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Lords Amendment

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:15 pm on 6th November 2002.

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Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 9:15 pm, 6th November 2002

My Lords, I supported the right reverend Prelate on the previous occasion and the time before that, and I shall do so again as firmly as I can.

After the latest concessions, which were dressed up a little by the noble Lord, Lord Lea, I half expected the Government to rethink their policy. Almost all of their supporters in schools and the teaching unions have made it clear that there should be one education system in this country. Many Labour Back-Benchers said the same yesterday but we have not heard any real concessions.

I accept that the occasional use yesterday and today of the word "segregation" is unfortunate but it shows the extent of exasperation among many parliamentarians—as well as voters—who cannot believe that their own government can be carrying out that policy. I heard the Minister today refer to the burden on the present system and a Minister in another place indirectly referred to the destruction of classes under the present system. I am surprised that such arguments are being made at this very late stage without much back-up.

On the moral imperative, the right reverend Prelate said it all. I want to add a few more thoughts on the practical implications. I do not believe that separate education will work. I mentioned special needs last time. My noble friend Lady Masham would like to hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, that special needs will be met in schools. I am grateful to her for the letter that she wrote to me about that.

It would be impossible to meet all of the curricula requirements even for those larger groups of asylum seekers in accommodation centres. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, mentioned the Liberal compromise that was offered; that is, that LEAs should decide how best to manage education in each centre. However, the Minister rejected that. I can only hope that he will reflect in the next few days still further. When those children eventually arrive in accommodation, the LEAs will be given a much fuller role.

I turn to the Conservative position. I am dismayed to see the Conservative Benches empty. We heard from the Conservatives quite positively on this issue at earlier stages. The Conservatives have drawn back from the issues of education on the grounds that they are so closely linked with the time factor. I believe that they argued quite reasonably that if the Government can meet their targets of processing in a few weeks—none of the rest of us thinks that they can—there will not be any time for mainstream education. In a sense, the previous vote covered the present vote.

The Conservatives are talking about more rapid dispersal—I heard the right honourable Oliver Letwin do so yesterday—perhaps through reception centres close to the port of entry or smaller centres. Mr Letwin used the phrase, "one stop shop centres". Unfortunately, those approaches are not part of the Government's thinking. It would be nice to hear from the Conservative Front Bench whether that approach represents the Conservative view; we have not heard it. I am sorry that the Government have not moved further towards the concept of smaller centres; that was being taken up with the Refugee Council.

I listened last week to asylum-seeking children for the first time. I was very moved by what they had to say. A boy from Afghanistan said:

"For all of us freedom from fear, the hope to rebuild our lives and be normal is most precious even if it is for a very short time . . . the main point is that we do not want to be treated differently from the rest of the society".

My noble friend Lord Moser made that point most powerfully. All of those children said that they did not want to spend time only with other asylum-seeking children, who would be from similar—troubled—backgrounds. They saw school as a way of escaping unhappy memories and beginning to rebuild a normal life. They viewed the Government's proposals as a way of putting up new barriers rather than building bridges.

I conclude with a brief statement from a representative of Save the Children. She said:

"We have a duty to these young people—a duty to treat them with the same care, compassion, dignity and respect that we would want for our own children. Whether or not they remain in this country ... we should be able to ... say that during their time here we did everything we could for them; that we provided them with the services, the support, the care and the opportunities that every other child in this country has. If we cannot do that", she said,

"we have failed them—failed some of the most vulnerable children in our society".