Lords Amendment

– in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 6 November 2002.

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17 Clause 14, page 9, line 8, at end insert— "( ) 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."

The Commons disagreed to this amendment for the following reason—

17A Because it is unnecessary to restrict the power to establish an accommodation centre in the terms proposed.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 17 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 17A.

We have rightly given considerable attention to accommodation centres at each stage of the Bill. Our aim in establishing such centres is to trial a system that provides for faster processing of asylum claims, minimises the impact on local services such as health and education, and provides the support that has been asked of the state by asylum seekers. Those are the three fundamental aims of accommodation centres.

We have listened to many debates on various issues relating to accommodation centres: their size, location, how long people will stay in them, the facilities that should exist, how we will process cases more quickly and how we may be encouraged to proceed even more quickly. We have also considered inspection arrangements, ways to ensure that residents are treated fairly, and conditions of residence. We have undertaken to carry out a thorough and transparent evaluation of those pilot accommodation centres once they are operational. I shall not weary the House by listing the significant number of alterations that we have made on the subject of accommodation centres in response to the good scrutiny that the House has given the measures.

We have never pretended that there is only one way to achieve those three aims, but we have some essential principles. Those are proper, decent and appropriate support for destitute asylum seekers; the importance of faster processing; the fact that it is reasonable to share across the country the responsibility for looking after asylum seekers while their cases are being considered, rather than concentrating it in only a few places; and improving contact management—for obvious reasons, there is no point in our losing contact with people while they are going through the process.

Within the ambit of those principles, we are prepared to be flexible. Throughout consideration of the Bill, we have listened and responded to points made by noble Lords and others. We have made clear that our minds are not closed on the operation of those principles. For example, yesterday, my honourable friend Beverley Hughes said that we will trial a smaller centre for single men only. She said that it may house about 400 people. I make clear, as she did, that that is not a firm figure, although 400 may well be the upper end of what is envisaged. As I said on Report, the number could be as small as 250.

I can again confirm what was said in another place: the smaller trial centre may be in or on the edge of an urban area. Let me emphasise that point categorically. Naturally, given that the first few accommodation centres, which are undergoing their planning process, have been in rural areas, there has been some question about that. This is not a rural-only policy and never has been. On the other hand, neither is it an urban-only policy; nor should it be.

I shall not weary the House with a description of the locations of the 60,000-odd people who are currently in National Asylum Support Service accommodation—I have done so during debate on the Bill's previous stages—but they are entirely in urban areas, in most of our major cities. It is right that our major cities make their contribution by providing support and accommodation for asylum seekers while their cases are considered. Equally, there is no reason why that responsibility should fall only to them. I do not think that the House would think that reasonable. So we are saying neither only urban nor only rural. We must pragmatically consider where it is best to provide accommodation centres that meet the principles and provide for the needs.

Photo of Lord Clinton-Davis Lord Clinton-Davis Labour

My Lords, a large number of organisations are involved with asylum seekers and refugees. Have the Government been in conversation or discussion with them? Is there any other example of single-sex provision being made? If so, will he give a chapter-and-verse outline?

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 6:00, 6 November 2002

I would be delaying the House needlessly if I listed everyone to whom we have spoken about the provisions, or with whom we have exchanged correspondence. That is part of a proper process of publishing a White Paper, considering comments on it, publishing Bills and going through the detailed scrutiny process. On recollection, this must be our 13th or 14th day of debate on this Bill, and I am glad to say that a range of external organisations have been vigorous and vocal in their representations.

I am not certain whether I fully understood the thrust of the noble Lord's question on single-sex provision. We responded directly to previous representations on the matter in the House by saying that there would be a centre for single men. I think that I indicated that such a revision would be beneficial, not least because many asylum seekers are single men. There were doubts about whether single women should be mixed with single men, and about whether it was always desirable to mix families with single men.

There are no simple answers. It would be naive for anyone to think that there is one simple model that is totally right. Our initial proposed model is an accommodation centre that is substantially free-standing and able to provide support itself without burdening other local services, and which can itself provide the legal services that guarantee much faster processing and avoid the paper chase about which we have all been rightly critical. Although there is much to commend that model, in response to representations we are saying that it is right and sensible to look at alternative models. As I said earlier, we will develop a smaller centre for single men on their own, which may be located near, or in, an urban area.

We will continue our very helpful discussions with the Refugee Council on its core and cluster models. There are interesting possibilities. We have not resolved all our differences, but we continue to negotiate with hope and good faith. It would be desirable if we could conclude such negotiations so that we would have a third model and a third option. I am signalling three options, which could apply in a rural area, an urban area or—to be pedantic—on a rural-urban fringe. If my maths serves me correctly, we are already talking about nine possible permutations within the scope of the changes that the Government made previously and announced yesterday.

We have not closed our minds to other alternatives. Noble Lords previously suggested to me that we might have a family-only centre. There is no reason for us to rule that out automatically as nonsense or to say that we are not prepared to consider it. That does not mean that we will accept the proposal, but we will consider it, because it is sensible to think about how we can fulfil the principles.

