I beg to move, That this House
disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.
With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 18, 19 and the Government motion to disagree thereto, 20 and amendment (a) and the Government motion to disagree thereto, 21 to 24, 25 and amendments (a) and (b) and Government motion to disagree thereto, 26 and Government motion to disagree thereto and Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu, 27, 28 and Government amendments (a) and (b) thereto, 29 to 37, 38 and Government motion to disagree thereto and Government amendments (a) to (e) to the words so restored, 39 and Government motion to disagree thereto and Government amendment (a) to the words so restored, 40, 41 and Government motion to disagree thereto, 42 and Government motion to disagree thereto, 43 and 44 and Government motion to disagree thereto.
We are about to debate an issue that is of great concern to many Members across the House. I hope that hon. Members will find it helpful if I take a little time—not too much, as many Members will want to speak—to set out our position. We need to address a number of specific issues on accommodation centres.
The Lords amendment provides that an accommodation centre shall be established only when the Secretary of State is satisfied that the proposed location is suitable to the needs of the persons to be accommodated therein. Clearly, great attention has been focused on accommodation centres. I shall set out what we are hoping to achieve with the trial of accommodation centres.
First and foremost, we all share the view that our asylum system must be fast, effective, efficient and fair. We believe that that can be achieved only if asylum seekers know what is expected of them, so we must keep in close contact with them and they with us. Secondly, we need to do that in a way that reduces pressure in the system and on local services. That is another important principle underlying our decision to trial accommodation centres, and why we wanted to provide facilities on site as part of the new centres.
The accommodation centre trial is necessary to enable us to test the extent to which such centres can contribute to a more efficient management of the asylum process, while taking pressure off hard-pressed local services, particularly in the south-east and our main dispersal areas. I hope that Members will agree that the need for the trial is both clear and increasingly urgent. It is an essential part of our policy on asylum.
In the first instance, so that the trial could be effective, we decided to develop large out-of-town facilities that could be self-contained, thus allowing on-site provision of services to be thoroughly tested. In choosing sites, we look principally to previously Government-owned land. We are committed to developing trial centres in such locations, and for that reason we are vigorously pursuing our proposals for centres with 750 places at Bicester and the former RAF Newton.
Xthere is no incentive on the face of the Bill to provide the Government with the opportunity to trial different types of accommodation centre"—[Hansard, House of Lords, 9 October 2002; Vol. 639, c. 315.]
We have listened carefully to what has been said in both Houses and by others, and we have accepted the need for the trial to include different models. Indeed, the Home Secretary and I made exactly that point—not recently in response to the House of Lords debate, but more than a month ago to the Select Committee on Home Affairs.
I can announce today, as testimony to that commitment, that at least one of the trial centres will be smaller, for single men only. That will allow us to test the alternative approach against the larger centres to which I have referred. It may be that such a centre, because of its smaller size, can be in or on the edge of an urban area. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will welcome that, as well as organisations such as the Refugee Council.
My hon. Friend anticipates my next point. I have met representatives of the Refugee Council, who gave a presentation on their core-and-cluster model. I spoke to the general secretary again today.
I have given a commitment, in saying that we want to go on working with the Refugee Council on its alternative cluster-based proposal. I think that it has some interesting possibilities. There are issues on which we do not currently agree, but both sides are committed to trying to resolve them. I enter the negotiations in that genuine spirit.
I can also announce today that I have decided not to pursue our proposal for a centre at Throckmorton airfield as part of the trial. Although I consider the site itself to be suitable, we have not been able to settle satisfactorily the necessary land acquisition arrangements that would allow it to be developed within an acceptable time for the purposes of the trial. That issue needs to be evaluated urgently. I will make announcements on potential new sites in due course.
I hope that I will be able to speak later, but it would be wrong for me not to express my gratitude to the Minister at this point. A huge sense of relief will sweep through the community of Throckmorton, which has already borne a great deal for the rest of us. May I invite the Minister also to acknowledge what the Home Secretary was generous enough to acknowledge—that the campaign waged by the people of Throckmorton was strictly anti-racist, and not at all motivated by nimbyism?
I risk introducing a note of discord but my conversations with the elected leaders and representatives of people at Throckmorton were cordial, courteous and in no way racist.
I hope that the three elements of my announcement today will convince hon. Members that there is scope for flexibility in the trial—the Home Secretary and I have been committed to that for some time—that I am serious about having flexibility in the models that we trial, and that there is scope within the arrangements that are in place at the moment to incorporate flexibility.
I thank the Minister for showing flexibility in looking at the form of future accommodation centres, but now that she is prepared to look at smaller centres near urban areas, which have been urged upon her by everyone with an interest in the proper handling of asylum applications and by a large number of other interests across the political spectrum, will she set aside the proposal to proceed with the large accommodation centres in isolated rural areas, which so far as I am aware would still attract universal condemnation? Why spend all that money on the large rural camps when she is prepared to contemplate testing the kind of accommodation centre that everyone has been urging upon the Government for the past six months?
I am sorry but I cannot go as far as the right hon. and learned Gentleman would like me to go in that regard. I have made it clear that we want the trial to include a mixture, a range of models. The advantage of having a site for one classification of person—for example, for single people—is that the range of facilities that we would need to provide on that site would arguably be less than if we had a large mixture of people, particularly if we included families. That is part of the reason why we can contemplate a smaller site. The range of services that will need to be provided on that site will not be as great as that for other types of asylum seekers. Because I want to retain a mixture and because we are in the process of a planning inquiry on those two other sites, I cannot give him the assurance that he wants but I hope that other hon. Members will take comfort from the fact that we want it to be a genuine trial and are looking to have a mixture of models in our arrangements.
I cannot give the exact size, but I would have thought that the site would accommodate about 400 people, as opposed to 750 people at the other sites. I would not want to be held exactly to that.
The Throckmorton announcement will be welcomed but I would like to push the Minister. Has she concluded that there should be a smaller centre or is she just thinking about it? Her colleagues in the Lords were thinking about it and we had hoped that by now the Government would have said that there would be one. Does she believe that all centres should be able to meet the test in amendment No. 17, and do the two original sites that have been publicly announced meet the appropriate location test in the judgment of the Secretary of State?
I will deal with the latter point in talking about the amendment. On the first point, as I have announced, subject to the practicalities of real life—of finding a site and all that—we will have a smaller centre and that will be one of the models in the trial.
The amendment would open up scope for challenge to the location of an accommodation centre in all sorts of ways and from all sorts of sources, particularly by way of judicial review, so we cannot accept it. It would create the possibility of delay and uncertainty before and after planning consent has been secured, and, indeed, throughout the entire life of each centre. The Government have made it clear that we will abide by the planning process, and by the outcome of any public inquiry. That is both fair and democratic, but we do not believe that a further avenue should be created. Such an avenue might be exploited by those who seek to avoid the creation of an accommodation centre in their area, or the provision of support in such a centre.
When introducing Lords amendment No. 17 in the other place, the Opposition made it clear that their resistance to siting accommodation centres related to rural areas. They welcomed the concept of centres and our trialling of such an approach—perhaps not surprisingly, since their previous policy was to detain all asylum seekers in secure conditions. However, for the reasons that I have outlined, I hope that the House agrees that the amendment is unnecessary.
I am delighted by the decision on Throckmorton, and my constituents—particularly those living in Pershore, which is two or three miles from the proposed site—will be especially delighted. However, is the Minister now saying that the needs of asylum seekers who will be residents of such centres should not be taken into account? If those needs should be taken into account, surely the whole matter should be subject to judicial review. What is the point, therefore, in keeping the provision off the statute book?
The amendment refers to suitability and, as the hon. Gentleman makes clear, tries to link it to need. In terms of what is provided within the centre, we are clearly very concerned about meeting asylum seekers' needs, and ensuring that, in doing so, we can progress claims in the best and fastest possible way. However, that point does not relate to the question of suitability of location, which is the aspect of the amendment that I do not want to accept.
I turn to length of stay and Lords amendments Nos. 19, 25 and 26. Under the terms of Lords amendment No. 19, a person could be supported in an accommodation centre for a maximum of four months only, unless there were Xexceptional circumstances". I am sure that there are no differences among Members—certainly not among Government Members—on the primary objective of establishing a fair and fast asylum process. We have made it clear throughout the Bill's passage that we are committed to faster processing, which will form a key part of the evaluation of accommodation centres. We want asylum seekers to be supported in an accommodation centre throughout the process of initial decision and subsequent appeal, but at this stage we do not believe it sensible to include in the Bill a four-month time limit.
Since coming to power in 1997, we have made significant progress in processing: about 70 per cent. of initial decisions in new applications are now made within two months. However, we must remember that existing statutory limits for appeal rights—which take into account practice directions issued by the chief adjudicator, irrespective of Government—would make a total limit of four months, including the appeal process, impossible to achieve in a manner fair to the applicant. At the moment, a substantive appeal hearing before an adjudicator will not be given less than seven weeks from the date of receipt of an appeal in respect of standard track cases. If we accepted a four-month time limit at this stage, we would run the risk of allowing all those seeking leave to appeal to the tribunal to leave the accommodation centre. Most such cases would involve those whose claim had been refused and where the decision was upheld by an adjudicator. They are precisely the people with most to gain by leaving the centre, with its tighter contact management arrangements.
