Motion to Annul
My Lords, we should be proud that we have legislation to support asylum seekers who are likely otherwise to be destitute, so should we not be concerned if the reality of that support fails to achieve that? This House has always taken a measured, thoughtful and insightful perspective and has a particularly good track record of protecting children, who are a focus of this Motion.
In 2000, for “essential living needs”—the technical wording of the underlying primary legislation—support was set at 70% of income support plus accommodation and utility bills for asylum seekers, who are prevented from working and therefore dependent on handouts through what is often a lengthy application process. Last year, the High Court found that the Government’s assessment of the amount needed to avoid destitution was flawed and ordered a review. That review concluded that the rate for a single person without dependants was too low, so these regulations increase it for adults by 33p.
Crucially, a flat rate, at just under £37 a week, was introduced for each asylum seeker regardless of age. This change was to “simplify” the arrangements, which I suggest is a weasel word. The Government argued that families have been receiving,
“significantly more cash than is necessary to meet their essential living needs”,
because more is paid for children in a household. So now a single parent with one child receives £73.90, a reduction of £26 each week, and for a couple with two children the total has gone down by more than £30, from £178 to £147. The reductions for the main family groups range from £14 to £39 or in percentage terms from 12% to 26%. I acknowledge that accommodation and the payment of utility bills are also provided.
Let me again stress that asylum seekers are precluded from working and that asylum support, to quote Mr Justice Popplewell in the judicial review to which I have referred,
“is not ‘temporary’ in a sense which justifies any meaningful distinction from the position of those on income support”,
save as regards the non-cash items.
Noble Lords will be concerned about the cost to the public purse of any rate higher than those provided by the regulations, but that cost cannot be significant. The Explanatory Note to the regulations states that no impact assessment has been prepared because no impact on the public, private or voluntary sector is foreseen.
I realise that some noble Lords may be concerned that a fatal Motion is inappropriate, given that these regulations deal with expenditure, but the thrust of my argument will be about how essential needs are assessed and whether the assessment meets the points raised by the judgment. Whatever one thinks about the reference to there being no impact on the voluntary sector, the statement from the Government that there is no impact on public expenditure seems to answer a constitutional concern very neatly.
These changes were introduced in March but were revoked on the insistence of the then Deputy Prime Minister. They were reintroduced just before the Summer Recess. I tabled this Motion after thinking about the impact of arriving in the UK with nothing but the clothes you stand up in, which are probably inadequate for our climate, probably in a fragile state of health, mentally and physically, not being allowed to work and living on sums which I am told are 60% below the poverty line.
Following the judgment, the Home Office reviewed its calculations, and I am very grateful to the Minister for sending me details of the basic clothing that has to be bought and the food, toiletries, travel costs and other basic items that the Home Office has considered. The sample weekly grocery bills included in the package, which are said to reflect the need to eat healthily, would stand some analysis. I do not have time to include all the material sent to me by organisations which work with asylum seekers, for which I thank them, but I am struck by Refugee Action’s research: 45% of respondents reported an inability to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. Concern about a lack of healthy food was very evident, as well as dietary, cultural and religious requirements, including halal meat, and parents forgoing meals in order that their children could eat. It is not the main part of my argument that with few clothes one needs adequate drying as well as washing facilities and, unless you shop frequently, incurring the cost of travel, a fridge.
The court highlighted that the Secretary of State had not included nappies, formula milk and other special requirements of very young children. The Home Office does acknowledge that babies and children have needs different from those of adults, but there is no assessment, only a rough and ready setting-off against the economies of scale one can achieve in a family. For instance, the sample grocery lists are designed for adults and adolescents. Children’s clothes do not feature. Non-prescription medicines for infants are not included. Colic and teething were the second things mentioned by one of my fellow Baronesses; the first was how fast children grow out of shoes and they, similarly, do not get a mention. Perhaps the Home Office was defeated, as I was, by trying to find a ballpark figure for how many nappies a baby gets through. Of course, it depends, but the number cannot be negligible and certainly is not nil. There is additional support of £3 to £5 a week for babies and children under three. It has not increased since 2003 but, in any event, as the court case showed, it is intended for nutrition. To quote the judgment again,
“nappies, baby clothes and shoes which need to be replaced regularly, baby wipes, creams, soap and shampoo suitable for babies, formula milk, bottles and teats”,
“recognised as essential living needs for this group”,
that is, babies and children, but were,
“left out of account by the Secretary of State in setting the level of support for them”.
It may be my misreading, but I cannot identify these essential living needs for babies and young children in the assessment which underlies these regulations.
If simply existing within these constraints is so difficult, living a life in which a child can develop, learn and grow is close to impossible. Noble Lords will be familiar with the duty on Governments to safeguard and promote children’s welfare and with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which include a right to a standard of living adequate for physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development, as well as a right to play and rehabilitation. Toys and books are other items that do not feature in the Home Office calculations. While it may seem counterintuitive to older generations, access to the internet is an issue, as are the cost of transport to a library or to leisure and religious centres and school-related costs. I understand from the Children’s Society that as families now have to prioritise food above all else, social isolation is increasing.
I have focused on children, but I must add that adults in 2014 reported problems in buying clothes, toiletries, sanitary items, kitchen utensils and so on and in making the journeys that would have given them access to sources of information and advice and that they were forced to employ risky and unreliable survival strategies. These problems must continue following the 33p increase provided by the regulations.
The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has drawn these regulations to the special attention of the House on the grounds that the explanatory material laid in support provides insufficient information to gain a clear understanding about the policy and intended implementation. My noble friend Baroness Humphreys will, I hope, be able to speak to its report. I refer to a letter to the committee from the Minister for Immigration, who wrote that,
“any extra needs particular to children are comfortably offset by the economies available to a larger household”.
He also referred to economies of scale being part of the approach to support for destitute asylum seekers in Sweden, Germany and France. However, the evidence from the Home Office itself in the case last year, quoted in the judgment of the court, was that,
“other EU systems are not directly comparable because EU law allows for a wide variation in practice”.
Having had access to the explanatory material, I am even more concerned about the simplistic setting-off of items essential for babies and children on the basis of economies of scale.
Finally, I am glad to note that when the Home Office undertakes its next review, it will be holding discussions with organisations working in this area. Given the knowledge that they have and the expertise among academics and others, I urge the fullest consultation, not information by another name. The support is designed to avoid destitution. Does it do so? These regulations clearly do not avoid misery. Some noble Lords might consider a third fatal Motion in two days to be a surfeit of opportunities to express our views, but as a citizen, as well as a Member of your Lordships’ House, I am very concerned. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have tabled a regret Motion in this debate. Although I do not want to repeat everything that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, I do wish to make some comments.
