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Benefits: Non-British Citizens

Volume 707: debated on Tuesday 3 February 2009

Question for Short Debate

Tabled By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that all non-British citizens resident in the United Kingdom are provided with adequate benefits, housing, healthcare and education.

My Lords, I appreciate the opportunity to share my concerns and anxieties regarding the well-being and survival of many who for different reasons find themselves here in the United Kingdom. When one looks at the turmoil which faces our own citizens, tremendous sympathy goes out to them. But that does not mean that at the same time we should not look wider to see what other problems there might be.

Some in this country have entered illegally. I am not sure whether it is my Liberal heart or my Methodist heart that has great sympathy with them. Certainly, realistically, those who are here illegally should be returned home as gently and as swiftly as possible. Last year, I welcomed the announcement that we had halted any removals to Darfur, Zimbabwe and, as regards those of the gay community, to Iran, where they faced persecution.

The condition of some of the people who come here illegally is numbing. In my own part of north Wales only a week or so ago, some such Chinese immigrants were found to be paid tiny wages and to be forced to sleep and rest in a disused restaurant refrigerator. Such circumstances cannot be tolerated: we think of the sacrifice that some of those folk have made just to come here, dreaming that the streets are paved with gold, when we know of our own experience that that is not so.

The Minister might be kind enough to tell us how long people who have failed with their asylum claims have to wait to be returned home. Some of those people who have not succeeded have to be here for many months before a decision is made. How satisfactory is the present system? Is it causing added harm and cost to the United Kingdom? I want to applaud and pay tribute to places such as Harmondsworth, with their concerned and caring approach to those who have failed the asylum process.

Others who come here are citizens of the European Community. They have every right to be here and most of them will make a success of their stay. A proportion of them—it could be anything; 5 per cent or 10 per cent—do not make a go of it. For those we have the gravest concern. May I say how much we appreciate the work that is already being done for them, especially by voluntary organisations? I visit the Dallow centre in Whitechapel and see what is happening there. I work with the Barka Foundation, taking those from Poland who have not made a success of it back home. I hear of the good work carried out by some local authorities. We appreciate the work that is being carried out. I suggest that in London we need the boroughs to work together in greater co-operation. We need a pan-London strategy.

How can Her Majesty’s Government help in the present situation? It is untrue that migrant workers who arrive here can immediately draw benefits: they cannot. They have to join the workers’ registration scheme. They pay £90 and it is 12 months before they are able to access any UK benefits. Ninety pounds might be little for most of us but to them it could be a great deal of money. People who come here with £300 and think that that will be enough to see them through find that that charge is levied before they can start to take the work that will enable them to claim benefits later. Is it possible for us somehow to delay the charge payable by them until they have started working and have the extra money that enables them to pay that particular fee, or to pay by instalments?

Furthermore, they have to have a national insurance number, which sometimes takes a long time. How can we speed up that process, giving everyone who wants to work here their national insurance number? When we debated the UK Borders Bill, now the UK Borders Act, I tried to persuade the Government to prepare and make available multilingual information packs that could be distributed in the villages and towns in which the folk who come to the UK live, advising them about the problems and opportunities and where help could be obtained.

I wonder whether the Government could reconsider that point. In other countries there is an emergency telephone number for those at a loss. I was walking in Victoria Street a fortnight ago and a perfectly respectable person there had arrived from Lithuania who could not get a job. There was no work going. Such people find themselves with their pennies and hope gone. Could we have a government-sponsored or supported helpline for such people?

I want to say how much we appreciate the work of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. It does a tremendous job and we owe it a great debt. Last week I was so pleased that the Minister said we might look at the possibility with our European colleagues at having benefits that were paid in Poland and could be drawn from the Polish Exchequer here in the United Kingdom when people got into real need. Will the Government please explore that possibility?

My colleague will speak about asylum seekers later. I want to point out that in 2007, nearly 50 per cent of all refused asylum seekers were from Zimbabwe, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Eritrea. Prior to a change in 2003, refused asylum seekers from those areas would almost certainly have been given exceptional leave to remain in the UK. That has been changed with remarkable consequences. We now have the humanitarian protection and discretionary leave categories. As a consequence, whereas 20,135 individuals obtained exceptional leave to remain in 2002, only 405 did in 2007. We would like to see some change there.

