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Lords Amendment

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:28 pm on 6th November 2002.

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Photo of Lord Filkin Lord Filkin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 8:28 pm, 6th November 2002

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 20 to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 20A.

The issue of providing education for children in accommodation centres has understandably prompted passionate and strong debate because of concern about the needs of children. For reasons that I shall try to explain, the Lords amendment strikes at the heart of what accommodation centres need to provide. It would therefore make them unworkable and frustrate our ability to conduct the kind of experiment that we previously discussed. However, we have not been deaf to arguments raised during previous stages of the Bill. In the drafting of the clauses, we have sought to address two causes of concern.

It has always been our policy that those whose education needs cannot be met in an accommodation centre can attend a school. We have now made this provision much clearer, stating that it applies where the special circumstances of the child call for provision that can only, or best, be provided by the authority.

Secondly, we have made clear that the provision that a child who is a resident of an accommodation centre may not be admitted to a maintained school or a maintained nursery— which caused anxiety at the last stage—is now explicitly subject to the flexible provision allowing children to attend a school where their special circumstances call for it. So the policy is not inflexible and is focused on the individual educational needs of the child. Examples of those who might come within the provision are those with complex special educational needs or very talented or gifted children. It might also encompass children with a high level of fluency in English or who have been studying for international exams and have reached a stage that needs to be continued at a school. Provision will depend on the individual circumstances of each case and will be addressed as such. These flexible provisions make it explicit that the child's interests and needs are properly considered and can be properly responded to.

I shall now discuss some of the more general arguments about education in accommodation centres. I affirm that the status quo for asylum seekers' children is not good. We debated the matter during the previous stage, so I apologise for touching on it now, but it is highly relevant to these discussions. Children and their parents may travel a long distance and arrive in the United Kingdom with little or no command of English. They are moved into a school where English is predominant. They have little or no support in adapting to that environment. Children learn fast, as we pointed out in other debates. Nevertheless, for the first few months it is a difficult and challenging environment for children who may be traumatised. They will have little understanding of the culture, a poor command, if any, of English, and they may be moving into a hostile environment. There is evidence from previous debates of the possibility of bullying. They may be entering a school halfway through the school year, or, even worse, at the end of the school year with the result that they will get no education at all for two or three months during the summer.

There are concerns in dispersal about the safety of the environment for the whole family, which I will not go into. As we discussed previously, the challenges faced by schools when a child may attend for only a few months are considerable. The rather crude term for that is "churning". Considerable burdens are placed on schools when there is a constant turnover of children who stay for only a short period before moving on. One may say, "So what? The school must learn to cope with that". But we believe that such a turnover affects other children in the school, because it affects the stability and ability of teachers to cope with their general needs.

These are strong arguments for our position that children should be educated in an accommodation centre while their families' asylum claims are considered. I repeat that we are talking only about children being educated in centres during the limited period before a decision is made on their case. If they are accepted for asylum after the initial interview, which is when most acceptances occur, they will leave the accommodation centre within a couple of months at most. Some may be granted asylum only after they have made an appeal to the IAA, but that proportion is much smaller. If they were accepted, they would be moved out and resettled permanently in the country as quickly as they wish.

Rather than feeling any iota of embarrassment about the education of asylum seekers' children in accommodation centres, I feel the reverse. We are right to pilot this experiment, because there are problems with the existing situation. It is already getting late, so I will be brief in building on the other reasons why, apart from the disadvantages of dispersal for families recently arrived in the country, accommodation centres potentially provide better services for asylum seekers' children by comparison to schools. Schools are not tailored to cope with asylum seekers' children; they are trying to meet the educational needs of all children. First, the curriculum can be tailored to the needs of asylum seekers' children. That is extremely important. The centres do not have a curriculum focused on teaching seven or eight year-old English children who are fluent in English and have had several years of schooling. It can be focused on the needs and skill levels of groups that have much less educational experience, much less English fluency, and for whom some aspects could be better rebalanced slightly.

In accommodation centres it would be possible to provide much more intensive language training for children, for two or three months, which would benefit them regardless of whether their parents' asylum application for permanent residence in the United Kingdom is successful. Because parents will be at the same location, the potential for parental involvement in their children's education in accommodation centres is significant. We want to build on that potential, because parents' active participation in their children's education is in the interests of children and parents.

In an accommodation centre, children can adapt to a structured education routine in a more protected environment without suddenly being thrown into a primary school in, for example, Newcastle or Glasgow, where they would have no support and no people of a similar background or language. That would be a harsh, exposed learning experience. Accommodation centres provide the potential for a much more structured adaptation to schooling and to Britain, albeit for a limited period, which is all that is needed. An accommodation centre is clearly a safe environment. There is plenty of evidence from the Save the Children report on Glasgow to illustrate some parental anxieties about their children's safety, particularly during their early months in a new environment. An accommodation centre also allows a concentration of expertise. We would expect that some teachers would be very keen to teach in accommodation centres. They would start to build centres of excellence in teaching children with foreign languages how to adapt to education and the British culture and way of life, which would render them better fit for resettlement, if it is decided that that should happen.

It is justifiable to make an illustrative comparison of what happens to children at present. They enter an induction centre, where they stay for one week or 10 days while their essential climatisation takes place and their needs are assessed. They are then moved to emergency accommodation. They may stay there for a month or two, until NASS dispersed accommodation is found for them. They then move to NASS dispersed accommodation, which could be several hundred miles away. While they are there, they must begin the challenge of finding a place in a school. There is no guarantee of a school place given through NASS emergency accommodation. They have to go through the difficult process of negotiating for a school that has a vacancy and will take them in. The child then moves into that school, where they stay, while living in dispersed accommodation, until their asylum claim is accepted or rejected. The status quo is extremely unsatisfactory for the educational needs of the child, given the frequency of those moves.

In comparison, under the accommodation centre model that we want to pilot, the children will move straight from an induction centre into an accommodation centre that will provide them with accommodation, refuge, support and a place in an educational environment much more geared to their needs.

The final argument for accommodation centres being strongly in the interests of children is that they are likely to lead to faster decisions. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, quoted earlier his experience of going to Oakington. He said that the people there were pleased with Oakington, despite the slightly anomalous situation, because it led them to a fast decision. If I understood him correctly, the reason was that they appreciated the speed and certainty. They knew they would get an answer.

Children in an accommodation centre will move to an answer on whether their parents are going to stay in a centre much more quickly. That is fundamental to our argument on the necessity of the centres.

To summarise, accommodation centres with education on site are central to our end-to-end managed system, from induction to accommodation centres to resettlement or removal. They were signalled clearly in the White Paper and the proposal has been through the House of Commons twice. The amendment about to be moved is an insistence on the Lords having its way over the Commons. That cannot be right, above all because we are confident that accommodation centres providing education and support for children will deliver excellent education and excellent support.

Noble Lords are right to say that we cannot be certain of that, but we think it fundamentally right that we pilot and test it in practice and evaluate it. There are in principle some very strong reasons—