HC Deb 10 December 2002 vol 396 cc225-36

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Joan Ryan.]

7.50 pm
Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise my concerns about proposals by the Angel Group to use the former prison officers' college building at Wakefield prison for the accommodation of asylum seekers. It is a matter of regret that I have been forced to bring the issue to the Floor of the House, but for almost two years I have been unable to get straight answers to straight questions and, frankly, I have had enough.

This saga began in February 2001 when I received a telephone call from someone at a senior level in the Prison Service. He told me that I ought to be aware that the former prison officers' college building at Wakefield prison was to be used for the accommodation of asylum seekers. It was apparent from his remarks that he was deeply concerned from a security point of view about what was being proposed.

I know that the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes) has been to Wakefield prison, so she will know that the building is located in Love lane, Wakefield, between the prison wall and the main Leeds-London railway line. It is next to the prison officers' club and the only vehicular approach was, until very recently, blocked by a manned traffic barrier. The building has throughout its history been part of the prison establishment and is viewed by local people as an integral part of the prison. I should also add that it is only a few hundred yards from Westgate, the popular pubbing and clubbing area of what has historically been known as the "Merrie City". Generations of young locals have traditionally undertaken the Westgate run, which entails having one drink in each of the numerous licensed establishments from the bottom of Westgate up to the city centre. The prison buildings are passed by revellers towards the conclusion of the Westgate run.

Following the telephone call, I had contact with the local authority, which advised me that a telephone call had been received some weeks before from the Angel Group, making tentative inquiries about the use of the building for asylum seekers. On 12 March 2001, I wrote to the then Home Secretary stating that in view of the sensitivities of the proposal, I would have expected, as the local Member of Parliament, to have been consulted at the very least. I set out my own serious worries about what I believed to be an inappropriate location for the proposed use. By this time, I had been made aware of the local authority housing and social care department's strong opposition to a proposal that it believed would completely undermine a successful local strategy for assisting asylum seekers.

I draw the Minister's attention to the letter of 23 March 2001 sent by Councillor Peter Loosemore, the Wakefield metropolitan district council cabinet member responsible for housing and social care, to Mr. Bob Eagle, the director of the National Asylum Support Service. The letter reiterated concerns that I had raised with the Home Secretary. Specifically, it referred to the inappropriateness of the physical location, saying: The proximity to the prison gives an inappropriate message to asylum seekers and to the local community". It said that the local authority had worries that a 200-bed accommodation unit would be excessive in size, with Angel's proposals for an average 21-day stay meaning an annual throughput of at least 3,400 asylum seekers. Councillor Loosemore reinforced my worries about the impact on community safety, as the location would make it easy for asylum seekers to be targeted. He outlined fears about the impact on education and social care services and other agencies.

Two days earlier, following contact with the private office of the then Minister of State at the Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), I had spoken directly to NASS. Mr. John Hinchliffe, the NASS head of accommodation, confirmed his comments to me in a letter dated 26 March 2001. It said: Angel Properties have reached their contractual limit for dispersal accommodation and on this basis the scheme is unlikely to be approved unless there are particular representations to the contrary from the Local Authority. The local authority was, by that stage, outlining its outright opposition in direct dialogue with the Angel Group as well as in correspondence to the Home Secretary and NASS. Mr. Hinchliffe concluded his letter by saying: I will ensure that a copy of your letter goes to my colleague, Les Hart, who is involved in the local consultation process and either he or I will advise you of the final outcome. Nearly two years later, I am still waiting.

During the following month, I forwarded to Mr. Hinchliffe correspondence that I had received from Councillor Loosemore and local constituents, evidencing renovation work being undertaken by Angel Group at the building and local recruitment of staff. By May 2001, the Angel Group had asked the local authority whether its proposed use of the building for asylum seekers was covered by existing planning permission. When it was established that it was not, the group subsequently made a formal application to which I and many others, including the local ward councillors who were active on the matter and the housing and social care department, objected.

