News analysis of reforms to asylum seeker system and overseas volunteering

grow over centres for asylum seekers in wake of reforms

the abolition of vouchers and the dispersal system has been applauded, hard
questions are now being asked about their replacements. Lauren Revans reports.

migration, citizenship and humble pie were on the House of Commons’ agenda last
week when home secretary David Blunkett finally admitted the failings of the
government’s current asylum policy and outlined his plans to
"fundamentally overhaul" it.

cheers from MPs on both sides of the House, Blunkett publicly acknowledged that
the current system had suffered "real problems".

is too slow, vulnerable to fraud, and felt to be unfair by both asylum seekers
and local communities," he confessed. "That is why today I do not
intend to tinker with the existing system but bring about radical and
fundamental reform."

in the firing line is the much-criticised voucher scheme, introduced for asylum
seekers in April 2000 in place of social security benefits as part of the
government’s new centrally administered national asylum support scheme.

groups and welfare organisations were calling for the scheme to be aborted
before its introduction, and in October 2000 Blunkett’s predecessor Jack Straw
promised a review of the unpopular system. The review’s findings, finally
published last week, highlight key concerns about the scheme’s operation
including the availability of accurate information for asylum seekers in a
language they can understand, the failure of shops to operate the scheme
correctly, and administrative and operational problems resulting in a poor
service by the National Asylum Seeker Service (Nass) to asylum seekers.

are also allegations of vouchers stigmatising asylum seekers, and concerns
about both the level of support – 70 per cent of income support – and the
impact of the "no change" rule.

week, much to the delight of all campaigners, Blunkett agreed that the vouchers
must go. To the disappointment of many, however, Blunkett added that this
change would not take immediate effect. Instead, the vouchers will be given an
11-month reprieve before being superseded by a "more robust but less
socially divisive scheme" of ID smart cards by next September.

government’s decision to abolish vouchers is both morally right and politically
inevitable," argues Rebecca Hickman, political adviser for children’s
charity Save the Children. "However, it is completely unacceptable that
the voucher system should be allowed to continue for any length of time,
consigning more children to poverty, supported by a degrading system."

confirmed that the government was exploring the potential for "automated
credit transfer and other mechanisms to provide financial support for asylum
seekers", but was warned against exchanging "the paper voucher for a
plastic voucher" and against introducing any system that could exacerbate
the problems asylum seekers already face in accessing basic services.

the meantime, the government will increase the cash element of support received
by asylum seekers from £10 to £14 per week to make it easier to make up the
exact value of a shopping bill and to increase the scope for increased access
to goods unavailable with vouchers. The value of voucher support will also be
uprated in line with the April 2001 increases in income support, although will
remain at 70 per cent.

to the Refugee Council, Blunkett’s statement raises as many questions as it
answers. Nowhere is this clearer than in relation to the planned "national
network of induction, accommodation and removal centres".

responses to the notion of short-stay induction centres for new applicants have
been largely favour-able, the government will have a much harder job convincing
campaigners that accommodation centres are the answer to current dispersal
scheme problems highlighted in Blunkett’s dispersal review findings, also
published last week.

questions which will determine the acceptance of accommodation centres focus
around the amount of time asylum seekers will spend in them, how far from the
nearest town they will be built, how large they will be, and what "clear
criteria for allocating places" will be used as long as there are
insufficient places for all.

acknowledging the potential benefits of being able to access basic services,
legal advice and interpreters under one roof, the Refugee Council is still
concerned: "If asylum seekers are there too long, you run the risk of
institutionalising them and taking away their independence," a
spokesperson warns. "Even if they are free to go in and out, if the
centres are in the middle of nowhere, where will they go? That is not going to
help integration."

Treasury has promised £250m of new money to build the centres, and work on the
first four – each with around 750 places – will begin immediately, with a
proportion of new asylum seekers to be offered a place by the end of 2002.

Institute of Housing policy officer Sam Lister remains sceptical: "The
problem with vouchers is that they restrict people’s choices. If asylum seekers
are going to be put into hostel accommodation they are going to be getting
support in kind. That restricts their choice even more.

all other aspects of social assistance, we are moving away from institutionalised
care, to care in the community. There is no reason why asylum seekers should be
picked out for different treatment."

