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Azure Card

Volume 757: debated on Thursday 20 November 2014

Motion to Take Note

Moved by

My Lords, I rise to draw attention to the extreme humanitarian suffering being caused by the Azure card. A system that was designed to prevent short-term destitution has instead enforced long-term destitution on thousands of people.

We appreciate very much those voluntary organisations without which no humane response to certain needs could be found. For instance, I checked on the Whitechapel Mission in the East End of London, and last year 4,932 different people used its services; 15,712 people used the showers; and 105,136 breakfasts were served to homeless and other people. Without the voluntary sector, churches and other places, many people would be at a total loss. We thank all these organisations for the tremendous work that they do.

The Azure card—many people do not even know what it is—was introduced in November 2009. It has subjected thousands of refused asylum seekers to distress and discrimination. That need not have happened. My hope this morning is that the system can be looked at again this morning, and possibly even changed. I thank the Red Cross and Refugee Action for all their information and support.

The Azure card and Section 4 support do not allow asylum seekers to meet their basic needs and live in dignity. It creates unnecessary suffering for people who are already in desperate situations. Research found that 85% of the refugee support organisations felt that their clients were left hungry because Section 4 support is insufficient. Ninety per cent of those on Section 4 regularly miss a meal. Ninety-two per cent of the organisations surveyed felt that their clients on Section 4 support were unable to maintain good health. Just as worryingly, the organisations find that the card makes users a target for discrimination: 72% of Azure card users reported having their card refused during the past six months. Seventy per cent of clients have experienced poor treatment from shop staff, and users experience feelings of embarrassment and anxiety when using the card.

How did this situation come about? Until 1999 all asylum seekers had access to a reduced rate of social security benefits, in the form of cash. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 introduced two new separate asylum support systems. One—Section 95 support—was for asylum seekers still in process. The other—Section 4 support—was for refused asylum seekers willing but unable to return to their country of origin. So in 1999 cash support was replaced by a voucher system.

Asylum seekers were unable to travel; they could not get from place to place because they had no cash, only vouchers. So asylum seekers in, say, Vauxhall, could not travel to, say, Whitechapel, where there is a first-class used clothing store in the Whitechapel Mission. Often the services are there, but they are inaccessible. This leads to isolation and social exclusion of already vulnerable and marginalised people. It hampers their ability to engage properly with the asylum process. With regard to their efforts to return, they cannot even travel to where they have to make their inquiries, and they have no means to pay for travel to legal representatives or health services. I hope that this can be rectified, because we know that small problems can quickly snowball into unnecessary crisis.

In response to a recent Written Question of mine, the Government indicated that as of this month, 4,395 people had been living with the Azure card for more than six months. That means that 4,395 people under the protection and care of the United Kingdom were not even getting enough to eat, and were prevented from working their way out of this poverty—a poverty unnecessarily forced upon them. In October 2013, 1,228 people had been in receipt of Section 4 support for between two and six years, while 205 had been receiving support for more than six years. Therefore, 43% of people in receipt of Section 4 support in October 2013 had been living with Azure card payments for more than two years.

We must remember that people qualify for Section 4 support only if they co-operate with voluntary return, or if they can prove that they are unable, through no fault of their own, to leave the UK. They are not refuseniks; they are not criminals; they are not absconders. These are honest people who are co-operating with the system, and we are treating them inhumanely. The message from refugee support agencies is clear: refused asylum seekers have been forced to endure destitution and discrimination at the hands of a system that need not exist. The decision to replace the old voucher system with the card, instead of simple cash, has harmed the very people the Government were trying to protect. By not abolishing the card, the Government are refusing to recognise the humanitarian crisis that it is causing.

The reality is that the Azure card has solved none of the problems it was designed to address. As with the voucher system it replaced, the Azure card stigmatises refused asylum seekers and does not provide adequately for their basic living needs. It has led to the very people we are trying to protect going hungry, and it is singling them out for discrimination. This system need not exist.

If the Government will not listen to the moral argument for abolition, perhaps they will consider the financial one. Since its inception, the Azure card has already cost the Exchequer £1.5 million to administer, with the annual costs currently estimated at £200,000. The voucher system was scrapped in 2002 because the then Home Secretary, the right honourable David Blunkett, believed it to be too slow, vulnerable to fraud and unfair to both asylum seekers and local communities. Despite this condemnation in 2002, it was reintroduced in 2005 for those on Section 4 on the basis that cash would be an incentive for them to remain in the United Kingdom. In 2007, the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights declared that the Section 4 voucher scheme to be “inhumane and inefficient”. I repeat: that was the opinion of the Joint Committee on Human Rights of this Parliament. It went on to state:

“It stigmatises refused asylum seekers and does not adequately provide for basic living needs”.

It is the same story again. There is no evidence that the voucher system encourages refused asylum seekers to leave the UK. In 2013, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee concluded:

“Section 4 is not the solution for people who have been refused asylum but cannot be returned”.

The Azure payment card was introduced in November 2009 and implemented in the UK in February 2010, when once again the voucher system was deemed not fit for purpose. As things currently stand, people on Section 4 support have no access to cash and they are not allowed to work. They receive £35.39 a week via a prepayment Azure card. Accommodation is provided under the section. We are delighted with that, but it is not of their choice. The card can be used to buy food, essential toiletries, clothing and credit for mobile phones. Single people with no dependants are not allowed to carry over more than £5 at the end of each week, or it would show that they were making a profit out of the system. In fact, because of the unjust carryover limit, from November 2009 to December 2010, the estimated amount of unspent credit recovered from the Azure card during the first year of its operation was £650,000. The total value at the moment, for 2011 to 2013, is around £100,000 every year. That is money which is unclaimed and unused. It is just like taking food from the mouths of the hungry.

The card is accepted by only a limited number of retailers who have been persuaded by the Home Office to join the scheme. They are Asda, Boots, the Co-op, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, the Early Learning Centre, Morrison’s and Mothercare. The card can also be used in charity shops which are organised by the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. There is a great difference in price when you buy food. You can buy it in a budget shop or at one of the main stores. There is a massive difference in the prices. The Daily Mirror last Monday highlighted the difference in the price of groceries that could be purchased in various supermarket chains. It cost nearly twice as much in one store to buy the same items as in another—£47.04 as against £27.84. I will not name the shops involved. Also, the card cannot be used in a street market, bargain shop or discount store. As I said, it cannot be used for travel. Refused asylum seekers who are supported under Section 4 are prohibited from accessing public transport at all but the most limited times.

