Sarah Teather (MP Brent Central) put forward a motion on 23 April 2013:
I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 to require the Secretary of State to review levels of asylum support annually; to require him to lay before Parliament a draft up-rating order to increase levels of asylum support in line with changes made to mainstream benefits in years when the general level of prices has increased during the previous 12 month period; to replace support provided by the voucher system under subsections (10) and (11) of section 4 of the Act with a single, cash-based support system; and for connected purposes.
As a country, we have a long and proud history of providing support and sanctuary to those who arrive on our shores fleeing persecution and war. I believe, however, that we are now in danger of falling short of the standards that our reputation leads people to expect. Last year, I chaired a cross-party inquiry into the experiences of children and young people in the asylum system. The panel received evidence in writing and in person from about 200 individuals and organisations: from local authorities, from academics, from those working on the front line with asylum seekers, and from the young people and their families themselves. What we heard about the hardship that they endure really shocked the panel.
There is a popular myth that asylum seekers enjoy undeserved riches, gaining access to high-class housing and easy finance that their indigenous neighbours could only dream about. It is just that, however: a myth. In fact, families told us stories of unimaginable difficulty, loneliness and poverty, of going without meals to pay for their children’s clothes, of poor housing and of victimisation. Contrary to the popular cliché, benefits for those in the asylum system have caused people to fall way below the poverty line in recent years, with some surviving on as little as £5 a day.
The problem with the current system is that decisions about whether to uprate the levels of benefit known as section 95 and section 4 support are effectively a matter for the Home Secretary alone. Representations from other Government Departments about the impact on children’s welfare can be, and often are, ignored. There is no requirement for the Home Secretary to come to the House regularly to report on or explain her decisions. As a consequence, no decision was made in the last financial year on whether to uprate section 4 and section 95 levels, leaving them effectively frozen since April 2011. The House rightly expects to have a say on setting the support levels for mainstream benefits, and the same should apply in these cases.
This is a problem not just for the present Government. Successive Governments have let the levels drift, fearful of headlines relating to what is actually a tiny number of people and, in the context of budgetary pressures, a tiny amount of money. Levels for section 95 support were originally pegged by the Labour Government at 90% of income support levels, before being reduced to 70% after deductions for utility bills paid for in provided accommodation.
Some, but not all, benefits for children continue to be pegged at a favourable level in relation to income support levels. Levels for 16 and 17-year-olds, for example, are arbitrarily reduced. No account is taken of the disability of any children who might arrive with complex needs. In any case, the downward drift in the value of adult benefits means that families as a whole are often trying to manage on benefit levels of as little as 60% or 65% of income support levels, in spite of all the data showing that 70% is the bare minimum to avoid absolute poverty, and in spite of the fact that many families arrive on our shores with little more than the clothes on their backs.
If life is tough on section 95 support, life on section 4 support entails devastating hardship. Section 4 support is provided to those whose asylum claims do not meet the strict requirements for refugee status but who might not be able to go home, when the Government recognise that that is the case. The levels are significantly lower than the section 95 levels. This is well illustrated by the way in which we support families who have a new baby. Someone on income support would be eligible for a £500 maternity grant. Someone on section 95 support would be eligible to receive £300, but someone on section 4 support would receive just £250. Everyone knows, however, that the costs of having a baby are the same, regardless of which level of asylum support someone is eligible for.
Furthermore, section 4 support is paid not in cash but on a card, and it is that card that causes much of the hardship. The rules on where the card can be used are highly restrictive, meaning families may have to travel some distance to be able to shop. It cannot be spent on public transport, which exacerbates the difficulties, particularly for those who need appointments with doctors or solicitors. Our inquiry heard of one case where a woman whose maternity grant, which I mentioned a minute ago, did not arrive. Without any money to travel, she was forced to leave hospital and walk home in the snow with her newborn baby in her arms. I think everyone here would accept that that is simply an unacceptable state of affairs.
Furthermore, very little money can be transferred on this card from one week to the next, so families told us they were unable to save for larger items such as winter coats for their children, while the regular moves entailed for many families seeking asylum exacerbate the difficulty of having to pay for uniforms—a larger-priced item for which families need to save up from one week to the next. The families say, too, that this card is downright unreliable. It is often turned down at checkouts and, most painfully of all, the card immediately identifies the holder of it as an asylum seeker, frequently resulting in abuse and stigmatisation. During our inquiry, we heard about some very upsetting examples of that.
This is patently not a system designed for children’s welfare, yet we met families whose children had spent two or three years on this system of support—a large proportion of their lives, then, spent in crippling levels of poverty. It seems baffling to me that such a large and inefficient bureaucracy could possibly be value for money for the 800 or so families for whom the card is currently being used. It would surely be more cost-effective to abolish it and provide one single cash-based system of support.
This Bill is not about treating asylum seekers better than everybody else. It is about applying the same standards of decency to those whose lives have already involved unimaginable hardship. It does not entail spending lots more money; it does, however, entail spending money more wisely. It is not about special rules for one group of people. It is about making Ministers accountable to this House—as, frankly, they would expect to be in any other similar situation. Decency, common sense, accountability, and above all, humanity: that is what the Bill is about, and I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Sarah Teather, Dr Julian Huppert, Nic Dakin, Alex Cunningham, Mr Virendra Sharma, Neil Carmichael, Mr David Ward, Caroline Lucas, Paul Blomfield and Mark Durkan present the Bill.
Sarah Teather accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 3 May, and to be printed (Bill 161).