By Sally Hamwee
We should be proud that we have legislation to support asylum-seekers who are likely otherwise to be destitute. So shouldn't we be ashamed if the reality of that support fails to achieve this? Actions speak louder than words, and kind platitudes have no place in this sphere.
In 2000, rates for "essential living needs" were set at 70% of Income Support (plus accommodation and utility bills). Hardly a fortune for people who are prevented from working and are therefore dependent on handouts through what is often a lengthy asylum 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 it was increased - by 33p. Crucially a flat rate (£36.95 a week) was introduced for each asylum seeker, adult or child.
This change, the government professed, was to "simplify" the arrangements – a weasel word. They argued that families were receiving "significantly more cash than [was] necessary to meet their essential living needs", because more was paid for children in a household. So now a single parent with one child receives £73.90, a reduction of £26 each week; for a couple with two children the total has gone down by over £30, from £178.44 to £147.80, or 17%.
The Home Office did its homework. The information underlying the decision itemises, among other things, a basic wardrobe to be bought from the allowance but as one colleague pointed out: "Three pairs of underpants? My mum would never have accepted that". Meanwhile, the sample weekly grocery bills, which were part of work on eating healthily, would I think stand some analysis on that score.
The court also highlighted that the secretary of state had not included nappies, formula milk and other special requirements of very young children. The good news is that the Home Office did acknowledge that babies and children have different needs to adults, the bad news is that the assessment seems to be a rough and ready setting off against economies of scale.
The sample grocery lists, for example, are designed for adults and adolescents. Teething gel does not get a mention and there is no mention of how quickly children grow out of shoes. And maybe the Home Office was defeated, as I was, by trying to find a ballpark figure for how many nappies a baby gets through
Simply existing within these constraints is difficult, but to live a life in which a child can actually develop, learn and grow is close to impossible.
The Tories tried to sneak these changes through in March but someone conveniently forgot to inform us as the coalition partner. Luckily we spotted them and Nick Clegg had them immediately revoked. Now, without the Liberal Democrats acting as the moral compass of government, they have been reintroduced.
The Lib Dems won't stand by and let them sail on through though. Thinking about the impact of arriving in the UK with nothing, probably in a fragile state of health, mentally and physically, not being allowed to work, and living on sums which I am told are some 60% below the poverty line, I decided that merely expressing concern was inadequate.
Yesterday, I had a motion debated by the House of Lords to annul the regulations. Unfortunately, most Labour peers abstained and the motion failed. But if we don’t challenge decisions like this, what are we for?
Baroness Hamwee is a Liberal Democrat peer and spokesperson on home affairs
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