We are all committed to the same principle of speedy decision making and we all agree that it is in nobody's interest for asylum seekers to spend long periods waiting for their claims to be determined. However, I wish to make it clear that I do not accept the argument that the accommodation centres will be bad places in which to be supported: they will not.
In the light of the amendment made in the other place, and discussion about the issue, we have, as hon. Members will know, brought forward a revision that gives a clear indication of our intentions and provides the assurances that are being sought. Our amendment will mean that a resident will remain in an accommodation centre for a maximum of six months, unless in the particular circumstances of the case the Home Secretary decides that it is appropriate that the person should remain for a short time longer. If the Home Secretary does decide that, it will be for a maximum of a further three months.
We have also provided for an order, which will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, to be made allowing Parliament to shorten—only shorten—either or both of the six-month and additional three-month periods. That is a clear indication that we are not just saying that we will accept that those limits are as good as it gets. What that says is that we will continue to do all we can to drive down processing times in the way that we have done since 1997 to secure a speedy, fair and credible system that commands people's confidence.
The amendment made in the other place recognises that there will be exceptions, and our amendment follows that logic. There will be cases, for example, in which somebody is due to receive a determination shortly after the six-month time limit and it would make sense to require the person to remain for that short period beyond six months rather than to subject them—and the process—to upheaval. Of course, the intention will be to complete as many cases as possible, end to end, within the initial six months in the accommodation centre. However, some cases are particularly complex and documentation for them needs to be obtained from overseas or from other organisations. In other cases, the asylum seekers themselves may have delayed the process. In those instances, it is sensible to ensure that we have the capacity to require the applicant to remain for a short while longer in the accommodation centre.
Furthermore, our amendment ensures that somebody may remain in an accommodation centre beyond the six-month period if they want to. Whatever views some appear to have about accommodation centres, our aim is to make them supportive environments where people will feel secure and where their needs will be met. It would make no sense to require someone to leave when they wished to stay.
The remaining amendments with which we are disagreeing—Lords amendments Nos. 41, 42 and 44—are consequential.
The Minister's announcement about time limits will be widely welcomed. Her announcement that the Government are willing to contemplate bringing the time limits down is also welcome. I am grateful that the Liberal Democrats' suggestions that we cannot reach our intended destination immediately, and that exceptions to the best practice should be allowed—such as permitting extensions to stays of a few more months—have been accepted, after passing between the Chambers. Am I right in thinking that the final package will apply to all people in accommodation centres, because that is slightly different from the original Government acceptance, which applied to families only? If that is the case, we will be entirely satisfied with the Government's proposal and will not push our four-month proposal this afternoon.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention. As he has already deduced from the amendments, I confirm that the new amendment composites various suggestions, in that it applies to any resident of the accommodation centre, not just families with children. In the spirit of the progress that we have already made in reducing the time taken to deal with claims, I hope that the House will accept the Government's amendments.
The amendments on length of stay in accommodation centres are also relevant to some of the concerns that hon. Members have about education provision on site. I recognise that this is a key issue for many hon. Members. I share the position on which they base their views and from which their concerns arise—that, although we need to establish a good asylum system, the main priority is the best interests of the child.
The amendments accepted in the Lords have deleted the provisions in the Bill ensuring on-site education. Amendment (a) tabled by the Liberal Democrats to Lords amendment No. 20 would allow the local education authority to choose whether the education should take place in the accommodation centre or local schools. I am grateful to Liberal Democrat Members for their kindness in showing the amendment to me and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary before the debate, but there is a problem with its drafting. As drafted, amendment (a) would make the LEA the arbiter of whether a child could be placed with his or her family in an accommodation centre. That is something that the Government cannot entertain.
I hope that the debate about education issues and the impact on children of being educated in an accommodation centre for a period of time can be based on the reality of what happens to some children now and on an understanding of some of the advantages that will arise from the proposed arrangements. I therefore ask that hon. Members do not think in simple ideological or dogmatic terms. I do not mean to be pejorative, as I know that hon. Members hold very strong views on these matters, but thinking about the best interests of the children involved means that we must think about the reality of the experience faced by many asylum-seeking children, both before their arrival in this country and, sadly, afterwards.
The reality is that not all is rosy for those children in terms of their integration in schools in the dispersal system. We intend to provide those who are given permission to stay here with education geared to their needs. Because that education will be provided in a centre, there is the potential that it will give the children a period of stability and be to their positive advantage. I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind, for this debate at least.
Will my hon. Friend give the name of one organisation working with children or refugees that has supported the Government's proposals not to allow asylum-seeker children to go to mainstream schools?
I shall shortly cite the findings of a report from one of the major children's organisations in respect of these matters, but my hon. Friend raises an important point. There is confusion when it comes to distinguishing those children who are refugees—who have been given permission to stay and whose families' claim to be fleeing persecution has been decided in the affirmative—from those children whose claims are still being assessed. Children in the latter category are seeking asylum but have not been granted it. Most of them will not be granted asylum and—as was made clear in the previous debate—they will return within six months to the country from which they have come. We are therefore talking about two categories of children. Focusing on the experience of the children in the two groups is essential if we are to evaluate the current system and the potential advantages of what is being proposed.
I have a certain amount of difficulty in understanding how the experience of a child could be improved by putting that child in an accommodation centre, however short the stay might be, rather than a mainstream school. However, I was most concerned when my hon. Friend said that the experience of asylum-seeking children has not been entirely rosy. Is she implying that the reception given to those children by the teachers and pupils in our schools is not rosy? If so, what work is she doing with the Department for Education and Skills to ensure that all teachers make it abundantly clear to all indigenous pupils that asylum-seeker children should be welcomed?
No, I am not implying that at all. Schools and teachers make considerable efforts, often in very difficult circumstances. However, I will deal in a moment with the points that my hon. Friend wants me to address in terms of some of the problems in the current system.
I have an asylum unit in my constituency and I visited a number of the schools there both last week and yesterday. They are coping, although with difficulty, and the children are settling in. However, the teachers and head teachers told me that if the throughput of asylum seekers continues as the Government want, so that decisions are made rapidly, primary schools in particular will have difficulties if children enter and then leave after some months, to be replaced by others speaking different languages. It is asking a lot of those small junior schools to cope with such disruption.
I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution, which dealt with some of the implications for schools and children here. It therefore has a direct bearing on asylum-seeking children as well, and we should be concerned about some of these issues.
No, I should like to make some progress, if my hon. Friend will forgive me.
I would like hon. Members to understand what can happen to asylum-seeking children when they enter the dispersed system. They often undergo an induction process if they come through Dover. Assessing them takes several days—it can take up to a week. Arrangements for dispersal can take some time and they may be in emergency accommodation until that can be arranged. During that time, the children receive no education. There is then the difficulty, in many parts of the country, of finding a place for the child to go. Those three stages can mean that a considerable period elapses between a child entering the country and going to school. That is one impact.
Some children have difficulty in integrating in the first instance. Over the summer, I talked to several asylum-seeking families and went to the accommodation where they were staying. I heard several stories from parents and children about the difficulties that they were still experiencing three or four months on. A young Ethiopian boy is still taunted every day on his way to school. He has one friend in school, another asylum-seeking child. I do not say that that is the norm, but it is not uncommon. The pressures that the current system is creating in some of our most hard-pressed communities means that it is sometimes difficult for the resident population to be as accepting of asylum-seeking families, and for resident children to be as accepting of asylum-seeking children, as we would like them to be.
I want to refer to a report published by Save the Children.
I want to finish my point; it is an important one.
In September, Save the Children reported on some work that it had undertaken in Glasgow, with examples of the experiences of young asylum seekers in the city. The main findings of the report rightly referred to school being the Xhighlight" in the lives of many young asylum seekers. However, the report detailed the views of children who had been in Glasgow for many, many months and so were fully integrated.
The report dealt with other key issues. It included quotes from children about racial abuse, violence and bullying. The detail of the report showed, tellingly, that to help children to integrate, schools in Glasgow had to provide separate classes for them during the first few weeks of their attendance. Schools then had to work to manage the movement of each child into mainstream classes. That was because the experience of many of those children was traumatic. Their journey to England and their experience when they first arrived created uncertainty. Many children do not speak English sufficiently well to be able to go straight away into a class with other children and make the most of the education that is on offer.
Some people would have us believe that the experience of school is unproblematic and the best possible for children in terms of integration. However, for some children—perhaps for many—that experience is not all that it should be.
What the Minister described is the norm for many children who are already settled in the United Kingdom. That is what happens every day. It is up to the schools to overcome the problems. Can the hon. Lady give the House a shred of empirical evidence that demonstrates that segregation promotes integration?