We remain committed to the benefits of the free-standing model, which is why we are pursuing our proposals for the two accommodations centres at Bicester and at RAF Newton. Those developments will take their course subject to planning permission decisions, which are out of the Home Office's hands. As we announced yesterday, we have decided not to pursue our proposal for a centre at Throckmorton airfield. The decision was made not because the site is not suitable but because we have been unable satisfactorily to settle the land acquisition arrangements that would allow the site to be developed within an acceptable timeframe for the trial. For a variety of reasons, I am sure that the House will welcome that.

A centre as large as one with 750 places can be an effective means of supporting asylum seekers and providing the necessary processing speed that we all want. Having a mix of models seems intelligent, because in practice it would allow research of the alternatives. That evaluation will be seriously thorough and will allow Members of this House to engage in the process of evaluating what works best and why. We know that as a nation we must support destitute asylum seekers. We know that as a nation we want to accelerate the process of doing that so that we can conclude these issues, give refuge to those who justify it and remove those who do not. We are convinced that accommodation centres are a crucial part of that answer. However, our minds are flexible about which models would be best for different asylum seekers. That is why pilots, trials and evaluations are carried out. None of us knows now which would be the perfect answer. It is common sense to try a model and then to evaluate it.

The effect of the amendment would be to open up scope for unreasonable challenges to the location of an accommodation centre. We touched on the matter previously and are clear about it. The amendment would create the possibility of delay and uncertainty, before and after planning consent has been secured, and throughout the life of each centre.

It is an implicit and enforceable principle of administrative law that the Secretary of State should not exercise his powers unreasonably. We will not locate accommodation centres in areas where we are not satisfied that we can provide for the needs of asylum seekers. It is also implicit in Clause 45 as the Bill left the Commons that support will be provided having regard to a person's personal circumstances. I emphasise that point because it may be germane to many concerns. We made clear in earlier debates that we would not house someone in a centre if it could not deal with his or her needs. As I am sure that the House will appreciate, that does not imply that we are extending a personal preference so that people can choose where they will go.

We have listened very carefully to the many important debates on the Bill. We have opened a considerable range of alternative options and have signalled our interest and commitment in seeking further sensible options and finding out whether they meet the principles that I announced today and many times previously. For those reasons, it is important to allow trials to proceed. The amendment is not only unnecessary; it is positively risky and dangerous, for the reasons I suggested.

I hope that the House will agree that Amendment No. 17 is an unnecessary addition to the Bill. I commend the Government's position on this.

Moved, that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 17 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 17A.—(Lord Filkin.)

Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Conservative

rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 17 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 17A, at end insert "but do propose the following amendment in lieu thereof—

17BPage 9, line 8, at end insert— "( ) 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 Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Conservative

My Lords, Amendment No. 17B is an amendment in lieu. As the Minister said, yesterday the Government made some significant concessions on this Bill, having listened to the views expressed in this House and in the country beyond. We welcome 90 per cent of those concessions. We have always made clear that we want this Bill on the statute book and we want it there soon. But the Bill needs to be effective and fair in its operation. We wish to remove defects which, if left, would require the legislation to be revisited with further amending Bills over the next year.

The amendments in this group bring us back to the issue of where accommodation centres should be located. Newspaper reports in advance of debates in another place yesterday led us to hope that the Government had listened to our objections to their plans to build huge centres in rural areas each accommodating 750 people, and that those plans would be abandoned. When the Minister Beverley Hughes spoke in another place yesterday, our hopes that the Government had thought again on this principle were dashed. She announced that the centre on Throckmorton airfield was being dropped because of planning problems and that the other two huge rural centres would go ahead. She said at col. 151 of Commons Hansard that she still considers the site to be suitable. The noble Lord, Lord Filkin, has repeated that today. That means that the Government have not recognised the fallibility of the model. They have not solved the problem. The only offer on the table was that the third centre would now contain 400 or 450 single males. The Minister said yesterday:

"That will allow us to test the alternative approach against the larger centres".—[Official Report, Commons, 5/11/02; col. 150.]

No, that is exactly what will not happen. It does not make this an effective trial. The Government's approach is still flawed.

The Refugee Council has confirmed to me today that the idea does not meet its proposal for a cluster and core approach, which would require smaller centres of about 200 people in each as satellites around a nucleus, where services such as health or legal advice could be properly provided. This system could be sustained in or near urban areas.

The Minister in the Commons said yesterday that the Government would continue working with the Refugee Council. The noble Lord, Lord Filkin, has repeated that today. However, there is no commitment or budget to start a trial alongside the three existing large centres. We are given yet another hope, which I fear will be dashed.

We are left with the trial of pilot schemes that is not effective and does not encompass the type of centre that we believe is the way forward. The Minister has said that the Government wish to be flexible about the trial. You cannot be flexible when you have only one model to trial. That does not work.

When accommodation centres are established, their success will depend on their ability to meet the diverse cultural, social and linguistic needs of the people who will live in them. We believe that those needs will best be met by locating much smaller accommodation centres close to communities that already provide for the needs of those who come from similar cultures.

Even the Home Secretary has acknowledged to the chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service that placing such large centres away from urban areas is likely to lead to isolation and potential institutionalisation, with consequent possible psychiatric difficulties for those who are placed there. That is his comment.

