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Hansard 7 July: Column 1752-1827 ...
Hansard 7 July: Column 1752-1827

Home office minister Lord Bassam defended the national dispersal system of asylum-seekers and the much-criticised voucher support system, and said local authorities were 'the glue' that brought together the government scheme and communities.

He was responding to a debate initiated by Liberal Democrat Lord Greaves who said more than 3,000 dispersals had taken place so far under the National Asylum Support Service.

He claimed regulations had not been adhered to and vulnerable asylum-seekers had not been provided with the safe, secure and supportive provision to which they were entitled under the law. In many places, they were being subjected to intimidation and harassment.

He instanced an example from his own area, Pendle and Burnley, in Lancashire, when asylum-seekers arrived unannounced, but in such small towns, with tightly knit communities people could not be dispersed without it being known and without an attempt being made to provide them with help support and assistance.

Whenever anyone asked questions, there was 'a wall of secrecy'. 'In particular local authorities were being kept in the dark. Local groups were having to find out who the people were and where they were living,' he said.

Lord Greaves added: 'Throughout the country, wherever you ask - from Plymouth to Leicester, Derby, Leeds, Liverpool, north east lancashire or anywhere else - it is a common complaint by local authorities that they are not being allowed the information that they need in order to help with this problem.

'The second main area of concern is over the service provided by local providers and they contract with local landlords and local providers. The local providers are simply not giving the service for which they are paid.'

He said in law there was supposed to be a one-stop shop to 'provide a focal point for local voluntary and community effort within the cluster groups' of asylum-seekers.

In his local cluster group, the nearest one-stop service was in Manchester, more than 30 miles away. 'How on earth could people who received only£10 a week afford to go to Manchester to consult the service?' he asked.

Lord Greaves said the deployment of NASS staff was wrong. Of its 433 staff, 423 worked in Croydon and one in each of the UK regions.

Labour's Baroness Howells said it was impossible for local authorities to fulfil their duties under section 71 of the Race Relations Act 1976 - to eliminate unlawful discrimination and to promote equal opportunities and good relations between different racial groups - when asylum-seekers for whom they had responsibility were 200 miles away.

Conservative Viscount Bridgeman said until the NASS assumed overall responsible nationwide, responsibility for refugees dispersed remained that of local authorities.

He added: 'There have been complaints in certain quarters of a lack of communication between the Immigration Service and local authorities, resulting in some cases from a refusal of immigration officials to visit dispersal areas some distance from London.'

And he urged the government to keep the voucher system under review. 'One effect appears to be that under the voucher system asylum-seekers tend to pay more for their shopping. Forbidding retailers to give change discriminates against those who are most vulnerable. Mischievous eyes at supermarket check-outs do not miss a thing,' said Viscount Bridgeman.

Lord Bassam promised to take up any specific allegations of malpractice in the operation of the NASS scheme. While he was not complacent, to set up the disperal system from scratch in 18 months was no small achievement, although there had been inevitable teething problems.

The scheme had begun to cap the number of asylum-seekers who fell to local authorities in London and the south east. The responsibility and support for asylum-seekers was more fairly shared across the UK.

The minister said the voucher scheme had been working 'in the main, entirely satisfactorily'. More than 19,000 shops were now involved, and the government's contractor was seeking to extend the retail network.

On secrecy, Lord Bassam commented: 'The disclosure of information needs to be understood. In each area there are local authority regional consortia which are informed regularly about the numbers of asylum-seekers being dispersed through the NASS scheme.

'Information about the identity of asylum-seekers is not regularly disclosed. The government owe a duty of confidentiality to those who have applied for asylum support. But there are instances when that can be waived, particularly where the asylum-seekers themselves think that it would be in their best interest.'

On monitoring of contracts for accomodation, the minister said NASS had a manager for each private sector provider. The home office was developing an inspection and investigation team to ensure standards were met. NASS was consulting local authorities through the regional consortia about the provider's suitability.

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