The hon. Gentleman's labelling of the experience in an accommodation centre as segregation is unnecessarily pejorative. It is not segregation; all the children will be educated together in the accommodation centre. For children who are then given permission to stay, that will provide a stable and rich educational environment that relates to their greatest needs, especially for English language acquisition, in a way that an inner-city primary school could not hope to achieve.
With regret, no; I want to explain what accommodation centres can offer.
Accommodation centres can offer a safe protective environment when people first arrive in the UK. They can offer a sound and decent preparation for mainstream schooling, especially in English. They will offer a high standard of education that will be inspected by Ofsted and will offer the national curriculum.
I draw the attention of Members to the remarks of the bishop-elect of Birmingham, Bishop Sentamu, in a recent radio interview. He said:
XWhat is important when you come to a country where you don't speak the language is to learn English, be able to learn properly and be taught, instead of some places"—
I have been generous in taking interventions, so I will finish the quotation.
The bishop said:
XWhat is important when you come to a country where you don't speak their language is to learn English, be able to learn properly and to be taught instead of some places where you may actually become a victim of other people because they don't understand you. I'd rather there was a caring place than having these refugees who can't speak English suddenly being pushed into the community."
I am not asking hon. Members to assume that the advantages of accommodation centres necessarily meet the needs of every asylum-seeking family or individual. Clearly, most people will still be in the dispersal system. We are talking about a trial involving a maximum of 3,000 people. It seems to me important, however, that we recognise some of the issues with which people arrive in this country, and that there is potential for a different way of meeting and dealing with those needs for us to evaluate.
Is my hon. Friend aware that during the difficult times that Dover experienced when we were receiving more asylum seekers and asylum-seeking children than we could cope with, local head teachers gathered together and approached me to ask whether a central school could be provided so that interpreting, special needs services and all the other facilities did not have to be provided on three, four, five or six sites?
My hon. Friend is very well aware as a result of the significant numbers of asylum-seeking families in his constituency of the pressures that schools and communities can experience. He is right to draw our attention to the experience of teachers and schools in his area because it is germane to the debate.
I want to make more progress as I am very aware that other hon. Members want to speak. I will give way in a moment.
My hon. Friend has outlined some of the pressures and issues and, of course, the UK is not alone in facing them. In Denmark, children are educated in accommodation centres rather than in schools. In Spain, the Madrid regional government is introducing an initiative, which will begin early next year, under which liaison centres will be established for migrant children who arrive during an academic year and whose Spanish is not very good. That is not segregation or stigmatisation; it is not putting children's needs second. Crucially, it will not prevent the integration of those who are allowed to stay. Indeed, as I have argued, it will provide a very strong base for that integration to be planned and managed much more comprehensively and in a way that meets the needs of families.
No, I will not give way on that point.
We are not being inflexible either. The Government amendment makes it clear that, where special circumstances call for provision that can only or best be arranged by the local education authority, the education provider can recommend that to the LEA. That has always been our intention, and we have now made that clear in the Bill.
I believe that the Liberal Democrats' amendment is designed to leave the choice of whether education is provided on site or in the accommodation centre to the LEA. However, as drafted, it would mean that the LEA would allow a family to stay in an accommodation centre only if it felt that it had the capacity to educate the family's children in a maintained school or an alternative educational establishment. Clearly, we cannot accept that amendment because if the LEA decided not to bid to provide the education at a centre and believed that it did not have the capacity to educate the child at a maintained school, we could still not be able to place the child in a centre. The family would need to be supported and we would simply have to support them in a dispersal area where the LEA would have to provide education even if it did not believe that it had the capacity to do so.
I am sure that that is not the intention behind the amendment, but its effect could contradict the very purpose of an accommodation centre. Furthermore, effectively, it would allow an LEA to decide that an asylum-seeking family with children of school age should not reside in that area because the LEA had deemed that it did not have the capacity to educate those children. I hope that hon. Members will understand that that cannot be accepted.
I said in my letter to the Home Secretary that if there were drafting issues, we would be happy to discuss them, because this is an important matter. The Minister will understand that the amendment is designed to reflect the concern of her colleagues in local government, which we share, that it should be for the LEA to decide whether—to pick up the point made by Mr. Prosser—it has capacity in its existing schools, or whether some other provision is needed. What is important is that the LEA has that choice, and that if something else is needed it retains responsibility—even if the provision is on-site in the accommodation centre.
The Minister understands the point of our proposal. We are happy to discuss the drafting of the amendment, but I hope that she is sympathetic to the principle that the LEA should take the lead responsibility. My understanding of discussions taking place elsewhere is that that point is being discussed. The Government need to move their position to accept that the LEA is the right body to make the first choice.
I do not think that that is possible within the arrangements that we will have to undertake to establish accommodation centres. Within that procurement process, it will not be logistically possible to ensure that an LEA has lead responsibility. However, there are several ways in which the role of the local authority can be assured.
The Bill provides the opportunity for a local authority, which can include the LEA, to bid to provide an accommodation centre in its entirety. Secondly, the local authority, either as the LEA or as part of an LEA consortium—perhaps through the Local Government Association—could bid for the education provided within a particular centre. Thirdly, it is open to the local authority to help to develop the detailed proposals for the education within a particular centre—that is happening at the two sites currently under discussion. Fourthly, in any case LEAs have an advisory role in relation to all education provision.
Let me point out that, even in our maintained system, it is the schools that provide the education. The schools run themselves—the LEA is not the direct provider. The Liberal Democrats need to take that into account when thinking about what they are trying to achieve. I want LEAs to be involved—I would welcome their involvement—and I have outlined the several ways in which, to a greater or a lesser extent, including total provision, they can be involved. I hope that those possibilities satisfy the Liberal Democrats.
The Minister misses an essential point that many Labour Back Benchers have made, which is that currently an LEA does not have the option of saying that, if it has the capacity, it will educate all the children in mainstream schools. That strikes me as a point that the Government could concede without losing face on any of the other issues, because that is already the duty of an LEA. It is precisely the same duty as an LEA would have if, for example, a group of Romanian itinerants entered its area. The LEA would have a duty to educate the children and it would have the choice of either educating them on the site, if that is what is wanted, or placing the children, or some of them, in local schools. That is a perfectly legitimate and reasonable halfway house, and better than saying that the only place in which the children we are talking about can be educated is in the camps.
The hon. Gentleman uses the pejorative term Xcamps" to support his position. His proposals on LEAs having the right to say that they will provide for the children's education if they have the capacity in maintained schools go against the essential feature of accommodation centres, which is on-site provision. Therefore, what he wants cannot be achieved. However, we can achieve the involvement of LEAs in the ways that I outlined.
We are quite willing to see the local education authorities provide education in the accommodation centres—for instance, if they are part of a wider local authority bid. We will add a further safeguard, as I said, to ensure that together with the bidders for accommodation centres, we will endeavour to engage in each case with the local education authorities so that they are able to put themselves forward as a subcontractor, perhaps in a consortium with other LEAs, or as bodies with specialist experience, if they wish.
As I understand it, the central argument in the case for accommodation centres is to maintain close contact between those asylum seekers and the Home Office while a decision is being made. In what way does educating the children of asylum seekers at local schools undermine that central purpose of the accommodation centre?
The logistics of trying to provide for education in schools for a significant number of families in a particular place, who would have to travel out to different schools, make for very complicated arrangements and cut across the fundamental objective that we are trying to achieve in the accommodation centres—close contact with people and the provision of services on-site, so that they do not impact on local schools in the way that we have seen in many areas.
The Minister alluded a little earlier to the visits that she had made in the past weeks and months and her conversations with asylum-seeking families. In her discussions with the asylum-seeking parents of school-age children, did the parents express views about whether or not, in their first few weeks or months of settling in this country, they would like their children to be educated in units dedicated to the particular needs of their children, or in mainstream schools?
I did not specifically ask the parents that question, but I got a strong sense, as I tried to convey to the House, that for some of those families, their experience day after day of seeing their children unhappy in local schools was profoundly difficult for them.
I want hon. Members to understand that I share the spirit of what they are trying to achieve. I expect LEAs to be well placed to provide the service at the accommodation centre, and I very much hope that they will want to work with us and the contractors in that way. However, I do not want to rule out the possibility of other bidders putting forward their proposals.
On legal advice and amendment No. 28—
Is the hon. Lady conscious that we have just over two hours for this debate? She has spoken for nearly an hour, which means that there is only an hour for the whole of the rest of the House to contribute. I hope that she is not seeking to filibuster out any opportunity for colleagues to contribute to such an important debate.
It is a question of being damned if I do and damned if I don't. I have tried to be generous with hon. Members while I am speaking, to give them the opportunity to scrutinise what I am saying directly and to ask me questions. Indeed, I have had to decline many hon. Members whose questions I would have liked to accept. If hon. Members tot up the time that I have spoken and the time that I have taken interventions, I do not think that they will find that I can be accused of filibustering.
