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Lords Amendment

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:45 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 9:45 pm, 6th November 2002

My Lords, it is at this time of night that the Chief Whip normally sidles up to me and whispers in my ear, "Keep it brief; no one's listening to you and you won't change their minds in any event". Despite that, I feel that it is proper to respond to some, if not all, of the issues raised during the debate.

The noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, has made some powerful contributions throughout her 13 or 14 days on the Bill. I have not always agreed with them, but I have frequently been forced to go away, think again and return with further argumentation. She put her finger on the matter when she reminded us of what many MPs relate to us from their experience in the Commons: in their constituencies this is not a problem-free status quo, either in terms of the interests of children of asylum seekers, or in terms of schools or other school children in those schools where this degree of turbulence is taking place.

I again listened carefully to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth, but he did not address the arguments about the difficulties of the current situation. One can say that we should throw more money at schools and we should try to minimise the problems of turbulence, but we cannot get around the problem of what happens to a child who is moved into a school for a short period and then has to be moved out again for the variety of reasons I gave when I spoke initially.

The current situation is not good, and I make no apology for repeating what I said during the discussion on accommodation centres. The noble Lord, Lord Moser, is right that we should do right from the beginning. I should not be standing here now if I believed that what we are proposing as a trial was not right in principle, for the arguments I have set out. I gave those arguments—I shall not repeat them—in terms of the ability to give specialist support and tailored education for a short period while accelerating the decision-taking. Those families who go into accommodation centres have a number of considerable benefits compared with the experience of families who are moved two or three times around the country into dispersed accommodation.

However, neither I nor the Government are so arrogant to believe that it is axiomatic and beyond proof that we might be wrong on that. We are not saying that we are now going to build 20 or 30 accommodation centres around the country and drive them in over the next two to three years come what may. We are saying that we will move forward cautiously and prudently and I would have expected some acknowledgement of the pragmatism of that position. We are basically saying that we will provide spaces for about 3,000 people; probably four or so accommodation centres. We will see how in practice whether what we believe will be a better system works.

What I find almost irrational about the debate is the unwillingness to allow a trial of that kind to go ahead. It seems to me to beggar common sense when in many areas the current situation is so poor. We are seeking to conduct a small-scale experiment and then to evaluate it openly. I find it difficult to know how one operates in a world of public policy when one is not prepared to try to improve things in a variety of ways. But enough of that.

The noble Lord, Lord Moser, said that the way he was welcomed in Britain was good and the House recognises what an asset he has been to British society since then. Most of us have read of his work and his teaching over many years and have been pleased and proud to have done so. But he was accepted as a refugee when he arrived. We have 80,000 a year coming to us asking for refugee status and the sad fact is that most of those will not qualify under the Geneva Convention to remain here. That means that we must look at how we manage the situation.

Yes, children should be in normal school as soon as possible, but as soon as possible is when we know that they are going to have a permanent place here. That is when the case for integration is strongest.

The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, was right, as often, to say that substantial numbers will still be educated in dispersed accommodation. According to my arithmetic, if we have, say, 150 children in four centres, we are not talking about many more than 500 children in accommodation centres being educated for the first few years. I do not know how many children we have in NASS accommodation, but we have 50,000 people in NASS accommodation and 20 per cent of them are families. So there is a large number.

That is not an argument one way or the other, but in my view it is certainly an argument for sensible experimentation rather than completely shutting our minds to looking at whether we could make it better for children and better for the speed of decision-making which is in the interest of families and children.

My noble friend Lord Judd rightly argued for flexibility. But flexibility is of two kinds. One is related to what we have said about special needs and recognises the requirement to pay attention to the needs of children. If the needs of children cannot be met within accommodation centres and the facilities that can be provided, they should not and must not be educated in accommodation centres. That I repeat.

The other argument for flexibility is the one we have just debated; that is, having an open mind about whether we can make it better in different ways. It seems to me the height of inflexibility to say that we must dig in on the status quo and refuse to consider any other form of sensible public policy experimentation. I do not understand that.

The noble Lord, Lord Elton, as one of many distinguished former Home Office Ministers who have spoken in our debates, asked whether there would be reasonable provision. The Home Office and the DfES are discussing the amount of funding that needs to be provided to make the education in accommodation centres of good quality. It will be dealt with through the contract process, but the safeguards are that Ofsted will inspect every single education facility in the accommodation centres within their first year of operation. It will repeat inspections if it believes that to be necessary, or serve warnings under its powers. Therefore, there will be a strong Ofsted spotlight on them.

Secondly, the statutory monitor in the Bill has a duty to inspect, including how the education facilities are working. Thirdly, the advisory group from the local community will go into the accommodation centre and it is meant to pick up on the concerns and experiences of people in there, including children. We therefore believe that there are some strong inspection safeguards.