Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

– in the House of Commons at 12:30 pm on 7th November 2002.

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Consideration of Lords message.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons

I draw the House's attention to the fact that a paper containing a Government motion to disagree and amendments in lieu is available in the Vote Office. I also remind the House that proceedings on the Lords message are limited to one hour.

Lords Amendment: 17B, in page 9, line 8, at end insert—

X( ) In determining the location of premises provided under this section the Secretary of State shall have regard to the needs of the persons to be accommodated therein."

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department 1:46 pm, 7th November 2002

I beg to move, That this House
disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

I offer my thanks to Members on both sides of the House who have contributed to the debates and the improvements that have been made during the passage of the Bill through both Houses. It is a better Bill for the changes that have been made, and, on the whole, people have contributed very constructively to it. I do not pretend for a moment that I can satisfy every Hampstead liberal in every party, although I might go some way towards satisfying the shadow Home Secretary, Mr. Letwin, who was described by one of his former shadow Cabinet colleagues as a Hampstead liberal, which I am not sure was a term of endearment.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Absolutely. Terribly shocking. I also want to put on record my thanks to the Minister of State, my noble Friend Lord Filkin, and our Whips, advisers and officials for all their tremendous hard work.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I could do nothing else to a Hampstead liberal.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Labour, Hampstead and Highgate

I merely want to point out to my right hon. Friend that my constituents surely have a right to have their views expressed on the Floor of the House, regardless of whether they voted for me or any other political party, especially when their feelings with regard to the segregated education of asylum-seeking children are so deeply and passionately held.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am absolutely clear that my hon. Friend has every right to express her view, to do so as vehemently as she did in the debate on Tuesday—to which I listened with considerable interest—to have it taken into account and to receive a response. I heard all sorts of adjectives such as Xoutrageous" and Xabominable" that did not take us much further in persuading each other of the case. Throughout the Bill, it is persuasion that has led me to make concessions on amendments that have improved the Bill.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Labour, Hampstead and Highgate

I accept my right hon. Friend's point with regard to persuasion, which is why many of my constituents are bemused that, on the issue to which I have referred, he seems not to have taken into consideration at all the opposition to segregated education from every teaching union and association that deals with the welfare of children and from many others.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. The amendment under discussion relates to accommodation centres rather than education.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

In dealing with the broad issue of accommodation centres, I will seek to deal with my hon. Friend's comments. Terminology that describes open centres as prisons has not exactly helped to persuade me that she and those of her constituents who have approached her have fully understood the nature of the centres that we are providing nor their comparators in some of the most liberal countries in the world, including Scandinavia. In the short time that I have available, I will seek to make a case in respect of the amendments in the context of the overall policy that we are trying to pursue. I want to put the issue in context so that the House and those outside understand what we are doing.

The Bill develops a careful balance between our human rights and convention obligations—which we accept readily and openly—and a streamlined and robust process to build trust with the British people. This balance entails the development of new routes of entry for economic migration, which we believe is necessary for our economy and welcome in terms of diversity and culture in Britain. In doing that, we have sought to deter those who use clandestine asylum processes to seek economic rather than refugee status. That is highly relevant to what we are doing today.

We have sought, and will put in place, a new gateway for those desperately seeking refugee status, and who live in circumstances and regions so poor that they are unable to pay organised criminal traffickers. Our proposal means that such people will be able to obtain refugee status in this country. The reality is that many—but not all—of the people trafficked across Europe into the United Kingdom come here only because they or their families have paid large sums of money to the worst kind of organised criminals who exploit the needs of the most deprived. However, the people who need refugee status most cannot get out of the circumstances in which they find themselves. At some point in the future, that may be the subject of a further debate—but I hope not legislation—in the House.

Above all, we accept what has been restated throughout our consideration of the Bill. There is a need dramatically to improve the performance of our immigration, nationality and asylum processes and the directorate that oversees them. My hon. Friend Glenda Jackson has intervened on me twice, and I hope that she will accept that that was one of the central points that she made on Tuesday. I listened and I accept the point, because I believe that is relevant. All sides have said that it does not matter what legislation we put in place if we do not dramatically improve the administration of the system. Unless we do that, even our best intentions will come to nothing.

Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Labour/Co-operative, Liverpool, Riverside

Does my right hon. Friend recall that I have raised particular concerns about accommodation centres and the lack of control over those running them? One of my greatest fears is that the new isolated centres could be run by people who do not treat the people in them properly. Is he able to offer me any reassurance on that given my past experience in Liverpool?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am offering that in terms of both the provision in the Bill for a monitor and the amendment that deals with the role of the monitor. There will also be direct accountability and oversight of the centres by Ministers in a way that has been difficult to achieve in the early stages of dispersal and in the appalling conditions—including in my hon. Friend's constituency in Liverpool—to which people have drawn attention. It is precisely because we wish to avoid a continuation of that situation that we want a system that is better, not worse. Here is the rub, and it is highlighted by an interesting debate—not a debate that I necessarily wish to enter into—that started in Birmingham yesterday. Interest was shown on the radio and in an interview this morning about the nature of what is happening in the inner cities where the largest number of asylum seekers are currently housed and where they seek services.

Let us take the issue of education in accommodation centres, for instance. The faster, more efficient, more improved the administration, the greater the speed with which those resident in accommodation centres will move through the process. If we were to achieve that in dispersal, alongside such improvement in accommodation centres, we would enormously increase the pressure on services—in respect of throughflow in GP practices or turnover—which already exercises the teaching unions and hon. Members, particularly in London, where population turnover is already very high and impacts on both children who are placed and those already there, and on the ability of teachers to do their jobs properly. As a trained teacher, I know that it is a fact that the greater the turnover, the greater the difficulty in managing stability, consistency and teaching of all children who require special attention.

So here is the paradox: the more efficient the system, the more we need accommodation centres. If the system were working as I wished, turnover in schools, GP practices and accommodation would be such that the logistics would be very difficult to manage and problems for pupils, asylum seekers and service providers would be very great.

Photo of Mr Jon Owen Jones Mr Jon Owen Jones Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff Central

My right hon. Friend is making an important point. Does he recognise that, because rapid turnover makes it much more difficult to organise accommodation, teaching and so on, there are all sorts of understandable vested interests in ensuring that the system works as slowly as possible? That cannot be in the overall interests of the country or asylum seekers.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I agree entirely. After some useful debates, we are getting to the nub of what we are trying to do. The official Opposition want us to speed up the process through accommodation centres even further. I promise all hon. Members that we will do our best in trying to ensure that the administration responds and that there is proper accountability to us as Ministers and through us to Parliament. We will try to achieve the substantial improvement that one section of the immigration and nationality directorate has made in first decisions, for which I commend it.

In April 1997, it took an average of 20 months for a first decision to be made. In December last year, it took an average of 13 months. Now, three quarters of first decisions are made within two months: a dramatic improvement that we need to match in every part of the process.

Photo of Ms Annabelle Ewing Ms Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party, Perth

The Home Secretary referred to the need for general improvement in the administration of the asylum and immigration system. What time scale has been envisaged and what targets are being set for such improvement?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

This Bill sets in train the targets that we have set the service in respect of those going through accommodation centres. We have debated whether such targets should be two, four, six, nine or 12 months, and we have hit on and now agreed as part of the Bill—that part is not under debate this afternoon—the time scales on which I hope to be able to improve, accelerating the processes. I hope to be able to lay orders before Parliament for still further improvement.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The Home Secretary is rightly talking about the improvements that have been made to the Bill. The final Division in the other place last night was on the education issue, and, as he knows, the Government's view in the end prevailed. Given that that is now fixed, will he clarify whether it will still be possible for the local education authority to have prior right to run the education service in the accommodation centre, which I know was always an option and was under consideration when I last spoke to his colleagues?

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. I have reminded hon. Members that the amendment deals with accommodation centres and their location, not education.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department 2:00 pm, 7th November 2002

I take your strictures, Madam Deputy Speaker. I merely observe, however, that I would say Xcollaboratively" rather than Xprior" given the fact that education authorities no longer run schools as they did 15 or 20 years ago. That is emblazoned on my heart because I dealt with it for four years before I took on this job.

