Asylum Centres (Independent Monitor)

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 5th May 2004.

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Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee 11:00 am, 5th May 2004

In spring 2002, to the Government's great embarrassment, nightly television news showed footage of young men—asylum seekers from the Sangatte camp in France—getting to England through the channel tunnel. The asylum system was clearly out of control, and with a record 84,130 people claiming asylum in the UK, Ministers desperately needed to be seen to be doing something—anything—to get a grip on the situation. In response to the Sangatte television footage, Home Office Ministers decided that they would establish a network of accommodation centres across the country, where asylum seekers could be taken and processed.

As is so often the case, the Treasury was not wholly impressed by the Home Office's ability to spend ever more money on tackling asylum seekers. It is clear that the Treasury said that the experiment of accommodation centres could go ahead, but only if comparatively few centres were built. To restrain the costs further, the centres had to be built on land that was already owned by the Government, such as surplus Ministry of Defence land. The outcome of such financial horse-trading in Whitehall was a policy to build a small number of accommodation centres, each housing up to 750 asylum seekers for up to six months at a time.

From the outset, the policy was completely friendless. It was opposed by every organisation concerned with the welfare of refugees, from the Red Cross to the Refugee Council. Those organisations believed that the accommodation centres were the wrong size and in the wrong place. In April 2002, eight such organisations, representing a broad cross-section of concerned groups, including the Refugee Council, the British Medical Association and Save the Children, wrote a joint letter to the Home Secretary in which they made their views clear. They told the Home Secretary:

"Supporting asylum seekers in the community—rather than accommodating them in centres—should be the objective of the government's asylum accommodation policy."

Likewise, Oxfam stated that

"the size of such centres is a major concern."

The National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux expressed concern about the fact that

"residents will largely be confined to the centre, with . . . little if any ability to engage in purposeful activity off-site."

The Immigration Law Practitioners Association said:

"we are concerned about the effectiveness of private contractors running accommodation centres, and that 'commercial confidentiality' will obscure how centres are run."

The association's assessment was absolutely accurate: on the ground of commercial confidentiality, the Home Office has never been willing to give any costs for the centres.

The Home Office never managed to find a single organisation that supported its plans, but, with the help of their substantial majority, the Government did not have much difficulty driving their proposals through the House of Commons. However, as is so often the case with legislation that has not been properly thought through or scrutinised in the Commons, it was left to the other place to try to introduce some semblance of sanity into the Government's completely friendless proposal. On two occasions, the other place voted down a proposal for large accommodation centres stuck out in remote rural locations.

Critics in the other place came from all parts of the House. The Labour peer Lord Clinton-Davis, a former EU commissioner, observed that

"Every organisation . . . is against the idea that rural circumstances should prevail as regards accommodation centres", and added that

"with the depth of their experience, I believe that they are probably not wrong."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 6 November 2002; Vol. 640, c. 780.]

Lord Dholakia, on behalf of the Liberals, said that there should be smaller accommodation centres. He expressed his hope that Ministers would find it possible, even at that late stage, to take into account the modest amendments that had been put forward for smaller centres, on the basis of the model that the Refugee Council had proposed. Lord Judd, who, as the Minister knows, has considerable experience with policy relating to refugees, observed:

"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."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 6 November 2002; Vol. 640, c. 774.]

The Government had a somewhat nail-biting time. The end of the Session was approaching, and if agreement could not be reached with their lordships, there was a danger of their losing the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill. Literally at the last moment—like a rabbit out of a hat—the Home Secretary produced the idea of an independent monitor of accommodation centres. To quote the statute—this is, after all, a statutory provision—the independent monitor will have a statutory responsibility to assess

"the quality and effectiveness of accommodation and other facilities provided in accommodation centres . . . the nature and enforcement of conditions of residence . . . the treatment of residents, and"— importantly—

"whether, in the case of any accommodation centre, its location prevents a need of its residents from being met."

Supposedly, therefore, we were to have an independent person with statutory authority who would have a statutory responsibility to consult organisations concerned with the welfare of refugees and asylum seekers and to consider the suitability of sites from that perspective.