In reviewing the treatment of asylum seekers in the UK, the Joint Committee on Human Rights recently reached the following conclusion:

“We have been persuaded by the evidence that the Government has indeed been practicing a deliberate policy of destitution of this highly vulnerable group. We believe that the deliberate use of inhumane treatment is unacceptable. We have seen instances in all cases where the Government's treatment of asylum seekers and refused asylum seekers falls below the requirements of the common law of humanity and of international human rights law”.

Under Section 95, the asylum seeker has some payment and some way of supporting himself—although it is only 70 per cent of the social security benefit that UK residents would receive. However, that has changed and they can lose that and become totally destitute. Section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004 would withdraw all benefits from failed asylum seekers. This drives them into destitution. We should look at this again. When the new immigration Bill comes before the House, we intend to table amendments that will delete that clause.

In conclusion, the measures we take now are inhumane. They are against our ordinary traditions. The Joint Committee on Human Rights says:

“The policy of enforced destitution must cease. The system of asylum seeker support is in a confusing mess. We have seen no justification for providing varying standards of support and recommend the introduction of a coherent, unified, simplified and accessible system of support for asylum seekers, from arrival until”,

they leave our shores, their voluntary departure. I urge the Government to look again, in a more humane way, at this legislation.

My Lords, I am sure that I am not alone in wanting to thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, for raising this issue this evening. The warmth and commitment with which he brings his unashamed Welsh non-conformist values into our debates adds to the quality of our deliberations in this House. Long may that continue.

I was therefore surprised by one sweeping point that he made at the beginning of his remarks that rather took me by surprise. He said that some were here illegally, and should of course be sent home. I wish that I thought that it was quite as simple as that. Given the dreadful story behind the situation of some of those who are here illegally, it seems that they have precious little choice but to be here. It is not quite as simple as the noble Lord suggested. I am sure that he would agree with me that, in this policy area, the Government face one of the most difficult and complex tasks. I am sure that many of us have good will towards the Government as they try to grapple with it. It is a difficult issue, and not helped by the wilful misrepresentations of some of the media.

It is important to remember that, within the sphere of those who remain without permission, there are, as the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, suggested, different categories. There are certainly those with no protection needs in the UK who should return. But there are also those who cannot leave the UK through no fault of their own. For example, they may be stateless and have no country to return to. Their Government may not provide them with travel documents, preventing their return. They may be too sick to travel, or there may be no viable route whereby they may return home.

There are those who, having been in the UK for a long period, have developed strong ties with it, such as entering relationships and having children. There are those who genuinely believe that it is unsafe for them to return because of armed conflict and repressive regimes. In some cases, the UK Government recognise that it is not safe for these people to go home, even though they have not granted them asylum in the UK. For example, in 2005, they refused asylum to some people from Zimbabwe but have not removed them. Perhaps slightly more equivocal is the issue of the non-Arabs from Darfur.

We know that there is acute hardship among these people. Just think of it amidst the weather that we have been enduring for the past couple of days. Some are totally destitute, dependent on chance and spontaneous charity to survive at all. This is in a country that we are struggling to keep as one of the leading economies of the world.

Some must survive under Section 4. It was calculated last September that there might be some 10,000 in that situation. They have accommodation of a sort provided, and must then survive on £35 a week in vouchers. How many of us, as we look at our expenses in the House of Lords, would like to think of surviving on £35 a week? We must keep a sense of perspective about these things. It is less than two-thirds of the basic income support rate. If we have something called the “basic income support rate”, that presumably means that it is the basic income level. These people are somehow expected to survive on less than two-thirds of it. The vouchers are inflexible. They cannot be exchanged for cash, and in attempts to do so the unofficial rate means that they are worth only £25. They cannot be used for clothing. They cannot be used for medicaments, sanitary items or even basic essentials such as paracetamol.