We are dealing with end-to-end reform of the process once people reach our shores, from new induction centres through accommodation centres and, where appropriate, dispersal and reporting, to integration or speedy removal. The task is clear: to provide a fairer and more effective service. When people reach our shores, we must make it clear that we expect them to claim asylum at that point and port of entry unless they have a good reason for not doing so. Once they have claimed asylum, the new induction centres, which will be crucial to assessing their needs, will come into play. For the foreseeable future, the vast majority will continue to be in an improved dispersal system. Trial accommodation centres are a crucial part of the process. We intend to ensure that we learn the lessons rapidly. They offer an option, which we must explore, dramatically to speed up the process, and I think the Conservatives agree that that is the way to proceed.

I have tabled an amendment to enable the new independent monitor of accommodation centres to consider

Xwhether, in the case of any accommodation centre, its location prevents a need of its residents from being met."

In doing so, we emphasise the needs of the resident. We should not be diverted by the argument about whether all asylum seekers should be accommodated in urban locations. Indeed, it has been implied that that would be in the most deprived urban areas that have the space or the facilities. We reject that. There should be a plurality. It should not be a case of one or the other. We need an experimental approach when deciding on the most appropriate location. The emphasis is on whether a site meets a need of the individual.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee

By implication, surely we are talking about a proposed location. The Government will not go to the expense of building an accommodation centre before they ask the independent monitor whether it meets the needs of asylum seekers. Clearly, the Government will have to ask the independent monitor to express that view on a proposed location before an accommodation centre is built. Otherwise, there will be considerable nugatory expenditure.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

We want to ensure that we have thought the matter through and have an evidence-based approach. My hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration said on Tuesday that different needs will have to be met in different types of centre. Some centres will be appropriate for single individuals. Others will be designed to meet the needs of those from a particular region who have a particular language requirement. That will help us to deal with the adjudication process, which requires not only legal advice but interpretation of that advice. If an identified need cannot be met, the other parts of the process will kick into play. The measure is an addition, an underpinning and a reinforcement of the process with regard to, for instance, education, on which we said that a special or specific need might have to be met in a different way. We now accept that that might be dealt with in a broader context, with the monitor offering a view.

We have listened and we expect others—in particular, the other House—to listen to what we have said.

Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Labour/Co-operative, Liverpool, Riverside

Will my right hon. Friend commit the Government to assessing in the experimentation that is now to go ahead the model proposed by the Refugee Council as one possible way in which to run the centres?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Some bodies, organisations and agencies have taken what they would regard as a principled stand and they have opposed our proposals, full stop. Others—the Refugee Council is one of them—while disagreeing fundamentally with the Government have been prepared to engage in dialogue, which is a two-way process of listening and responding. We have responded: my hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration said on Tuesday that we were prepared to continue to work with the Refugee Council on the configuration of the smaller centre, and we will respond to its other ideas, not least core and cluster.

We are continuing that process of dialogue. I mention the Refugee Council in particular because it has had slightly more impact on us than others, not because it has been less vigorous, but because it has been more reasonable. When it has been given assurances, it has been prepared to accept them, and when an argument is put to it, it has been prepared to listen.

Let me conclude by making one thing absolutely clear, and I hope that those in the other House will hear my words: we are now at the last throw of the dice. I will make no more amendments to the Bill. I hope that the other House will allow us to pass the legislation and so enable us to do what we all want to do, which is to establish a more effective, reasonable, sensitive and sensible system in which the British people have trust and which people throughout the world will know offers them a better opportunity to come to this country legitimately, to work here legitimately, or to seek sanctuary here in a more effective fashion.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

I echo the Home Secretary's thanks to my colleagues, my hon. Friend Mr. Malins and my noble Friends Lord Kingsland and Baroness Anelay of St. Johns, for their splendid work on the Bill as it has proceeded through its parliamentary stages.

I thought that the Home Secretary made both an ingenious and an elegant little Third Reading speech, which skilfully avoided any direct reference to the matter in hand—the Government amendment. That is understandable, given that it would not have been conducive to his having a good morning were he to have admitted that it echoes extremely closely an amendment first suggested by my noble Friend Baroness Anelay on 10 October—at which time the Government denied that it was in any way possible to accommodate the problems of accommodation centres by doing what they now suggest should be done. However, it would be churlish of me not to welcome what the Government have done, because they have done what needs to be done.