The huge weight of opinion inside and outside Parliament is that the Government have got their pilot modelling wrong. The Refugee Council, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, the Law Society, Shelter and the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association, to name but a few, all say that the proposed huge centres in rural areas will cause serious problems for those accommodated in them and, potentially, for the local residents. The sites at Bicester and Nottingham are so isolated from community life that building centres there would close down any opportunity for the Government to reconsider which services, such as education, should be provided on site. If, later today, the Government were persuaded by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth that education should be provided off site in mainstream schools, the location of those two centres would effectively close down that option.

The smaller the number in each centre, the more likely it is that they will be efficient, humane, decent and safe. The debate on this matter has sprung from two different visions of the way ahead on how to proceed with locating and operating accommodation centres. 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 there would be the relevant translators, lawyers and adjudicators, who would become expert in the affairs of that region. That would allow everything to be done fairly and rapidly.

I have tabled my amendment in lieu to give the Government another opportunity to reflect properly on these matters. It is very reasonable. It merely requires the Secretary of State to have regard to the needs of asylum seekers when he determines the location of an accommodation centre.

The Minister has helpfully made it clear today that the Government do not intend to put centres where they are not suitable to the needs of the people who live in them. That is not the reality of what we have heard so far about the siting of the pilot centres. If the Government reject my modest amendment, they will signal to the world that they will not have regard to the needs of asylum seekers when deciding where to locate accommodation centres. That would be wrong.

Photo of Lord Corbett of Castle Vale Lord Corbett of Castle Vale Labour

My Lords, am I right in understanding that the noble Baroness is saying that there are no circumstances in which accommodation centres of any size should be sited in rural areas?

Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Conservative

My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, has given me the opportunity to say that I believe that all communities throughout the country would benefit from having accommodation centres trialled in and around them, where they are suitable for the people who will be in those centres. That may well include rural areas, if there are smaller centres around a nucleus providing the services, as envisaged by the Refugee Council. However, the only guarantee we have from the Government is that the model for their pilots is not flexible, but is flawed. The centres will not be suitable for the people who live in them. I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 17 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason 17A, at end insert "but do propose Amendment No. 17B in lieu thereof".—(Baroness Anelay of St Johns.)

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench 6:15, 6 November 2002

My Lords, there is serious concern about the consequences for children and families of their being placed in isolated rural areas. There is serious concern about their mental and emotional wellbeing in those centres. The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, and my noble friend Lord Chan have expressed concern about child protection and the emotional wellbeing of children in accommodation centres. Can the Minister go further in assuring the House that the screening and assessment of families will be adequate? Specifically, can he say that where local authority social services departments are involved, their work will be fully funded and not capped? He may be aware of the local resentment bred by such under-funding of locally commissioned services.

Some of the children arriving in the centres will be coming not with their mother or father, but with a guardian who may be a virtual stranger to them. We do not want a repeat of the Victoria Climbie case, in which a stranger was given charge of a child. We know the consequences of that. We need to be very careful that children are properly assessed and their families are properly examined.

We need a complete assurance that the evaluation of the pilots will be robust. I am grateful to the Minister for emphasising how thorough and transparent the evaluations will be. We know that the Government are keen to learn as much as possible from these experiments. I should be grateful if the Minister would offer some assurance that the evaluation will include a report by a child mental health professional—a child psychiatrist, a child psychologist or a child psychotherapist—on emotional wellbeing in the centres. Dr Matthew Hodes, senior lecturer in child and adolescent psychiatry at Imperial College and a specialist in ethnic minority children, would be most willing to discuss the commissioning of such a project. The availability of robust evidence will be invaluable when we consider the future of accommodation centres.

I thank the Minister and his colleagues for their assiduity in providing information in response to my concerns throughout the course of the Bill.

Photo of Lord Dholakia Lord Dholakia Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

My Lords, from this side of the House, I support the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay. We seem to be getting different information. For example, last week I read that one Minister at the Home Office said that the closure of Sangatte depended on setting up accommodation centres in this country. I hope the Minister will confirm that that is not so. I do not want France to interfere with or dictate what we should do in this country.

The difference is simply a matter of looking at the model that has been recommended by the Refugee Council. We say this because we were rather interested when the debate started yesterday in the Commons and the Government announced that one of the centres would not be proceeded with. I suspect, as the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, said, that this is on the practical grounds of difficulties with planning applications and so on.

It is important to have a smaller accommodation centre, but that was qualified in that it is likely to be solely for men. This causes us considerable concern because we are not in a position to compare like with like. The Refugee Council model is interesting because it states that facilities should be provided in the community. There is a difference therefore between facilities that are provided within a large accommodation centre and facilities that are provided by the community for the people in a smaller accommodation centre. A comparison would ultimately give some indication of which model is likely to be successful and of how we should proceed in future.

We are, after all, talking about a pilot project. There is nothing fundamentally wrong in looking at a small accommodation centre based on a model which looks to the community for its support—thereby saving government resources—and ultimately being in a position to evaluate it.

The Conservative amendment is even more modest than the one that was won on Third Reading. It seeks to insert "shall have regard to" in place of "only when the Secretary of State is satisfied".

