Bishop of Worcester supports calls for review of Azure card system for asylum seekers

“If we wish to dissuade people from coming to this country without the legal right to be here, it is wrong to try to send a message by treating asylum applicants, even when appeal rights are exhausted, in a way unworthy of our values.”

On 20th November 2014, Lord Roberts of Llandudno led a take-note debate in the House of Lords on the subject of the Azure card, the means of support through which the Government supports people making applications for asylum who are not allowed to work in the UK. The Bishop of Worcester, the Rt Revd John Inge, spoke in the debate, highlighting a number of concerns about the current system, including the level of support provided and the limited number of places in which the card can be used. He called on the Government to review the current system.

WorcesterThe Lord Bishop of Worcester: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for securing this debate on a very important matter. The churches have long held, and maintained in this House, that those who have applied for asylum and who are not allowed to do paid work should be given enough financial help to maintain a decent basic standard of living for themselves and their families. Indeed, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York has more than once led delegations on this theme. Surely every person who is in this country should be treated in accordance with our values. If we wish to dissuade people from coming to this country without the legal right to be here, it is wrong to try to send a message by treating asylum applicants, even when appeal rights are exhausted, in a way unworthy of our values.

Of course, this debate is about those who have come to the end of the appeal process but, for one reason or another, cannot be removed to their home country. They may or may not hold full or partial responsibility for the impossibility of removing them; in many cases, it is not their fault at all. As we have heard, the Government provide basic accommodation and around £5 a day for a single person. As the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, has rightly drawn attention to, one of the issues is the fact that it is not possible for this to be rolled over. He drew attention to the difficulty in buying coats, but other basic essentials, such as a pair of shoes, also become impossible to purchase.

However, we are looking particularly at the issues associated with the Azure card itself. As has already been stated, one of the big problems with the Azure card is that it can be used only in certain outlets. I understand that the card system is designed to eliminate as far as possible the possibility of fraud but it is surely disproportionate to make a system so fraud-proof that it does not achieve its proper objectives.

There are other questions about the way in which the system operates so that, as has been pointed out, only certain outlets accept the card. I am not exactly sure why that is the case and I would be grateful for clarification from the Minister. It has been suggested to me that it is because the money is issued under contract by a private company which has contractual relationships with other private companies—retailers—for mutual benefit. If that is the case, I would be very concerned.

Attention has been drawn to problems that asylum seekers using Azure cards face in London. In my own diocese, the churches are very committed to working with asylum seekers and I have heard heart-rending stories from those who work with asylum seekers in Halesowen about the way in which asylum seekers are forced to walk quite some considerable distance—a matter of miles on occasions—with children simply to buy milk from one of the outlets at which the Azure card can be used, even though there is a shop next door to them.

Last weekend a large group of people from all over the country met at the Sanctuary Summit in Birmingham. Part of the communiqué from that summit reads:

“It cannot be right that people are left destitute in modern Britain, banned from working but denied support. Until they are granted protection and can work, asylum seekers should receive sufficient support to meet their essential living needs while in the UK”.

I support that statement. It is by no means clear that the Azure card system is currently succeeding in meeting what were reasonable aims.

I join the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, in asking the Minister for a review of the Azure card system. If it is not abolished, there is much scope for improving its efficiency, convenience and flexibility so that individuals and families, who are some of the most vulnerable in our midst, can retain a degree of dignity and freedom as they face the uncertainties of the future.

Baroness Williams of Trafford (Government response): …All asylum seekers, or failed asylum seekers under Section 4 support, are always housed within two to three miles of shops. However, I take on board a comment made by the right reverend Prelate about somebody living next door to a shop that they cannot actually use. That was a good point and additional pressure needs to be put on those shops to be a bit more accommodating. I have no reason to believe that they cannot accept the card…

…The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester said that the card can be used only in certain outlets. Again, I hope I have addressed that point by explaining that the card can be used only in outlets that wish to accept it. The right reverend Prelate talked about someone living next door to a shop but not being able to use the card in it. He also talked about allowing flexible use of the Azure card or abolishing it. The Government have no intention of abolishing the card, but I agree that if markets, or any other retail outlets, were more willing to accept it, that would make the process easier and more dignified for all involved…


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