The amendment creates an independent arbiter who will be required, as well as requested, to look into whether the place in which a particular accommodation centre is put is appropriate from the point of view of its residents. To make that judgment, the monitor will need to look both at the nature of what is being put in that place, and at the place in which it is being put. That was the intent of the original amendment, No. 17, and it is far from our intention to cavil at the replacement of one amendment proposed by Conservative Members in the Lords by an amendment that is, in effect, another of our amendments. It is an excellent result, which we welcome.

I have two observations and one request to make. The first observation is that amendment No. 37, which underlies the amendment that is before us, makes it clear that the

XMonitor shall report . . . at least once in each calendar year".

My hon. Friend Tony Baldry, who has played so notable a part in our proceedings, asked the Home Secretary whether it would be the case that the monitor would report before the centres in question were established. That was for him a particularly important question because my hon. Friend represents one of the places where, at present, it is intended to establish one of the centres.

The Home Secretary gave one of the most masterly pieces of obfuscation as a reply that I have yet been privileged to hear, even from his mouth in this place. I do not think that I could have matched in any way the efforts that he made to avoid answering that question, but I can answer it for him. Unless the right hon. Gentleman intends—I am sure that he does not—to delay unreasonably the appointment of a monitor, it will be the case that a year from now the monitor will report on this issue. I will lay an extremely large wager that the accommodation centre in my hon. Friend's constituency will not have been built one year from now. I suspect that it will not have been given planning permission a year from now. I suspect that the monitor will have reported long before the centre is built. Therefore, the answer to my hon. Friend's question is yes. That does not require any obfuscation.

Secondly, so far as we can see, if the monitor is to report to Parliament as amendment No. 37 dictates specifically that he shall, the monitor will need to explain to Parliament what depositions he has sought and what depositions he has received from experts. That is necessary to avoid judicial review of his process. I am sure, therefore, that he will seek the views of the various groups that concern themselves with and have expertise in relation to the needs of those who are to be housed in accommodation centres. We know which groups these are because 10 of them wrote to the Home Secretary not long ago to make their views known on these matters. We can reasonably accurately predict what they will say to the monitor about the proposed large rural locations. The monitor will clearly need to take their views into account.

The monitor will obviously have to take into account what the Home Secretary says to him. None of us is in a position to determine what the monitor will take as his view in the light of the two sets of depositions from the Home Secretary and from other bodies. However, it seems likely that if the monitor concludes that the needs of those who are to be housed are not properly to be met in large rural accommodation centres, that will at least provide a prima facie basis for a judicial review of the original decision. It is a different thing for the monitor to conclude on the merits and for a judge to conclude on whether the Home Secretary's view was reasonable. We have always accepted that the reasonableness test is a harsher test than the merits test. In other words, the monitor might conclude that the place was not a good one. Yet a judge might take the view that the Home Secretary, in reaching the opposite conclusion, was reasonable. We accept that.

In fact, the Home Secretary is replicating the effect of that which the Minister of State said was impossible to replicate and which the Government would never accept replication of, either the day before yesterday or yesterday. The circumstances of the Conservative party are such that I have lost track of time in the past 48 hours.

Finally, I have a request. It is that following the passage of the amendment—I shall be asking my right hon. and hon. Friends not to oppose it, and similarly my noble Friends in the other place—and therefore the Bill, I hope that we shall move forward and discover what is likely to lead to the rapid processing of claims. I believe that that is the aim of everyone in the House. The Home Secretary made that clear in his remarks. It is certainly the aim of Simon Hughes and of every Member who has spoken in these debates.

That processing will be better for asylum seekers who have gone through dreadful circumstances and are refugees. It will be better for those who are economic migrants who are seeking to use the system. If they are to be refused, it is better that they should be refused sooner rather than later. It will be better by far for those of our electors who are concerned about the abuse of the system. Finally, it will be better by an enormous proportion for the Home Secretary and his hard-pressed officials if they are not searching round the country for people who have taken a long time to process. It is our joint aim to process fast, fairly and well

I hope that the Home Secretary will look again at something that we have said throughout these debates and which does not reflect on the proposed legislation. As he rightly said, it reflects on the administration of the process, which is the be-all and end-all, however good the legislation. I refer to the human reality that underlies the current chaos. It is that no one of us in the House will be placed in the current position of the decision makers, who are asked to make decisions about people from a dizzying array of different places at great speed, through days and, in some instances, through early evenings. That is done on the basis of abstracts. Thank goodness, as a result of amendments, the abstracts will come under the guidance of independent advice.