I suggest that it is time to withdraw this part of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, which prohibits the provision of cash under Section 4. It causes asylum seekers to feel discriminated against and unworthy. We are trying to give people dignity. We are trying to make people feel that they belong, even though their circumstances are not our circumstances. We need to provide them with funding that will meet their basic needs and to recognise that support must often be provided for much longer than the current system has envisaged.

In 2009 the benefit was £35. It has not increased. Asylum seekers are still trying to meet their needs with the cash that they would have received in 2009. There has not been any notice taken at all of the increase in prices. I speak to my noble friend the Minister a lot about these things. Would it not be much better to give someone cash in hand that they were able to use as they wished, rather than spend £1.5 million on administering the scheme?

Can we abolish the Azure card this afternoon? If we cannot go all the way, I suggest—and I just have a wee bit of time to do it—that we must conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the Azure card programme and make a comparison between the cost of the card and the cost of the cash. We must conduct an annual audit of the impact of the Azure card on its users and report to the Home Affairs Select Committee. We must try to expand—I know this is not always easy—the network of participating retailers to include smaller budget shops, charity shops, chains and, if possible, some market stalls. I do not know how one would do it. It will need some thinking through.

We should abolish the restrictions on what can be purchased using the Azure card—although alcohol and tobacco should remain things you cannot buy with it. We should abolish the carryover limit, which prevents people saving for larger or more expensive items. At the moment, if you want to buy a winter coat, you cannot do it because you do not have enough, although you might have £5 extra you could pay towards it next week. Could we look at that?

We must provide access to simple and up-to-date information to those who handle these cards—retailers and advice agencies—to train the staff so they do not refuse people who are have a legitimate use for their card. We must translate the information so that those who speak other languages know what it is all about. If the card fails, we must provide emergency vouchers that can be used if there is a technical problem. Possibly we could have a helpline, free from both landlines and mobiles, that can be used for other systems to help people when the system goes wrong. People should be able to check the balance of their online accounts by telephone or some other way.

There is much that can be done. I am convinced in my bones, as a fair-minded Welshman, that we could do something today to make the system more humane, to make people feel this is not undermining their dignity. I look forward with great interest to the contributions in this debate.

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord for interrupting. He has made a very cogent case, but I think we are missing one link. For whatever reason these Section 4 asylum seekers are unable to return, it is obviously not fear of persecution. That has been dealt with.

I shall try again. I wonder whether the noble Lord could help the House with the reasons why Section 4 failed asylum seekers are unable to return home—because, presumably, fear of persecution has already been dealt with.

The only answer I can give the noble Lord is that there are so many different circumstances in so many parts of the world. Certainly we can look into it together, and possibly we will come to an understanding. I beg to move.

My Lords, on these occasions, I normally start my contribution with the words, “I am grateful to my noble friend for introducing his debate”. Today, I am a little confused. We often have difficulties with noble Lords tabling very wide Questions for Short Debate and then getting a lot of speakers who want to contribute. Today, my noble friend has raised a very specific issue, the Azure card, which has not attracted many speakers for a two-and-a-half-hour debate. However, it illustrates that there is always the possibility of a debate coming up in your Lordships’ House even if neither the usual channels nor the party groups would have chosen it.

Before I explain why I cannot support my noble friend’s position, despite the very skilful way in which he has laid out his stall, it may be helpful to the House if I explain what my position is on wider and more topical immigration issues. I am a supporter of free movement within the Community. I think that Jack Straw got his figures wrong when he did not place transitional controls on accession states, but I believe that he was right not to do so. We cleaned up because the best-quality immigrants came to us from the accession states. When we hit the buffers in 2008, we did not get the unemployment that we could have expected because the surplus labour tended to go home or go elsewhere. This applied particularly to the construction industry, which took some time to recover. Of course, we need better arrangements for future accessions. In particular, the controls need to stay in place until the GDP per capita of the acceding state has risen sufficiently. We also need to tighten up on benefits, because it is a principle of free movement of labour, not free movement of benefit claimants—and I think that that is the position of the party opposite. I make this point to illustrate and prove that I am not anti-immigration.

We are proud of our asylum system, and we have a great system of justice and the rule of law. We can therefore be confident that, when an asylum seeker has been refused asylum and has exhausted his or her appeal rights, he or she is not a genuine refugee, is not entitled to be here and, most importantly, is not entitled to develop a life in the UK. Briefings that I have received suggest that our better benefits system for asylum seekers does not encourage people to seek asylum here. But if that is the case, why is there such a problem at Calais, where refugees are prepared to risk their lives trying to get here? I love France; it is warmer there; the food is better; and the culture is very similar. Since most refugees come from colder climates than our own, it seems a bit odd that they would rather be here than in, say, southern France. The logic is inescapable: it is better to be a refugee in the UK than in most other European countries.

On the point raised by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, about why refugees want to stay here if it has been proven through our legal system that they are not a genuine refugee, my understanding is that we can remove refused asylum seekers only to their country of origin or, if they have travel documents, to another country. We know that, in quite a few cases, there are practical difficulties in doing that. I also believe that we cannot remove to a third country even if it welcomes migrant labour—I cannot believe that we do not offer that opportunity when it is appropriate. I rather suspect that the refused asylum seeker would have a better standard of living here, under Section 4, than in many countries of origin or in those countries which welcome or even are dependent on migrant workers. I accept that being on Section 4 support will be uncomfortable. However, the system was put in place by the previous Government. This Government have continued with these arrangements, and I believe that it is the right approach. To make the changes proposed by my noble friend would only make the problem worse, particularly with refugees taking greater personal risk to get to the EU or UK.