I received a further letter from Councillor Loosemore dated 14 May 2001, in which he expressed serious concern that, despite two separate letters from the local authority to the Home Office, there had been no response or any formal consultation about the Angel Group's proposal. He said: The Council has also held initial discussions with a range of other key local and regional agencies who would be affected by the proposals. Many of the Council's concerns are shared by representatives of those agencies. I received a letter dated 15 June 2001 from the then Minister for Asylum and Immigration, Lord Rooker, again stating that the Angel Group did not have approval from NASS to use the property as emergency accommodation. He assured me that there was a full consultation process in place between NASS and the local authority-led regional consortia. On 1 August 2001, Councillor Loosemore wrote to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in an attempt to clarify NASS's position. He quoted the comments made in letters to me by Mr. Hinchliffe and by Lord Rooker. He also quoted from a letter to himself dated 9 August 2001 from Judith Simpson, head of support at NASS, in which she said: NASS is not therefore in any negotiations for this property. Councillor Loosemore then asked four very relevant questions which, as I understand it, remain largely unanswered. First, is NASS negotiating with Angel Group about the proposed provision at the college site? Secondly, why will NASS not consider the offer of local authority-provided emergency accommodation from the regional consortium instead of seeking it from private providers? Thirdly, if NASS is considering Angel's proposed use of the building, when will the formal consultation take place with the consortium and with Wakefield council? Fourthly, what weight will NASS give to the views of Wakefield council and the consortium during any consultation?

Over the summer period last year, I had personal correspondence with the Angel Group's managing director, Julia Davey. I stated that I believed that her company had been highly irresponsible in ignoring perfectly reasonable local concern. I stand by my view that the company is exploiting a difficult situation in a grossly irresponsible way, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley), who is in his place, has similar views from his experiences with that company.

In a letter to me of 8 October 2001, Lord Rooker stated: I can confirm that NASS is not negotiating with the Angel Group about the acquisition of Wakefield College for use as emergency accommodation for asylum seekers. On 18 October 2001, I met my noble Friend at the Home Office where he stated categorically that the Home Office had not asked the Angel Group to convert the building. An official from NASS had visited the building at the request of Angel and had told the company that the building was not required. If the Home Office were to consider its use in future, it would be done only with the support of the local authority.

On 2 November 2001, planning permission was refused and the Angel Group indicated its intention to appeal. On 30 January 2002, my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin and I met Lord Rooker at the Home Office. He stated that the Home Office had no intention of using the building for asylum seekers. He advised us that the Government would shortly announce the location of a series of new reception centres for asylum seekers. The Wakefield building was not appropriate for that use, being too small for the functions envisaged and sited in an urban area. Interestingly, when the NASS representative at that meeting was asked about the actions of the Angel Group he suggested that it had "an inside track" in NASS and gained information to its commercial advantage.

A further letter from Lord Rooker, of 7 May, informed me: Companies frequently buy properties speculatively and, although the possibility of the college being used to house asylum seekers in the future cannot be dismissed, NASS currently has no plans to do so". That letter suggested to me that there had been a slight change of position, and by then I was beginning to believe that the Angel Group's acquisition was more than mere speculation. It was also apparent from the Minister's reply that perfectly reasonable opposition from a local authority and others did not count for much.

In early June, I received a letter from a constituent, Mr. Robert Austin. I pay tribute to Mr. Austin and to another constituent, Mr. Roy Eyre, for their work on the issue. They are motivated by personal concerns as former prison officers. I also pay special tribute to Mr. Austin. The issue is sensitive and, at one time, the British National party in our area attempted to exploit it. There is no racial motivation in my concerns or those of my constituents. I much appreciate the fact that Mr. Austin gave very short shrift to BNP members who wrote to the local paper expressing their support for what he had done.