None of us, if we were decision makers, could possibly make accurate and compelling decisions about a person from Somalia at 9 o'clock, from Bosnia at 10 o'clock and from Zimbabwe at 11 o'clock. In human terms, that is not doable. I hope and pray for the Home Secretary's sake as much as ours and for the sake of all those who are involved in the process that the right hon. Gentleman will reconsider how it can be so arranged that within the accommodation centres, and more generally outside them before they become the norm, decision makers are asked to make decisions in respect of matters that they actually know about because they relate only to a particular place with which they have a genuine familiarity. That is the crux of turning the system back from a nightmare into a process that operates.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow 2:15 pm, 7th November 2002

When my right hon. Friend spoke about Hampstead liberals, I hope that he did not have me in mind. If he did, he may be setting out to ruin my reputation. I warmly welcome what he said about administration, which is important, but it is not the key issue of this debate.

I take a rather cynical view of the length of time that we have spent on the question of accommodation centres. I do not consider it an unimportant question, and the principle about education was an important one, but other parts of the Bill, such as those that will change the support system for in-country applicants and the significant changes to appeals, have not had the attention that they deserve. We would not have spent so long on accommodation centres if none of the sites proposed had been in Tory constituencies—in fact, I doubt that we would have been here this afternoon. I see some heads shaking, but it will be interesting to see what the reactions are when the trials go ahead.

It is a pity that we have spent so long on what is not the most important part of the Bill. The other evening, not a single Back Bencher was able to speak on the vital issue of cutting off support to, potentially, thousands of asylum seekers, because of the way in which the timetable operated.

I none the less welcome an amendment that gives a role to the monitor and clarifies the issues that he can take into account. It recognises that different asylum seekers will be in different situations. Asylum seekers are not a homogeneous group. The monitor will be able to consider whether people are being placed into accommodation centres in a way that suits their individual needs. I do not know how far it will be possible for him to do that for individuals, rather than looking at the broader picture, but the wording of the amendment suggests that he may be able to examine in some detail whether people were being placed appropriately, relative to their needs.

I shall ask two or three specific questions, and I hope that if my right hon. Friend does not have time to answer in detail now, he will be able to put the answers in writing to me later. In the context of location and need, I do not understand why an urban location is seen as suitable for a trial of smaller centres for single people only, but not as somewhere where families might be placed, where, irrespective of the issue of education, children might benefit from community links. What is being proposed seems at odds with that idea.

I want to ask about where people who make Xlate" applications will be placed, and whether location and need will match. I assume that in general, people who make late applications—that is the term used in the Bill—will be in a situation different from that of somebody newly arrived. Obviously, such people will have been living somewhere within the UK already, but presumably they may still be offered places in accommodation centres. If such a person said that they intended to refuse a placement because the location was unsuitable and did not meet their needs, would that have any implications for the decision on whether their late claim for support would be considered?

In the previous debate we had no opportunity to consider the terms of the decision on late application, so it would help if at some point, if he cannot do so this afternoon, the Home Secretary set out some of the criteria, and told us about any codes of guidance that may be used in making that critical decision.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I promise that we will write to my hon. Friend with answers to his questions, but I make it clear now that the in-country claim—the late claim—does not disqualify people from having their asylum claim tested.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Labour, Walthamstow

I fully appreciate that, but the arrangement introduces a new hurdle before people can qualify for support and accommodation, does it not? Rather than there being only the one hurdle, of proof of destitution, to clear, there will be a second hurdle—whether the application has been made in time. Presumably, unless the timing hurdle is cleared the question of support, and the test of destitution, will not arise. It would be helpful if we could be given more detail about that, because in the previous debate there was no opportunity to discuss it.

I have another question about need in connection with late applications. One of the categories of people who will still be supported even if they make a late application is defined in the Bill as people with special needs. I assume that if someone has a special need, the location of their accommodation could be critical. Would factors such as the availability of specialist health care be considered? I assume that if an applicant were HIV-positive and would therefore require specialist help, or someone had mental health needs, those special needs would be taken into consideration when determining the location.