As we know, under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, support is provided to asylum seekers who have made a claim for asylum, in the form of accommodation and/or cash. The Government first laid regulations introducing a flat rate of support for all asylum seekers of £36.95, regardless of age, in March this year. They reversed those regulations some two weeks later, on the final day of the last Session, as a result of what the then Government described as “reflection”. On 16 July, the Government laid the regulations again; and once again, they provided for changes in the amount of money that could be paid weekly to asylum seekers, and introduced a flat rate for all asylum seekers, regardless of age, of £36.95 per week.
Previously, children under 16 and asylum-seeking families received £53.96 per week, so the reduction represents a cut of—in round figures—about 30%. Yet it has been estimated that bringing up a child in Britain costs an additional £89 per week for the first child of a couple, and an additional £81 for a second child, excluding housing and childcare. Research by Refugee Action shows that 40% of people on asylum support interviewed said they could not afford to feed themselves or their children. Rates of support for asylum-seeking families have effectively been frozen since 2011. Given that asylum seekers are able to work only in exceptional circumstances, the reduction imposed by these regulations can hardly be said to be aimed at removing welfare dependency.
Of course, the regulations are already in effect: they came into effect on 10 August. In addition to the cash allowances, which in respect of children under 16 have been considerably reduced, asylum seekers are provided with fully furnished and equipped accommodation, with no utility bills or council tax to pay, and free access to healthcare and education.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, the regulations were considered by your Lordships’ Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. That committee decided to draw them to the special attention of the House on the grounds that explanatory material laid in support provides insufficient information to gain a clear understanding of the instruments, policy and intended implementation. The committee took the view when considering the initial statutory instrument that the change it brought about had been poorly managed, particularly given the sudden change to claimants’ income as there were no transitional provisions. The committee was also concerned that there was no indication of how the change was to be communicated to those affected.
As I mentioned, the Home Office reversed the proposed changes on the final day of the last Session. In its second report of this Session, the committee criticised the Home Office for,
“another example of a correcting instrument being required due to a policy not having been properly thought through before the Regulations were made”.
The regulations we now consider were laid just before the Summer Recess and are identical to the original instrument, proposing the same reduction in payments by the introduction of a per capita rate. When the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee considered this further, identical instrument, it commented that although the Explanatory Memorandum had been rewritten in several places, it was disappointed that the new version made no reference to the concerns it raised in its earlier report about transitional provisions and how the decision was to be communicated to recipients. The committee also noted that the Explanatory Memorandum lacked the sort of information that it would regard as standard, such as a cost-benefit analysis, the number of households that would be affected by the change and the definition of the key term “essential needs”.
As a result, the committee wrote to the relevant Minister in the Home Office for clarification. In that letter, it also pointed out that for many years it had made clear its view about the undesirability of laying controversial instruments such as this one on the cusp of a recess, leaving no time for debate in Parliament before the legislation came into effect. In the letter, the chairman of the committee went on to say that he had made that point clearly in a recent discussion with the noble Lord, Lord Bates, and asked for an explanation why the further instrument had not been laid earlier, particularly as no redrafting had been required.
In his response, the Home Officer Minister, James Brokenshire, says that it was not considered appropriate for the implementation of the rate change made by this statutory instrument to be the subject of transitional provisions in respect of existing recipients affected by it. Frankly, as to why the Government did not consider it appropriate, there is no explanation. The letter from the Minister is silent on that point. In other words, the reply says, “We have decided, and we do not accept that we must give a reason or explanation for our decision to anyone”—certainly not, apparently, to either Parliament or the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee.
The reason certainly cannot be that there was not time to consider the matter, since later in his reply the Home Office Minister tells us the reason for the second instrument, identical to the first, being laid on the cusp of a recess and leaving no time for a debate in Parliament was due to the full consideration that the Government had given to whether to make this change to the payment rate for asylum support, which the Minister says necessarily took some time to resolve.
I hope that the Minister will be able to say why, after fully considering and deciding to continue with the rate change, the Government did not even consider it appropriate for implementation to be the subject of transitional provisions. No doubt, the Minister will also be able to tell us the sum expected to be saved by the significant cuts provided for in this instrument, which is another area on which the Government have been less than forthcoming.
The Government have also indicated that their decision to reduce the cash payments provided to destitute asylum seekers in family groups was communicated in writing to members of the National Asylum Stakeholder Forum. Was any response received, particularly since the Government were only advising the forum of a decision already made? If so, what was that response? Can the Minister also say what consultation there was with the forum before the Government made their decision and what responses were received?
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred to the legal judgment last year and to some of the surveys calling into question the validity of the Government’s view as to how much financial support an asylum seeker needs to survive. I do not intend to take up the time of the House by repeating either the terms of that legal judgment or what is—or, more relevantly, what is not—included in the Home Office figures to which the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred. However, our firm view is that these regulations will have a detrimental effect on families and punish the children of those seeking asylum through the removal of the higher rates of allowance for child and adolescent asylum seekers. I suspect that there will be no meeting of the ways on this point and that the Minister will reiterate the figures that are no doubt in his brief and which were included in a letter from the Home Office to the members of the National Asylum Stakeholder Forum and in a letter from the Minister to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I hope, though, that Ministers have looked at their official figures and actually asked themselves whether £36.95 per week per head seems a credible amount on which people can live, based on their own knowledge of the cost of the weekly shop and travel and what might be regarded as necessary to spend without—can I put it this way?—living like a lord. I find it difficult to believe that they have, particularly in relation to the significant reductions for children under 16. These significantly reduced figures bear the hallmark of being strong on theory and living in something of a dream world when it comes to reality. This applies in respect of each item that makes up the list of essential living needs.
The cut in the support rate means that destitute asylum-seeking families with children are now living on rates that are some 60% below the poverty level. In addition, on the basis of the time taken to deal with claims and appeals, many asylum seekers will be on these reduced cash allowances for a considerable time. I understand that, as at the end of June this year, more than 3,600 asylum seekers had been waiting for more than six months for an initial decision on their applications. During this time and any subsequent appeal, asylum seekers are prohibited from working to support themselves and are totally reliant on this support.
As we know, the Government have lost control of our borders. That is one reason why the statement that they would bring net migration down to the tens of thousands has proved so embarrassing in the light of what has actually happened. However, it seems somewhat callous now to make destitute asylum seekers in family groups pay for the Government’s failure through a policy that is clearly designed to seek to reduce their numbers—and thus net migration—by pushing more of them further into destitution primarily by virtually eliminating additional expenditure that may be required for children under 16.