Jill Roberts, director of asylum advice for charity Refugee Action, the most
worrying part of the government’s plans is the proposal to
"streamline" asylum seekers’ appeal rights, limiting them to a point
of law. This will eliminate appeals on a point of fact, making it even more
essential for asylum seekers to have access to assistance and legal advice at the
earliest possible stage. Almost a fifth of applications currently fall at the
first hurdle, rejected on the grounds of "non-compliance" because of
an error or omission in their 90-page application form that they must complete
within 10 days of their arrival.

they are going to speed up the system, then it has to be much more accurate
from the first instance," Roberts says. "Asylum seekers will need
legal representation from the beginning because their rights to appeal are
going to be curtailed."

recommendations of the dispersal review include returning to the original
policy of clustering asylum seekers in dispersal areas on the basis of
language, ensuring they are properly briefed, improving consultation and
involvement of local authorities and other local agencies, and having a better
regional structure for Nass – all of which have been warmly welcomed.

the government would be wiser to focus more of their energies on such
improvements to the current dispersal system – which even its critics admit is
successful in some areas – before embarking on a new centre-led scheme remains
to be seen. But one thing is certain: the UK’s asylum seeker system is not
about to get any simpler.

these latest proposals, we will have potentially four different systems working
at once," a Refugee Council spokesperson warns. "That’s going to be
very confusing."

Key proposals for reform

ID smart cards will replace the standard acknowledgement letter and
supersede vouchers; intended to guarantee identification and tackle fraud.

Cash element to be increased to £14 and total face value to be uprated in line
with April 2001 income support increases; to be phased out by September 2002.

Induction centres to be built in areas where most asylum applications are
lodged (for example, Croydon and Heathrow) to accommodate new arrivals for two
to 10 days to facilitate screening, health checks and identification

Reporting centres All applicants will be required to report throughout
the process; intended to introduce more rigorous control and improve contact
with asylum seekers.

Accommodation centres will offer full board, lodging, basic education
and health facilities, legal advice and interpretation; four centres with a total
3,000 places to be built by the end of next year to trial the scheme.

Removal centres Number of detention places will be increased from 1,900
to 4,000, with the opening of new secure removal centres; intended to end use
of mainstream prison places.

Dispersal system Reverting to the policy of dispersal to language
cluster areas; more consultation with local authorities and other agencies;
improvements to Nass.

Appeals to be streamlined and scope for delays reduced; capacity of
adjudication service to be increased by 50 per cent.


How overseas volunteering could be a major motivator for staff

retention and training could be improved if councils were to be more flexible
in their treatment of staff wanting to volunteer overseas. Katie Leason

employees the chance to volunteer abroad could be a key retention tool for
local authorities according to new research.

, a Voluntary Service Overseas and Demos report to be published next
week, suggests that the public sector could be missing out on a vital retention
method at a time when it is desperate to keep hold of staff.

report says that the public sector fails to recognise the value of skills
developed when people volunteer abroad, with staff finding it hard to re-enter
the workforce or being demoted as a result of spending time as international

who surveyed a range of staff including social workers and health care
personnel, found that the public sector’s work practices discouraged employees
from pursuing personal and professional development abroad. While senior
managers in the public sector endorsed international volunteering from a moral
viewpoint, middle managers were less in favour, mainly due to their workload.
Generally managers did not view volunteering as "real work".

public sector has greater sympathy for international volunteering than the
private sector but its bureaucracy makes it less able to take what volunteering
has to offer," says director of communications for VSO Matthew Bell. He
adds that the type of person who chooses to participate in VSO, combined with
the skills they acquire during their placement, make international volunteers
ideal candidates to energise public services.

report shows an emerging trend of partnerships between private companies and
volunteer organisations, where employees become eligible to take up voluntary
placements abroad after working for a certain period. Introducing a similar
process in the public sector could attract candidates and help with the
recruitment crisis.

young professionals want to build an international dimension into their
careers. If we are trying to recruit graduates into the public sector then we
have to offer them what they aspire to have," says Bell.

report recommends that the public sector examine career trends and acknowledges
that people want time to do different things.

Simon, vice chairperson of the Association of Directors of Social Services
human resources and training committee, says that most local authorities should
be able to guarantee valued employees an equivalent post on their return from
international volunteering. "Anything that helps us to retain good staff
is something that authorities should give serious consideration to," she

of the British Association of Social Workers Ian Johnston claims that some
local authorities are being short-sighted in their attitude towards international
volunteering. "People come back like a breath of fresh air. I’d have
thought employers should be bending over backwards to encourage it," he
says. cc

Human Traffic by VSO and Demos will be launched at the House of Commons
on 15 November. For more information contact 020 8780 7292 or go to websites  or 

No chance of unpaid leave or secondment…

worker Glenn Mower went to Belize on a VSO placement hoping it would boost his
professional and personal development.

he left, his council employer told him that there was no chance of unpaid leave
or secondment, that his terms and conditions would not be guaranteed, and on
his return he would only qualify for a starting salary.

Belize, Mower worked as a university social work lecturer and spent time
counselling couples and training staff in an older people’s home.

my work time and much of my leisure time was focused on social work," he

his return to England in April, he has been unsuccessful in finding a permanent
social worker position. "I went after one job but they told me it would
take eight years to reach my previous position."

believes that councils do not take volunteering seriously as a method of career
development. "VSO is about people sharing their skills. I am not sure that
local authorities realise that the job you go to is social work specific."

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