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Local authorities are currently responsible for accommodating asylum seekers. Owing to the pressure placed on local authorities in London and the south-east over recent years, a number of asylum seekers have been placed by local authority social services departments in towns and cities around the country. Information is not collected centrally on the numbers of asylum seekers in seaside towns. Once the Home Office takes over responsibility for supporting asylum seekers, such information will be available.
Does the Minister accept that there is a serious problem in seaside towns, partly because of the shortage of accommodation and partly because other local authorities are dumping refugees in those areas? Bearing in mind the problems that this creates for education and housing and for maintaining good community relations, is there any message of hope that I can give to people in Southend? Is the Minister willing to come to Southend or other seaside towns to discuss the position with local authorities?
Is it really the case that many asylum seekers who have no right to remain—six out of seven, it is said—are not deported? Southend and other areas would be helped enormously if there were a clear assurance that the issues are being taken seriously and given priority and that the Government take a close interest in the problems.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's points. I am certainly prepared to visit Southend. I have visited other places facing similar problems. I say with all respect to the hon. Gentleman that the problems arise from the policies of the previous Administration, who placed the whole responsibility for in-country applicants on hard-pressed local authorities. That is why we have introduced interim arrangements, and I hope that the forthcoming new support arrangements will relieve local authorities. The hon. Gentleman will know that we have made great progress on removals, and there has been increase of about 50 per cent. on the figure under the previous Administration.
Is my hon. Friend satisfied that the interim scheme that local authorities are being asked to operate is working to relieve the pressure on seaside towns and parts of London and the south-east that have large numbers of asylum seekers? What level of co-operation is being achieved? Are some local authorities causing difficulties by not being prepared to accept asylum seekers? When can we expect to be given the details of places becoming available through the Home Office scheme, which is supposed to come into operation on 1 April?
I can perhaps reassure my hon. Friend. We have had very good contact with local authorities throughout the country, and we are grateful for the support that we have received from local government associations, with whom we are having detailed discussions. We are also engaged in detailed negotiations with accommodation providers, including local authorities and the voluntary and private sectors. Arrangements and discussions continue, and we are very grateful to everybody who has participated so far.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the targets that we set out in the White Paper, which were confirmed, rightly, by the permanent under-secretary. Decision making is increasing the whole time and the period is being reduced. I am grateful for all the efforts that staff have made to accomplish that.