The Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Bill passed its final stage – ‘Commons Consideration of Lords Amendments’ – in the House of Commons yesterday.
This last stage was an opportunity for MPs to debate amendments made to the Bill in the House of Lords, including Clause 43, which the Refugee Council had been lobbying hard to get changed. Clause 43 deals with support for failed asylum seekers who are unable to travel back to their home countries because of a personal medical issue (e.g. pregnancy) or because there is no safe route back (e.g. to countries like Zimbabwe and Iraq). Individuals in this situation have to agree to return home as soon as they possibly can, and in return the Government provides them with Section 4 support, covering bed and board.
The new Clause 43 gives the Home Secretary the flexibility to provide extra support when necessary to cover other essential items such as nappies, prams, and razors. However Clause 43 also stipulates that support to those on Section 4 cannot be provided in cash and should be provided in vouchers instead.
Vouchers have been tried before and were scrapped when David Blunkett was Home Secretary because they were impractical, expensive and stigmatised those who used them. The Refugee Council, along with other refugee agencies, faith groups, NGOs and trades unions have been lobbying MPs to change Clause 43 to allow cash to be provided for those on Section 4 so that they are not forced to use vouchers.
This issue was debated at length in the House of Commons at Consideration of Lords Amendments to the Bill yesterday and a number of MPs stood up to tackle the Government on this issue. Neil Gerrard MP (Labour), John Bercow MP (Conservative) and David Heath MP (Lib Dem) amongst others spoke at length against the reintroduction of vouchers. Although the government seemed to lose the argument in the House, the vote to allow cash was lost.
Despite the tough debate, the final outcome was expected as all but three Conservative MPs absented themselves, leaving the Liberal Democrats, dissident backbench Labour MPs, the minor parties to vote for the call for cash support to be permitted. However, 19 Labour MPs defied the whips and voted for the amendment – leaving the final score at 89 in favour and 308 against.
The Bill received Royal Assent today and has become the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006. Although the Parliamentary battle against vouchers has been lost on this occasion, the Refugee Council have insisted it will continue to fight its corner in the media.
Original briefing from refugee agencies (includes some case studies):
Refugee Council Parliamentary Briefing on Immigration, Asylum & Nationality Bill Clause 43 – Asylum Support (Vouchers)
Early day motion: EDM calling for use of cash
Guardian: Asylum seekers forced to return to using supermarket vouchers
Guardian: McNulty letter in response to Guardian article
Guardian: Refugee Council letter in response to McNulty letter in the Guardian