I will try to deal quickly with the next issue, as I hope that we have been able to meet the concerns about it. I refer to amendment No. 28 and access to legal advice. The amendment in another place provides for the Secretary of State to arrange for the provision of facilities in an accommodation centre for the use of a person in providing legal advice to a resident of the centre, and obliges the Secretary of State to provide a resident with access to legal advice from suitably qualified advisers.
During the Bill's passage, debates have focused sharply on access to early legal advice as an important part of a swift and fair initial decision-making system that would reduce the scope for delay, and we have taken that on board. To confirm and deliver that commitment we have brought forward an amendment that requires the Secretary of State to take reasonable steps to ensure that a resident has an opportunity to obtain legal advice before the initial substantive interview. That clearly addresses the points made by the noble Earl Russell in another place when the amendment was introduced and, as I said, focuses clearly on the initial stage.
Let me explain what we mean by reasonable steps. We all agree that we want to cut out opportunities for delay, so we need to ensure that an amendment does not inadvertently allow a person to disrupt the system by failing to turn up for an interview, which the amendment introduced in the other place would have done.
What we have introduced makes our obligations clear. The Secretary of State must take reasonable steps to ensure that a resident has an opportunity to obtain legal advice. We will, for example, make sure that people are informed in reasonable time of the date of their asylum interview and how they should, if they wish to do so, access legal advice. We are all agreed about the quality of the legal advice that must be guaranteed. All solicitors and advice agencies holding contracts with the Legal Services Commission are checked.
We do not believe that there is any advantage in references to Xsuitably qualified" or Xcompetent" in the Bill. Again, we are concerned that such references could open up the possibility of unnecessary challenge and delay. I hope that the Government amendment deals with the concerns raised and that it will be accepted.
Accommodation centres have received tremendous attention and I acknowledge the strong principles that are the source of the concerns of many hon. Members. Our rationale for the centres is clear—fast processing, and good facilities, relieving the pressure on local services. We may not have been able to accommodate all hon. Members' concerns, but I hope that they will acknowledge that my responses today on a variety of matters show that we have listened to those concerns and, where we have felt able, tried to meet them. Different models of centre will feature in the trial, there will be a time limit in the Bill to provide the incentive that we want to speed up the process, good quality education will be delivered and there will be access to legal advice.
I begin by accepting what the Minister said towards the end of her remarks. There is no doubt that the Government have listened to much of what was said in the other place, and we are grateful for that.
In essence, the debate on accommodation centres springs from two quite different visions. One is the Opposition's, which the Home Secretary may originally have entertained, and the other is that which the Government happened upon, presumably as they discussed the issues with their officials. Our vision was of small, one-stop-shop centres in urban areas, each devoted to handling the cases of asylum seekers from a particular area, country or region. At each would be present the relevant translators, lawyers and decision makers for those people, who would become expert in the affairs of the area or region rather than dealing with Somalia at 9.15 am and Bosnia at 10 am in a dizzying sequence as at present, as well as the medics to provide such evidence as was necessary and the adjudicators—effectively the judges holding the appeals. That would allow everything to be done on site and at a speed wholly different from that to which we have alas had to become accustomed.
Like me, the Minister has talked to asylum seekers in centres throughout the kingdom and will have come across cases in which individuals have two or three different Home Office records in slightly different names. In such cases, different decisions are sometimes made in relation to two or three different sets of records applying to the same person. We have also met people with lawyers based 200 miles away whom they do not meet until the appeal; people in respect of whom decisions are made on the basis of inadequate documentation; and people who find that the adjudicator places no faith in the decisions made by the decision maker. That can happen because the decision maker often does not know much about the subject of the decision—not because he or she is unworthy but because he or she will have been called upon to make decisions about six different countries in the space of a day.
Those are the real-life problems of our current asylum system. Our idea was to establish accommodation centres that dealt with them all at once. The Government may have begun with a similar idea, but they moved away to the idea of establishing huge accommodation centres with only very partial delivery of the various facilities that are necessary to achieve rapid processing. The intention of the Lords amendments was to move the Government from one vision to the other—from their vision to ours. That endeavour was shared in great part with Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, to whom I pay tribute. It was also shared with Cross Benchers and some Bishops and Law Lords, and on several occasions with notable and distinguished Labour peers who gave support by their absence or by their presence in voting with us.
The Government have come a good way, for which I am grateful. The Bill is not perfect on lawyers, but we accept that it is the best that we can persuade the Government to provide. In my view, the six-month/nine-month rule, if I can describe it in that fashion, provides for a time limit that is vastly too long, but we accept it as the best that the Government are willing to offer. I am grateful that the Minister gestured towards reducing it further.
It is hugely in the Government's interests to move in the directions in which we sought to make them move. We sought to give the Secretary of State—in this case, the Home Secretary—power against his own officialdom. By forcing matters legislatively, he has not wholly taken that on board, but he has conceded a six-month/nine-month time limit, after arguing for many months that no time limit could conceivably be administered. We accept that in the spirit of good grace with which it is offered.
There will be further discussion later about education. Listening to the to-ing and fro-ing in the Chamber, I remain as I have always been on the matter—in two minds. One thing about which I am absolutely clear is that, if the accommodation centres were as quick in processing as they would be if our vision were implemented, and took only six weeks to fulfil their task, there would be no discussion. Nobody in the House would claim that it makes sense to argue strenuously about whether a child who has just arrived in the country and may go home six weeks later should have separate or a mainstream education. Either course of action could be adopted and a separate education might make perfectly good sense. We are all a bit queasy—indeed, some of us are more than a bit queasy—about the idea of children being educated separately for months or years. At some time scale or other, the idea becomes utterly intolerable. I suspect that, if the Government really move towards quick processing, that problem will disappear.
Our main concern, however, remains with Lords amendment No. 17 and the Government motion to disagree thereto. That is the one matter on which we remain wholly apart. Before I describe the Government's position and point out what I think is a serious defect in ministerial logic, I should like to pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Clarke and my hon. Friend Tony Baldry, who are in their places, my hon. Friend Mr. Luff, who has rightly shot off to appear on the BBC to announce his victory for his constituents in Throckmorton, and my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh, who has played a notable part in our proceedings. They have acted not only in the interests of their constituents but with considerable force and dignity.
I also pay tribute to many people who have nothing to do with the Conservative party who have helped to argue the case against large rural centres. For example, a letter was sent on
The organisations said that they believed that such centres could cause serious problems both for those accommodated in them and for local residents. We believe that neither fast processing nor harmony—or indeed any desirable result—is likely in vast rural centres. We may be wrong. We are more than fallible: we are not only human beings but politicians. We may well have made an error. Have the Lords sought through amendment No. 17 to force on the Government the truth of our view? By no means.
The Minister rightly read out the amendment. Let me remind hon. Members of its terms. Their lordships asked that
XAn accommodation centre shall be established only when the Secretary of State is satisfied that the proposed location is suitable to the needs of the persons to be accommodated therein."
The Minister presented some strong and persuasive arguments. However, when she considered the amendment, she was neither strong nor persuasive. How can the Home Secretary reject the idea that, before establishing an accommodation centre, he should be satisfied that it is
Xsuitable to the needs of the persons to be accommodated therein"?
Do the Home Secretary and the Minister seriously maintain that they propose to establish accommodation centres, which, in their considered opinion, are not suitable? Surely that is not the Government's policy.
The Minister cited judicial review as the main reason for her objection. Would judicial review judge whether the Home Secretary had found a suitable place? No; that is not its role. Judicial review would establish whether the location was sufficiently close to suitability to lead the Home Secretary and the Minister, were they reasonable people, to judge it suitable. The Minister argued—I presume seriously and not as a joke—that she resisted the Lords amendment on the ground that she believes that she will be open to judicial review because she intends, on the Home Secretary's behalf, to establish not only unsuitable centres but centres that could not be deemed suitable in the opinion of a reasonable person. That is not a serious argument.
I take it that we are dealing with Home Office lawyers' earnest desire to protect Ministers—their perfectly proper job—by ensuring that there is no basis on which ministerial decisions can be challenged by judicial review. That is another example of the Government's trying to limit the scope of judicial review. Their objection is not well founded in logic and cannot be founded on rational policy. It cannot be Government policy to establish centres that no reasonable person could regard as suitable. That approach is founded on a profound aversion to the intervention of the judiciary in the affairs of the Executive, and is not a tolerable policy for the Government to adopt. I shall, therefore, be asking my hon. Friends to vote in favour of the Lords amendments by doing what is open to us in the House, namely disagreeing with the Government' s motion to disagree.
Since the Government have made so much progress towards consensus by means of so many helpful concessions—not just in this section but throughout the Bill; we welcome, for example, the huge change in what was previously a ghastly Guy Fawkes clause at the end of the Bill—I profoundly hope that we shall not see this legislation getting into trouble in the Lords purely on the basis of an indefensible proposition advanced for no better reason than to limit the scope for judicial action.
I want to concentrate on Lords amendment No. 20, because it is identical to one that I tabled on Report that was never debated or voted on because of timetabling problems.