It would help us to get a clearer picture if the Secretary of State spelled out some details; again, he can do this later if there is not time this afternoon. This will affect us all when we have to deal with individuals who come to see us because they have been refused support, and it will help if we understand more clearly what Xspecial needs" means, what conditions will be treated as special needs, and how that will affect the location of any accommodation centre in which people may be placed.

We should welcome the change to establishing a monitor with wider powers, and I echo the comments about getting the monitor in place sooner, rather than later. It would also be helpful to know whether there is scope for individuals who feel that they have been located somewhere unsuitable for their needs to ask the monitor to consider their case.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I thank the Home Secretary for his tone, and for the way in which he introduced what I anticipate is this House's last debate on the Bill. Quite properly, it has occupied many of us for a considerable time in recent months, and I make no criticism of the time spent on such matters. In fact, there is much agreement among us, as there was in respect of many elements of the original Bill, such as nationality law reform. The view was correctly reflected that we spent a disproportionate amount of time on accommodation centres, compared with other parts of the Bill.

The Home Secretary, however, was a bit mischievous, as he often is. He said that he is always open to persuasion, and that he responds to arguments not of opposition and rudeness, but of persuasion. I do not doubt that, but it always helps, of course, if one has been persuaded because part of Parliament blocked one's own suggestions. One of the great consolations of a two-Chamber Parliament is that it provides better scrutiny than a one-Chamber Parliament. A paradox about which the Home Secretary and I doubtless share a view is that it is in the unelected Chamber that Labour's share of the vote is much closer to its share of the vote in the country at the last election. It has 28 per cent.—

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. May I please remind the hon. Gentleman of the limits of the debate on this amendment?

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I shall try to keep very close to those limits, Madam Deputy Speaker. Labour's share of the vote in the unelected Chamber reflects its election result much more accurately than does its share of the vote in this Chamber, whatever the differences between us. The House of Lords has been able fairly regularly to say to the Government, XNo, you cannot go down that road." The issue of accommodation centres was, as recently as yesterday, an example of that.

This exercise has already produced many changes on accommodation centres, four of which have been welcomed, and one of which gave rise to today's opportunity. A monitor of accommodation centres was not proposed at the beginning of our deliberations on the Bill. Because we now have a monitor, the Government were able to use that new institution and individual to come to the rescue today. We welcome that, and the fact that persuasion and a bit of political pressure has led not only to a monitor, but to a normal time limit of six months, which even the Government now want to reduce. Legal advice will also be provided, and we know who the dependants are, so a lot of progress has been made.

As the Home Secretary knows, my colleagues and I have argued from the beginning for some form of reception centres. We entirely share the view that the more that we can speed up processing of claims, the better the system will be for all concerned, compatible with justly looking at them all. As I have said before, there is no theology concerning size or location. However, according to all the advice, and to the instincts of those of us on the Liberal Democrat Benches, centres of 750 people and above are much more like camps than accommodation centres. If we place such people away from the services that they need to be linked to, we are also not providing them with the best service.

My final important point about the change is that there is a good case for having people together, with services that are close to each other. As Mr. Letwin said, there is a very good case for trying to make life easier by getting officials who know about a particular part of the world to deal with those who come from there. My understanding is that that is the intended use for Oakington after the Bill is passed. Certain groups of people, perhaps those from EU applicant countries, will go there. I hope that we are all united in saying that if that is the argument we should make it, and should not let it by implication—not in this House, but elsewhere—be acceptable that asylum seekers are to be dealt with only in places where they are out of sight and, therefore, out of mind, in the way that lepers and mentally ill people were treated in the past. That is not the approach to take. We have an international obligation to look after people and we should do so.

We accept that the Government's amendments are a substantial improvement on the view that they have taken before, in that some scrutiny will take place. I add my voice to the point made by Tony Baldry, and by the right hon. Member for West Dorset from the Conservative Front Bench, that the monitor should be requested to consider the proposals in advance. That is the logical approach. It is no good spending time on planning, design or planning applications unless the monitor says that the location is good. I hope that that is what will happen in practice. It would be helpful if the Home Secretary could confirm at the first available opportunity that from now on all the sites that he may have in mind—large or small, mixed or single sex, for families or single people—will be the subject of prior consultation with the Local Government Association, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the equivalent organisations in Wales and Northern Ireland, if the Government have those places in mind.