Having to get by on inadequate levels of support has an impact on mental and physical health by causing illness and complicating existing health problems. The British Medical Association—not, I accept, currently the Government’s favourite organisation—has noted that asylum seekers often have specific health problems, related to the effects of war and torture, and a higher incidence of illnesses such as tuberculosis and hepatitis. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has also stated that the psychological health of refugees and asylum seekers worsens on contact with the UK asylum system. The reductions in support rates, particularly for children, are hardly likely to improve the situation, to put it mildly. The Government ought to reconsider their decision, which has had the effect of reducing the payment made to a destitute asylum-seeking couple with two children from £178.44 per week to £147.80 per week, as from 10 August. It is no wonder that the Government wanted to make sure that the statutory instrument implementing the decision came into effect and could not be debated by Parliament before it did so—the exact opposite of being transparent. The Government’s explanation of why the instrument was laid so close to a recess did not fool the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which said that it found the explanation “unconvincing”, and commented that,
“both this instrument and its predecessor were laid on the cusp of a recess”.
We are aware that the issue of support for destitute asylum seekers will continue to be the subject of intense debate and discussion, because the Government intend further to reduce such payments in some situations under the terms of the Immigration Bill currently in the Commons. We cannot, though, support the fatal Motion moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, as it does not in our view meet the criteria for such Motions set out in the 2006 report of the Joint Committee on conventions between the two Houses. We have tabled our regret Motion to enable us to place squarely on the record our strong concern about the Government’s decision, in particular their decision to remove the higher rates of allowance for child and adolescent destitute asylum seekers, which is likely to have a serious adverse impact.
Although I do not hold out any great hope of a helpful response from the Government tonight, I will of course listen to their response with interest. The case for the Government changing their approach towards a group of highly vulnerable people is very strong. Whether they will do so is of course a totally different matter, but not doing so will certainly say a great deal about the attitude of this Government to a group of people in our midst currently in real need and whose position over the past two and a half months has become significantly worse.
My Lords, I want to say a few words in support of the Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, to annul the regulations which cut asylum support rates to children and which, according to the Children’s Society, will,
“force over 10,000 children seeking safety from war and persecution”,
to live in severe poverty. I should say that I am patron of Asylum Link Merseyside.
It is usually a pretty good test of the decency of any society to examine how it treats its most vulnerable. By anybody’s reckoning, you do not come much more vulnerable than children who are members of families seeking safety from persecution or war. Searing images of an 18 month-old baby wrenched to safety from the seas last weekend, or the corpse of a young boy washed ashore, not having made it, are a graphic reminder of the dangers facing families seeking refuge from the horrors being rained down upon them.
It is always sobering to imagine yourself in the place of a family forced to leave everything behind in countries such as Syria or Eritrea. Last week, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and I heard first-hand accounts from refugees who had escaped from Eritrea. Witnesses cited a United Nations report which concludes that the things that the Afwerki regime does to its population probably constitute crimes against humanity. We were told of deaths by torture, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, indefinite military conscription, forced labour and the persecution of religious believers. The country’s population is haemorrhaging, as those who are able to try to escape, seeking asylum in countries like ours if they are able to get here, but more often than not in transit countries such as Libya, facing further persecution. A group of Eritreans was recently beheaded by ISIS in Libya as they were fleeing to try to claim asylum.
Every month, up to 5,000 people leave Eritrea. More than 350,000 have done so so far, about 10% of the entire population. Some 46% of those who try to make the perilous Mediterranean crossing from Libya come from either Eritrea or Syria. The tragedy of those countries must of course be tackled at source, but in the mean time, we must respond with humanity and a sense of justice and compassion for those caught up in these appalling situations.
Eritrea is one country and one example, but I mention it to give some context to today’s debate. As we have heard, under Section 95 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, asylum seekers who reach the UK and would otherwise be destitute may access support while their protection claim is being considered. Those provisions were already set at 70% of income support, while separate provision would be made for asylum seekers’ accommodation and utility bills. The freezing of support rates, followed by a flat rate of £36.95 a week, regardless of age, has left asylum seekers in a state of destitution.
With a mere £5 a day, asylum seekers must pay for their food, clothing, toiletries, transport and other essential needs, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, reminded us. The effect on children, who since August have had their support cut by £16 a week, is draconian. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, made that point eloquently in his remarks a few minutes ago. The Children’s Society says:
“The internationally recognised poverty threshold, or ‘poverty line’, is defined as living on less than 60% of the median UK household income”.
Families living on asylum support fall well below this level. For example, a couple with a child will now receive just under £111 per week, 60% below the poverty line of £279 per week.
Every parent knows that bringing up children carries significant costs. Child Poverty Action estimates—as the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, has reminded us—that, after excluding housing and childcare, the cost of bringing up a child in Britain adds £93.03 per week for the first child and £86.37 for a second child. Beyond food, shelter and clothing, additional resources are needed if a child is to grow, develop and learn effectively, but these regulations mean that children will be treated the same as adults, without any recognition of their additional needs. Charities working with asylum seekers and refugees say that there will be increased social isolation, as families are unable to afford public transport —ending trips, for instance, to libraries and child-centred facilities—along with the inability to pay for everything from children’s birthday parties to TV or school uniforms.
It is hard to see how this approach meets our obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which we are a signatory, and which insists that every child has the right to a standard of living adequate for their physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development, as well as a right to play and to rehabilitation. Perhaps the Minister will tell us how this makes us compliant with our convention obligations as well as complying with our statutory duty under Section 55 of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 to safeguard and promote children’s welfare.
Asylum Link Merseyside is based in the neighbourhood that I represented, as a city councillor and Member of the House of Commons, for 25 years. Since its foundation in 2001 it has supported many destitute asylum seekers. It currently supports more than 40 destitute clients, housing 20 of those and supporting others with cash grants and food parcels. Over the past three years, it has seen more than 400 destitute clients, with two or three new referrals every week. ALM says:
“Most people living in Britain cannot believe that anyone here would be forced to live in absolute poverty, begging at churches for handouts and parcels of food, sleeping on the streets or worse being forced into prostitution to survive”.
But that is a reality.
Asylum Link Merseyside also says:
“This government policy of making asylum seekers destitute works on the assumption that by forcing people into extreme poverty they will choose to return to countries from which they have fled in fear of their lives”.
What they have found in Liverpool is that this assumption is wrongheaded, because 98% of failed asylum seekers choose to stay, surviving on handouts, sleeping on floors or sleeping rough. ALM says that, over the past three years, it has come into contact,
“with over 400 destitute asylum seekers out of which only 8 have chosen to return home voluntarily”.
Independent research has concluded that 70% of income support is the absolute minimum required to meet basic needs of asylum seekers, and that was before support levels for children were cut by £16 a week. In 2013, Refugee Action interviewed 40 clients who were in receipt of Section 95 support and found that 70% of interviewees were unable to buy either enough food to feed themselves, or fresh fruit and vegetables, or food that met their dietary, religious or cultural requirements. Refugee Action research indicated that asylum seekers usually had to sacrifice one essential item in order to meet another one. Again, that was before support levels for children were cut by £16 a week.