On health, I was a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights when it produced its report on asylum. Right across the party divide, as a whole committee, we became more and more profoundly disturbed by what we saw—and really quite angry. Hence, we produced a rather tough report to which, if my noble friend the Minister will forgive my saying so, we have never yet seen a convincing reply. Think of how people with serious health needs are officially debarred from receiving the medical care that they should have. Think of the moral pressure and dilemmas that this places on the medical profession, including GPs who may be unable to ensure that the necessary medical attention can be made available. They may have to engage in subterfuges such as sending people to accident and emergency departments because that is the only way that any help will be provided. They may be watching sick people who could be prevented from getting worse getting gravely sick until it is an accident-and-emergency situation. That is a terrible pressure to put on honourable members of the medical profession. It is also counterproductive, because it may mean that social diseases go untreated and we are therefore putting the population as a whole at greater risk.

On education, one encounters traumas among children who are fully established residents, from families that have been here for centuries, when they see dreadful things happening to children with whom they have relationships and have felt to be part of their community, when those children are suddenly removed without explanation. How does the absence of legal aid help? It probably ends up with more muddle, confusion and cost.

The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, mentioned the Joint Committee on Human Rights and its report. I wonder whether we had the same sort of briefing, because he picked the two excerpts from the report that I was going to read. I shall not repeat them. However, apart from the humanitarian and moral issues, what worries me is the political issue. We live in a terribly dangerous age. It does not take many people who have been embittered to do terrible things or become caught up in them. I sometimes think that some experiences that people go through in immigration are almost designed to embitter them and make them possible targets for extremist recruitment.

But, of course, what is more important is what sort of society we want to be. We cannot appease prejudice and we certainly cannot buy off wilfully malicious press coverage. We have to look at the impact on race relations in general in society, if we appear to be subjecting people to embittering experiences in their search for asylum, particularly when, as the noble Lord rightly said, one remembers the traumas which these people have undergone.

At a time like this when the going gets tough, I suggest that this is the very time to stand firm on the principles which matter. This requires strong political leadership, not trying to appease the worst instincts in society, in which we should be behind those who carry the political responsibility on our behalf.

Twenty-eight organisations have written to some of us about the issues as they see them from church and caring organisations to voluntary organisations in the front line. These are responsible, sensible organisations that many of us support. They have sent us a very interesting and detailed brief. I give my noble friend notice that I intend to send it in its entirety to him in the hope that I can be given a detailed response from the Government on all the points it raises. But above all let us remember that history will look at us now, in an increasingly globalised, interdependent world, and judge us pretty toughly on how far the values that we say are essential to Britain, and of which we say we are proud, are really applied in the immigration and asylum process.

My Lords, we have heard two very powerful speeches. I am pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Judd, whose wisdom was demonstrated in his powerful, well argued 10-minute speech. I concur with everything that he said. The House is indebted to my noble friend for introducing this subject with his usual Welsh irrepressible enthusiasm. His Welsh is beginning to develop a Polish accent as he discusses these issues with these interest groups, which I agree are vital. All these people who look after the communities that they seek to serve deserve our thanks for the work that they do.

I wish to comment on a focused issue relating to refused asylum seekers, as we are now seeing some of the fruits of the legislation that has been promoted over the past 10 years. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Judd, that this is a difficult area for any Government to handle. However, worrying signs are emerging that some aspects of the legislation are coming home to roost in a way that should be, and is, uncomfortable for us all.

I do not want to repeat the quotations that have already been drawn from the invaluable report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Rather, I shall consider whether an entitlement to work and benefit provision acts as a magnet for abusive and potentially inept asylum claims. I was struck by the fact that the committee took no comfort from the claim of the then Home Office Minister, Mr Liam Byrne, that there was a real danger of a “pull factor”—that is how it is known in the jargon—occurring if people were given the right to work and access to a continuous flow of benefit income. The committee stated, in what I think is the most powerful recommendation in the report:

“We recommend that in the development of asylum policy the Government should proceed on the basis of evidence, rather than assertion, which evidence should wherever possible be published”.