The measure was brought before the House of Commons rather hurriedly one Thursday morning right at the end of the Session. Anyone with any common sense assumed that the independent monitor would be appointed reasonably shortly thereafter and would advise the Home Secretary on the suitability of locations before Ministers went ahead with building accommodation centres. It is fair to say that the Home Secretary did nothing to disabuse the House of that view—indeed, rereading his comments that day, one can see a mastery of what was, I suspect, deliberate ambiguity and obfuscation. He said:

"We want to ensure that we have thought the matter through and have an evidence-based approach . . . The measure is an addition, an underpinning and a reinforcement of the process with regard to, for instance, education, on which we said that a special or specific need might have to be met in a different way. We now accept that that might be dealt with in a broader context, with the monitor offering a view."—[Hansard, 7 November 2002; Vol. 392, c. 456.]

I am not quite sure what that meant, but the Home Secretary certainly gave not a scintilla of an impression that the independent monitor would not be appointed until after accommodation centres had been built.

With the introduction of the independent monitor, the Bill was passed. Only then did everyone discover that the Government, in their Alice in Wonderland world, had drafted the statute in the way that they had because they intended the independent monitor of accommodation centres to advise

"whether, in the case of any accommodation centre, its location prevents a need of its residents from being met" only once a centre had been built. How crazy is that? The Treasury could spend millions of pounds of taxpayers' money, only for the independent monitor to advise that the location was unsuitable.

Ministers have persistently refused to give any indication of how much accommodation centres will cost the taxpayer on the grounds that the information is commercially confidential. However, one can reasonably assume that the cost will not be inconsequential, because Ministers would otherwise be more than happy to brief the press about such a cost-effective way of processing asylum applications. Two reasonable inferences can be drawn from the lunacy of the Government's policy: either the Government are perfectly happy to waste millions of pounds in nugatory expenditure, or they have absolutely no intention of heeding the independent monitor's advice. The latter would, of course, be entirely characteristic of the Government's behaviour to date in respect of accommodation centres.

Ministers went through the farce of submitting a planning application for the accommodation centre on the outskirts of Bicester and going through a public inquiry. At the Dispatch Box, Beverley Hughes, then the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, said in the clearest possible terms:

"The Government have made it clear that we will abide by the planning process, and by the outcome of any public inquiry. That is both fair and democratic".—[Hansard, 5 November 2002; Vol. 392, c. 152.]

Any reasonable person would have concluded from that that Ministers intended to abide by the advice of the planning inspector whom the Deputy Prime Minister appointed to conduct a public inquiry.

The inquiry duly took place and lasted from 10 December 2002 to 3 March 2003. It heard from about 30 witnesses, although the Government could not find a single witness or organisation, apart from Home Office officials, to speak on their behalf. In due course, the inspector reported, and his conclusions were clear and unambiguous. He concluded that, on planning grounds, the development should not go ahead, saying that

"In making the overall decision it is my view that greater weight should be attached to the factors against the proposal than for it. I say this for three reasons. First, the need to create a more sustainable pattern of development lies at the very heart of the Government's well-established approach to land use planning in this country. It would, in my view, be inappropriate for the Government to make an exception in respect of its own development. Second, the necessity for, and the benefits of, the proposed Accommodation Centre being in this rural area were not, in my view, shown by the Home Office to be convincing or overriding. The proposal seems to me to be driven by the availability of some surplus Government-owned land and by an undemonstrated belief that this rural location would aid the self-containment of the Centre. Third, the risk of road accidents involving pedestrian asylum seekers and others is, in my view, a very real, practical worry that was given insufficient attention by the Home Office. My overall conclusion is, therefore, that on balance, the First Secretary of State should not give approval to the proposed development."

In other words, the first two reasons are based on policy considerations—the inspector's view being that it had not been established that the development was appropriate in a rural area—and the third on specific concerns about safety.

Did the Government heed such a clear recommendation? No! The Deputy Prime Minister metaphorically put two fingers up to the advice of the inspector, and said that—as is often the case with Government policy—they would go ahead anyway, regardless of what any public inquiry said. Recalling the words of the former Minister for Citizenship, Immigration and Community Cohesion, it is difficult to see how such steamroller tactics on the part of the Government are either "fair" or "democratic".