Perhaps the Minister will reflect again on the April 2014 High Court judgment to which the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, referred, in which the judge found that the Government’s assessment of the amount needed by asylum seekers to avoid destitution was flawed. He ordered that the decision be taken again. That ruling required the Government to take account of essential items—such as non-prescription medication, nappies, formula milk and other requirements of new mothers—and to re-examine the errors in calculating the amount required to meet essential living needs. Although the Government responded to the judgment by reviewing their policy, I doubt that it had in mind that the Government should cut support levels for children by £16 a week. Surely that is the central point we are debating tonight.
The statistical basis on which the review was conducted failed to take into account fundamental issues, such as how asylum seekers often arrive with nothing and do not have a support network that they can rely on. In the context of how minors are treated, the Home Office reliance on Office for National Statistics data makes no provision for additional expenditure that may be required for children. To put it mildly, this is bizarre. According to Still Human Still Here,
“the net effect is that asylum seeking families with children are now living on rates that are some 60% below the poverty line and many of these families will spend a considerable period of time on this support”.
Of course, such families are totally prohibited from working to support themselves and are completely reliant on Section 95 support. Surely we should give some consideration to that issue.
Little wonder that the Royal College of Psychiatrists has concluded:
“The psychological health of refugees and asylum seekers currently worsens on contact with the UK asylum system”.
All too often for these desperate families it is a case of no money, no house, no permission to work. In the 21st century, in the fourth-richest country on earth, people are being reduced to absolute destitution, not by accident or personal tragedy but by deliberate act of policy—and we should therefore certainly reconsider these regulations today by supporting the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee.
My Lords, I support the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and my noble friend Lord Rosser. I apologise if I cover some of the same ground. I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness for having moved so quickly to ensure that we were able to debate these regulations. I believe that your Lordships should oppose them on two main grounds: the manner in which they were introduced and the impact that a cut of £16 a week in the allowance for each child will have on a particularly vulnerable group of children and families, as is spelled out in the regret Motion.
As we have already heard, these regulations replicate regulations that were originally laid on 12 March, just a fortnight before the end of the last parliamentary Session. To my knowledge, no Statement, oral or written, was made to Parliament that the regulations had been made, despite the significant change in asylum support policy they represent and despite the considerable interest in that policy that had been expressed, particularly in your Lordships’ House. As I understand it, the stakeholder forum of voluntary organisations working with asylum seekers was informed on 23 March, just two weeks before the regulations were due to come into force. I learned of the regulations the following day by pure chance. No other parliamentarian whom I contacted, Front Bench or Back Bench, knew anything about them. It is thanks only to the behind-the-scenes intervention of the former MP Sarah Teather, who was a great parliamentary champion of asylum seekers, that they were withdrawn as they had not been agreed by the coalition partners.
It was shoddy behaviour on the part of the Home Office to sneak out controversial regulations in this way at a time when Parliament could do nothing about them. I do not address this criticism to the Minister, because I am quite sure that he personally would not have countenanced such behaviour. However, I hope that he will relay to the Home Office our dismay at it.
Although the official reason given for the withdrawal of the original regulations was “further reflection”, the suspicion was that they would be relaid in the new Parliament, so I tabled a Written Question to ask whether the Government planned to do so. The response on 8 June was that:
“The matter is under consideration”.
Five weeks later, identical regulations were laid just a week before the House rose for the Summer Recess. Therefore, once again there was no time for them to be debated before they came into effect in August. It is difficult not to conclude that this was deliberate.
Not surprisingly, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, as has already been referred to, was pretty scathing. It found “unconvincing” the explanation given for an instrument containing such a “controversial policy change” being laid “so close to a recess”. It expressed its disappointment that,
“gaining an understanding of the … background”,
to the policy change required such,
“persistent questioning of the Government”.
One aspect of the background to the policy change that was not addressed is the consistent picture painted by organisations working with asylum-seeking families of the severe poverty and hardship they have experienced living on the existing allowances. As we have already heard, these were set in 1999 at 70% of income support rates. However, since 2011, they have been frozen, resulting in a cut of nearly 7.5% in their real value.
Income support rates are far from generous. A study of the cost of a child for the Child Poverty Action Group by Loughborough University’s Centre for Research in Social Policy—I declare a double interest as the honorary president of the CPAG and emeritus professor at Loughborough—concluded that,
“a family on benefits is left well over a third short of being able to afford a socially acceptable minimum”.
Back in 2010, before the rates were frozen, Still Human Still Here analysed the basket of basic goods used by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation for its minimum income standard research but stripped it down to include only goods needed to avoid what it termed “absolute poverty”. It concluded that 70% of income support was the absolute minimum necessary to meet asylum seekers’ basic needs.
We have already heard about the research conducted by Refugee Action. Respondents to that research expressed deep concern about the impact that deprivation was having on the health, well-being and physical development of their children. The point was made that, whereas income support recipients might be able to turn to family or social networks for help in getting by, this was rarely an option for asylum seekers. Overall, its conclusion was that the support system,
“fails to meet essential living needs or ensure a dignified standard of living for those in its care”.
In 2013, I sat on an all-party parliamentary inquiry into asylum support for children and young people, chaired by Sarah Teather and supported by the Children’s Society. We were shocked by some of the evidence received of the hardship faced by asylum-seeking families. We took evidence from a range of experts, social workers, local authorities and families themselves and concluded that the current levels of support provided to families are too low to meet children’s essential needs. Furthermore, these rates do not enable parents to provide for their children’s wider needs to learn, grow and develop, especially if they have a disability.
It is difficult to square all this evidence with the Home Office’s conclusion that the previous levels of asylum support for families with children,
“significantly exceed what is necessary to meet essential living needs”.
This conclusion is based primarily on ONS expenditure data for the lowest 10% income group, supplemented by various other data on the cost of essential items. But taking expenditure data for the lowest decile begs the question as to whether people at that level of income are able to spend enough for a healthy and decent life—a point made by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. We know that many of those living on a lower income are not able to afford an adequate diet. It therefore does not provide an appropriate benchmark for costing a healthy diet. Also, I am not convinced that the adjustments made to the ONS data take adequate account of the extra costs involved for people new to the country, often living in poor accommodation.
The advice that I have received from Donald Hirsch, whose evidence was cited in the 2014 High Court judgment on asylum support, and from Professor Jonathan Bradshaw, both respected experts who work on minimum income standards and the costs of children, is that it is not good enough to rely on multiple strands of evidence to corroborate the questionable figures taken from the ONS data, when each of the strands is, in their words, “flimsy and selectively chosen”. They focus in particular on the evidence used to argue that the food budget is adequate, pointing out that it provides little more than half of what has been calculated is required to achieve a minimum income standard deemed necessary for decent living by the general public. That is in the context of greater access to kitchen facilities and transport than is likely to be the case for asylum seekers on the Government’s assumptions.