I freely admit that I am not an expert on the technicalities of asylum, but looking at the Home Office’s own research and at my own experience in Scotland, where there is a slightly different perspective on some of this, I believe that promoting sensible levels of subsistence benefit on which people can have a chance of living over long periods does not act as a pull factor. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, made the important point that Section 4 support is meagre, but it is supposed to last only for a very limited period. However, some of these families live on Section 4 support for long periods. That was never the policy intention and it has consequences for people’s health, particularly children’s health, which the Government can no longer afford to ignore.

We need to be clear about where the Government are getting their evidence from as regards denying access to work and Section 95 benefits over a longer period for fear of people abusing access to additional services. In Scotland, people have access to secondary health provision under Section 4, because the relevant orders are different. In Scotland, there is a much more integrated approach to the whole application process. When families, particularly those with children, make an application in Scotland, there is a much more involved process, which sometimes leads to a voluntary return when people are refused entry. Families proceed along a much smoother path and receive a lot of co-operation and support that is just not available in England; I believe that the same circumstances apply in Wales. The English provision needs to be looked at again. If we were able to provide more support, we would get a better outcome for everyone concerned, even for those who return voluntarily. The Government need to re-examine their claims with regard to the pull factor.

A position statement from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Improving Services for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, goes out of its way to say that the Government have done a huge amount in improving mental health services for the black and ethnic community. However, it says that there is absolutely no strategy for refugees and asylum seekers. The psychiatrists see incidents of mental illness now emerging. That is not surprising to anybody who knows the situation. The psychiatrists are now professionally concerned that mental illness is arising due to the socio-economic factors to which we subject refused asylum seekers. That matter needs to be addressed.

I wish to make three suggestions focused on the background that I have just explained. First, we should consider allowing Section 95 cover to continue throughout any claim from beginning to conclusion, whether a voluntary or a forced return to a home country is involved. I shall explain why that is sensible financially in a moment. Secondly, I suggest that we should permit legal entry to work after 26 weeks. Measures with which the Minister and I are familiar such as welfare to work and the right to bid for contracts to get people off benefits and into work can work on a spend-to-save basis. If we could demonstrate that people on Section 95 support could trade themselves off benefit and support themselves for the duration of the rest of their claim, irrespective of whether there is a forced or a voluntary return, there would be an absolutely cast-iron cost-benefit analysis case to make for taking such an approach. Thirdly, I hope that the Minister and his department have considered the experience in Scotland, where an integrated partnership approach is taken. I have seen CoSLA reports dealing with forums that encourage people to return in a co-operative and supportive way. I believe that such an approach would improve the situation for returnees. In Glasgow, there is an assisted family return project.

The case for taking out Section 4 and Section 9, as my noble friend mentioned, but particularly Section 4, is that Section 4 costs the public purse extra for a number of reasons. First, accommodation has to be found, which can be very expensive for local authorities. Secondly, the administration costs of the hated voucher scheme are a complete waste of money and an expense for nothing. The scheme forces people into misery; it is not effective and it does not work. Thirdly, the review of those entitled to Section 4 payments costs money. The review and appeal costs add to the totality of the present system’s costs. The caseworker resources tied up in the administration of Section 4 are a waste of money, particularly given the review of the 200,000 cases that the Home Office is looking at. Those resources are important. Finally, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said, NHS support in England, where people are sent bills if they receive secondary care, costs money.

My final point relates to supporting these changes and abolishing Section 4. The cost of removal on a voluntary basis, as we know from Home Office figures, amounts to £1,000 on average. The cost of a forced removal is £11,000. Therefore, for every forced removal that we can avoid, we can save the public purse money, we can turn that resource into support for these families and we can get a much more satisfactory and sympathetic support system for refused asylum seekers. This argument will not go away and I hope that the Government will give it further consideration as a result of my noble friend’s debate.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, for securing this dinner hour debate. I should declare my interest as an employer of seasonal workers from other countries within the EU at different times around the year. They represent a small but significant percentage of our workforce, which changes with the seasons. Most of them go home as the work ends, although many return regularly. I might add that our workers from Poland and such countries are hard-working, conscientious and prepared to apply their intelligence to the job in hand. I can also assure noble Lords that we are an Investors in People company and care equally for all our staff.