As the Minister will know, the matter went to the High Court by way of judicial review, and may well go to the Court of Appeal as a consequence of that review. For that reason, I will say nothing more, other than that, as it was quite clear that the Government had no intention of heeding the advice of their own independent planning inspector, one has to ask whether they will be willing to heed the advice of the independent monitor.

That takes us back to the independent monitor. The Government say that they are keen to get on with the plans, but so far no independent monitor of accommodation centres has been appointed and no advertisement for the post has appeared. It seems that the Government hope to spend millions of pounds of taxpayers' money on an accommodation centre for asylum seekers on the outskirts of Bicester. At some stage, prior to the centre receiving any asylum seekers, they will have to appoint an independent monitor. If they fail to comply with their statutory duty to do so, I assure the Minister that the Government will be taken to judicial review. They will have to give the independent monitor reasonable time in which to carry out his or her statutory responsibilities and to consult—and it will clearly be reasonable of the independent monitor to consult with those organisations that are concerned with the welfare of refugees. If the monitor is not given reasonable time to consult, the Government will be taken to judicial review.

We know from the letter of April 2002 to the Home Secretary what the organisations concerned with the welfare of refugees and asylum seekers are likely to say. They will almost certainly repeat their previous concerns about the proposed centres being the wrong size and in the wrong place. In those circumstances, it would not be unreasonable of the independent monitor to conclude in respect of

"the quality and effectiveness of accommodation and other facilities provided" in the accommodation centre and—again, I quote from the statute—

"whether, in the case of any accommodation centre, its location prevents a need of its residents from being met", that Bicester is not a suitable location for an accommodation centre in relation to the welfare of asylum seekers. If that is the advice that Ministers receive, and if they ignore that advice from the individual in a post established on purpose by statute to render such advice, I tell the Minister that the Government will be taken to judicial review. That is a matter on which Ministers may well be wise to seek the advice of Treasury counsel, but I think that they would be advised that there is every possibility that the Government would lose in the High Court.

The Government's approach is altogether crazy. I cannot believe that the Treasury will be willing to allow the Government to spend millions of pounds on a project that might never happen. Surely the sensible way forward is for the Government properly to advertise for an independent monitor of accommodation centres, to recruit such a monitor, and to allow him or her to carry out their statutory remit of consulting—I quote from the statute—

"the Secretary of State, and . . . such other persons as he considers appropriate"; and reporting to the Secretary of State on whether an accommodation centre's

"location prevents a need of its residents from being met."

The Government should do that before they proceed with their plans for an accommodation centre at Bicester.

There can be no justification for or logic in waiting until an accommodation centre is built before asking the independent monitor to carry out his or her work, unless the Government and Treasury are willing to risk wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers' money, or the Home Office is simply determined to ignore whatever advice it receives from the independent monitor. Home Office lawyers told the planning inquiry during cross-examination that

"Bicester will remain to have a trial accommodation centre even if the trial does not work. There would have to be an effective return on the Government's investment."

Neither approach is sustainable. The former—wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers' money—is likely to fall foul of the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, and the latter is, I hope, likely to fall foul of the High Court on judicial review. My advice to the Minister, therefore, is to get on and do what both Houses of Parliament thought that that Government were going to do when Parliament passed the Immigration, Nationality and Asylum Act 2002, and appoint as soon as possible an independent monitor for accommodation centres.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Minister of State (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Nationality) 11:15 am, 5th May 2004

In my maiden speech in this Chamber as the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, I congratulate Tony Baldry on securing the debate. I have been in the job only five weeks, but having seen how much time dealing with this issue has required in those five weeks, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman. I recognise the efforts that he has made on behalf of his constituents since January 2002, when we announced our interest in a site in his constituency for an accommodation centre.

The hon. Gentleman set out, appropriately, to establish an historical perspective, with reference to the legislation that has given rise to the prospect of an accommodation centre in his constituency. I remind hon. Members first of the reasons that the Government gave, and still give, for introducing accommodation centres, but as a mark of the significant contribution made by my predecessor in this job, my right hon. Friend Beverley Hughes, I must record the fact that the figures that the hon. Gentleman gave, although correct for the time in question, have now been significantly reduced. There are now half, or less than half, that number of asylum seekers seeking to enter the United Kingdom. We have significantly improved our ability to process applications, with 80 per cent. now being processed in two months, and we have doubled the 1997 figure for people removed after unsuccessful asylum applications.