As former prison officers, Mr. Austin and Mr. Eyre have particular concerns about the security aspects of Angel's proposal. Mr. Austin provided me with the Land Registry entries relating to the sale of the building by the Home Office to the Angel Group for £1,161,000 on 6 July 2001. Part 4 of the restrictions in the charges register, agreed between vendor and purchaser, outlaws the use of the property for a range of purposes, including accommodating remand prisoners, ex-offenders and those in receipt of psychiatric treatment. However, there was an interesting exemption: paragraph 1.4 states: The use of the property for providing temporary residential accommodation solely for persons seeking political asylum or the right to reside (whether permanent or temporary) in the United Kingdom shall not be deemed to be a breach"— of the preceding restrictive paragraphs.

My hon. Friend the Minister will probably be aware that, due to my concern as to its contents, I passed the documentation to the Home Secretary when I met him on 12 June. In passing, may I say that I hope that my right hon. Friend is making a good recovery from his recent operation?

On 18 September, Sue Goring of the NASS secretariat wrote to Mr. Austin, assuring him that the college building would not be used as a hostel for asylum seekers. She went on to say: The site was visited by a representative from NASS and was deemed to be unsuitable for dispersal accommodation. Furthermore, the site is not under consideration for use as an Accommodation Centre. Interestingly, my constituent, Mr. Eyre, received a letter dated 8 November from the very same Ms Goring. It stated: I can only reiterate what I stated in my previous correspondence and add that Angel Group purchased the site without any prior arrangement with the Home Office. However, I must add that it may well be the case that NASS will want to use this site in the future. The Minister will be aware that a planning appeal was held on 8 October. I was present, along with representatives from the local authority and several local residents, including the two gentlemen whom I mentioned. Among the references provided in support of the Angel Group was one dated 4 October from Paul Winterbottom, the deputy director of NASS, which stated: The Group are committed to working in partnership with a broad range of organisations. That has not been our experience in Wakefield but, as my hon. Friend the Minister will be aware, the appeal was upheld at the end of October.

I am happy to provide for the Minister copies of the correspondence to which I have referred, as it is worth comparing the initial reply that I received from NASS with subsequent letters. I have come to certain conclusions from this long drawn-out saga. First, despite protestations to the contrary, it seems clear that certain parties in the Home Office were directly involved in the disposal of the building for the accommodation of asylum seekers.

Secondly, it is also apparent that the Home Office went ahead with the sale of the property for that known purpose despite being well aware of the fact that the strongest possible objections to the proposed use had been made by the local authority, the local MP and many other people.

Wakefield already has a hostel for asylum seekers in the city and wants to play its part in addressing the current crisis. However, to have top-security prisoners communicating from their cells to asylum seekers on the other side of the wall does not make sense.

I realise that my hon. Friend's Department has faced unprecedented problems in regard to asylum seekers and that has created great strains. However, that does not excuse the fact that certain officials in her Department have been somewhat disingenuous in their handling of this affair. I hope that, at the very least, my hon. Friend will investigate the actions of those involved and find out why I and others have been given misleading, inconsistent and sometimes incorrect answers to our inquiries. I hope, too, that she will realise that using the building for asylum seekers would be wholly inappropriate.

8.7 pm

Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)

I did not anticipate that I would have the opportunity to make a speech in the debate. I assure those Members still in the Chamber that I shall not carry on until 10 o'clock. My comments will be brief.

My experience with the Angel Group is similar to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe). The company followed a similar course of action when it acquired the Centrex site in High Ercall in my constituency—not on an option but outright, for a payment, which I understand amounted to £2.5 million. That is a considerable amount to speculate on the possibility of winning a contract with the Home Office.

That fact caused great concern in the small rural community of High Ercall. People thought that if Angel was as confident of having its way as it appeared to be something must be about to happen and that a contract between Angel and the Home Office must have been drawn up. It was extremely difficult for me and for others to try to convince the local community that there was a due process through which decisions would ultimately be made and that no decision had yet been taken.