I urge the Minister to keep the current system, with some minor refinements. However, I suggest that she listens to one suggestion from the noble Lord, Lord Roberts: raising the rate of Section 4 support in line with inflation. I know that there has been analysis that suggests that Section 4 support is currently sufficient, but the difficulty of not making regular increases is that you end up at some point having to make a large increase at a politically inconvenient time. It is much better to have small steady increases so that we can be confident that we are providing the right level of support.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the thoughtful speech of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. What he said about the contribution of immigrants to this country reminded me of an experience last night. I spoke to Alison Baum, who is the chief executive of Best Beginnings, at the launch of her new baby app. This is an app that pregnant mothers and mothers who have just had infants can use and gives videos of how best, for instance, to breast-feed a baby. I was introduced to her father, Professor Baum, and I heard her husband playing in a band, another Professor Baum, and she told me about her brother, another Professor Baum. I met her son who is very enthusiastic about his education and looks likely to be a further professor Baum—or perhaps not quite of that name. Her father told me about the origins of his family. When I asked him where they started to become professors, he said, “Well, we came out of middle Europe in the 1930s with no education, but in our culture we have an appetite to learn”, and that is what they did. I hope that supports what the noble Lord was saying.

I have long felt concerned about the need to moderate and manage the flow of migration in considering the pressures that exist, as migration is often in those areas where the poorest people live, where the housing is short and where there are difficulties in employment. It is a very difficult and complex issue and needs a very complex and sophisticated response.

Let me also say how grateful I am to the coalition Government for getting families out of detention once they have failed asylum. I think that is an important step forward. I have welcomed it before, but this is an appropriate time to note that as well.

I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for raising this important debate. He does an extremely important job in continuing to raise in our minds the needs of this particularly vulnerable group of people in our country. I was also grateful for the briefing that he arranged from the Red Cross last night. I am really grateful to him for what he is doing in this area.

There is a very helpful note from the Library, from which it is worth just highlighting what the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee recommended in regard to Section 4 in October 2013. It said:

“Section 4 is not the solution”,

and it went on to say that there should be “a better way forward” for refused asylum seekers.

The Library note also highlights the points that the noble Lord has made about the numbers. The Azure card is supposed to be a short-term answer to the problem, yet the table in the note shows that more than 1,400 of these people using an Azure card have been using it for over two years and 127 have been using it for more than six years. It was very disturbing last night to see a video of a family—I think they had two daughters—who had been on it for maybe four or five years. They then won their appeal, and they were off it and back in the country again. I have many concerns about the Azure card and I support the noble Lord’s request that it should be rethought and abolished, but if that is not possible I hope that the Government will choose to moderate its usage.

I would also like to highlight briefly that, although these individuals and families may have been refused asylum, that does not mean that they do not come from a nation where some kind of Hitler has been running the country for some time; it just means that he may have been removed or have moderated his activity. Often they have had horrific experiences in the place that they have come from. Coming to this country is very difficult. Going through the asylum process itself is traumatic—repeatedly hoping for the best but often having one’s hopes dashed. They often come from dysfunctional countries. For example, I remember visiting Angola previously, to which it is probably safe to return but where people live in fear of the police. I do not want to cast aspersions on any particular country—there are many dysfunctional countries out there—but one can have a great deal of sympathy for people even if they do not fit the criteria necessary to meet an asylum claim.

I am particularly concerned about the isolation of families, to which the Azure card may contribute. A recent report sponsored by the Maternity Mental Health Alliance, produced by the London School of Economics and entitled, The Costs of Perinatal Mental Health Problems, highlighted that the annual cost to this country of not adequately treating perinatal anxiety, depression and psychosis was £8.1 billion. The cost per individual birth is £10,000—a huge cost. Most of it, the report highlights, is constituted in the way that maternal depression, anxiety and so on impact on the relationship with the infant and result in the child’s failure to thrive because of a poor bond in its earliest years with the mother. The report highlights the fact that we should think carefully about the impact of what we are doing to the families under the Section 4 arrangement.

Looking at the figures, I roughly calculate that mothers-to-be will have approximately an additional £2 per week through their pregnancy to meet their needs. I welcome the fact that, a few years ago, the Government decided that pregnant mothers needed additional support and made more available—there is an additional £250 one-off and, sorry, an additional £3 a week. However, I ask the Minister to talk to experts in the field to find out whether that is enough to meet the nutritional requirements, to buy cots, and so on. I do not know what the rationale was for the changes and I would like to know that.

I come back to the issue of isolation. Over the years, from speaking with mothers when visiting Sure Start centres, it has been impressed on me how important it is for parents’ mental health to feel that they are part of a community and are not isolated. For example, a father who had mental health issues told me that being part of a group in a Sure Start centre, meeting other parents over coffee, was important to his recovery. When I spoke to mothers in temporary accommodation—thanks to the work of Barnardo’s and its Families in Temporary Accommodation project—they were able to meet on a weekly basis but they highlighted issues of isolation. In London, there is such a shortage of housing that they may be placed in temporary accommodation a long way from their family, friends and ethnic group. Some of them had to take a number of buses to reach those friends and family. When I accompanied a health visitor on a visit to an African woman with her new-born boy who were living in a house in multiple occupation in Waltham Forest, the health visitor had just a few minutes to make an impact on this woman, who was in tears about her situation when we were there—her partner was back in Africa somewhere, she knew nobody and the only support that she received was from the local church. In that short time, the health visitor had to try to give her the right advice, listen to her concerns and encourage her to go to the local Sure Start centre to begin to make some connections there.

All these experiences, along with conversations with experts working with such mothers, highlight to me that isolation has a terrible, negative impact on perinatal mental health. Conversely, it is very helpful for such mothers’ mental health to connect them with support in that sensitive period. Even if the Azure card is as harmful as many of us think it is, if we provide mothers with the right support and they can feel a sense of solidarity, they can probably manage to survive the difficulties that might arise.

I ask the Minister why availability of transport payments on the Azure card is very limited, and whether the Government will think about extending and expanding that. I think that one can pay for mobile phone top-ups on the Azure card, but I hope that the Government might think about making the payment, particularly to mothers in the perinatal period, a bit more generous and perhaps making it easier for them to call their home countries, and friends and others in this country. Finally, I am not quite clear about the roll-over arrangements. I know that there is generally a limit of £5 per week that can be carried over to the next. Perhaps with families it works differently, but I am concerned that if a parent wants to buy a Christmas or birthday present for a child they should be able to save up over a period of time to do that. I would like clarification on that.