Before that, however, I want to make one or two more general comments about accommodation centres. We are being asked to set up mainly large accommodation centres, with perhaps one smaller one in an urban area. The immigration and nationality directorate of the Home Office will set the centres up, employ teachers, and arrange for legal advice, health care and leisure facilities in them.
Suppose an organisation outside government—a local authority, a school or a hospital—routinely failed to answer letters for months or years, even letters from MPs; routinely lost clients' vital papers; experienced major delays in decision making; and, even when decisions were made, in many cases failed to send out information about the decisions or to enforce them, particularly the negative ones. If such an organisation came to us and said, XPlease can we have millions to spend on an experiment?", would we say, XActually, we remember the last experiment you sold to us. It cost millions as well, and was to do with vouchers of some sort. Of course, you now have a new chief executive who has scrapped the vouchers, so maybe we will think about it."? We would not dream of going down that road. We would say to that organisation, XSort yourselves out."
If we put a fraction of the effort that is going into the plans for accommodation centres into making the system work for the majority of the people who are going to continue in the National Asylum Support Service dispersal system for some time, we would achieve far more than we will ever do by going down that road.
I think we will be back in three or four years' time contemplating another expensive mess. The Minister spoke of the difficulties of the present system, particularly in relation to education and housing, but we set that system up and it will continue for some time. We have to get it sorted out and make it work. We are in danger of being distracted into putting a huge effort into something that is of far less importance than getting decisions made properly and getting them enforced when they need to be.
On Lords amendment No. 20, the letter we have all had from the Home Office on this matter says:
XThis is not a policy to discriminate or segregate."
I am sorry but I disagree; it is precisely that. We are dealing with a minority of asylum seekers because only 14 or 15 per cent. have children. However, we are being asked to agree that those families cause massive problems in communities throughout the country. The term Xswamping" was used about schools.
Like many colleagues, I know from my constituency experience that it is difficult for schools to cope with children who speak a variety of languages, who may not be adequately housed and who may move quickly from one place to another. As my hon. Friend Mr. Coleman said in an intervention, not a single organisation that we might expect to complain has done so. Teaching unions, individual teachers and parents are not saying that there is a problem and that asylum seeker children should be removed from schools. None of the children's organisations supports the proposals, and that ought to give us pause for serious thought.
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. The Minister said that children would gain a better grasp of the English language by being segregated. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that every method of modern language teaching indicates that target immersion in the language—immersing young people in English not only in the classroom but in the playground—is the best way to learn? This policy will drive children to speak their own language rather than to grasp English, which the Home Secretary clearly wants them to do since he said that he wants them to speak English at home.
I will come to that point later in my speech. Anybody who has tried to learn another language knows that one can sit in a classroom all day but one only starts to develop expertise by talking to people for whom that language is their native tongue. Last week, some of us met a group of asylum seeker children who came to the House. We talked to them about their experiences, and they made that point.
Schools say that they need support in these matters, and of course they do. Many schools have developed considerable expertise in dealing with asylum seeker children. I have spoken to head teachers in deprived inner-city areas who said that the presence of motivated asylum seeker children lifts their school rather than depressing it.
I share that experience. Schools that act properly and tolerantly find that asylum seeker children enhance their whole ethos. However, is it sensible and practical to supply the support mentioned by my hon. Friend at perhaps three or four sites in the same area?
It is a practice that has been going on for years in my local education authority and many others in inner cities. Many London schools have children from ethnic minorities, and a variety of languages are spoken, not only by asylum seeker children. Support is essential to the entire ethos and education system in such schools.
It is not unusual for primary schools in my constituency and, indeed, in the whole borough of Camden, to find that more than 57 languages were spoken among their pupils. I remember that when Labour was in opposition, groups of London-based colleagues argued for the retention and expansion of section 11 money, which gave precisely that kind of support to children whose mother tongue was not English.
That mirrors the experience of many of us.
I turn now to the six-month time limit, and I shall simply tell the House what the asylum seeker children we met said. When we asked them how they would have felt if they had been in a centre for six months and had then gone into a mainstream school, they said, XWhen you are a child, six months is a very long time." We should not forget that.
The other issue that has not been addressed is the question of what education is about. I am sure that it would be possible to recruit teachers to teach the national curriculum in an accommodation centre, but education is not just about what is in the curriculum. It is about the social interaction within a school and children learning to get on with one another. The children to whom I have talked who are not asylum seekers often make positive comments about what they, as well as the asylum seeker children, can gain from that interaction.
Does my hon. Friend agree that children from asylum seeker families who go to mainstream schools often help to educate the other children in the broadest way? They enable them to have a greater understanding of the situation. Mainstream education also helps to prevent the isolation of the families of those children by making others in the schools and outside aware of the difficulties that they may face.
My hon. Friend is right. The Minister talked about the difficulties that some of these children face in school, such as racial abuse and being abused as they walk to school. If children have such difficulties, we must sort those schools out, because they will have them whether they go to the schools immediately they come into the country or after three, four, five or six months in an accommodation centre. That problem needs sorting out in the school. I would not for one moment underestimate the hard work that is needed in schools to deal with a variety of children, but the positive experience described to us by many teachers convinces me.
Will my hon. Friend take it from me that what he has just described is exactly the experience of many schools in Bedford and Kempston? Schools are delighted to impose and develop policies of integration that are contrary to segregation, and they see the presence of a small number—that is what it is—of asylum seeker children as a great opportunity for the whole school. Those schools are asking not so much for support to teach asylum seeker children, because that is their job and what schools are for, but for support to assist the parents of those children to understand English better and to understand the purpose of education.
I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said, but I cannot help but feel, in my cynical way, that he is putting too positive a gloss on what Home Office Ministers are trying to do. I suspect that the Home Office does not want these children to put down roots in the local community. It does not want them to go to school with kids who live in the community, because if their parents were refused permission to stay in the United Kingdom, the Home Office would have to deal with appeals such as those my hon. Friend and I present on behalf of those parents, when we say, XThe children are now part of the local community and it would be a disgrace to remove them, so let them and their parents stay." Does my hon. Friend think I am too cynical?
I would never accuse my hon. Friend of being too cynical. He has hit on an important issue. The Minister did her best to paint a positive picture of how an accommodation centre could be run, and I would not attribute base motives to her. However, if we step back, the key debate about accommodation centres has never been about the best mechanism for supporting asylum seekers. It has been about process. The Home Office's approach is XWe want a process enabling us to make decisions quickly and to keep track of people". All the questions about support are something of a side issue.
I do not believe we can argue that segregation is in the best interests of the child. Others, I know, will have read the annual human rights report from the Foreign Office, published last month. According to a section about Roma,
The report is saying that children come here who have been victims of discrimination and segregation in other countries—and what are we going to do with them? The minute they arrive, we are going to segregate them again. How can we justify that?
I know that we have only about 40 minutes left. I shall try to be as speedy as the last two speakers.
First, let me echo the general point made strongly by Mr. Gerrard. The whole perspective is now wrong. I deal with a huge number of immigration and asylum cases, which constitute between a third and half of my constituency case load. It is the administration of the system that needs reform. Every week I deal with people whose papers have been lost or whose names have been confused—people who desperately need to leave because of an illness, a bereavement, a funeral or a marriage, but cannot break through the system. Others are trying to come here for similar reasons.
It would be better if we devoted only half our current effort, let alone the same amount, to improving the current system. Politicians may not be experienced in many respects, but the Chamber today contains all the experience anyone would ever require to recommend a system that would work for all our constituents. That is the priority; this is, in a sense, merely a distraction. It is a distraction for another reason: we are talking about a pilot scheme involving 3,000 of about 80,000 applicants a year. Notwithstanding what the Daily Mail and Daily Express would have us believe, some 50 per cent. of those applicants are granted the right to stay.
We have been trying to argue for intelligent solutions. The good news is that we have made some progress, as Mr. Letwin pointed out. Liberal Democrats know that locations that are miles from mixed communities and from services, in the middle of nowhere, are not right. That is why we supported the amendment that was passed in the Lords, and will vote today to retain the requirement for appropriate locations. We will happily vote with the Conservatives on that. If services are to be accessible, whether they are on site or brought in, they need to be in communities that are more likely to be accommodating.
The Government, sadly, have not responded. I heard and understand the Minister's argument, but I do not accept it. I am sorry that the proposals for centres in Nottinghamshire and the west midlands are still on the table, because we do not consider either of those locations appropriate.
Let me point out to the hon. Gentleman and Mr. Letwin that it is an implicit and indeed enforceable principle of administrative law that the Secretary of State must exercise his or her powers reasonably. The idea presented earlier that any Secretary of State could decide on the location while knowing, perversely, that it was unsuitable is nonsense.
Xshall be established only when the Secretary of State is satisfied that the proposed location is suitable to the needs of the persons to be accommodated therein."
That gives considerable latitude. It is not over-restrictive. If I had drafted it, I would not have come up with those words.
The decision on Throckmorton is welcome, but it has been reached on the ground of the difficulty of purchasing land, not on grounds of needs and suitability, so the Government took the decision on the wrong grounds.