This debate is a sequel to last Wednesday’s Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, which covered similar ground. However, I come to this subject from a very different direction from that of the noble Lord and, indeed, the noble Lords, Lord Judd and Lord Kirkwood. There is much concern about this issue. It cannot have helped the acute sensitivity of the subject when the Prime Minister chose to raise the issue of,

“British jobs for British workers”.

If ever a soundbite came back to bite its owner, this was it. What does the Minister have to say on this? Similarly, the Immigration Minister, Phil Woolas, has said that entitlements to benefits should be for citizens of our country, not other people. Does the noble Lord agree?

According to government figures, there are 199,667 non-British citizens in receipt of state benefits, including child benefit, jobseeker’s allowance and housing support. Given the current climate, does the Minister expect this figure to increase and, if so, what estimate has his department made of the increase? Of course, it is possible that the economic recession may persuade some migrants to return home, but there is an equal possibility that they might stay and become benefit dependent. After all, Tom Wlodarski of the East of England Polish Community Organisation said:

“Families are staying on, as they feel it is better to ride out the recession here in England”.

Urszula Jukes, owner of the Polish recruitment agency Access Europe, said:

“For many the answer is to bring their family here where they can support them with the higher UK wages and government support. Families are almost always better off … as there is the generous welfare state”.

This points to an increasing, not reducing, area of government engagement with this issue as a result of the recession.

The numbers are significant. Home Office figures state that some 895,000 eastern Europeans have been allowed to work in the UK since the EU expanded to include the former eastern bloc nations of Estonia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. Of those who are officially registered, nearly 200,000 are in receipt of benefits. These figures go back to September last year and do not take into account the dramatic economic decline of the past few months and the massive job losses that it will bring. If the numbers are significant, so is the money. Can the Minister tell me the total amount paid in benefits to non-British citizens? It is not necessary for all those families to reside in the UK. Will he update the House on how much British child benefit and child tax credit is paid to Polish workers whose children live in Poland and say whether the Government have any plans to change the rules?

I am pressing the Minister hard on this, because it is a sensitive issue and the Government can defuse this sensitivity only by being open about the scale of the problem, the issues involved and their intentions. The soundbite messages of the Prime Minister and Mr Woolas do not help the Government to gain the confidence of the British people. However, we should be happy that the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, has given us all the opportunity to debate the benefits of migrant workers. I look forward to the Minister’s reply and his response to my questions.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for initiating this debate and to all noble Lords who have contributed. As set down, its scope was wide, although in some respects it has focused on asylum seekers, so my response will seek to cover all aspects.

We fully recognise the impact that inward migration has had in boosting economic growth in the UK, in particular helping to meet previous shortages of labour and skills in the UK labour market. The diversity that this brings has enriched our culture. We also know that those suffering oppression around the world have long looked to the UK for safe haven.

Against this background, and consistent with our international obligations, it is important that we provide adequate support for people entering this country, especially when they come here to work. At the same time, we need to be aware that there are people entering the UK who will seek to take undue advantage of our social security and other care and support systems, so we need to balance the support we provide for foreign nationals entering the UK with protection of our internal support systems and the taxpayer. The rules we have in place, combined with immigration controls, seek to meet these aims. They balance help where appropriate with measures to protect our financial and care systems. As my noble friend Lord Judd said, sometimes these are difficult tasks.

Access to social security benefits is a complex topic which cannot be dealt with comprehensively in the time allowed for this reply. Different considerations apply for contributory benefits, income-related benefits and non-contributory benefits, such as attendance allowance. The nationality of claimants is not recorded on benefit, tax credit or child benefit data, because nationality is not typically a condition of entitlement. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, alluded to the fact that data are collected in respect of A8 nationals, and that information goes into Home Office monitoring report. However, nationality is not included on benefit records, so information on the aggregate amounts is not available.