One piece of evidence is misrepresented hearsay taken from quotes from a nutritionist. Another is based on the spending habits of a member of the Home Office team. The example for one day is: “breakfast: cereal; lunch: garlic baguette; dinner: pasta with peppers”. That does not sound like a very healthy diet for a growing child. Would it not have been more appropriate, when determining the level of support for a particularly vulnerable and sometimes traumatised group of families for whom, as we have heard, paid work is not a committed option, for the Home Office to have employed a nutritionist and to have made a proper scientific costing of a weekly menu, as done by proper academic research in this area?
What really puzzles me is why the methodology used did not address directly the needs of children, given that it is children’s allowances that are being cut so savagely. I did not see any mention of the body of research in this country into the cost of children and the needs of children. The Explanatory Memorandum states that in taking the decision to cut the children’s rate by £16 per child,
“we have fully considered our legal duty to have regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children”.
However, when I asked whether the Government now plan to publish their detailed assessment of the compatibility of the regulations with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, I received only a bland reply stating that they are compatible. On the face of it, such a cut in support for a particularly vulnerable group of children appears as a regression in their rights. I find it difficult to believe, as do other noble Lords, that pushing families to about 60% below the poverty line is compatible with promoting the welfare and the best interests of children, or that the new level of support will provide a standard of living adequate for their physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development, as required by the UN convention, or that it will be sufficient to ensure the opportunity to maintain relationships and have a minimum level of participation in society, as ruled by the High Court in the judgment that has already been discussed.
Indeed, I received information from the Children’s Society, which, through its project in the north-east, is supporting families already affected by this cut. The families accessing the services reported how they could no longer afford food for their children or shoes. One mother said that her children now go to sleep hungry. Others talked about the difficulties of paying for travel for their children to take part in activities, such as going to the local library or leisure centre, leading to social isolation. They are being denied the minimum participation in society required by the High Court.
One of the parents that the Children’s Society supports described the situation in this poignant way, “It’s just like a plant and we give them water, that’s all”. Research by Coram Children’s Legal Centre into local authority rates of support highlighted just how difficult it is to survive on them as they are akin to the new asylum support rates, and how their children are unable to participate in activities outside school. Refugee Action has sent me a case study of a refused asylum seeker who has children and is continuing to get asylum support and is therefore affected by this. The child has special needs. This situation has caused a great deal of stress. It is important that the child is able to interact with other children and take part in extracurricular activities but, following the reduction in support, the mother is now finding it near impossible to fund these activities. This is having a detrimental effect on her daughter’s well-being and development. This is just one example of the kind of effect that this measure is having. Such isolation and exclusion are not conducive to the integration of asylum seekers once they are granted refugee status—a point made in an email that I received from a concerned member of the public.
I welcome the fact that, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, there is to be a further review of the support next year. As part of that review, will the Minister undertake to monitor the impact on families—not just take second-hand evidence but monitor the impact on this very vulnerable group? I fear that these regulations can only intensify the poverty experienced by children in asylum-seeking families.
At the Conservative Party conference, the Prime Minister promised an all-out assault on poverty, yet two days running we are debating statutory instruments which will increase and intensify poverty and which lack a credible evidence base. I cannot support these regulations and I hope that other noble Lords will not do so either.
My Lords, I support the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. Listening to her speech a few minutes ago I was reminded of the first occasion on which I sat on a committee of this House with her. I was struck immediately not just by how she mastered facts and figures but by her compassionate heart, and tonight we have seen these two features in her presentation. For that, I thank her.
I come from a part of the United Kingdom which has reached out to asylum seekers to an extent out of all proportion to its size. Its record deserves scrutiny left, right and centre. Despite all our difficulties over the years—I need not reiterate them to this House—the compassion that our people have shown to asylum seekers is first class. Unfortunately, what we are debating tonight—particularly in relation to the Motion tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee—is the adequacy or otherwise of what we are left with to put that compassion into reality.
One of the problems that we have seen locally in Northern Ireland is that what we are allowed to spend on support for families in this terrible condition is inadequate for children, particularly younger children. If noble Lords will forgive me for being specific, I will long remember a priest telling me that he was still haunted by the words of a mother of a disabled child who had become an asylum seeker, and was accepted into our local society. She looked at what she had to spend for the upkeep of the rudiments—not luxuries—for a week and asked: “Is this really the promised land?”. Where is our conscience? Where is our reality?
We have heard technical points in this debate and objections to the way in which Her Majesty’s Government have effected this current situation, and we could argue all night over the rights and wrongs. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, has reminded us that there is a doubt in his mind about the legality, so to speak, of the words of the Motion tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I am not concerned about that but about the common denominator of both these Motions which is that behind facts and figures are human beings: men, women and children, and the children are absolutely vulnerable. A recent medical report spoke of the value of providing reasonable nutrition for children, but what is offered to them by society and local authorities is totally inadequate to meet that basic level of nutrition.
I am also reminded—this is the point that I would urge the House to remember about both Motions—that one of the practical consequences of the inadequacy of what we are able to give to these families is that they will turn to other sources of support. They will turn to charities, charitable organisations and churches. I speak from more than 40 years of experience of that sector. The problem I foresee, while listening to the emotion of this debate, is that there will be a limit to how far charities can meet the demands that they are faced with. For local authorities, charities, churches and well-meaning individuals there is a limit. Society will then have to turn back and ask, “What has brought us to this point where the line has been drawn in the sand and these sources can no longer meet the demand?”. When that time comes, I respectfully suggest to your Lordships’ House that it will not be parliamentary niceties that will concern us as a nation: it will be the crying need of a generation of refugees and asylum seekers—knowing the distinction between the two, of course. That generation will judge us, and it will judge that we have failed it.
My Lords, I will make a very brief contribution to this debate and concentrate on aspects of the report of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee regarding these regulations. My noble friend Lady Hamwee and the noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Alton, have already covered most of the points that I wanted to make, and I hope that the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, will forgive me for being slightly emotionless in what I am about to say and concentrating on what the committee thought.
The committee had concerns with the original set of regulations that came before us. When the Government introduced this new set of regulations in July, we were surprised that there was no reference to our original concerns. Even in the new Explanatory Memorandum, to which the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, has already referred, we were presented with no cost-benefit analysis. I would be grateful if the Minister could give us some information about whether a cost-benefit analysis has been made. There was no indication of the number of households affected by the changes and, again, I would be grateful for the Minister’s comments on those. There was no indication of the sum expected to be saved, and I would like the Minister’s comments on that. There was also no real definition of the term “essential living needs”, although we all know that the sum has been based on them.
I want to press the Minister on the term “essential living needs”. Reference was made to it in the original regulations, which were subject to judicial review in 2014, and the courts adversely commented on the items overlooked by the Government. Some noble Lords have already referred to theme, but I make no apology for repeating them. Our report stated:
“Among other things, the court identified particular categories of essential living costs that had been overlooked by the Government when setting the rates of support: for example, nappies, baby clothes and other baby products, non-prescription medication, washing powder and cleaning products”.
