity to consider whether the former asylum seeker is still in priority need and thereby qualifies for help under the homelessness legislation.

    What would happen in a case in which, in the interim between making the application and its successful adjudication, a woman who had had a child and therefore qualified for housing lost that child and became a single person? On the deemed reapplication, would that woman therefore lose her priority and, in addition to losing her child, lose her home? If not, why not, given the wording of the legislation?

    The hon. Gentleman is right to the extent that the circumstances in which the applicant was at the time of the deemed reapplication would be those which determined whether he or she still qualified as being in priority need, not the circumstances which obtained at the time of the application for asylum. If circumstances had changed, it is possible that someone who was in priority need at the time of making the application for asylum might no longer be in priority need by the time the application had been granted or the person had obtained exceptional leave to remain. It is for exactly that reason that the provision is included.

    It is because we are concerned, as the hon. Member for Norwood said he was, with the merits of the housing case that we want to make sure that when someone's asylum application has been determined and has been successful we have another look at the circumstances. That seems only sensible and proper. I think that the majority of local authorities would like to have an opportunity to look at the up-to-date position.

    Does not the case which I have outlined give the Minister some concern? It is by no means hypothetical; I have constituency cases of women who have come to this country as refugees from Somalia and who have subsequently lost children. Such women suffer the trauma of being a refugee, followed by the trauma of loss of child, followed by the trauma of enforced loss of accommodation. In those circumstances, it is not as if the local authority would have discretion. The duty to house would have ended. In those circumstances, the woman would be dispossessed. Does not that give the Minister cause for concern?

    The hon. Gentleman is wrong on two counts. The authority would still have discretion. An authority is at liberty to house people whether they are in priority need or not. It is merely that the duty of the authority to do so would have ended, but the authority would retain the discretion to continue to provide housing. Nothing in the Bill affects that discretion. The Bill merely removes any duty to house an asylum seeker who is not in priority need, and it removes the duty to provide permanent accommodation for someone while that person is an asylum seeker. The hon. Gentleman is also wrong because it is possible for someone still to be in priority need even if there are no dependent children, depending on the position of stress in which the individual finds himself. That is already part of the homelessness legislation.

    On both grounds there could be circumstances in which a woman who had lost a child—depending on the precise facts—could still be classified as being in priority need. Even if that were not so, the local authority would still retain discretion, if it chose to use it, to provide housing. The logic of the deemed reapplication is overwhelming.

    The fact remains also that a successful asylum seeker who remains in priority need has nothing to fear from the process of a deemed reapplication being made at the time when the status of the asylum seeker in this country has been determined.

    Amendments Nos. 14 and 15 raise two distinct issues that we spent some time debating in Committee. The first issue is whether the House considers it reasonable that a local authority should be able to take into account, in deciding whether an asylum seeker is homeless, not only whether he or she is currently occupying reasonable accommodation but whether there is some alternative accommodation—perhaps with family or friends—to which he or she might reasonably go before turning to the local authority.

    I believe that the majority of hon. Members agree with that entirely reasonable proposition. The majority of asylum seekers—three out of four—are already in this country at the time of making their application. In all probability, therefore, they will have established local contacts that are sufficient to help them find alternative accommodation. We are not saying that an asylum seeker who arrives at Heathrow will be required by the local authority to seek alternative accommodation, regardless of expense or practicality. He or she will not have to search for accommodation across the country. The test is governed by what is reasonable. Local authorities will have discretion, which they are already used to applying in relation to the homelessness legislation. Ultimately it would be a matter for the courts to decide.

    The second issue that is raised by amendments Nos. 14 and 15 is when an asylum seeker might be regarded as threatened with homelessness. As the hon. Member for Norwood said, this is an issue about which various outside bodies have expressed concern.

    I shall outline how the threatened-with-homelessness provisions currently apply in the homelessness legislation and how they will apply to asylum seekers under the proposals in the Bill. Under the 1985 legislation, a person is threatened with homelessness if he or she is likely to become homeless within 28 days. In that event, the local authority is obliged to consider the homelessness application in the usual way. If it is satisfied that the applicant is likely to become homeless unintentionally and is in a priority need group, it must take reasonable steps to ensure that that accommodation does not cease to be available for his or her occupation. That could mean assisting the applicant in such a way that he can stay on where he is, or it could mean that once the person has become homeless at the end of the period, there is alternative accommodation available for his occupation.