Contributory benefits are payable to anyone who satisfies the contribution conditions and other conditions of the benefit, regardless of nationality or length of stay in the UK. Most non-EEA nationals are excluded from income-related benefits and non-contributory benefits because they are subject to immigration control, which includes a requirement that they have no recourse to public funds. However, vulnerable individuals with certain types of leave to enter or remain in the UK can be eligible for benefits, provided that they are habitually resident in the UK. This can include those granted refugee status and humanitarian protection. In general terms, EEA nationals with worker status have recourse to public funds and may be entitled to claim income-related benefits. This could include housing benefit and council tax benefit. Should they fall out of work but remain in the labour market, they may claim jobseeker’s allowance.

However, matters are more restrictive for accession country nationals, A8 and A2. They have worker status while they are working and are registered, as appropriate, with the registration or authorisation scheme. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, asked about the fee. The registration happens when the worker is in employment—employment has to precede it—and the fee is paid only on first application. However, workers retain this status only if they have been working and registered for at least 12 months. Should this not be the case, entitlement to JSA and housing and council tax benefit will fall. Similar considerations apply to access to child benefit and tax credits. These situations can generate some of the problems around rough sleeping, which is why we are working with colleagues in accession countries to raise awareness of the eligibility rules and discourage those unlikely to find work from coming to the UK.

Asylum seekers, as the noble Lord has identified, are subject to immigration control and have no recourse to social security benefits until they have been granted leave to remain in the UK. However, those who are destitute and have children—I will come to this later—can apply through the UK Border Agency for both financial support and help with accommodation. The level of support reflects its temporary nature and the fact that supported asylum seekers do not pay council tax or utility bills.

Last year, we extended support to cover facilitation of travel to medical appointments, the nutritional needs of pregnant mothers and young children, and clothing for children. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, posed several questions, particularly about asylum seeker applications and the average times taken for decisions on asylum claims. We are making decisions quicker than before and beat our target of concluding 40 per cent of cases within six months by the end of last year. Indeed, we are on track to conclude the majority of cases within six months by the end of December 2008. We aim to conclude 90 per cent of cases within six months by 2011.

The noble Lord also asked how long failed asylum applicants had to wait before they were removed. In 2007, we removed one person every eight minutes—more than 63,000 people in total. We have been clear that our top priority has been public protection, as part of a wider enforcement agenda.

Most migrants are privately housed, and around 95 per cent of householders who have arrived in the UK in the past two to three years live in the private rented sector. We know that houses of multiple occupation are a key source of housing for significant and often vulnerable groups in society. We also know that sometimes the housing conditions faced by migrants are poor. The introduction of mandatory licensing in 2004 of all privately rented HMOs, and discretionary arrangements for local authorities, should help to alleviate these issues.

The focus of provision of social housing is based on need. In framing their social housing allocation schemes, local authorities must ensure that “reasonable preference” is given to households that are homeless, overcrowded or have medical or welfare needs, including grounds relating to a disability. This applies equally to British citizens and eligible non-British citizens.

Inevitably, some people from abroad slip through the net, and in some cases end up sleeping rough on the streets. We recognise that this is a particular problem in London, and, to a lesser extent, in places such as Peterborough and Reading. We are providing funding to support local authorities in helping A8 nationals find work and, in some instances, pay for travel back to their own countries. We are also supporting Homeless Link to reduce rough sleeping among EU migrants in London and, as I said earlier, are investing in an extensive information campaign in accession countries to ensure that prospective migrants are aware that they will not have immediate access to social benefits.

Refugees are particularly vulnerable, and we are working with our partners to secure good housing outcomes for refugees and other migrants through developing the housing element of the UK Border Agency Refugee Integration and Employment Service and through the Housing Associations’ Charitable Trust “Opening Doors” initiative to improve the capacity of housing associations and refugee organisations.

Healthcare, too, is an important issue for migrants, as it is for all our citizens. The rules and procedures for eligibility for free NHS care for non-British residents balance the principles of fairness, humanity and affordability with the full treaty rights of all EEA citizens and support for the legitimate movement of people to and from the UK. EEA citizens who take up residency in the UK for a reasonable period have full entitlement to both GP and hospital care. Shorter-term visitors receive all necessary treatment free of charge while they are here. However, this does not apply to pre-planned treatment without special arrangement.