We would have preferred the original wording, under which the decisions would have been open to judicial scrutiny and we could have been satisfied that a particular location was suitable. That was not possible, so we would have preferred the wording added by the other place last night, which provided that the Home Secretary should have regard to the needs of the people to be accommodated. We may not win that argument either, although we will vote for the Lords amendment. However, I have talked to my colleagues in the other place and they accept that if the Government prevail in the House this afternoon, they will not further obstruct the passage of the Bill and it will pass into law before the end of the Session.

The Liberal Democrats have sought to put their case on the Bill, and we therefore divided the House nine times on Tuesday. We were grateful to colleagues from all parties for joining us on many of those occasions. The last three attempts at legislation in this area have not been hugely successful. We hope that this Bill will be more successful, but not everything will be right. Our job is to be vigilant at local government level, Government level and Parliament level, and to take up matters with Ministers if we are not doing the right job by asylum seekers. We must seek to change the things that turn out to be wrong.

In dealing with those who come to Britain seeking asylum, humanity and decency are as important as efficiency. Our international reputation is as much affected by how we treat the strangers at our gates as it is by how we treat our own. That is why this has been an important debate. We are glad to have been able to influence the Government to make significant changes so that the Bill is now in much better form than when we started.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Labour, Hampstead and Highgate 2:30 pm, 7th November 2002

We have little time and I know that other hon. Members wish to participate. I am also mindful of your strictures, Madam Deputy Speaker, on entering the no-go area of the separate education of refugees' children and of the sensibilities of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to a too passionate advocation, using certain adjectives, of deeply held feelings in my constituency.

I took some hope from what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said about the system. He said that the Government would concentrate on making it firm, fast or fair, and acknowledged that it is none of those things at present, despite the claims that have been made.

I shall come to the question of location in a moment, but first I shall deal with accommodation centres. Running them will require lots of money and people, and they will take no small period of time to bring into being. They will deal with a comparatively small number of asylum seekers, compared with the numbers already in this country and the numbers who will arrive before the centres open.

When I speak about the failures in the system, I mean no criticism of the incredibly dedicated and hard-working people in the IND. Mr. Letwin spoke pertinently about the decisions that they have to make every day. The IND requires additional support, finance and staff. The system also needs to be streamlined, so that staff do not have to deal with so many cases at the same time. Often those cases are at different stages of processing. I hope that the Government are looking at that matter now, as it is no exaggeration to say that many people—my constituents among them—have been waiting an unconscionable time for their cases to be prosecuted.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady is going somewhat wide of the amendment.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Labour, Hampstead and Highgate

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I turn now to the location of the accommodation centres. The proposal is that the numbers involved will be much smaller than first advocated, and that the centres will deal only with single men. I do not expect my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to answer now, but I should be grateful if he would write to me with answers to the questions that I want to ask.

What will be the age range of men in accommodation centres? In my constituency, it is not unusual for a member of a family to arrive in this country who is then followed by the rest of the family at a later date. A single man coming into this country may not understand that the word Xsingle" in this context means unmarried, in our lexicon. If asked whether he is a single man, he may well say that he is, even though he has a wife—or a common law wife—and children. What will happen if his family succeeds in gaining entry to this country? Would that man have to stay in the accommodation centre? Where would the rest of his family go? When the monitors assess locations, will they also assess the changes that the presence of asylum seekers undoubtedly cause?

I am also worried about the facilities that will be provided in the accommodation centres. We have heard about the need for the centres to provide everything that asylum seekers might need. However, concerns have been expressed about the proper provision of health services. I shall not go down the road of asking whether every school in the country has its full complement of teachers, but serious questions remain—for instance, about the services provided by members of the legal profession into processing asylum cases. It seems to me that there will be an unavoidable conflict between what will be provided in the areas where the accommodation centres will be located, what will be provided for the centres, and what will be provided to improve the system that is provided by the IND.

Simon Hughes spoke about the image that this country will present when we make clear our approach to people fleeing from a justified fear of persecution. I agree with what he said, and believe that this country will retain its reputation for offering asylum to people who are frail and often very vulnerable. It is surely an indication that a country is civilised when most of its people want asylum seekers to be treated speedily and effectively.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee

On Second Reading, I said that everyone in the House must share the responsibility of trying to get this legislation right. As a consequence of the work that Parliament has done—by persevering throughout the passage of the Bill, with the help of the House of Lords—the legislation is substantially better. We have an independent monitor for accommodation centres, which was not included in the Bill to start with.