To be fair, the reason for the decision was in part the lobbying and in part the difficulty in acquiring the land and in getting planning permission, which should have meant that the proposed centres were out of the frame. I know it is difficult. That is why some of us said that those reception centres should not be as big as planned. I have argued for reception centres but always contemplated that they would accommodate 200 or 250 people and that they would be in existence for a short time. As my hon. Friend Mr. Willis said, they should not be like a camp, but if they accommodated 750 or 1,000 people, they would be. They would not be personal but institutionalised. That is why we are sad that, although the Government have accepted a pilot scheme accommodating a smaller number, which is nearer to 250, they have still kept in the frame two reception centres accommodating a larger number.
I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying but is he not concerned that reception centres in any form become a target for racist attacks? The unhappy experience in Germany has been that a number of asylum seekers living in hostels have been brutally attacked. They were easily located because the fascists knew where to find them.
I understand that argument, which is a hugely important issue. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the trouble is that the dispersal system has hardly been friendly and welcoming. People have been dispersed literally around the country and have not been supported. For example, they have had no one from their own language group to offer support. We must try to find some alternative to the current arrangements. We have argued that appropriate locations for small centres should be found to accommodate people for a short time when they first arrive. In communities such as the hon. Gentleman's and mine, people are used to lots of people coming and going. I hope that the new centres will not be the focus of antagonism and racism, which is the worst risk in any of the provisions.
On Report, we argued to the Home Secretary—I moved an amendment—that we knew that we could not get from the present terribly long-winded system to the system we would like in two minutes, so a six-month maximum time limit, with an opt-out to give a bit of flexibility after three months, would be acceptable. That is what the Minister has come back with.
In the Lords, to try to get the maximum agreement between the parties, we moved towards the Conservatives' position and they towards ours and we proposed a four-month limit, which we hope is achievable—I share the view of the right hon. Member for West Dorset—but the proposal for a six-month limit is greatly welcome. It will set a discipline. I hope it will deal with many of the problems that we have all identified which keep cases going unnecessarily for far too long. The new proposal marks progress and we will not disagree with the Government.
Amendment No. 21, on which we will not force a vote, refers to the occasions when the Secretary of State gives himself power not to deal with a case. That proposal is important to many of us who believe that each case must be dealt with fairly. The amendment says:
Xprovision . . . may provide for an application not to be considered where the Secretary of State is not satisfied that the information provided is complete or accurate or that the applicant is co-operating".
We all know the danger of a case being rejected on a formality, not on its substance. Far too many cases fail not because someone does not have a good case but because they did not sign the form on the right page or whatever. I seek an assurance from the Minister that the terms of Lords amendment No. 21 do not fall below the standards that are being negotiated at a Europe-wide level in the proposal for a Council directive laying down minimum standards on the reception of applicants for asylum in member states. We must ensure that we have common standards that accept good cases on their merits and do not turn them down by some defective process.
The other issue on which an accommodation has been reached concerns legal advice. We cannot provide a proper service for asylum seekers without providing proper legal advice. That is why my hon. Friends and I will argue against the requirement to go abroad to make an appeal. That is a nonsense of a system—people cannot make a proper appeal from abroad. The Minister responded to the compromise position in Lords amendment No. 28, but my concern is that simply giving someone the name of the Refugee Legal Centre or the Immigration Advisory Service might be considered as discharging the obligation to provide legal advice. We need some reassurance that Xlegal advice" means real legal advice from competent individuals on site, so that people can ensure that their rights are not lost.
There are many other issues to which this huge group of complicated amendments gives rise, but I want to finish by discussing education—the issue that has proved the most controversial in this House and in the other place. As Ministers know, I said that, provided that the time involved was very short, I might be able to accept the idea of educating children on site. I am conscious that that was never the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough; indeed, many others in my party were unhappy that insufficient guarantees had been provided in that regard. In the Lords, we sought the guarantees that are effectively encapsulated in the relevant amendment before us. We argued that local education authorities should take the lead in education: that they should decide whether they have the capacity, and whether such schooling should be provided in an accommodation centre. Such a process could be subject to Ofsted, and to inspection by qualified teachers.
Those are the things that we all want for asylum seekers in schools in London—I am the chairman of governors in one such school—and elsewhere. We hoped to make sufficient progress on that issue in the Lords, but in the end we did not. That is why, when the Bishop of Portsmouth's amendment was moved, we decided that, if the Government cannot deliver, we would support the bishops and insist that such provision be offered by LEAs. We voted accordingly, as did some Labour and Conservative Back Benchers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough and I have worked on this issue. We have talked to our local government colleagues and, indirectly, to Labour local government colleagues. The hugely widespread view exists that education should be the responsibility of LEAs. For example, if Worcestershire LEA were unable to provide education on a particular site, it could call on the expertise of other LEAs. If such provision still could not be made, Worcester could enter into a contract with the private sector. It is LEAs who should have such responsibility. They know best—they are the ones on the ground.
I accept that Opposition amendments are always liable to the argument that their drafting is flawed, but I am saddened by the Minister's not accepting the principle behind ours. I am also saddened because, in the end, the Home Office position won against that of the Department for Education and Skills. The Home Office's view was that it must run matters and contract out the service. Our view is that the education service should run things and supply the service, wherever it may be. We will therefore press our amendment to a vote, and we hope that colleagues will support it. It would give LEAs the lead, and if it is defeated, we will support the position that we supported in the Lords. We will do so not because it reflects the common view of us all, but because, unless the Government can produce adequate guarantees, their proposal should not be accepted by this place or the other place.
In my constituency, we already have an induction centre, a removal centre and accommodation for more than 200 unaccompanied minors. So I am very aware of the impact—I have seen it and felt it—of placing such facilities in areas where they are not welcomed with open arms by all residents. Things are much better in Dover now, but we went through some difficult times. In the light of that background, I certainly welcome the Minister's announcement concerning flexibility in respect of the size—and, to some degree, the location—of accommodation centres. In my experience, numbers—the number of asylum seekers entering an area, compared with the total indigenous population—are everything.
I keep closely in touch with Dover's migrant helpline, so I get the monthly figures for people coming through the port, and the total for those who have actually settled: those who are in the induction centre, in the removal centre, and in the centre in which unaccompanied minors are kept. I can almost estimate the numbers of asylum seekers in Dover from the atmosphere at my surgeries and street stalls in the centre of the town. If there are many people seeking refuge, the queue of local people with complaints is long. Most of the complaints are about practical matters, such as difficulties with local services or with getting children into local schools. We have already debated the issue of schooling children in areas that do not have the provision to meet demand. Numbers are important and that is why I am glad to see more thought put into the problems.
On the issue of the provision of education support, I have already mentioned that we experienced real difficulties when more children were coming into Dover than could be accommodated in local schools. In practice, it is the less popular schools in the more deprived areas—and east Kent still has areas of serious deprivation—that are required to take in the asylum-seeker children. Those children bring enormous riches to the schools and it is a joy to visit the schools that are doing things properly and well, and to see the children relating to each other. I remember a local Dover boy telling me the story of an asylum seeker and his trek from Kosovo. Such examples warm the heart.
To return to practicalities, the resources of schools are still limited. We must support schools but we cannot support all of them with interpretation provision. Interpretation services are necessary from the beginning, because communication is necessary before the children begin to pick up the language. We cannot supply that resource in my constituency on the necessary number of sites.
My hon. Friend Glenda Jackson questioned my hon. Friend the Minister about whether the changes were being proposed because schools were not treating asylum-seeker children properly, and if so, whether we should in fact complain to the Department for Education and Skills. I agree that we should complain, but it is true that some schools are not welcoming children from asylum-seeker families properly. Two years ago, when things were more difficult in Dover, I went to address a school group on the role of a Member of Parliament. We should have had a friendly exchange, but for an hour I listened to questions from young children, aged nine and 10, that were framed in the most pejorative terms. All the myths that are peddled by papers such as the Daily Mail and the Daily Express were churned up. I was asked, XWhy do asylum-seeker children get free buses to schools? Why don't asylum seekers have to tax their cars? Why do the Government give asylum seekers free tokens?"
I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend. Is he seriously suggesting that the best way to deal with the lies and propaganda of certain tabloid newspapers is to segregate the children of asylum seekers, so that they do not have the chance to mix?
No, of course not. Indeed, since I made approaches to my local education authority, matters have improved. The situation will never be perfect and the reality is that not all schools are performing well in that area now. As the Minister said, the picture is not completely rosy.
Is my hon. Friend able to say something about the role played by local newspapers in the Dover area, because they did much to foment racism against Roma people and other people arriving? Is it not the duty of the House to tell every local education authority and every school that it is their duty to promote mutual respect, support and integration, instead of bowing to racist pressures?
My hon. Friend is right. One former editor of the Dover Express went into the gutter with his attacks on Romany families and asylum seekers in general. He linked asylum seekers with bootleggers and drug smugglers, describing them all as human sewage and saying that we did not have the resources to flush them down the drain. That is how low that newspaper went for a time. The editor has been sacked and, although it is not perfect, the paper is much better.