We have bilateral health agreements with more than 30 other countries, including some in eastern Europe, Eurasia and many Commonwealth colonies. We have further exemptions for visiting students and workers employed by UK-based companies. The rights of EEA and bilateral country nationals are of course reciprocated, so that British nationals travelling, working or residing in these countries receive healthcare on the same priority and charging basis as nationals of that country.

I should like to make it clear that we do not provide routine free healthcare for unregulated illegal migrants or other visitors who may come seeking free healthcare. However, it is important to state that urgent treatment should never be denied to, or delayed for, any person, irrespective of their legal status or financial position. They should be charged subsequently for their care and we take reasonable steps to recover the cost. Our regulations are designed to protect the NHS, a free service established primarily for British residents, from inappropriate access by overseas visitors, while providing appropriate entitlements to EEA citizens and other current residents.

Asylum seekers awaiting a formal decision on their claim are eligible for both primary and secondary NHS medical treatment free of charge; and the basic humanitarian needs of unsuccessful asylum seekers continue to be met. The Department of Health and the Home Office are currently undertaking a review of the rules governing immigrant access to healthcare.

I can skip the section of brief on education, except to say that under Section 13 of the Education Act 1996, local authorities are under a duty to ensure that sufficient primary and secondary education is available to meet the needs of the population in their area. That applies irrespective of immigration status or rights of residence and, of course, includes school-age asylum-seeking children.

I shall pick up a number of additional questions posed. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, asked about the comments of the Prime Minister about British jobs for British workers. As the Prime Minister made clear, we are taking action to stimulate the economy. Jobs need to be filled and we are taking action to ensure that the British workforce will have the skills that it needs to be well placed to compete for those jobs.

A number of noble Lords made reference to the JCHR’s criticism of our treatment of asylum seekers. Of course, the Government responded to the committee’s 17th report on 5 July 2007. We believe that our asylum support system is fair and properly balanced. There are safeguards for supporting unsuccessful asylum seekers who are vulnerable; for example, families with minor dependents and those who have a genuine reason for why they cannot return home. The UK Border Agency is committed to working with stakeholders to continue to improve the asylum system and the treatment of asylum seekers. The recent NAO report recognises considerable success in improving the asylum system, but clearly there is more to do.

The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, asked about a helpline, a pan-London strategy. Clearly, those are issues about which we could talk further with the Mayor of London and with the Minister for London. With support from communities and local government, the Improvement and Development Agency has developed a template for local authorities to prepare information packs on key information for migrants. It brings together examples of material used by local authorities in existing welcome packs and it is a rich source of expertise and ideas for local authorities reviewing their welcome packs or considering producing one for the first time.

A number of noble Lords made reference to Sections 4, 9 and 95. On Section 9, the UK Border Agency is currently considering, with stakeholders, our review of asylum support under simplification and whether to repeal Section 9 will be part of that consultation. As the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, said, Section 4 is focused on temporary support. Indeed, the legislation does not allow cash to be provided, but we shall continue to work with a variety of stakeholder groups. We believe that it is important to continue to listen to any concerns that groups and individuals might have and to work together wherever possible to identify those areas where the system can be improved.

The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, asked about national insurance numbers. The key management indicator target is 86 per cent of applications processed within 30 days and we are exceeding that. On Section 95, we are looking at a reform of asylum support under our simplification proposals and we shall pick up the issue in conjunction with that.

The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, asked about EEA migrants claiming unemployment benefit from their home state. As we debated last week, when the noble Lord asked a Question, there are proposals to do that when workers are posted to the UK.

My time is exceeded. We should be proud of the welfare system we have in this country. It provides a safety net for people in time of need and seeks a responsible engagement for individuals to access work. Meanwhile, our NHS is the envy of the world. While our humanity dictates that we share these benefits with those less fortunate, we know that the real world demands a more constrained approach. As I said earlier, we need a balance between appropriate support for foreign nationals coming to the UK, sustainability of our system and protection for taxpayers. I commend this approach to noble Lords.

Sitting suspended.