As I said, the Secretary of State in the other place said that this is a supposed to be a temporary arrangement, yet for many families it is far from temporary, and I am concerned about that. There are purposes for this—I see that, and I expect that the Minister will say so—but I wonder whether they justify the harm that this seems to cause.

I should also have mentioned the matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, about stigma. There are two issues here. First, a family using this card in a local shop may mean that people with whom they are acquainted get to know their status, which may be unhelpful for them and further isolate them. Secondly, there is a question about their perception of themselves. If they go into a shop and they have to produce a special card and then experience a kind of looking down the nose from others in the shop, this may reinforce their sense of difference and isolation. If they are in a vulnerable time in their lives, for instance in or shortly after pregnancy, it may also make it harder for them to reach out to people, in their community possibly, but also to other indigenous people—it may make it harder for them to make those bonds, friendships and acquaintances that are so important.

To conclude, having followed the issue of families in detention in Yarl’s Wood for many years, I would like to say one more time, in the context of the anniversary today of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, that I am grateful to the coalition Government for deciding to treat families in this particular area so much better than they were treated in the past. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for securing this debate on a very important matter. The churches have long held, and maintained in this House, that those who have applied for asylum and who are not allowed to do paid work should be given enough financial help to maintain a decent basic standard of living for themselves and their families. Indeed, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York has more than once led delegations on this theme. Surely every person who is in this country should be treated in accordance with our values. If we wish to dissuade people from coming to this country without the legal right to be here, it is wrong to try to send a message by treating asylum applicants, even when appeal rights are exhausted, in a way unworthy of our values.

Of course, this debate is about those who have come to the end of the appeal process but, for one reason or another, cannot be removed to their home country. They may or may not hold full or partial responsibility for the impossibility of removing them; in many cases, it is not their fault at all. As we have heard, the Government provide basic accommodation and around £5 a day for a single person. As the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, has rightly drawn attention to, one of the issues is the fact that it is not possible for this to be rolled over. He drew attention to the difficulty in buying coats, but other basic essentials, such as a pair of shoes, also become impossible to purchase.

However, we are looking particularly at the issues associated with the Azure card itself. As has already been stated, one of the big problems with the Azure card is that it can be used only in certain outlets. I understand that the card system is designed to eliminate as far as possible the possibility of fraud but it is surely disproportionate to make a system so fraud-proof that it does not achieve its proper objectives.

There are other questions about the way in which the system operates so that, as has been pointed out, only certain outlets accept the card. I am not exactly sure why that is the case and I would be grateful for clarification from the Minister. It has been suggested to me that it is because the money is issued under contract by a private company which has contractual relationships with other private companies—retailers—for mutual benefit. If that is the case, I would be very concerned.

Attention has been drawn to problems that asylum seekers using Azure cards face in London. In my own diocese, the churches are very committed to working with asylum seekers and I have heard heart-rending stories from those who work with asylum seekers in Halesowen about the way in which asylum seekers are forced to walk quite some considerable distance—a matter of miles on occasions—with children simply to buy milk from one of the outlets at which the Azure card can be used, even though there is a shop next door to them.

Last weekend a large group of people from all over the country met at the Sanctuary Summit in Birmingham. Part of the communiqué from that summit reads:

“It cannot be right that people are left destitute in modern Britain, banned from working but denied support. Until they are granted protection and can work, asylum seekers should receive sufficient support to meet their essential living needs while in the UK”.

I support that statement. It is by no means clear that the Azure card system is currently succeeding in meeting what were reasonable aims.

I join the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, in asking the Minister for a review of the Azure card system. If it is not abolished, there is much scope for improving its efficiency, convenience and flexibility so that individuals and families, who are some of the most vulnerable in our midst, can retain a degree of dignity and freedom as they face the uncertainties of the future.

My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend for enabling us to debate an issue that I confess I knew relatively little about until I saw that it was to be debated today. I also pay tribute to the Library for the extensive brief that it provided for Members and for answering the questions that I asked of it yesterday afternoon, which were ready at 10.30 this morning.

Your Lordships will not need reminding that this is about failed asylum seekers. It is not about asylum seekers in general but those whose cases have been considered very carefully by the Home Office. Personally, I pay tribute to the work of the Home Office on asylum seekers. That is not an easy job, particularly with the situations that we face in the world today, and those officers who handle that work do it exceedingly well. That does not mean that there are not mistakes made on occasion but, nevertheless, the bulk of the work is done exceptionally well.

In the debate today, we are talking about just over 2,500 people who have been refused asylum and who are provided with this card. I jotted a note on the points that my noble friend made in his speech. If a card is refused at a retailer that is partaking in the scheme, that is totally wrong and I would hope very much that if there is evidence from the churches or whoever that a member of the scheme is refusing the cards, that could be taken up with senior management and sorted out. It is worth looking at the list that my noble friend quite rightly quoted, which covers probably as much as 85% of the grocery trade in the United Kingdom. It covers the leading chemist in the United Kingdom—Boots—charity shops, which are very much in high streets up and down the country, and the Salvation Army.

On the winter coat issue raised by my noble friend, I doubt that you would get a winter coat in any of our supermarkets at the sort of price that would be possible with the amount of money available on the card. Nevertheless, the charity shops are doing a wonderful job on that and have done so for years, not just for asylum seekers but for hundreds of different people. I do not think that winter coats or that sort of example are relevant.

I am concerned about the carryover that is being talked about. It is quite right that the scheme should have the discipline of having no more than a £5 carryover. If the card is not being used to its full potential by those in receipt of it, that does not suggest to me that they are on the poverty line. It might be very interesting to do a survey on why this carryover money, which is now more than £160,000, is available.