I hope that the Minister can assure the House that the centres will be located so that those in them can travel easily by public transport which is within their means. I also hope that the Government will ensure that such centres will be in places where appointments with legal representatives holding franchises in immigration law at the appropriate specialist level are possible, and that services such as those provided by opticians, dentists, local advice centres, citizens' advice bureaux and places of worships are available. Why should the Government provide them when they are all available within the community? That would probably provide an ideal way of comparing the two models.

We have rehearsed these arguments at various stages throughout the Bill. I hope that even at this late stage the Minister will find it possible to take into account the modest Conservative amendment and that we will proceed with a smaller centre on the basis of the Refugee Council model.

Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour

My Lords, the case put by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, was very constructive. As I understand him, he is looking to the Minister to provide reassurances when he replies to the debate that will put our minds at rest. I join him in that.

I have great respect for the noble Baroness for having returned to this issue. It is important that she should. She has, not for the first time in our deliberations, put her case with moderation and real humanity. We all respect that.

When my noble friend comes to meet the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and which are of concern other noble Lords, he really must remember that we are talking about individual men, women and children and that, in the context of asylum seekers and others, we are talking about people who may have been through the most awful traumas. To take any risk of adding to their psychological difficulties and social problems which have arisen as a result of the experiences that they have had by the processes we have introduced is unthinkable. When so many people with so much experience and expertise in this area are saying that part of what the Government are still proposing is almost certainly going to cause problems and damage, I find it difficult to understand why the Government insist on continuing with that part of their proposals.

The Government are saying that they regard it as an experiment, but we should not be experimenting with people who, in many instances, have been through enough stress, pressure and trauma already. From that standpoint, I hope that my noble friend will take very seriously the points that have been made and provide rather more convincing arguments in his response than he did in his introduction.

Photo of Baroness Carnegy of Lour Baroness Carnegy of Lour Conservative

My Lords, it is very good news that the noble Lord is supporting my noble friend because it is important that she has tabled the amendment.

The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, reminded us that we are, after all, only talking about a limited experiment. I forget how he worded it, but that is the gist of what he said. It is extraordinary that so much of the discussion on the Bill has been about accommodation centres—and yet, at any given time, we are talking about only some 3,000 asylum seekers out of some 80,000 whose cases are being dealt with.

I wonder—perhaps I am being a dreadful cynic—whether the Government expected and wanted the response of the press and the public, which is that most people now think that the majority of asylum seekers will be housed in accommodation centres. They will not be. It will only be one in 25 at any given moment. The rest will be settled in the community in many different ways.

So I slightly wonder whether this experiment is entirely about what we are told it is about or whether it has got a slightly different agenda to give the public confidence. I have said that before and I feel even more so that that is the case after reading the report of the debate last night in another place.

That having been said, we must carry out the experiment as well as we can. As has been said, this is about people. The accommodation centres will house people who have been suffering greatly, and they must be right for them, as they must be right for the communities in which they are placed.

My noble friend is giving the Government the opportunity to accept an amendment which will allow for infinite flexibility in this experiment. I do not know whether there will ever be a situation where, say, half of asylum seekers are in accommodation centres—I doubt it very much—but, should they be, it is very important that the system is flexible from the start.

I hope that the Minister and the House will take the amendment seriously. It may not say everything but it gives the flexibility required without harming the other provisions in this part of the Bill.

Photo of Lord Desai Lord Desai Labour

My Lords, it is difficult to argue against the amendment, but I spoke against it at an earlier stage and I shall try once more—my inhumanity bit—and see what happens to my reputation.

Despite what the noble Baroness said in answer to my noble friend Lord Corbett—especially in the light of what the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, said—the recommendation seems to be that we cannot have asylum seekers anywhere but in urban areas. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, said that you have to have places of worship, lawyers—and no doubt ethnic food places—and so on. The idea is that the entire burden of accommodating asylum seekers in centres will fall on urban areas.

But urban areas are currently taking the bulk of the burden because, as my noble friend said, some 50,000 or 60,000 people are now living in urban areas. A small experiment is proposed by the Government—four centres. My noble friend has come back and said, "Okay, not four centres. Maybe fewer. Maybe one or two of 750 and some of 400". But no, that will not do either. The rural areas which are normally pleasant and green, where people love to live, will alienate foreigners. Foreigners are foreigners. Foreigners cannot have our green and pleasant land. They cannot be accommodated in low-density areas with lots of fresh open air. No, they cannot do that. Why? Because if they live like that, their children will be disturbed. So their children have to live in crowded urban areas and they have to go to schools where they will probably—I have said this before—get beaten up. That is what happens to strangers in small schools.

Photo of Lord Dholakia Lord Dholakia Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

My Lords, the noble Lord is putting words into my mouth.

Photo of Lord Desai Lord Desai Labour

My Lords, I did not say that the noble Lord said that. I said that last time.

Photo of Lord Dholakia Lord Dholakia Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

My Lords, the argument that I was using was not between urban and rural areas. I was saying that if accommodation centres are to be set up, there ought to be one project on the Refugee Council model in an urban area where we can compare like with like. The type of service talked about as being provided in the community is the very type of service that the Minister is effectively providing in accommodation centres. Let us look at where the actual benefit occurs.