In Dover, people are genuinely concerned about the practical problems that they face in a town that they sometimes feel is being overwhelmed by asylum seekers. They feel threatened, as often happens when there is a perceived threat. Education for asylum-seeker children must be provided in a way that is safer and more practical. The proposal will benefit those children more than would be the case if they went to a mainstream school, as long as the period involved remains short.
In an earlier intervention, I noted that the head teachers of my local schools had asked whether education provision for asylum-seeker children should be centralised. At the time, many Romany people from the former Czech Republic were arriving in Dover. They would stay for two, three or four months before being sent home or moving on. The head teachers wondered whether the children involved were being best served by being put into mainstream education. In schools, the asylum-seeker children began to integrate with local children and to put down roots in the community, but they were then dragged out and sent home.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the overwhelming majority of asylum applicants, including families with children, will continue to be taken through the dispersal system? Their service needs will continue to be met in the mainstream community, so some of the problems mentioned by my hon. Friend—and no one should be romantic and deny that they exist—will still have to be tackled head on. I feel strongly that asylum-seeking children should not be given a separate education, but I accept that that is a minority case and that we have to deal with service needs across the board in all the dispersed communities.
I agree with nearly all those points. I support the proposals in the Bill because they can be regarded almost as a trial or a pilot scheme that will serve to test the waters. The proposals deal with 3,000 or so places in half a dozen sites. I think that they will be successful. The Government got it wrong with tokens, which I also supported. At least, the Government were big enough to admit that they had got the tokens scheme wrong and to change and improve it. The other contentious proposals in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 had to do with dispersal. That was disputed as hotly as this matter tonight, but it has been highly successful in Dover, east Kent and the south-east coast. We were in an unsustainable position, with the National Front holding marches and the British National party putting out literature. The problem of the numbers involved had brought us to a crisis. The 1999 Act's dispersal powers, under whose authority people were moved to other parts of the country, prevented that hostility from spilling over into more aggressive behaviour.
I entirely concur with my hon. Friend on dispersal. As someone who represents an inner-London seat, I know only too well the problems that were being experienced by asylum seekers regarding serious overcrowding in their accommodation. However, I argued, as did every refugee association in London, that dispersal alone would be useless and non-productive in affording assimilation to those who were granted refugee status in this country if they were not actively and intensively supported in the areas to which they were sent. That support was not forthcoming and I now see people coming back from those areas of dispersal, perfectly prepared to do without any kind of housing benefit and attempting to exist on the measly amount that they are afforded, because they simply cannot stand that sense of isolation. This scheme will, in my view, be exactly the same—under-resourced, underfunded and not thought through in any detail.
The dispersal system has not been perfect; it has been good in parts, like the curate's egg. It has worked very well in some areas while in others it has been a disaster. I have had the same problem of people coming back to Dover, meeting up with friends and living there again, having been dispersed some time ago.
On the margin, the overall benefit of dispersal was that it made our position in Dover sustainable. Let me take that a stage further: surely it is because of some of the deficiencies and problems of the ad hoc dispersal system that we are now testing a system that will be much more structured and focused, giving us the ability to provide all the services that were not in place under the old system.
Other advantages of making central provision relate to health services and health screening, when local resources can become overwhelmed. Local authorities and health authorities in areas such as Dover have recently started focusing on the need to introduce new asylum seekers and refugees into the medical system as they settle, to check them and ensure that their health needs are being provided for properly on a central basis. It is only since that happened that asylum seekers have received the support and care that they should have received from the start.
The health issue is very important. I have come across a number of distressing cases in which general practitioners simply refuse to take asylum seekers on their lists until they have been pushed into it by the local health authority. The local papers then chip in and say that asylum seekers are dominating the casualty units in local hospitals. They have no alternative because GPs and the health service are failing them. It is a duty of the health authorities to provide a GP and health care for everybody.
Absolutely. Who could argue with that? However, I keep pulling hon. Members back to the real world and to what is happening in practice. When we know that services have not been provided properly with the level of care necessary, we must find a different model. What is on offer is a different model. I accept that it is very much a trial or pilot scheme, which must be tested in the real world. However, with the changes that we have discussed and the assurances that we have had from the Minister, I am happy to support the motion.
I shall be as brief as I can, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I hope that my hon. Friend Tony Baldry also has time to strive once more to catch your eye. I would say in passing that it shows the state to which the House of Commons has reduced itself that our timetabling is now so tight that when we consider amendments passed by an unelected House which has the time to debate these matters at leisure, our discussions are so truncated that we have one hour for all Back Benchers to consider a whole bundle of very important issues which, in my opinion, remain unresolved. However, that is for another day.
I confine myself to Lords amendment No. 17, which essentially bears on the suitability of these large, isolated, rural sites as accommodation centres for the holding of asylum seekers before what we hope will be quicker decisions on whether they are to be allowed to remain.
I want to make it clear that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury, I and others welcome large parts of the Bill. We need a fair system of immigration control and a fairer system for deciding on the applications of asylum seekers. It must be effective and reach swift decisions, and should help us to integrate properly the people whom we want to accept as refugees from persecution, from wherever they come. It should also help us to remove as decently and in as civilised a fashion as possible those who have, unfortunately, no legal right to be in this country.
Nor do I adopt my position from an attitude of nimbyism. I support the idea of accommodation centres, but it is not the case that I would be wholly in favour of huge camp-like holding centres for refugees if only they were 50 miles down the road in somebody else's constituency. My constituents hold the same view. They, too, think that setting up such an institution in a rural part of Nottinghamshire is unsuitable, but that it would be equally unsuitable in any other rural part of the country.
Indeed, one part of the Home Office did not know what another part was doing, so six miles away, in the equally rural village of Whatton, it is proposing to double the size of a large prison that specialises in holding sex offenders. There is some debate about that, but there has been no opposition in principle from significant numbers of inhabitants of rural villages in my constituency. They accept that there is a duty to protect us from such offenders and also that there should be proper rehabilitation facilities in modern prisons. The arguments are about where the entrance should be and whether surface water will make flooding worse than it was before—but those are not matters that will ever trouble the House.
At Newton, on the other hand, it is proposed to set up, as a trial, a large accommodation centre, designed to hold in isolation for as short a time as possible a transient population of 750 people at any one time. We are told that that will offer a sensible means of dealing with the delicate problem of asylum seeking.
Amendment No. 17, about which the Minister seemed to take an ambiguous view, would not rule out the hon. Lady's proceeding with that policy if she can justify it. However, it provides that such policies should not proceed unless she and her colleagues are satisfied that the proposed location Xis suitable" for the needs of the asylum seekers. What she resists is the idea that the Home Office and its Ministers should be subject to any check on such decisions.
The planning applications will go to a public inquiry where town and country planning issues can be debated—schools, buses, roads and so on—and questions can be asked about rural areas. However, the decision that that is a suitable way to handle 750 asylum seekers at any one time will not be a proper matter for an inspector appointed to a planning inquiry. It is a policy matter. We are told that it is unthinkable that Home Office Ministers might have to justify such a decision in a court of law and try to satisfy people who point out that the proposed location is not suitable to deal with the needs of asylum seekers.
I have to agree with Labour Back Benchers, among others. The last Department of which I would say XHeaven forfend that its decisions on the suitability of such measures should be exposed to any challenge before a court or an independent tribunal" is the Home Office, especially when it is dealing with immigration and asylum.
Mr. Gerrard anticipated some of my points. He asked why large rural camps were chosen. That relates to the atmosphere in which the policy was first introduced. It has to do with process; it has nothing to do with what we are talking about today—the educational needs of children or access to legal services. I shall not burden the House with precise descriptions of Newton in my constituency, just as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury will not have the opportunity to describe the rural areas of his constituency, but Newton was chosen for its isolation. It is a very tiny village.
The choice of such a rural area was designed to ensure that the Home Office was less likely to lose touch with large numbers of people who were waiting for asylum decisions. They would be less likely to vanish and get lost during the asylum process. When the policy was announced, the then Minister obviously fondly imagined that as all the inhabitants would be required to be in the centre at 11 o'clock at night—no doubt, at roll call—if they missed overnight residence, their application would be turned down and they would be turned away. I suspect that the Home Office now has legal advice that it cannot do that. Just because people refuse to live in a camp at RAF Newton, the Home Office cannot tell them that it will not consider their application for asylum. That was the original idea, however, and since then the Home Office has been struggling to maintain that it would be common sense to hold a large group of assorted nationalities, some families and some single people, in an isolated accommodation centre, telling them that most of them will be deported.
The Lords held a long debate, by the end of which the Government, yet again, had no friend for their policy. From beginning to end, the Government have won no significant support for their policy either on the right or the left of the spectrum. My right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary cited a list of groups which had challenged the policy; for example, the Refugee Council, the Red Cross and the Immigration Advisory Service have no time for the policy. They are fearful that it will make it more difficult to deal in a civilised way with the individual problems of applicants and their families. Furthermore, there will undoubtedly be potential for tension and management problems in institutions as large and unattractive as holding centres for asylum seekers deep in rural England, far away from where any of the asylum seekers actually want to be.