Turning to the grocery market, I do not think I have to declare an interest but, for some 20 years, I used to do the advertising for some of the major grocery chains. I had other accounts, which were major brands for sale in the grocery outlets. I am not sure how recently my noble friend has been shopping. I certainly go shopping, which I suppose is inherent in the fact that I used to be involved in that world. There is a huge amount of fierce competition in the grocery trade. No one grocer doubles the prices of another, certainly not for the basic foodstuffs. In fact, there has been next to no price inflation over the last five years on basic foodstuffs, by which I mean milk, bread and so on. Indeed, I suggest that if my noble friend talked to one of the partaking companies, he would discover that at every one of those major supermarkets, at around 5 pm that supermarket will decide that goods that are fresh but going out of date have to be cut in price. He will find that bread and fresh produce are cut to hugely low prices. If these failed asylum seekers are not aware of that, it is high time someone told them that this is what happens. I offer the opportunity to other noble Lords: I have been to see what happens on the ground, and maybe others want to do the same.

There is a point about transport, and I hope my noble friend can have a little look at it. I am not sure that everyone here will necessarily have a pensioner’s bus pass—of course not, because there is a wide spectrum of age in this House—but I certainly have one, and I am sure that many others do as well. Maybe some scheme could be organised whereby this very limited number of people could be integrated into that scheme.

With regard to vouchers, your Lordships should be aware that vouchers are all very well because they can be redeemed against certain products, but there is a terrible temptation for them to be converted into cash and for it not to be used for the essentials of life. We are all human and, even for a failed asylum seeker, that cash is likely to go on alcohol, cigarettes and possibly even the betting shop. The new card is a far better scheme than the old voucher scheme. Above all, there is one thing that we have to remember. I hope that the House will bear with me if I mention the comment made by the former Minister for Immigration in the other place, Damian Green, who said that the cards are more restrictive because they reflect the temporary nature of the people concerned and that limitations are necessary, not least because public funds are limited.

The problem, though, is that more than half the people in the current situation are here for more than two years and, as has been mentioned, some for more than six years. I do not know why the Home Office cannot really get a grip on those who have been here for a long time. We know that there are legal firms that specialise in this area and produce a host of reasons why a particular applicant should not be deported, but somehow there has to be a truce for dealing with this situation because that relationship is totally unacceptable.

With the leave of the House, I shall turn for a second to the bigger scene. Overnight I did a bit of work on the numbers and types of people involved. I draw attention to the figures from Eurostat that I cut out about a fortnight ago from the Financial Times. The one fact that sprang out to me from that article was that the UK today is the most generous acceptor of non-EU immigration. We took 30.2% of the share of the 2.4 million residence permits. That is a huge number, so the background is that we are not usually restrictive but we are understanding and generous. That is welcome, but the immigrants have to be genuine, and for me that is the key determinant.

We see that reflected in the Home Office’s statistics. The last year for which figures are published is 2013, and understandably we see that the number of refugees is rising; they are now 33% of those who are granted asylum. That does not surprise me and I am sure it does not surprise anyone else in the Chamber—we have only to look at the situation in the Middle East to understand what the pressures are. Conversely, the refusals are falling, and that is understandable. The interesting thing to me is that the Home Office appears to be making progress on those who come under the category of “not recognised as refugees but given leave to remain”. In other words, these people are not refugees. Historically, the percentage used to be somewhere between 10% and 15%; this is now down to 5%. These are economic migrants who claimed that they needed asylum for refugee reasons, but they do not and have been found to be seeking asylum to improve their position in life.

Members of the House will know that I take a particular interest in Sri Lanka so last night I asked for Sri Lankan figures for three years. I asked for the figures for 2003, which was a time when the war was going on, but not with any great pressure, and peace negotiations were in progress. At that time the UK received 705 applications, granted 117 and refused 1,355 because the Home Office found that the vast majority of these people were economic migrants. For 2008, at the height of the war, I expected to see—understandably—a very high figure. There were 1,473 applications, 206 grants and 668 refusals. I also asked for the figure for 2013. There is peace now so that if you are a Tamil you can go to the north as much as you like and you can work where you like without particular permission. I was amazed to discover that, in contrast to the figure of 2008 when the war was at is height—1,473—in 2013, 1,811 people from Sri Lanka came here seeking asylum.

The Home Office does not break this down into whether they are Muslims or Tamils or Sinhalese, but my guess is that they are Tamils. I am surprised because I asked our British High Commission the other week about those that had been returned. It has a scheme whereby if you are returned as a refused asylum seeker you can ring up the British High Commission on a secret line and complain or ask for help. It has not had a single returned asylum seeker who has complained. I checked with the Australian High Commission because it has a similar scheme. It has had well over 1,000 Tamils come back from Australia with only one complaint. I am therefore led to believe that the vast majority of these people now—looking at the figures, their number equates to nearly a quarter of the refusals—are here seeking economic migrant status. Frankly, it is time for Her Majesty’s Government to look more closely at exactly what is happening on the ground in Sri Lanka as opposed to what they are being told is happening by the British Tamils Forum and other pressure groups. I use that as a particular example as it is one about which I know something in depth.

I conclude by once again thanking my noble friend for putting this on the agenda. I have looked at the scheme as far as I can in the time available and I think it is basically fine. It needs some fine-tuning and I hope the Minister will take it away and have a look at the areas that can and should be fine-tuned. There are two other aspects. Noble Lords have all made the point that there is something wrong when asylum seekers have been here for more than two years. Somehow we have to resolve that problem. I cannot pretend to know how it can be resolved but, specifically, now that I have looked at the evidence supplied by the Home Office on the Sri Lankan figures, it is time for a review of the cases from Sri Lanka and recognition that the vast majority of those now coming here who seek asylum are certainly not refugees. The Sri Lankan economy is doing well and life is quiet—there are no bombs or anything else—so most of those must be refused, but sadly at the moment that is not happening.

My Lords, we should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, for raising this issue. I do not suppose he expected that such a narrowly drafted Motion that we take note of the Azure card would provoke such a wide-ranging debate. It has been helpful. I listened to his speech, which he gave with his customary passion. Initially, I think he was arguing for the abolition of the card, but later in his speech he talked about ways to change or modify it. A number of points came up in the speeches of all noble Lords. I should say at the outset that, like the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, I am grateful for the briefing I received. I thought that the Library Note was particularly helpful and detailed. We should thank those in the Library who prepared it.