It was not until we received the letter that the Government had written to NASF members that we had some idea of the methodology that was to be used.
The one figure that stands out for me as a grandmother in the methodology that the Government are using is the expenditure budgeted for clothing and footwear, which is £2.51 per week. I would love to be able to tell my children that clothing and footwear for their children could cost just £2.51 per week. That is just one point that I wanted to make.
I would be grateful if the Minister could give the House a definitive definition of essential living needs, on which these regulations are based. How confident is he that this definition will not be subject to another judicial review?
My Lords, I suspect that the House will soon want to vote on this. I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for presenting their Motions so powerfully. Listening to the debates, I thought back to my father. For some time he was the Father of your Lordships’ House: he took his seat in 1932 and died in 1977. He was an aristocrat from a land-owning family, and he felt it important to go to live at Toynbee Hall in the East End, in order to understand how people from a different background lived. In his late eighties, he continued to take public transport because he was concerned about losing touch with how most people live. I have to say with the greatest respect to the Government that considering yesterday’s Motions and today’s, I am concerned that perhaps they may be losing touch with what goes on with some of the families in our country. The families we are talking about, the ones which would be most touched today and yesterday, are lone parent families. Some 90% of them will be mothers bringing up children on their own without the support of a father. They will be most penalised financially by what we are looking at today.
I have not had the opportunity to thank the Government since the publication of the latest employment figures. I say to the Government and to the members of the coalition Government that it is an extraordinary and very welcome achievement to have the lowest rate of unemployment since 2008. Employment brings important economic benefits to us all but it also brings a purpose and a way of breaking through isolation. I know how important this is, as a carer of a man who is mentally ill and has been unemployed for a long time. Sadly, the families that we are talking about today are not permitted to work. I do not wish to take up too much of the House’s time, but I would like to say a little bit about the importance of isolation. Several noble Lords have referred to the finding, by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, that coming into contact with the UK’s provisions for asylum seekers has an adverse effect on the mental health of families. Some time ago, I listened to a psychiatrist talking about post-natal depression. He said to me afterwards that one can withstand almost any adverse experience as long as one does not have to do it on one’s own. I hope noble Lords will consider that we are denying these families the opportunity to work. They can do voluntary work but they need to pay for transport to do that job. In so many ways, we are working to isolate these families.
I return to my original point. I know that the noble Lord has a large brief, but if he has not yet had the opportunity to go to visit some of these families where they live, I encourage him, or his ministerial colleagues, to do so. Then, the next time we have a debate like this, he can say that he has spoken with these families; that he understands their concerns because he has heard them himself; and he can assure the House that every precaution has been taken, when bringing forward regulations, to think about their needs. Having read the report of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, I am concerned that there seems to have been a careless approach to this very important matter. I look forward to the Minister’s response, but from what I have heard so far I am moved to support the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee.
I wish to ask the Minister two very brief questions. First, the comment has been made, but not in this debate, about the length of time that people remain on Section 95 support. In 2013, Mark Harper, who was then the Minister in charge of immigration, gave a series of figures, including an average length of time that people are on this destitution support of 525 days. That is part of the most iniquitous feature of this system—that not only do we keep people on the very bottom of the economic heap, but we leave them there indefinitely with no limit on the time that people can remain on this destitution support.
The other question I want to ask the Minister is whether the Government intend to publish a response to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, which has been quoted many times during this debate, and the criticism it made of failing to give full details of the number of families who are on this level of support and what is included in it. Can we have answers to those questions in the Minister’s wind-up speech?
I promise to be brief as much has been said already, but I cannot help saying that the Government have shown a generous face to the public on Syrian refugees under the UN’s Gateway scheme, responded properly to public pressure then, and may do more. However, at the same time, they are prepared to let down and make more destitute refused asylum seekers who may be unable to return home. There is a clear moral principle here and this Minister will recognise that. These are people who have already suffered greater hardship than the rest of the community and yet they are in effect being punished for remaining in this country, as the noble Lord has just said.
Under Sections 95 and 4(2) of the 1999 Act, this category who have been unable to convince the Home Office of their case are already regarded as destitute. That is why they come under these sections. If the House of Commons Library is correct, and 3,600 out of some 4,900 individuals on Section 4(2) support have been living on it for more than 12 months, there must be a very good reason why they cannot return to their home country.
Keeping asylum seekers at destitution level must have two objectives, which have not been mentioned. The first is to act as a deterrent to people who are determined to avoid removal. The second is to show the sceptical public that no cushions are being supplied to asylum seekers. On the deterrent argument, to expect that by reducing their income by as much as 30% in some cases they will immediately be able to take off to another possibly unsafe country is completely to ignore their present insecure situation. As to cushions, it is unlikely that the general public will ever be aware of people with no future, living precariously, possibly in hiding and in temporary accommodation. But apart from that, the evidence seems overwhelming. I am grateful to the Still Human Still Here campaign for its helpful summary. I was startled, as others were, by Refugee Action’s finding in 2013 that 90% of interviewees on Section 95 support could not afford sufficient or adequate food or clothing. My noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, mentioned this.
It appears that the Home Office is coming down heaviest on footwear, clothing and communications. Leaving mobile phones aside, has anyone living on £5 a day on an Azure card ever tried to buy a pair of shoes or a sweater? Of course, they will not be able to afford anything but charity handouts, if they can get them, as my noble and right reverend friend Lord Eames said. Should the Government be counting on them finding handouts and, still worse, should they be taking these into account in their calculations? Has any research been carried out on handouts and whether they come into official calculations? The Home Affairs Committee took a dim view of this in 2013, and then came the very serious High Court judgment that the Government had got it wrong and needed to rethink their whole case. That is why we are discussing the new ONS figures.
I will not repeat what has been said about the UN convention. I accept the principle that migrants or overstayers who fail the asylum seeker test need to be returned to their country of origin. I have been involved with this subject in Portsmouth and agree with the Government’s policy. This becomes even more important with the new Syrian arrivals, when there will be renewed pressure on resources. But that does not mean that you penalise a whole section of society who may be forced to live below the standard of the population as a whole.
My Lords, I contribute to this debate as somebody from Bristol, which is a city of sanctuary. Bristol has a proud record of having many volunteers, who welcome asylum seekers and refugees. I take an interest in many of these organisations. Visiting them recently, I was made aware of just how bad things have become for asylum seekers and refugees. Over recent years, these people depend more and more on volunteers for essential services as cuts hit local government. English language learning has been cut systematically. On the one hand, we say we would like these people to learn English, yet the service is constantly cut. Volunteers are now delivering food bags to people every week. Volunteers are providing legal aid because that has been cut too. I heard one person say last week, “I have worked in this organisation for a long time and I never really thought I would have to look at providing free nappies and raising sponsorship from the private sector to provide essential goods for these people”. So it is not just about these regulations, which I believe penalise the most vulnerable in our society, but against a background of continuous cuts to services for these people.