Photo of Lord Desai Lord Desai Labour

My Lords, I have great respect for the noble Lord, who knows so much more about this than I shall ever know. I hate to contradict him. If he reads tomorrow what he said, as I listened the sense was very clear—that the centres cannot be located anywhere except where all the facilities are available. I have only lived in urban areas. I lived in London and now I live in Hastings, for weekends, so I know how strained are urban areas. The argument clearly is that rural areas must bear none of the burden and that, no matter what people say, rural areas will not accommodate any asylum seekers—not even one or two centres.

Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour 6:30, 6 November 2002

My Lords, my noble friend is getting himself quite waxed up about the issue of urban areas.

Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour

My Lords, can he address in his interesting remarks an issue that concerns some of us very deeply and is partly related to urban areas—size and accessibility?

Photo of Lord Desai Lord Desai Labour

My Lords, I said at an earlier stage that in Islington, where I was chairman of the Labour Party for some years, a council estate of 750 would be regarded as bijou and very desirable because it was small. Many citizens live in much larger council estates. They would be shocked that your Lordships thought that a centre accommodating 750 people was very large. In a sense, the Government's argument has always been that the people in centres should not live there a very long time and that if one wants to minimise their length of stay, those people must have sufficient legal and other facilities within the centres to expedite their cases. No one has yet argued that there are not economies of scale in that respect. If you try to do this at a level of 250 people, all you will do is lengthen the stay of those unfortunate people. In your desire to do well by them, the unintended consequence would be that you would stretch out their misery more. If you want to do that, do that—but do not think that is a humane thing to do.

Photo of The Bishop of Portsmouth The Bishop of Portsmouth Bishop

My Lords, we are talking about something that does not yet exist. We are talking about somewhere where none of us hope we ever will live. We appreciate the Government's desire to get on with this legislation but we have a right to set certain parameters. That is why I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for the amendment. I hope very much that the Minister—who is not quite in the league of Job but is almost getting there—will listen carefully.

Photo of Lord Corbett of Castle Vale Lord Corbett of Castle Vale Labour

My Lords, I am new to your Lordships' House and still learning its ways but it would be as well to remind ourselves just what we are talking about.

We are talking about a government proposal to set up accommodation centres as part of a response to an undoubted public demand that we deal more effectively and efficiently with claims for asylum in this country. The process needs to be both faster and fairer to avoid the long days that presently arise in too many cases. People outside will not understand if they get the impression that there is any attempt in your Lordships' House to obstruct these general endeavours.

Listening to the debate, I get the impression that, perhaps with reluctance, there is general support for the idea of accommodation centres except that we do not want them in rural areas—they can only be in urban areas; they must not accommodate more than 250 persons; they must be in clusters; and they must have access to buses and trains. When one adds all those things up, people listening to your Lordships' debates may get the impression that there is not much enthusiasm for accommodation centres in the first place.

As I understand the proposal—and as my noble friend the Minister, with his enormous patience, will no doubt remind us—and despite what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, the proposition is for a trial. As the right reverend Prelate said, there are no such centres at the moment. We do not know what we are talking about in that sense. As my noble friend the Minister made clear earlier, the Government are seeking the authority of your Lordships' House for a trial of about nine variations of the proposal, which he explained at the beginning of the debate.

I get the impression that there are noble Lords who, against a background of general support, are only willing to support the idea if their definition of the ideal accommodation centre is the one proceeded with and therefore there cannot be an experiment. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Judd argued against an experiment.

Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour

My Lords, there is a certain amount of ventriloquisation going on in this debate. I argued against including in an experiment a model which, it was widely agreed, had too many dangers to be risked among people who had already experienced so much trauma. I also raised the question of the very concept of experimenting with people who may have been through the most terrible experiences.

Photo of Lord Corbett of Castle Vale Lord Corbett of Castle Vale Labour

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I have great respect for those organisations who have doubts about the whole proposal but that does not make them right. We can respect their concerns and doubts but they know no more than any of us—including myself—what may be the result of this experiment. We regard this as an experiment but we are here talking about the most efficient, effective and sensitive manner in which we can deal with applicants for asylum, many of whom have had tremendously traumatic experiences—I will not weary the House with the arguments I made earlier—but who may find sanctuary, comfort and support within the walls of accommodation centres that would not otherwise be available to them if they were housed in the wider community while their claims are processed.

I do not know whether that is right or wrong but no one else in this House does either—which is why I hope very much that we will allow the Government to have this experiment, so that we can learn from what goes on and over time develop methods of properly dealing with applications in a way that avoids long delays and the further upsets to peoples' lives caused by processes that go on for years when the answer is no and they have to be deported back to their home countries.

Photo of Lord Renton of Mount Harry Lord Renton of Mount Harry Conservative

My Lords, perhaps I may reply briefly to the noble Lords, Lord Corbett and Lord Desai. None of us who knows a little about the immigration business—I should add that I am a former immigration Minister—are against experiments to try to find out how such centres can work better, more efficiently, more quickly, and, above all, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, observed, more humanely, for those concerned. Some of the people about whom we are talking have been through trauma, and have had a terrible time in their own country. When they come to this country, they are looking for decency and justice.

We have spent too much of the time allocated for this Bill talking about accommodation centres. All the experts involved—namely, the Refugee Council, the Immigration Advisory Service, and so on—say that it is a bad experiment; and, indeed, a very expensive one. On that basis, one is inevitably led on to ask, "Why do it?" Perhaps I may read a statement from yesterday's debate in the House of Commons:

"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?"—[Official Report, Commons, 5/11/02; col. 183.]

