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Lords Amendment

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:30 pm on 6th November 2002.

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Photo of Lord Bhatia Lord Bhatia Crossbench 9:30 pm, 6th November 2002

My Lords, I make a case for the teaching of English. I will share a couple of personal experiences about the teaching of English to teachers or to adults.

About 40 years ago I was in a small village in Germany. I had come from East Africa for some training. My hosts were going to look after me for six months while I was training. They met me at the station and said: "We have a big problem here about how you will cope with the German language. We take it that you do not speak or understand German." I said: "Yes, you are absolutely right". My hosts told me, "For your information, you are probably speaking to the only English-speaking persons in this village".

There was a dilemma about where to place me. How could I learn German quickly in the best possible way? To this day I remember the solution they found for me. They said: "We do not wish to send you to a quick German-speaking institution where you could pick up the language very quickly. We would recommend, if you agree"—and I agreed with them—"that you go and stay with a family who have three or four young children. You live with them. The parents and the children do not speak English, but you will learn your German very quickly from the children". Within a month I was able to converse reasonably well in the German language.

The point I make is that the teaching of English here is a problem—as far as I can make out from noble Lords who have spoken earlier. I believe that if children in accommodation centres are sent to mainstream schools they will learn English much faster than if they are taught English in a separate school at the accommodation centre. Secondly, there is a double benefit, those children who go to mainstream schools and learn English quickly will be able to pass on that English to their parents who also need that language facility.

I have personal experience as a member of the reception groups which met with the Uganda refugees who arrived here. Some of the people in the groups were also asylum seekers. I recall vividly a conversation that I had with some parents. They said: "We know we have a problem here". There were a couple of areas in the UK where advertisements had been taken out in the papers which stated:

"Please don't send refugees from Uganda to our part of the country".

The parents were saying, "We really do not have much hope for ourselves with the kind of reception that we read in the papers. Our only worry is that our children can be placed in the schools as quickly as possible. That is the main thing that we are concerned about".

I believe that we need to take note of one matter. I have had some interesting conversations, both with the Minister as well as with the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton. I feel that they should not look at the issue from the point of view of whether one is an asylum seeker or whatever. Let us remember that these children have not come here as asylum seekers or refugees. They have been brought here without understanding why they are here. They are children who have accompanied their parents. They do not understand whether they are asylum seekers or otherwise.

Secondly, some children arrive on their own. Here again, they have not taken a decision to come to this country to seek asylum. Parents—and I know this from my experience from Africa and also from the subcontinent—who feel vulnerable to attack within their own countries and are not able to leave that country to seek asylum elsewhere, think first of their children. They send their children—in some cases, at the cost of their lives. They say, "We are not safe here, but we cannot do anything about it. Let's save our children and send them abroad to an asylum-seeking country and perhaps the UK".

We must consider such children not as asylum seekers but as children who do not understand why they are here. All that they want to do is get on with their life. All that they want to do is to go and play and learn with their fellow young people in the country, instead of being locked up in an accommodation centre. That is how such children will see it. It is bad enough that they will be put in an accommodation centre, but they will also be placed in a school where they are separated from all other children.

I beg your Lordships' House to consider the matter carefully. We are dealing with vulnerable children who have no idea why there are here. We must not look upon them as asylum seekers, refugees or anything else except children.