This country has a proud record of welcoming refugees. Many of our most successful people have come from immigrant families. We are talking about children, who have no say in what happens to them. They did not choose to be born in Syria or Eritrea. They did not choose to move. They have no voice, and we have spoken this week about democracy, accountability and the rights of the people of this country. It seems to me that the regulations we are discussing are absolutely and totally damaging to the rights of children, who are among the most vulnerable in our society.
We have heard about the effect on diet. Many of these people cannot afford to buy proper, fresh food. On the one hand, public agencies tell us we should have a healthy diet, and how we should bring up our children and avoid disease. Yet there is one rule for our children and another rule for other people’s children. We hear that they cannot afford essential living items. My colleague spoke about the ridiculous amount paid for shoes, and the fact that children grow. Their shoes may not even wear out, but they have to be replaced. We hear that the cost of travel in many of our cities is absolutely punishing, so many of these people, when they try to get advice from volunteers about their legal position, are prevented from doing so because they cannot afford to eat and to pay the travel costs.
I believe we can do better than that. I believe that some of the judgments in these regulations are arbitrary and not based on proper information. I would like the Government and all of us to feel that we could work with the agencies that provide these services and arrive at something acceptable that gives respect and allows our children, and the children of other people, to have the same protection, the same rights, the same democracy and the same civilised country that I believe we have. They do not have it at the moment and I believe they must. So I will support the Motion and I hope we get support for that.
When the Minister replies to this debate, which I have found extraordinarily disturbing, I hope he will deal with the situation created by the High Court’s decision that has a direct bearing on the facts of this case. I would like him to ask himself whether, as a Minister of the Crown, he can say that the situation revealed in the argument before us is one which does or does not comply with the standards set in that judgment. I understand it was not appealed. If the standards do not begin to meet the standards indicated in that judgment, does he agree that this situation reveals deeply disturbing breaches of the rule of law? I am very sad to feel that that could happen in this jurisdiction.
My Lords, I will just add something very briefly to that. I was extremely disturbed personally by what happened in this House yesterday: my heart was very much with a lot of the opposition amendments but my brain said that I should observe the conventions I signed up to when I joined this House in 2013, although we can all interpret those in different ways. However, in the light of that, I say to the Government that there is a limit to how much one can feel pushed, to a certain extent, in relation to humanitarian concerns. I look to the Minister to show the human face of this Government. We have heard some very disturbing facts, and I want to be reassured that this Government are a humanitarian Government —as they have often boasted they are and as I believe is essentially the case—and do care about these issues and about people who are clearly suffering.
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their Motions and all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. It has been a very difficult debate to listen to from the Front Bench. There is no mistake about that. I preface my remarks by saying that I am acutely aware that we are talking here about some of the most vulnerable people—not just in the country but on the planet—who have sought refuge in this country. I have no qualms about that at all. Nor do I for one minute suggest that the sums that we are talking about are anything other than the amounts required to meet the essential living needs of individuals. That reflects a level which is barely above the level of destitution as we would define it. I preface my comments with those remarks.
There have been a number of incredibly thoughtful and powerful speeches, and I have here a large number of responses from my officials. Time may not permit me to move all the way through them, but I do want to address some elements. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and several other noble Lords including the noble Lord, Lord Alton, talked about the people who come to this country seeking asylum, their background, where they come from—Eritrea and other different places—and the journeys that they have been on to reach here. What greets them on arrival here with their desire to claim asylum?
First, as has been mentioned, they will be given somewhere furnished to live. It will be equipped with bed linen, towels and kitchen utensils. It will be covered for repairs and will have its utility bills—electricity, gas and water—and council tax all paid for. They will get that £36.95 to cover food, clothing and toiletries. They will get additional help, if they are pregnant, of £3 per week. If they have a baby under the age of one, they will get £5 per week; for a child aged one to three, £3 per week. They will get a one-off £300 maternity payment if the baby is due within eight weeks. They will get access to the National Health Service, free prescriptions for medicine, free dental care, free eye tests and help with paying for glasses. They will get access to the education system and free school meals.
I want to put that down because it may all seem obvious, but I want to put it on record that I understand—I totally get it—that this country has a proud record of offering a helping hand to those people who come here seeking asylum, and I want to make it absolutely clear that there is a level of support which is there and is to provide them with safety and a base from which they can begin their appeal. They will also have access to Migrant Help, a fund of about £400 million per year which goes towards providing asylum support in this country. Migrant Help will get alongside people and advise them of their needs. Providing they pass the merits test, they will also have access to legal aid and legal advice to help them to prepare their case and work their way through what must be a daunting process. Also, as the noble Baroness mentioned, they will have access to language training.
This is all seen in the context of what should be a temporary situation. For far too long, it was the case that people were in a sense parked on these benefits and lived in great hardship for a long period of time. One of the things which we want to make absolutely clear is that we want speedy decisions. In fact, we were challenged in court over this very issue of wanting quick decisions, because we think that quick decisions are in the best interest of the individuals concerned, and where they are granted leave to remain in this country and granted asylum, they have access to the full range of benefits and they will be able to work—a point made by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. The speed of decision-making is absolutely critical.
Then we come to the point about the absolute cash sums. I preface this by stating that I know that these would not be called generous. They were linked to the system of income support that the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, talked about. That situation changed in 2008 and we moved on to the system that we have now. That was the subject of a challenge by Refugee Action referred to by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf. This really went to town in challenging the methodology that we were using. Far from disregarding this and not being mindful of it, we set about undertaking a revision of the methodology. Everything that we have set out here is driven by that new methodology, looking at the things that needed to be taken into account and trying to put a price on them. On the basis of undertaking that revised methodology, not in contravention of but in compliance with that legal judgment, we have arrived at a position, with data from ONS and other sources, that because of economies of scale, the argument for providing an additional premium for children is no longer there. They can meet essential living needs through the economies of scale of a family living together.
I know that we are talking about vulnerable people. I know that we are talking about people who are hovering precariously above the line of destitution, with all sorts of pressures on their mind. However, those of us who have had families would all recognise that, if you are cooking a meal for four, it is less expensive per unit than if you are providing food for one. I do not want to go too far down that road, other than to say that it is on that basis that officials checked the methodology against the court’s basket of measures.