Today, the Home Secretary announced a substantial concession, because the monitor will effectively be able to determine whether a location meets the needs of asylum seekers. Realistically, before any accommodation centre can be built, the Home Office will have to announce a proposed location and the monitor of accommodation centres will have the opportunity to hear views on whether that location would prevent any of the needs of the proposed residents from being met. In so doing, the monitor will obviously want to take evidence not only from local people but from all the organisations that wrote to the Home Secretary on 3 May—the Refugee Council, Immigration Advisory Service, National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, Commission for Racial Equality, and others.

As I am sure the Home Secretary will appreciate, one reason why the House of Lords so persistently returned the Bill to this House—in particular, this part of the Bill—was that the Government had not found a single supporter among the organisations most concerned about the welfare of refugees. In the letter of 3 May and subsequently, every organisation that was concerned about the welfare of refugees opposed the suggestion that accommodation centres should be large and in rural locations.

In the proposed amendment—the concession that the Government are making—the Home Secretary is giving all organisations the opportunity to express their concerns rationally to the independent monitor, supporting them with such evidence as they have. I should have thought, therefore, that it must be in everyone's interests, not least the Treasury, for the right hon. Gentleman to announce as soon as it is convenient that he is going to postpone the planning applications for Bicester and the proposed site in Nottinghamshire until the independent monitor has had the opportunity to consider those locations. Otherwise, the planning application will go ahead and it will involve much public spending—not only for the Home Office, but for the local authorities concerned. That could result in a ludicrous situation—all that money might be spent and then the independent monitor of accommodation centres might be of the opinion that the location would not meet certain needs of the asylum seekers.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I do not want to mislead the hon. Gentleman. I spoke to him before we came into the Chamber and I reinforce what I told him then, which is that we will not be withdrawing the planning applications. We are talking about an assessment of need, not whether there is a need for accommodation centres in a particular location or setting. We ought to be absolutely clear about that.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee

I am grateful to the Home Secretary and the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration for their courtesy throughout our proceedings on the Bill. I understood very clearly what he said before I came into the Chamber, which is why I am making these points.

Under the Bill, the independent monitor of accommodation centres will have to decide whether the location of any centre

Xprevents a need of its residents from being met."

I think that the courts will effectively construe Xa need" as any need. Therefore, if an independent monitor has to consider whether Xany need" can be properly met, that adjudication and decision would be far better taken before money is spent on a planning application for a proposed accommodation centre. If the Home Secretary wants to persevere with the two proposed sites at Bicester and just outside Nottingham, it would be better to refer that matter now or as soon as possible to the independent monitor of accommodation centres so that evidence can start to be taken from the various organisations that I have mentioned. I appreciate that the Home Secretary has had to reflect a lot over the past two days and I hope that he will reflect further upon this in the days to come, otherwise a considerable amount of public money could be wasted.

I would like to thank Baroness Anelay, my right hon. Friend Mr. Letwin and my hon. Friend Mr. Malins for all that they have done. This House and the other place have made this a substantially better Bill. I hope that it will now enable—

It being one hour after the commencement of proceedings, Madam Deputy Speaker, put the Questions necessary for the disposal of of proceedings to be concluded at that hour, pursuant to Order [5 November].

Question put, That the House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment:—

The House divided: Ayes 248, Noes 38.

Division number 360 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

Aye: 248 MPs

No: 38 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly agreed to

Lords amendment disagreed to.

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I know that it has been drawn to your attention that Whitehall was closed for a large percentage of the time when we were voting. It would seem from the figures that a large number of Conservative Members were unable to vote. I wonder whether the Serjeant at Arms has been able to indicate to you whether all right hon. and hon. Members who wished to vote were able to participate in the Division.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

I was advised that Whitehall was closed, and therefore allowed additional time for hon. Members to reach the Lobbies. I am advised that Whitehall is now open.

Amendments proposed: (a) and (b) in lieu of Lords amendment No. 17B.—[Mr. Kemp.]

Question put, That the amendments be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 251, Noes 37.

Division number 361 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

Aye: 251 MPs

No: 37 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly agreed to.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to order [29 October].

On resuming—