Those were the words of Glenda Jackson, Member of Parliament for Hampstead and Highgate. She was not pressing for refugees to be put in rural areas because they should not be placed in urban areas. She made the point that she does not actually believe that this experiment will work. That is what lies at the heart of this debate. That is why I very much approve of the amendment moved by my noble friend on the Front Bench.

After all, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said, my noble friend's amendment is very modest. It simply asks the Secretary of State to,

"have regard to the needs of the persons to be accommodated", in these accommodation centres. Surely the Secretary of State will not "not have regard" to such needs. Evidently, the Minister of State for the Home Office who replied to the yesterday's debate in the other place made the point that she did not like the original amendment that we sent to the Commons because she was frightened of judicial review. No judicial review would decide that one place is suitable while another is not; the judicial review would decide whether it was the decision of a "reasonable person" to put an accommodation centre in a certain area.

Where does the fear of judicial review lie in this even more modest amendment? It can apply only if there is a real fear among Ministers on the government side that they will make the wrong decisions. Surely they should not attempt to vote on this issue with that thought already on their minds. If they are to take the right decisions, and if they believe this to be a fair trial—I agree with the concept of fair trails—they should support this amendment as being a perfectly fair idea for the Secretary of State to pursue.

Photo of Lord Clinton-Davis Lord Clinton-Davis Labour 6:45, 6 November 2002

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Renton, with whom I served in the House of Commons, albeit on opposite sides. In this debate we have heard the words "flexibility" and "experiment". It is quite right for us to recognise that we are dealing with people who have their own opinions, people who have attitude, and people who are beset by children; in other words, people of all kinds. Therefore, it is very important for us to argue for flexibility and experiments.

There is one comment that we have not heard from my noble friend, who is rather curt as regards the issues that arise in this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Renton, cited some of the organisations that have written about these concerns. Perhaps I may add some further names to that list: the Immigration Advisory Service; Amnesty International; the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association; the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux; the Law Society; the Commission for Racial Equality; Shelter; the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants; the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture; and the Electronic Immigration Network. Each of those organisations has a proud record. They know a lot about refugees and asylum seekers. After we have considered this amendment tonight, I expect my noble friend to say that sensible and constructive discussions will take place with all those organisations.

The Government do not know everything; we do not know everything. The issue of asylum seekers and refugees is highly complex. I believe that my noble friend has a duty to inform this House of what he and others in the Home Office intend to do. This is all very well, but we are considering this amendment at the last moment and the Government have given us their view on the situation that confronts this House. However, all the time we are dealing with people. That is why it is impossible for us to come to any hard-and-fast conclusions tonight. This debate must continue. Every organisation that I cited is against the idea that rural circumstances should prevail as regards accommodation centres. They may be wrong in that respect. But, with the depth of their experience, I believe that they are probably not wrong.

Over the next six months, or in the coming year, the Government have a duty to bring forward their own propositions. This House and another place should be constantly informed. That is not an unreasonable request. At present, the House is informed by way of question and answer; but that is not good enough. We are entitled to have a full report within 12 months—and, indeed, a further report after another 12 months—as regards what is happening because, as I said before, we are dealing with people.

Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench

My Lords, I shall briefly respond to the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, who, incidentally, does know his way very well around this place. In his soothing tones, the noble Lord told us about the Government's new policies. But I put it to him that the concept of separation was introduced by the Government. None of us would be so concerned this evening about what is a very modest amendment if it were not for this sense of taking asylum seekers away from the community in the interests of speed as regards their applications and placing them, and educating them, somewhere else. I wish to speak later on the question of education, but one must remember the services that are so closely connected with the concept of accommodation centres. I urge all noble Lords to support this significant amendment moved by the noble Baroness.

Photo of Lord Skidelsky Lord Skidelsky Crossbench

My Lords, no one has answered the argument advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Desai, that concentration is the best way of speedily processing applications, which is the object of the whole exercise. I do not wish to dwell on recent history, but, a few years back, the Conservative Party was advocating a removals agency, the work of which was to be facilitated by large concentrations of asylum seekers. Now, when the Government have adopted some of the less obnoxious aspects of that proposal, it has taken a completely different view. So, there are some politics involved here. I do not in any way impugn the humanitarian motives of noble Lords who have spoken in favour of the amendment, but that is worth bearing in mind.

No one is proposing that these centres become permanent ways of life. People are not expected to stay there a long time. The object is to process people quickly and then enable those who are allowed into Britain to establish themselves wherever they want. It seems to me that concentration and the economies of scale that result are the most efficient way of getting people through the system quickly so that they can start to lead a normal life and recover from the trauma of the whole experience. Scattering them does not seem to be the best way of achieving that.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, on that point. With his usual intellectual acuity he has put his finger on the central issue that noble Lords have often wandered away from and ignored.