I am aware that there were a number of specific questions. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked two very specific questions in relation to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, and the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, also mentioned it. I wanted to say this in the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, who was here a moment ago, but I fully recognise that this was hardly textbook behaviour in terms of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. That is a point which I have made in person, having gone to see the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. We did not just ignore the committee. I actually provided a response to the judgment. James Brokenshire provided a response to the judgment. That is contained in the report of the Secondary Legislation Committee. Moreover, the additional material that was required, to say how we had arrived at the judgment and what the impact of it would be, was provided in the appendix, along with a copy of the letter to the National Asylum Stakeholder Forum. Those things were provided but I accept that it was not textbook. I really made a thing with officials of wanting to make sure that we improve our game in making sure that Parliament has the right opportunity to scrutinise these very important instruments and pieces of legislation, especially when they involve a significant change.
Of course, one of the difficulties was that we had a general election in the middle of the arrangements. That made it much more difficult and it meant that, for the regulations to come into force on 10 August, they needed to be announced 21 days in advance, which is the requirement. That is why they were laid on 16 July. Then of course they lay before Parliament to be prayed against for a period of 40 days, which is what the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has taken advantage of.
I have tried to set out that there is a substantial basis of support for asylum seekers. We recognise that they are vulnerable. These cash payments need to be seen in the context of that wider support. When people question whether the cash sums are below the poverty line—we were talking about what poverty was in terms of 60% of median earnings—we need to remember that that is in cash terms. But we are talking here not about that but about all the other things: the homes fully furnished; the repairs already paid for; all the utilities bills paid; all the council tax paid; and all the healthcare paid. All of that is there.
Not all of them. In fact, in some cases, for single individuals, there is a small increase. These are tiny amounts, I recognise that, but we are living in an economic time when there is zero inflation and the normal upratings do not apply. Yes, these did pre-exist, but we have changed them in the light of a methodology that was set out for us by the courts. We have honoured our obligation to do that. We have very clear international obligations, which have been set out, to meet the essential living needs of people who are seeking asylum, and we are doing that.
The revised rates that are currently in operation are comparable with Sweden. I do not think Sweden has a reputation on the international stage of being unwelcoming to or uncaring for asylum seekers. It was the most generous country in Europe apart from Germany. We are now coming into a more mainstream element. The Government have a duty to ask whether they provided for the essential living needs of those who are claiming asylum. I believe that the Government can say that they have. If they were not able to say that, of course they would be open to challenge. They will still be open to challenge because people can ask that. We have looked at this, and we believe that these amounts are correct. We need to make sure that the whole system is speeded up so that people are on these benefits for the shortest possible time before they get a decision and can either be welcomed into this country and given leave to remain, to work and to get access to the full range of benefits, or can be told that their asylum application has failed and they need to return. That is what these regulations are about, and that is how we have arrived at them. I hope that on the basis of that the noble Baroness may feel able to withdraw her Motion.
In closing, I want to say very carefully, with precise words, that this is something that is kept under review. Each year, we look at these numbers and make a decision. We will be very much open to listening to and reading the evidence that is brought to us.
My Lords, this whole thing is shameful, but what the Minister has just said is quite unrealistic. In 12 months’ time, when the review is done, one could have undermined the health of hundreds of children, and that, in the future, will cost the NHS a great deal more money. Have the Government taken account of that?
Our position is that we have gone into this in exhaustive detail, as my letter to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, set out, probably in too much detail. It set out right down to the last penny where we felt that these amounts had come from. We clearly believe that we are complying with our international obligations. If this is shown to have a real detrimental effect, and evidence can be provided to us, then of course we will consider that very carefully next year, when this comes to be reviewed.
It should not be up to other organisations to provide the evidence. The Minister very honestly said at the outset that these people will be living on an income barely above the level of destitution. I asked if he would give an undertaking that the Home Office would monitor the impact. Will he now do that please?
We will, of course, continue to monitor the impact. We will continue to work through the National Asylum Stakeholder Forum with other groups. We have set out our position, and if people challenge that position and have data that show that there is unintended hardship as a result of these regulations, they should come forward with them. They should make the data available to us, and we will then consider them.
I declare an interest as the patron of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, which does some excellent work. Has the Home Office considered the possibility of consulting voluntary organisations that work on a day-to-day basis in detention centres, many of which contain people who have been here for very many months and should not be in prison or detention centres anymore? I have the greatest respect for the Minister, but could he consider suggesting that there should be careful consultation with voluntary and high-minded bodies that look after detention centre internees to discover what they think of the present provision that the Government are making?
I am happy to do that. We should constantly be listening, and I know that officials have engaged with people in those situations and are constantly listening to what they are finding and what hardships people are going through and looking at new data which have been made available to them. This is constantly under review; in fact, there is a structured requirement for us to undertake a review on an annual basis. If other organisations have evidence, then let them bring it forward, but noble Lords should bear in mind that we have produced our own evidence in quite considerable detail that shows to our satisfaction, as Ministers, that we are complying with that judgment set out before us. That is the reason why the changes have been made, and why I am asking the noble Baroness and the noble Lord to consider not moving their Motions.
There is not a fixed time. The normal time for changing benefits, or for a review to happen, is at the end of the financial year. That could not happen this year for reasons set out by the noble Baroness at the beginning of the debate, and also because of the general election. However, the time that we would be looking at those numbers would be at about the end of the financial year, which would be March 2016. We would certainly welcome evidence and data that could be made available before then, either in the early months of 2016 or by Christmas. That could inform our assessment.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. In some cases, I had not expected them to take part, and in some I do not think that they had expected to.
No one would doubt that the Minister’s introductory remarks in particular and the concern he has shown for asylum seekers come absolutely from his heart. I do not for a moment wish to challenge his attitude on this. He said that this should be a temporary situation for individual asylum seekers. Indeed it should, provided that each application is dealt with properly. The issue of asylum seekers’ right to work was also raised. I have no doubt that we will return to that during the passage of the Immigration Bill.
Reference was made to Sweden and other countries but the judge in the 2014 case disposed of that as an argument. There is such variation between the approaches of different countries—for example, some will impose more obligations on local authorities than on central ones—that that is not an issue tonight.
The Minister referred to the substantial basis of support facilities. I have not sought to deny that. Indeed, in my speech I volunteered that various facilities and services are provided. Nevertheless, £36.95 is not generous for food, travel—which I learned during my work on this is far more significant than I had realised—and toiletries, and particularly the requirements of babies. No one seeks generosity. We merely seek adequacy.
I am glad to hear about the Government’s attitude to future consultation. The point made about monitoring is hugely important. I challenge the methodology. Yes, there was methodology but it amounted, in the case of babies and children, to rough and ready economies of scale. I was going to use the word “assessment” but there was no assessment. That is the only justification given. I quote again the Minister for Immigration, who said that,
“any extra needs particular to children are comfortably offset by the economies available to a larger household”.
There was no justification or analysis. Of course, cooking a meal for four has an economy of scale but that does not work if two of the four are children. You cannot feed them the same food as adults.
The Minister said that the evidence shows to the Government’s satisfaction that the work has been done thoroughly. As I say, I challenge the methodology. It is not to my satisfaction. I wish to test the opinion of the House.