    The hon. Member for Brent, South raised the case of the Kurdish refugees who were housed by the Harlesden Methodists. The position is clear. If the period available to the refugees were less than 28 days, they could establish that they were in priority need. Existing legislation does not mean—this is what Opposition Members are seeking to achieve for asylum seekers by means of the amendments—that the housing authority has a duty to secure alternative accommodation the moment that the threat of homelessness within 28 days has been identified. It would be a waste of resources to adopt that approach if accommodation were still available for another four weeks. It is more sensible for a local authority to take on the responsibility at the end of the period that is currently available.

    In Committee, I undertook to check that the provisions of the 1985 Act applying to people threatened with homelessness apply equally to asylum seekers under the Bill's proposals. They do nothing to affect the continuing application of the relevant provisions of the 1985 Act that are not explicitly modified by our new proposals.

    Hon. Members expressed concern on behalf of voluntary bodies about our proposals, but the Bill does not present any disincentive to voluntary organisations to continue making provisions.

    9.30 pm

    Amendment No. 17 seeks to alter the provisions in the Bill relating to security of tenure. The Bill provides that, in the case of an asylum seeker, the right to a secure local authority tenancy or a housing authority or private assured tenancy does not arise until 12 months after notification to the landlord by the Secretary of State for the Home Department that the applicant has ceased to be an asylum seeker—though the landlord's discretion remains. As I said before, it is illogical that someone should be able to obtain a secure or assured tenancy until their right to remain in this country has been permanently established.

    Amendments Nos. 18, 19, and 20 deal with safeguards against unauthorised disclosure of information about an asylum seeker, which was debated in Committee at some length. We are of course anxious to preserve the confidentiality of information obtained from the Home Office, and I have made arrangements with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department to ensure that the normal mode of communicating between the housing authority will be in writing. I am satisfied that there is no need to include that provision in the Bill. We will make administrative arrangements, but as I gain the impression from Opposition Members that they want to conclude the debate—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—I will be happy to explain them in writing.

    Amendment No. 19 seeks to clarify that the Secretary of State may pass on information about an asylum seeker only to a housing authority. I am happy to accept that amendment to ensure that the position is made clear in the Bill.

    Amendment No. 20 seeks to ensure that the Secretary of State notifies both the housing authority and the applicant in writing of the outcome of the application for asylum. We believe that that is unnecessary, because paragraph 6(3) of schedule 1 already makes that clear. I therefore urge the House to accept amendment No. 19 but to reject the others.

    As we want to make progress, I will comment only briefly on the Minister's remarks. He reads well, but the people who write for him do not write very well. When the hon. Gentleman expresses compassion about people on the housing waiting list, he should remember some of his Department's other records. The Minister represents a Department which has the worst local authority housing construction record in peacetime this century. We do not hear much from the Government about people on the waiting list except in debates such as this. The Minister represents a Department which has also increased the number of homeless by 300 per cent. since his party took office. Although the hon. Gentleman reads well, he does not learn very well.

    When the Minister says that the status of asylum seekers should be relevant to local authority consideration, he repeats the point made by my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Watson) and for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng). The moment that status becomes a prime consideration, discriminatory factors become relevant. An asylum seeker's housing application should be considered on its own merits.

    The best construction that can be put on clause 3 is that it represents a disincentive to those who seek political asylum, and the worst—judging from some of the Minister's remarks—is that it is intended to serve as a scapegoat for the Government's appalling housing record.

    Amendment negatived.

    Amendment made: No. 28, in page 3, line 37, at end insert—

    '(5A) For the purposes of this section and that Schedule a person who makes a claim for asylum—
  • (a) becomes an asylum-seeker when his claim is at any time (whether before or after the coming into force of this section) recorded by the Secretary of State as having been made, and
  • (b) ceases to be an asylum-seeker when his claim is recorded by the Secretary of State as having been finally determined or abandoned.'.—[Mr. Yeo.]