I suspect that the subject of this debate would have puzzled most people who may not have heard of the Azure card and may not be aware that there is support for those who have been refused asylum and, for whatever reason, are waiting to return to their country of origin. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, asked about the reasons for this. There are cases where for genuine reasons such removal is not immediately possible. Government data show that the numbers are relatively small, but I always think that in cases such as this statistics do not tell you very much, because they do not tell the underlying story. These are people who have been refused asylum in the UK and have exhausted all routes to be allowed to stay in the UK, so there must be exceptional and special reasons why they do not leave and, in some cases, are provided temporarily with state support.

There are therefore different issues to consider, which have come out in the speeches. The first is the principle of whether it is considered appropriate or efficient for there to be a support system for failed asylum seekers that is operated separately from any other system. Secondly, there are the practical implications about whether the system in operation is as efficient and effective as it should or could be. The third issue, which we ranged around slightly, is about process of asylum and whether cases are being dealt with as quickly, and therefore as humanely, as possible.

On the first issue, anyone who seeks asylum in this country and is ultimately refused is expected to return to their country of origin as soon as possible. It is only in exceptional cases that those who have been refused would continue to receive state support—what has become known as Section 4 support, part of which is the Azure card. One of those exceptional circumstances would be that the individuals are seeking judicial review; otherwise, they would have to be destitute and able to prove that they are taking all reasonable steps to leave—

It is my recollection that if your application for judicial review has been accepted by the courts you go back to Section 95.

That is the case, once applications for judicial review have been accepted, but during the application process they come under Section 4. I am grateful to the noble Earl for helping to clarify that.

As I say, the individuals must be destitute and prove that they are taking all reasonable steps to leave the UK, unless they are medically unable to do so through ill health or if, for other reasons, it is pretty much impossible for them to leave immediately. It is right that in those exceptional circumstances, whether or not someone has a legal right to remain in the UK, we should provide temporary support to ensure that people are not destitute. The key word here is “temporary”, and it is of great concern how long some people have been receiving such Section 4 support. It is hard to imagine the circumstances of those who have been on Section 4 support for more than a year. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, tried to deal with that issue.

I understand that the average time for which someone receives such support is nine months—sometimes much less. However, the fact that anybody should be in that position for six or more years, as 127 people are at present, is incredible. I suspect that each one of them has very specific reasons, but there is neither the time, and nor is it appropriate, to go into them in this debate. However, I would like the Minister to help me, either today or in writing: what proportion and number of cases receive Section 4 support for one year or less, and for two years or less? The point that I am trying to get to is that the circumstances in which this is long-term support, which was never intended, must be exceptional. The fact that there are 127 people in such exceptional circumstances is alarming and distressing. I would like to know more about the reasons behind the figures.

The whole point of support—including Section 95 support—for those seeking asylum was that it would always be a temporary measure. The issues of delays in the system must be addressed. However, after listening to the debate and from my reading beforehand, I wonder whether those long-term delays should be approached in a completely different way. Delays of five to six years are far too long when we are dealing with Section 4 support.

I come to my second point on whether the Azure card is as efficient and effective as it could be. As we have heard, it is pre-loaded with funds and provided alongside accommodation. It was brought in because of concerns about potential abuse of the voucher system that was then in place, and was intended to be more effective and efficient. The importance of it to those who use it means that it must be efficient. I am grateful to the Red Cross and others who drew attention to a number of problems that they found with the operation and administration of the card. A number of those relate to problems that arise because of delays in people being able to leave the UK, but others relate to the operation of the card itself.

First, there is the issue of limited shops. Clearly, it is an issue if anyone on a limited budget, for whatever reason, is limited to which shops they use. The reasons that cash is not provided is understandable, but it means that those using the cards will pay higher prices for essential items. I listened to the point made about that by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby. I think he said that 85% of the grocery trade is covered. However, that is not the same as 85% of the outlets that are available. Those figures may also predate the fall in profits of the big supermarkets and the rise in the low-cost supermarkets that many people who are not on benefits, but earning a living, are trying to use now to save money; so we would probably find that the figure is not quite as good.

If I can help the House, Aldi is relevant in the sense that it is quite well distributed around the country. Lidl is relatively tiny and of course, as the noble Baroness knows, all the others are just convenience shops.

They are tiny and they are growing; but convenience shops may be helpful if they are closer to somebody. There are also issues about being able to shop in markets, for example, where prices are lower. For me, the range of shops is an issue, in that if people are limited in the shops they can use, they end up paying higher prices in many cases. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, recognised this when he told the House in May that:

“There are ongoing discussions with other outlets that may be interested in joining the scheme”.—[Official Report, 14/5/14; col. WA 501.]

It would be very helpful if the noble Baroness could say something about the outcome of those discussions and what progress has been made since May.

The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, also raised the issue of travel, and other noble Lords raised concerns about it. I congratulate him on using his bus pass; I am sure that he is very grateful to the Labour Government for providing it.

I come now to the administrative problems that have been raised. The Government make it clear that the percentage of technical problems is quite small. That is accurate, but when we look at the numbers rather than percentages it gives cause for concern. Some 3,600 unsuccessful transactions were due to technical faults and more than 100,000 because they were not being used in the shops in which they can be used. What happened in those cases—did people go hungry? Is there any follow-up on cards that have failed, for whatever reason, and is there any follow-up from the people administering the scheme where that has happened? We are talking about fewer than 3,000 people who have Azure cards, so it would be interesting to know whether the contract to operate the cards includes any follow-up behaviour when transactions fail.

One further administrative problem is that more transactions were rejected because there being insufficient funds on the card than for any other reason—more than 200,000, which is a lot in terms of the number of people who have Azure cards. Helpfully and properly, there is a helpline, although there are some issues with it. It is operated by Sodexo and it will advise how much is on the card. I am concerned at suggestions that the use of that helpline should be charged for if it is used too often. Given that a transaction can be rejected as quickly for being lp over the limit as for being £5 over the limit, I would have thought we would want people to check the amount available on the card before they go shopping. I would be grateful for the Minister’s comments on that point.

What should concern us all is poor decision-making and the time it takes for asylum and other immigration decisions to be made. I have raised this in your Lordships’ House on many occasions in debates we have had on immigration issues over the last few years. Too often the initial decision has been found to be wrong. In recent years, 50% of appeals in First-tier Tribunal immigration cases fought by the Home Office have been successful, which means that in many cases Home Office decision-making about who can remain in the country has been as accurate as flipping a coin. That is unacceptable and is not fair to anybody. There has to be far greater confidence in the system. There is little doubt that poor-quality decision-making leads to far more appeals because of lack of confidence in the system.