Accommodation centres are being established to improve the asylum process and are an integral and key part of our reforms, which are already having a significant effect on the numbers, processing and removal of asylum seekers. Accommodation centres form part of a robust and well managed end-to-end asylum system of induction, accommodation, reporting and removal centres, and will provide a supportive environment for asylum seekers who are destitute. Most important, the centres are a means of improving the management of contact with asylum seekers. There will be much closer contact with asylum applicants and faster processing than is generally possible at present with dispersed applicants. That will speed up even further the decision-making process. In addition, accommodation centres will reduce pressure on local services by providing all basic services on site, including education and health care. I know that those issues have exercised the hon. Gentleman, as I have recently corresponded with him on those and related matters. The centres will also provide the opportunity for better rates of return of those who fail to obtain refugee status, as well as speed up the returns process. They will also be best placed to ensure that those who are granted refugee status—newcomers to our society—are integrated appropriately.

In the light of the ongoing appeal I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand why I am constrained in speaking about the subject of the debate, and in responding to some of the observations that he made. Indeed, he recognised a constraint on the manner in which the issues can be debated, as an appeal is under way.

Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee

There is nothing about the independent monitor in matters before the High Court or the Court of Appeal. Therefore, the Minister is in no way constrained from responding to my points about the independent monitor.

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Minister of State (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Nationality)

I am grateful for that advice. The hon. Gentleman and I share a legal background. However, for illustrative purposes, the hon. Gentleman's speech covered a much broader subject area than the independent monitor; he rightly set the scene and explained some other factors. As I am a Minister and there is an appeal ongoing, I cannot respond fully in respect of some of those factors, but I want to put it clearly on the record that I do not concede the points that the hon. Gentleman made.

I want to focus on the issue that the hon. Gentleman has chosen to debate, so I turn now to the subject of the monitor. The Government's position has always been clear: decisions on the location of accommodation centres will be made by the Secretary of State, subject to the planning process. We have abided by that decision since we began site searching in 2001. Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman said, we have been equally clear that the monitor will not be involved in the selection of sites for accommodation centres. Furthermore, there is no requirement for the Secretary of State to consult the monitor prior to establishing an accommodation centre. I hope to prove that by reference to the record of debates in this House and in the other place, where there was a more concentrated and specific discussion of this issue and in which a Minister of the Crown set out the Government's position.

The role of the monitor is clearly defined in Section 34 (2) of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. He or she will be required to monitor the operation of accommodation centres and

"in particular, will consider—

(a) the quality and effectiveness of accommodation and other facilities provided in accommodation centres,

(b) the nature and enforcement of conditions of residence,

(c) the treatment of residents, and

(d) whether, in the case of any accommodation centre, its location prevents a need of its residents from being met."

The hon. Gentleman concentrated his argument on the last provision. Lord Filkin made the role of the monitor clear in the final debate during the passage of the 2002 Act. On that provision he said:

"The point of the amendment is for the monitor to consider whether in the case of any accommodation centre its location prevents a need of its residents from being met. So once the centre is operating the monitor is required to consider the needs of the residents and whether the location prevents a need being met."

He went on to say:

"The essential point about sites under consideration is that it is the job of the Home Secretary, subject to the planning authorities, to decide whether or not a location is suitable. The Home Secretary's purview and consideration will clearly be wider than that of the planning authorities: the Home Secretary will have to think about whether he is acting reasonably in believing that this location is likely to meet the needs of its future residents in all respects. As noble Lords have pointed out, the monitor will subsequently be charged with the statutory duty of seeing whether that works in operation."

The hon. Member for Banbury said that that was misunderstood by everybody who took part in that debate, but it was not. It was recognised by Members in the other place, and in particular by Lord Dholakia. He said—I could not put it better—

"The amendment that we supported demonstrated clearly that it would have been possible to pay due regard to the issues of concern before the accommodation centres became operative, whereas the monitor will not be able to do so until after they have been established."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 7 November 2002; Vol. 640, c. 943–947.]

