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Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants etc.) Act 2004

Volume 690: debated on Thursday 29 March 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will repeal Section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants etc.) Act 2004 and end the pilot trials now in operation.

My Lords, pilot activity in respect of decisions to withdraw asylum support ended in November 2005. Work is continuing on the evaluation of the pilot. No decisions will be taken on whether to implement Section 9 more widely until that work has been completed.

My Lords, I welcome the fact that the trial areas are now a thing of the past. What has happened to the 116 families, 219 children, involved in the three trial areas? How soon will the reports be in our hands? What plans has the Minister to give evidence to the Independent Asylum Commission so that it has the full government perspective?

My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, the evaluation is not complete, and I am not in a position to prejudge it. A number of the families involved in the Section 9 pilot have come back on to support and a small number have left under the voluntary assistance scheme.

My Lords, how many families with children would have been deprived of support if Section 9 had been implemented during these months? How many of those families have accepted the enhanced IOM voluntary return package? Why is it taking so long to produce the evaluation when we already knew from the Barnardo’s study carried out when the power to repeal was granted in the asylum Act 2006 that the pilots had been a failure?

My Lords, it would help the House if the noble Lord were rather more precise in his question about voluntary returns. Statistics show that in 2006 some 5,330 people who had sought asylum left the UK under the assisted voluntary return programme. That detail is in the public domain. I cannot speculate on when the evaluation will be completed but I understand that it will be in the next few months.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the children in those families are treated far differently from indigenous children and therefore not in the context of Every Child Matters?

My Lords, we take the welfare of children affected by the asylum process very seriously. We have put measures in place to ensure that they are not left destitute, that there is support and accommodation for them and that they continue to be with their families. I recognise that this is a very difficult, tough area of public policy, but when people are not here legally we have to take effective measures to ensure their safe return to their country of origin. In saying that, we have to respect their human rights and go through due process to ensure that they return.

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that this is a very difficult area of public policy that we perhaps ought to debate more fully? My experience has been that often the families being offered return were offered financial assistance that would have been very significant in the country they were going to. The issue was not always the safety of the family in their country; the problem was that they wanted their children to be educated here. It is a very difficult double bind to allow people to come in and get their children educated here. In my old area, there were about 200 such children in our schools.

It is very difficult, and I am not entirely happy with how we deal with this problem at the moment. We need a wider and more open debate, maybe here, about how to handle this narrow, small group of families whose children are disadvantaged, often because parents want something that does not fit with the rest of our policy, which this House would agree with.

My Lords, we are very fortunate to live in a successful country with a highly successful economy. People are envious of that and seek to come here to make their way in the world. The asylum process is used as a means of achieving that; one can understand why, given the circumstances of many people who seek to come to this country. There is a generous package of voluntary assisted return and reintegration, and there is also an enhanced package, which has been on offer for those who claimed asylum on or before 31 December 2005. Many families have sought to make use of that package in securing their safe return.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will accept that the packages are not convenient for people who face persecution in their own countries and do not want to take up the offer. Does he agree that the Government have a responsibility to monitor destitution that arises directly from Section 9? Has he seen the latest Rowntree report on destitution in Leeds?

My Lords, I have not seen that report. We take the welfare of these families very seriously. That is why, as I explained, measures are in place to ensure that families are cared for and looked for if there is a prospect of them falling into destitution, particularly where there are children and young people in that family. We have to accept that there is a rigorous process in place to assess whether someone is a legitimate asylum seeker. It is absolutely right that we seek to secure failed asylum seekers’ return to their country of origin. We monitor very carefully all countries where that is the right course of action and we produce regular reports.