No, because that is why people are being cut out of the debate. With any luck, I shall confine my speech to 10 minutes.
The Minister has moved to some extent, which is welcome. She has dropped one of the three proposed rural camps to make room for an urban experiment. I shall not be churlish and say that the last and greatest treason is to do the right thing for the wrong reason. I suspect that the Minister has dropped the Worcestershire camp because the Home Office cannot get it to run owing to local planning issues. The Government have probably reassessed the cost. They are spending millions on these so-called trials and they can probably only afford two big ones and a little one.
The Minister's third proposal has been urged on her from all sides. It is in line with successful experience on the continent. It is what legal advisers, educationists and most of the advisory bodies want—smaller camps that are nearer urban facilities. It is a belated step in the right direction that, minutes before the measure was subject to further parliamentary scrutiny today, the Government were prepared to make that modification.
If the Minister would tell us that, for the time being, she will set aside the big rural camps that nobody wants and assess whether a small urban camp can work in a civilised way, that would be a much better way to proceed. If she continues to insist that the Home Office should be immune from any review of its decision that big camps are suitable, we should support the Lords in their amendment No. 17.
Sooner or later, the Government will quietly abandon the policy. They have not won a friend for it from the moment they announced it. They are scrabbling on, through humiliation after humiliation, trying to defend their large-camps policy. They want to save face today by insisting on using their majority to reverse their lordships' amendment. However, I hope that they will find a dignified way of saving a bit of face by eventually adopting the more sensible policy that has been urged on the Minister by Labour Back Benchers with the same vigour as by Liberal Democrats and by my right hon. and hon. Friends.
I have no doubt about the Government's good intentions in this matter, but my deep concerns come from my experiences of trying to assist asylum seekers in my area, where I have seen the practical problems of the present system. I am worried that those difficulties will be intensified in the pilot schemes. I want to refer to practical issues.
My first concern is about large detention centres in rural areas, in isolated places. I always have a fear about the treatment of people who are isolated from mainstream services. That makes them particularly vulnerable.
The big question is who will be running the centres. I am told that Ministers will be deciding who is contracted to run the centres, but who will advise Ministers? Will it be the National Asylum Support Service, which has stood by while the discredited provider in Liverpool, Landmark Liverpool Ltd., has offered an appalling service to asylum seekers? Only after three years of intensive campaigning, finally involving the chief constable of Merseyside, did NASS stop using the tower blocks to house asylum seekers in appalling conditions and under great duress.
I have no assurance whatever that under the proposed system—presumably where NASS-advised Ministers decide who should run these isolated detention centres—companies such as the discredited Landmark Liverpool will not be running a detention centre full of vulnerable people who are isolated from mainstream services. I have very deep concerns about that.
I accept that the Government are proposing a pilot scheme, but I have not heard from my hon. Friend the Minister how it will be assessed, on what criteria it will be assessed or, indeed, who will conduct the assessment. Will hon. Members be involved in deciding whether the scheme will cease to be a pilot? It seems to be the Government's intention that the pilot scheme will be a precursor to a general scheme based on such an arrangement. Indeed, some of my hon. Friend's remarks in introducing the amendments have given me reason to believe that that is so.
If we allow the proposal to go through, could the Minister—perhaps another Minister—in silence and away from public scrutiny take a decision to expand the system without hon. Members who are at the practical end of what happens having any input?
Some of the points that my hon. Friend rightly raises could be addressed when we see the outcome of the inquiry into the Yarl's Wood fire. Does she agree that it may be premature to take positions on the size of accommodation centres, never mind their location, until we see the outcome of that inquiry?
I share my hon. Friend's concern.
Above all, I am extremely concerned that the Government appear to be toughening their stance on asylum seekers and leaping into the unknown in a way that will evade the scrutiny which has always applied to the provision of mainstream services. We are dealing with vulnerable people; they deserve proper attention. I am extremely concerned about the implications of what we are being asked to agree.
I am grateful to Mrs. Ellman for having been so concise.
I am privileged to chair the Select Committee on International Development, which I suppose takes me to more countries where there are potential asylum seekers than many hon. Members. One could begin to consider the issue from the perspective of asylum seekers themselves. Indeed, the Lords amendment does so. One concern that everyone in the House should have is that not a single organisation concerned with the welfare of refugees or asylum seekers supports what the Government are proposing. Indeed, my right hon. Friend Mr. Letwin, the shadow Home Secretary, read out a letter dated
The Home Secretary—I do not mean this pejoratively—is an honourable man, and the Minister has had the decency to listen to those in the communities involved, but they are committed to the trial. I am sure that everyone in the House would want a trial of this kind and importance to succeed, but knowing—I hope—my patch pretty well after representing it for nearly 20 years, and given that the proposed accommodation centre is to be located in a genuinely isolated area, I am concerned that anyone who is stuck there for up to six months will be bored out of their minds. Against that background, the experiment is likely to fail. I therefore very much hope that the other place will cause this House to think again if Ministers try to drive through the proposal with their large majority.
The Minister sought to give the impression that the Government were making concessions. They have not made any concessions on accommodation centres; they are still intent on establishing large, 750-person accommodation centres in rural areas. The Minister did say in her opening comments that the Government intended to abide by the planning system and to acknowledge whatever the planning inspector had to say. It may be of help if I tell her that only today residents in my constituency, together with a house builder, have lodged a writ in the High Court seeking judicial review against Ministers' decisions not to conduct an environmental impact assessment. Clearly, that judicial review will have to be heard and determined before there can be any public inquiry. Nevertheless, I certainly welcome the fact that there will be a full and proper public inquiry, as indeed do the 10,000 or so of my constituents who petitioned Parliament asking for it, and at least town and country planning matters will be considered by an independent inspector.
I ask the Secretary of State and those on the Treasury Bench to reconsider the policy of establishing very large accommodation centres in remote rural areas, because I fear that against that background the experiment is likely to fail. Of course Ministers may easily say to me or other hon. Members that I would make such comments in seeking to represent the concerns of my constituents over many issues that I do not have time to go into, or would point out the extra statutory burdens that might fall on district and county councils, about which they are understandably concerned, especially against the background of the Government's cutting their grants. Ministers can discount what my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Clarke and I have had to say, but why on earth are they discounting the comments of Amnesty International, the Law Society, the Refugee Council and the Immigration Advisory Service, which deal with refugees and asylum seekers daily?
One would have expected those organisations at least to reach some compromise with the Government on this issue, or the Government to move some way towards those bodies' concerns, but all that Ministers have done is to say that, in addition to the very large centres that they intend to establish, there might be, as part of the experiment, other smaller centres. That does not meet the concerns that have been raised by all those organisations.
If the Government choose to drive through their proposal by the weight of their majority in this House, I hope that, given that the issue is so serious and that so little attention seems to have been paid to the organisations most concerned with the welfare of refugees and asylum seekers, the other place will yet again cause this House to think about what we are doing.
The bulk of this debate has been concentrated on those who will be coming into this country for the first time and on how we will deal with them. I should like to raise the plight of so many of my constituents who have been in this country for a considerable number of years—eight years is not unusual—and who are still awaiting a final decision on their applications. The processing of appeals is taking longer and longer. Once an appeal is granted, the relevant paper that informs the asylum seeker of that is lost or delayed. Passports are lost; travel documents and applications are lost.
Linked to that is this vital question: why are we going down the road of vastly expensive accommodation centres, which no one wants and no one in their right mind thinks will be a success, when we might spend a fraction of that money to employ a minority of the people involved to improve the present system, so that it does indeed become firm, fast and fair? Currently, it is none of those things.
The central issue is the abomination of educating the children of asylum seekers outside mainstream schools. That seems to me to be unutterably heinous, and the practicalities strike me as absolutely absurd. The Home Office briefing talks about structuring classes for children dependent on their age. That presupposes that every intake of would-be asylum seekers has the relevant number of children of a certain age to create a proper class. That is highly unlikely. It is also highly unlikely that all those asylum-seeking children will speak only one language. It is entirely possible that they will be attempting to learn English when no one around them—let alone the person who is teaching them—speaks even their own mother tongue.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. The majority of children in those primary schools, in some of which more than 57 languages are spoken, have English as their mother tongue. If a child spends most of its day within a mainstream school, the language it will hear most consistently is English. A child will not most consistently hear English if it is kept in an accommodation centre.
It is wholly unreasonable to believe that the fears of a child who is potentially traumatised when it first enters this country will suddenly be excised when it is placed in what is, to all intents and purposes, a prison. It might be a very nice, well run prison, but it is most certainly—
Question accordingly agreed to.
Lords amendment disagreed to.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, pursuant to Order [this day], proceeded to put forthwith the remaining Questions necessary to dispose of the proceedings to be concluded at that hour.
Government amendments (a) and (b) to Lords amendment No. 28 agreed to.
Lords amendment No. 28, as amended, agreed to.
Lords amendment No. 19 disagreed to.