The central purpose of accommodation centres is to see whether we can fulfil our obligations to provide support to people in ways that do not increase the burden on local communities—as we already know how that operates—and that significantly increase the speed of dealing with their cases in a fair and proper way. As there may be one or two noble Lords who have not enjoyed every moment of our past 14 days or so of discussion, I remind the House that we intend to ensure that the accommodation centres that we propose will have facilities on site to deal with the legal processes. I refer to the initial hearing with legal advice that we shall discuss later and an appeal to the courts through the Immigration Appellate Authority. In other words, all the documentation, the people and the lawyers will come to the accommodation centres. That is why we are optimistic that the speed of processing will significantly increase and that we shall reduce—indeed, I hope eliminate—the paper-chase that has been characteristic of some previous practices in this respect.

Noble Lords are perfectly entitled to argue that they want people to be housed in small centres. However, in our view, those would not comprise accommodation centres in any sensible meaning of the word. We cannot see how they could have the legal facilities on site of the kind that we are talking about. Therefore, if noble Lords want slower processing, they may by all means vote for options that do not pilot an integration of facilities on site. Noble Lords are welcome to do that but I consider that such a step would completely close our minds to intelligent experimentation. There is a linkage between speed and the size of accommodation centres as regards the realistic possibility of having judicial facilities on site.

There is a related point about speed that is highly relevant to the humanitarian issue. We believe that we shall be able to deal with initial decision-making in two months, or we hope substantially less, and to deal with an appeal to the Immigration Appellate Authority on site substantially faster than has been the tradition to date. Most people who are accepted for asylum following their initial application will be out of an accommodation centre and settled into the community within two months. A small proportion of claims are accepted after appeal to the Immigration Appellate Authority. Those people should be out of an accommodation centre and settled into the community a few months after the legal process has been completed. We believe that what we are proposing will result in faster processing and will get people out of accommodation centres either into the—

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, does not the word "processing" sound rather more appropriate for cheese than for people?

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

My Lords, that is a good debating point. I believe that I have apologised previously for using the word "processing". I said that it was a slightly insensitive term. However, I am certain that noble Lords understand what I mean by it and that I do not need to repeat that discussion. On a previous occasion I apologised of my own volition. I should have hoped that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, would have recollected that without my repeating it. I seek not to take too much time on such issues.

As I say, size is relevant to speed. Speed is relevant to humanity if one can get people settled into the country more speedily or, if I may be direct, out of the country if they no longer qualify for asylum.

I refer to the flexibility that the amendment seeks. That flexibility already exists in the provisions of Part 2. Those provisions do not describe any particular site or location for accommodation centres. We have said that centres will meet the needs of residents. Clause 26, as it left the Commons, set out a range of facilities that may be provided to residents. There is a power in subsection (3) of that clause to add by order to that list of facilities.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, that the amendment would open up an increased probability of frequent judicial review. He may ask what is wrong with that. The answer to that is: delay, delay, delay. If noble Lords want more delay, they should vote for that measure.

I refer to the advocacy of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, on child protection issues. The director of social services has responsibility for asylum seekers in that area, as he has for any other resident. He has a full responsibility to protect children from abuse or any other form of neglect. The Children Act will apply fully in that regard. We have already said that child protection will comprise one of the duties of the monitor who has been provided under the Bill. Earlier debates indicated that noble Lords are content with the protection afforded through legislation such as the Criminal Justice and Courts Services Act 2000. Of course, unaccompanied children will not be housed in accommodation centres.

We shall ensure that children in centres have access to appropriate mental health facilities. We are discussing with the Department of Health how to provide those facilities. We shall ensure that there are arrangements to identify any mental health problems in children and that appropriate liaison and referral processes are in place to do so. We shall evaluate those services as part of the study. We are discussing with the Department of Health funding for social services in that respect. I may not have covered all the points that the noble Earl raised, but it might be more efficient if I deal with any that I have not covered by letter, as I believe that we have discussed them previously on a number of occasions.

The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, asked about Sangatte. It is not the case that France is running our asylum policy. The Bill as a whole is crucial to addressing concerns with our system that have been expressed in this House during our many days of debate. I refer to concerns that all share, including the French, with regard to draw factors, slowness and whether we attract more people to us and to northern Europe as a consequence.

I turn to the central question. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, did not refer to it with his usual tact. He basically said that we should not experiment. I could not disagree more. Of course we should experiment because what we have at present is not good enough. It is not good enough for children; it is not good enough for families and asylum seekers; and it is not good enough for the country in terms of the slowness and paper-chase of the system. We already know what accommodation centres look like that do not have integral facilities. In continental Europe there are plenty of examples of—to put it tactfully—clusters of several hundred asylum seekers put together in a building with little support or services on site. We studied those and we did not consider that they were satisfactory. That is why our model is vastly different. We seek to provide the support that people need, to fulfil our obligations and to deal with their cases expeditiously. We do not need—

Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour

My Lords, I take seriously what my noble friend is saying. But does he not agree that if he is asking us to accept the case for experiments, it is not acceptable to include in those experiments people who are at risk and who have been through—I repeat—possibly extraordinary trauma and to include arrangements that so many people with insight and experience say are dangerous?

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 7:00, 6 November 2002

My Lords, I was about to come to those issues.

We also know of another model. The model does not involve several hundred—perhaps 200 or 300—people living in accommodation, of which there are plenty of examples in continental Europe; it involves 20 or 30 people living together in clusters of units and obtaining their services in local communities. We know what that model is like because 50,000 people in Britain who are asylum seekers are currently receiving services of that type. It is not very good. That is why we cannot be so complacent as to believe that the present system will do and that we should not look at something else.

