HC Deb 24 July 2000 vol 354 cc743-5
1. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

What progress he has made in arranging suitable accommodation and services for dispersed asylum seekers. [130322]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche)

To date, the national asylum support service has entered into contracts to provide accommodation and services for dispersed asylum seekers with a number of local authority, voluntary sector and private sector providers. As the House will be aware, from today, NASS takes responsibility for the support of all new asylum seekers who claim in London.

Dr. Iddon

In the past three months, 90 asylum seekers have been rehoused in 30 properties in Bolton—some of which were in poor condition. My main concern is that environmental health officers have reported to me that that has created houses in multiple occupation that do not conform to the statutory requirements. Will my hon. Friend tell us whether the agreement with the north-west consortium of local authorities is likely to be signed in the near future? Does she agree that it is important that the agreement include preferred provider status for those local authorities?

Mrs. Roche

My information is that no asylum seekers supported by the NASS scheme have been held in my hon. Friend's constituency. Those who are there will have been under the previous or the interim arrangements.

A specification about the standards for accommodation has been agreed with organisations such as the Refugee Council and has been placed in the Library. The conditions are stiff and we hold regular inspections. Of course, we will look into the facts mentioned by my hon. Friend.

I hope that a contract will be signed shortly. We certainly look to local authorities to be our key partners in this enterprise.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton)

The Minister was right when she stressed, last week, that economic migrants and asylum seekers can play a positive role in this country. I hope that she will give up eye-catching initiatives and concentrate instead on the real plight of people who desperately want to come to this country and who can make a positive contribution to our life in many respects. We are a generous nation; this is a human problem.

Mrs. Roche

I was going to start off by thanking the hon. Gentleman for his comments—indeed I do thank him; I agree with him about the nature of the British people. We are a very generous country indeed. However, he makes the classic mistake of confusing asylum with migration. Asylum is for people who seek refuge from political persecution. We have honourable commitments in that regard under the 1951 convention and we shall continue to meet them. There is, however, some debate to be held over migration—I should like to see that happen during the next few months.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South)

I am well aware of my hon. Friends' efforts to get the NASS system off to a flying start, because I have held discussions with her on the matter. Does she agree that there is concern about people who are currently settled inappropriately under the interim or the previous arrangements'? Will she do whatever she can to encourage colleagues in NASS to assume some of those responsibilities as soon as is practicable? Failing that, the well-meaning initiatives of NASS are likely to be compromised by inappropriate settlements under the previous conditions.

Mrs. Roche

We have held good and constructive discussions on this matter. We managed to ensure that the NASS roll-out took place more quickly than we thought possible. That was a success and I congratulate the officials who were involved.

As for the wider picture, we urge local authorities to ensure that, when they place people, they hold full consultations so that local communities are well prepared to deal with what is required.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

I suppose that we can, at least, give some welcome to the extension of the NASS scheme to the London authorities, albeit four months later than the Government promised us. If everything in the garden is so lovely—as the Minister says it is—why do we constantly hear complaints from local authorities such as Blackpool, and from voluntary organisations such as the Refugee Council, to the effect that the dispersal programme is being carried out in a shambolic fashion? Many people are not given adequate accommodation and access to legal advice and interpreters, despite the Government's continual promises. Why is there a steady flow of people back from the areas of dispersal to London and the south-east, as the Evening Standard reports only today? Is that not the clearest evidence that the Government's policy is not working in the way they promised us?

Mrs. Roche

What is absolutely clear is that the programme that was inherited from the previous Conservative Government—whom the hon. Gentleman supported—was not well administered. The hon. Gentleman refers to a shambles. There was indeed a shambles; if he reads the report of the Audit Commission on the matter, he will find that all the research was conducted on the old arrangements—those set up by the previous Tory Government. Even to call them arrangements is a misnomer; they were organised chaos, from which local authorities—Labour and Tory—are still suffering.