Therefore, it is clear that there was a debate to a conclusion and an understanding in the House of Lords.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Chair, Tax Law Rewrite Bills (Joint Committee), Chair, Tax Law Rewrite Bills (Joint Committee)

The Minister will know that I have an interest in this matter, because the only other large rural camp that is being pursued in the country is on a site in Newton in my constituency. We have had a public inquiry. The report was submitted before Christmas—I think—and we are waiting for a decision from the Deputy Prime Minister.

As the Minister and my hon. Friend Tony Baldry are discussing the suitability of locations, will the Minister repeat his predecessor's undertaking that the Government will be bound by the decisions of the planning authorities in taking any decisions on sites—which my hon. Friend and I understood to mean the advice of any inspector who sat on a public inquiry? If that is to be disregarded, what is the point of the monitor being asked to advise on the suitability of the location that is providing services, if that advice is to be given only after the centre opens? What does the Minister think will happen if, after millions have been spent on building the centre, either at Bicester or in Nottinghamshire, the independent monitor advises that the location is not suitable for the purpose?

Photo of Des Browne Des Browne Minister of State (Citizenship, Immigration and Counter-Terrorism), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Citizenship, Immigration and Nationality)

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his intervention and I know of his interest—in the past he has intervened in debates about the interpretation of section 34. He knows the Government's position on the planning process, and I have no difficulty in repeating and endorsing what my predecessor has said. If he will allow me to go on, I might be able to answer his question, but I feel that my primary duty is to answer the issues raised by the hon. Member for Banbury, who secured the debate. If I run out of time, I promise that I will write to the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston, set out the position to the hon. Member for Banbury both in written correspondence and in the House, and clarified the Government's position on a number of occasions. I remind the hon. Gentleman of an oral parliamentary question that he raised on the issue in December 2002, to which my right hon. Friend responded:

"The role of the monitor was discussed here and in the House of Lords during the passage of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill, including the implications of the late amendment on location. The hon. Gentleman has put that point before. Lord Filkin wrote to him on 15 November, making it clear that the monitor is not an adjudicator or an arbiter of whether a location would be suitable for an accommodation centre and that decisions about where to locate the centres will be made by the Secretary of State subject to the planning process. The monitor will not be involved in selecting sites."—[Hansard, 2 December 2002; Vol. 395, c. 604.]

I will reiterate what my right hon. Friend has continually explained. The monitor will consider only whether the location of an accommodation centre prevents a need of its residents from being met, and that can be assessed only once the accommodation centre is up and running. In the unlikely event that a need is not met—I think that this answers the question asked by Mr. Clarke—the situation can be rectified and responded to as one would expect during the course of a trial. That is the principle purpose of a trial: to find out what responses need to be made in relation to the operation.

The creation of the post of monitor demonstrates the Government's commitment to transparency and scrutiny, and to developing an asylum support system that works. Accommodation centres will provide much closer contact with applicants and faster processing than is generally possible for dispersed applicants. Together with the integration of the redocumentation processes, that will provide the basis of better return rates for those applicants who do not qualify for refugee status.

Our position on the appointment of the monitor remains unaltered. We still intend, as Lord Filkin made clear on 7 November 2002, to have the monitor in post for a reasonable time before the opening of the first centre. That will enable him or her to begin to think about working methods and processes. We would not want someone in post so far in advance of the opening of a centre that there was nothing for him or her to do.

I would like hon. Members to note that Cherwell district council did not pursue a legal challenge on the issue of the monitor as part of the recent judicial review proceedings and that is therefore not part of the appeal. The administrative court found against the council on all seven grounds of the challenge. Mr. Justice Collins' judgment was absolutely clear on all points, and I am therefore disappointed that the council has now appealed against the decision. However, that is where we are and we will need to deal with the appeal.

Nevertheless, we have made progress on competition for the contract to build and operate the centre at Bicester and I hope to be able to announce the winning contractor shortly. I am determined to make progress with our proposals. In my view, accommodation centres can deliver significant benefits both in providing a supportive environment for asylum seekers and through faster processing, closer contact and increased rates of removal.

I thank the hon. Member for Banbury again for the opportunity to put concisely the Government's position, as I have tried to do, and to record appropriately the reminder that the Government's position has been consistent throughout the debate. I think that I have answered all the questions that he has raised, as well as those raised by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe.

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.