There is not time to go into detail about what is wrong with the dispersal system; we have discussed those issues on many occasions in this House. There are considerable problems for families. They feel isolated and at times experience harassment. They suddenly move to an area in which they know no one and they have to find a school place and obtain support services. That is bewildering and such people feel lost. They find it extremely difficult to cope with that dispersal. They may be in that dispersal area for only six months while their case is considered, after which they move on.

Under the current system, a family comes into an induction centre, is put into emergency accommodation, is moved to a dispersal area 200 miles away where they may be for six months and, if they get a "yes", they choose to move somewhere else. We argue that that is a nonsense for the family. It is not good. The argument that we should not experiment I find amazing. I find it amazing at times that it comes from some of the organisations that I believe are genuinely arguing for their candidates.

We must experiment to try to make the system better. I sometimes wonder whether some of those advocating that we should continue what we are doing and not try any such proposals base that on a belief that when anyone has claimed asylum, they should never be removed. It would be lovely if we were in a world in which that was possible, but it is fantasy-land.

I am in danger of losing my ill-earned reputation for being quiet and tolerant.

In conclusion, the amendment would effectively damage the objectives. It would open us up to delay and judicial review. We have signalled our willingness to experiment with a variety of different forms so far—I repeated those commitments from the Dispatch Box

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

My Lords, I should be most grateful if my noble friend would not press the matter.

Photo of Lord Clinton-Davis Lord Clinton-Davis Labour

My Lords, I asked the Minister if he would continue after this debate to see the bodies that I mentioned or any representative body in order to persuade them that the Government are right in carrying out a sensible experiment. That is all that I asked him to do.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Yes, my Lords, we will continue the dialogue, particularly with the Refugee Council. We would be pleased to do so. Over the summer, I was glad to have a whole range of discussions with people. The Government will not give a mandate or veto to any external organisation; nor would noble Lords expect me to do so.

I have spoken at length. I strongly urge the House to reject the amendment for the reasons that I have advocated and in the interests of asylum claimants to this country.

Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who took part in this debate. As ever, in his helpful way, the noble Lord, Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, once again made my case for me. He rightly referred to the fact that there is a public demand that the chaos that the asylum system of this country has fallen into since the Government came to power has to be sorted out.

Noble Lords:


Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Conservative

My Lords, twice as many people are seeking asylum in this country; there is a backlog that would take more than 43 years to clear on the Government's present plans for accommodation centres. That is what I call chaos.

We have debated this matter in great detail and I shall not repeat some of the excellent points that have been made from all sides of the House. The Minister reminded us—courteously, as ever—or those of us who are old lags at this game, that we are 14 days old today in our consideration of this Bill.

I listened with interest to the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky. This is necessarily a telegraphic debate; the noble Lord was not able to be with us on the previous 13 days. I assure him that if he had been, he would have heard details about the plans to which I have referred for a nucleus and satellite system, whereby the nucleus would provide those important services. He rightly pointed out the need to achieve economies of scale.

We agree with the Government that there should be intelligent experimentation in modelling and piloting when setting up the new accommodation centres. The problem is that we believe that the Government's model will not involve intelligent experimentation. The Government are still intent on effectively establishing one model: that is, two large centres in rural areas and another of 400 or 450 single men; we are yet to find out.

Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

My Lords, I have given as clear a commitment as I can. We are keen to pursue and develop the core and cluster model to which the noble Baroness referred.

Photo of Baroness Anelay of St Johns Baroness Anelay of St Johns Conservative

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention. I pointed out in more detail in my opening remarks that our hopes had been dashed previously. A hope is being held out today without the budget or the plans that should go with it; it falls alongside the existing plans that the Government have put before us. That is our difficulty.

It is not my intention to promote the urban/rural debate. When the noble Lord, Lord Desai, was discussing accommodation centres, he seemed to be suggesting that asylum seekers would be living in some green and pleasant land. Let him go and see Bicester or Nottingham; does he think that they are a green and pleasant land for asylum seekers to live in?

The Government have made significant concessions on various matters, which I welcome. Am I being churlish in asking them to reconsider their stance on this modest amendment? It would not be damaging. After all, why should there be frequent judicial reviews? If my modest amendment is added to the Bill, why would people want judicially to review their way out of what appears to be, from the Government's point of view, a successful future in accommodation centres? It is not churlish to ask the Government to do what is right, decent and humane. I ask the House to give another place the opportunity to discuss this matter once more and I ask the Government to think again.

Photo of Baroness Gould of Potternewton Baroness Gould of Potternewton Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, the original Question was that this House do not insist on their Amendment No. 17, to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 17A, but do propose Amendment No. 17B in lieu thereof. The Question is that this amendment be agreed to.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 17B) shall be agreed to?

*Their Lordships divided: Contents, 171; Not-Contents, 120.

Division number 1 Private Parking: Ports and Trading Estates — Lords Amendment

Aye: 171 Members of the House of Lords

No: 118 Members of the House of Lords

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


Resolved in the affirmative, and amendment agreed to accordingly.

Motion, as amended, agreed to.