Not only is it wrong in principle to make people wait any longer than necessary for a decision on their application and to have a system so flawed that there is little confidence in that decision when it is first made, there is also a false economy in making poor decisions as the appeal process and the money spent supporting people while that is ongoing and while they await decisions is a significant sum for the taxpayer. Therefore, improving the quality and speed of Home Office decisions has to be a priority. I confirm that that would be a key priority for a Labour Government.

The biggest difference that could be made to help solve some of the difficulties so many asylum seekers face as they try to live their lives waiting for a decision would be to have that decision made as quickly as possible. There are clearly problems in the implementation of the system of people waiting for decisions. The High Court recently found the Home Secretary’s decision to freeze support for asylum seekers to be flawed and made without reference to the evidence available of what support they might need. That kind of mismanagement increases the difficulties and the destitution faced by many and is just not acceptable.

What we need to do to move forward is establish a transparent and robust evidence-based review into the way asylum support rates are calculated to ensure that people are not left destitute and the taxpayer is not unfairly burdened. It seems appropriate for the Azure card to be included in any such review but, ultimately, we need to be more efficient and supportive in removing people when their options to stay in the UK have been exhausted. Obviously, ideally, once their application is refused and their route to staying in the UK has been exhausted, they should leave the country quickly and efficiently. People are waiting far too long for removal, whether voluntary or otherwise. That is a serious problem and is not fair to anybody. Cases where people are unable to stay for exceptional reasons should also be dealt with. I am horrified that people have been on the Azure card system for six years and more. The Azure card should only ever be a stopgap in somebody’s life. Section 4 support was only ever meant to be a short-term, temporary stopgap.

This has been a thoughtful debate. The Minister has been asked a number of questions and I hope that she will address them today.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, particularly my noble friend Lord Roberts who is a very passionate advocate on this subject, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said. I agree with the noble Baroness that this has been a thoughtful debate and, I think, a constructive one.

It is probably best if I set the background to this debate. The Government provide support and assistance to destitute asylum seekers by using the powers in Section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. This type of support generally consists of accommodation and a cash allowance to cover the person’s essential living needs. We provide this assistance to enable us to meet international obligations, most particularly by ensuring that persons seeking asylum, many of whom will, of course, have a genuine case, are not forced to abandon their claims and return to their countries because of destitution.

We do not usually accommodate or otherwise assist failed asylum seekers because in the vast majority of cases they can reasonably be expected to avoid the consequences of destitution by returning to their own countries. However, as an exception, we provide a different type of support under Section 4 of the 1999 Act—many noble Lords have mentioned this—where there is an unavoidable obstacle preventing the person’s immediate departure: for example, if they are too sick to travel or need time to obtain a necessary travel document. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, asked why people would be on that type of support. We also provide assistance to failed asylum seekers who have made further submissions relating to their asylum claim which, although found to be without merit in the vast majority of cases, have to be dealt with through a process that takes time. Different types of assistance therefore serve different purposes.

Section 4 assistance consists of accommodation plus a weekly allowance to meet essential living needs. The allowance is provided through the Azure card, which can be used to buy food and other essential items. The value of the allowance is rightly less than the allowances provided to asylum seekers, reflecting the different purposes of the separate support systems. One is aimed at meeting the needs of people still seeking asylum, a substantial number of whom will be granted refugee status and have a long future in the UK. The other offers a temporary fix for people who are not refugees and in nearly all cases need to be making arrangements to go home.

The legislation explicitly rules out cash being provided, as a result of an amendment brought in by the previous Government via the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006. This Government have looked at the matter afresh, as a result of the proposed amendments to the Immigration Act passed earlier in the year, but have no plans to change the law. Many noble Lords have touched on this. We need to provide a balance between meeting people’s basic living needs and processing their asylum claims in an efficient and speedy manner. However, we are always looking at ways of improving the operation of the card. Officials talk regularly to voluntary sector providers and partners about how such improvements can be made. As one practical example of this co-operation, we will shortly be bringing in changes to allow card users to carry over extra credit on the card from one week to the next. This suggestion was made by the Red Cross in a recent report and by many noble Lords in the Chamber today and I am pleased to be able to make this announcement. Currently, credit is limited to £5 unless the person has children. The change is designed to enable people to plan how they spend their allowance more effectively.

We are also considering how we can implement sensible suggestions about providing further information about the terms and conditions of the card and clearer information about how to apply for extra assistance that is available to those on Section 4 support; for example, the provision of travel tickets not only to attend essential medical appointments but to undertake other types of necessary travel.

We also look for opportunities to extend the range of outlets that accept the card, although this is ultimately a matter for the particular retailers. In the run-up to this debate, we again approached other retailers such as Aldi and Lidl. They are not willing to have the card at this time. In the round, the Azure card is essentially a pre-paid debit card that can be used at most of the main UK supermarket chains. It serves substantially the same purpose as other debit cards used by shoppers. The Government are satisfied that it is an effective means of ensuring that those on Section 4 support are able to buy food and other items to meet their living needs. It is a shame that other outlets will not accept the card. I do not think that there is an impediment to their accepting the card. My noble friend Lord Roberts and I have spoken about this. Ultimately, a bit more of a push might be needed from voluntary organisations—indeed, from Members of your Lordships’ House—to encourage them to do so.

I turn to points made by noble Lords in the debate. My noble friend Lord Roberts brought up a number of points, the first being on the thanks that we owe to the voluntary organisations that provide different types of support not just to failed asylum seekers but to asylum seekers generally. I echo my noble friend’s comments. Without the voluntary sector, this country would be a poorer place in all sorts of ways. He talked about the Red Cross survey, which should probably be seen in context in that it sampled only 11 people. I am not decrying any of its findings, but the sample was quite limited. He and other noble Lords talked about travel to legal offices or health services. All asylum seekers, or failed asylum seekers under Section 4 support, are always housed within two to three miles of shops. However, I take on board a comment made by the right reverend Prelate about somebody living next door to a shop that they cannot actually use. That was a good point and additional pressure needs to be put on those shops to be a bit more accommodating. I have no reason to believe that they cannot accept the card.

My noble friend talked about replacing the card with cash. This goes back to the point about striking the right balance between processing claims quickly and not having a system that incentivises new claims that might not have been made were it not for an easier system. I am not saying we should make the system difficult for people, but we should try to prevent encouraging new claims. He talked about dignity, mental health, and so on, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, talked about the anxious effect on families. I cannot disagree that somebody with a family who not only sought asylum but had the claim refused must be in a state of extreme anxiety. The noble Earl mentioned a pregnant woman, for example, and the effect on foetal health must be extreme. Again, that goes back to needing to process claims quickly—70% of appeals are processed within six months. However, that does not undermine the figures for the people who stay here for more than a year, and as the noble Baroness said, sometimes up to six years.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked about the number of people on support for under a year. That figure is 684. I will come back to her on the two-year figure, which she asked for, but the number of those on support for more than a year and fewer than five years is 3,013. There is no doubt that the system needs to be speeded up. The speedier it is, the less anxiety will be caused to families.

My noble friend Lord Roberts also asked about the administrative costs of the card. It is not hugely expensive; it is about £200,000 per year, and there is a helpline. I was shocked to hear—I think I heard it right—that overuse of the helpline could lead to charges. I am happy to be corrected on that.

No, that was in the note prepared by the House of Lords Library. The Asylum Support Appeals Project reported that and that is something that has to be looked at.

I would be happy to come back to the noble Baroness on that, because it is a good idea for people to want to know exactly where they are up to in terms of their credit limits, just as we may want to know where we are up to on our bank accounts.

The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, asked why people are here. I hope that I have explained the reasons why people would be on Section 4 support. My noble friend Lord Attlee spoke about the contribution of immigrants to this country. When we talk about immigration now, we often talk about it almost as a scourge. However, this country is a nation of immigrants and, speaking as an immigrant, I can say that many of us have contributed both to the economy of this country and to its cultural richness. Nevertheless, we have to get it right in terms of people who are coming to contribute to the economy and those who, as my noble friend pointed out, will risk their lives to come here for reasons other than work.

My noble friend also asked whether the Government would reconsider the level of payments on the card. I understand that the Government reconsider this every year, and at this point we do not intend to increase the level. I also take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, about the High Court ruling, and I will write to her and to my noble friend on that subject, in terms of the level of the payment, and put a copy in the Library.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, asked about the numbers on Section 4 support. The numbers are about 5,000, and 70% of the claims are processed within six months. Of course, that means that 30% of claims are not processed within six months.

The noble Baroness says that 70% of the claims are processed. Does she mean that 70% of the applications received the money in that time, or for that time?

When a claimant is appealing a failed claim, they will be paid during the time of their appeal—yes. I hope that that answers the noble Baroness’s question.

The noble Earl also talked about the cost to families in terms of dignity, and the stigma of being not just an asylum seeker but a failed asylum seeker. I have to concur with that. Again, the more quickly we can process the claims, the better. There is also the travel issue, which I think I have already addressed.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester said that the card can be used only in certain outlets. Again, I hope I have addressed that point by explaining that the card can be used only in outlets that wish to accept it. The right reverend Prelate talked about someone living next door to a shop but not being able to use the card in it. He also talked about allowing flexible use of the Azure card or abolishing it. The Government have no intention of abolishing the card, but I agree that if markets, or any other retail outlets, were more willing to accept it, that would make the process easier and more dignified for all involved.

My noble friend Lord Naseby asked what happens if a card is refused. My understanding is that it will be replaced, or vouchers will be provided immediately. Obviously, there is a helpline to ring. I do not think that anybody would be left hungry because of a failure of the card. He also asked about carryover, and I am pleased to say that carryover would now be allowed without restrictions. He also talked about the range of supermarkets—I think I have gone through that—and about transport. We are continuing to look at where transport arrangements can be more flexible. Certainly, someone on Section 4 support can apply for travel tickets to see a doctor, to go to the Home Office or to access legal support. My noble friend said that the UK was a most generous country. That is true. We pride ourselves on our democracy and our rule of law, on our compassion and on how we treat asylum claimants. But obviously there remain some efficiencies to be derived in the asylum system where claims have failed.

I think that I have addressed all noble Lords’ points. I hope that I have addressed those made by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, sometimes by weaving them in to my responses to various other noble Lords. She said that anyone going through an appeal is on Section 4 support, and that is absolutely correct; I think that was in response to a point made by my noble friend Lord Attlee.

They are appealing against their failed application; it is during the appeal process, I understand. I will write to the noble Baroness, because I am not sure that she is satisfied. It is when an asylum seeker has had their asylum claim rejected and is appealing against that.

I shall now conclude, because my time is up. I will check whether there is anybody whose questions I have not answered sufficiently, and if so I will write to them in due course.

My Lords, I appreciate the Minister’s approach very much. This is not an easy time to debate this subject, but often our debates on such subjects depend on the spirit of the participants—whether they are positive and eager to do something that enhances people’s lives, or whether they are those who will keep on putting hindrances in people’s way. I thank the Minister for taking that very positive attitude.

I have not achieved the abolition of the Azure card—that is possibly the next step—but we can now go ahead and discuss this in a positive way. There is nothing black about it; it is something that we can discuss together, and together we can achieve a great deal of what the organisations involved, such as the British Red Cross and the Refugee Council, want us to do in the interests of every individual. They are all individuals, whether they are in dire poverty, or whether they are in the depths of Wales. We are always dealing with individuals; they are always people. As I say, I think that we can now work positively and actively with the organisations involved in these matters. I would like to see regular meetings with them to discuss the problems from their viewpoint as well as from the point of view of this House.

In spite of not getting what I want, I feel that the whole tenor today has been one of encouragement. I want to say thank you for that, and I look forward to the next step, which in due course may possibly be the abolition of the Azure card. We need a payment that is more relevant and fit for purpose for those who are suffering through no fault of their own. Their time here should not be spent in dire poverty. Again, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part. I appreciate that very much indeed.

Motion agreed.