As their Member of Parliament I endured—like my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield—a lengthy period, between October 2001 and July 2002, of rumour, scaremongering and speculation as to the future of the site and the consequences for my community. I am grateful to the Minister for taking the opportunity to clarify the situation in July. However, that has not been the end of the story and, again, there is an uncanny parallel with my hon. Friend's experience.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I understand why the hon. Gentleman is anxious to add to the remarks already made by the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), but we are bound by the fact that the debate relates to Wakefield prison. The debate is not about the company or the procedures, but about Wakefield prison's suitability for the purpose identified by the hon. Member for Wakefield. So the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) must have a care. I know that he is going to make his remarks brief, but they must be about Wakefield prison.

Peter Bradley

I will try to be even more ingenious than I have been in seeking constantly to refer to the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield. I will keep my comments brief and try to relate them to the experience at Wakefield prison.

I share my hon. Friend's concerns about the apparent relationship between the Angel Group and the Home Office in relation to Wakefield prison. I attended the meeting to which he refers and well recall the comment of a Home Office official when he raised his own concerns about that relationship. The official said that the Angel Group seemed to have an inside track—that was the expression he used—and seemed to be able to anticipate the decisions that were being made at official and policy level by the Home Office before anyone else seemed to know about them. That is a very serious allegation coming from any source, but it is yet more serious coming from a civil servant. I very much hope that the Minister will confirm in her reply that, if investigations have not yet taken place, they will be conducted now as a matter of urgency.

The issues that my hon. Friend has raised are extremely serious whether they affect Wakefield, my constituency or, indeed, anywhere else. As we already know, plans to accommodate and deal with asylum seekers are extremely sensitive and highly controversial, and it is extremely difficulty to cope with local people's concerns and expectations.

I had a similar experience to that of my hon. Friend, as the BNP turned up in my constituency. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's constituents and, indeed, my own for the fact that, when they recognised who those people were and what their agenda was, they gave them short shrift.

I should like to conclude with the plea that I made to the Minister's predecessor, Lord Rooker, at the meeting to which my hon. Friend referred. My plea is simply that the Home Office should not tolerate lower standards of community relations from the private sector than those that it would adopt itself in dealing with such sensitive issues. As I have constantly said, my experience echoes almost to a fault that of my hon. Friend. It is not enough for a public body, much less the Government, to say that little can be done to influence the conduct of a private sector organisation.

I very much hope that the Minister will be prepared to make it clear that the Home Office will inform the Angel Group and any other private sector organisation that wants to be involved in such highly sensitive public issues that, if it has even the expectation of entering into contracts with the Government, it must conform not to the lowest, but to the very highest standards of local community relations.

My experience at High Ercall in The Wrekin is that the Angel Group has treated the local community and its representatives—the parish council, the unitary authority and the Member of Parliament—with utter contempt, and my hon. Friend's experience is very similar in Wakefield. Frankly, that is not the way in which we should pursue such policies, with or without the private sector.

The Angel Group does have form; it does have a record and if the Minister was not aware of that fact before, she will be now. I very much hope that a strong message will go out—not from hon. Members such as my hon. Friend and myself, but from the Minister—to the Angel Group, telling it that the way in which it has conducted itself in the past will no longer be tolerated in the future. Unless it can get its act together and show good faith—frankly, few of us who have had direct experience of the company would accept that at face value—it should be blacklisted and the Home Office should no longer be prepared to deal with it.

8.14 pm
The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) on gaining the opportunity to debate this important issue this evening. I hope that I can reassure him that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I absolutely understand his concerns. Indeed, on 29 October 2001, my right hon. Friend made it clear, in answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley), that a provider would be very ill-advised to buy any property speculatively with a view to offering it to the Home Office for use as accommodation for asylum seekers.

My hon. Friends will understand that we cannot prevent providers buying such property; nor can we prevent them from applying for, or obtaining, planning permission to use a property for that purpose. We are not, however, obliged to accept such properties and, in light of the unequivocal statement made by my right hon. Friend, he and I would certainly be prepared to do so only after very careful consideration.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield is primarily interested in the former Prison Service college in Wakefield, and my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin is equally concerned about a site in his constituency, but I heard your advice on that issue, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When the Angel Group was in the process of purchasing the Wakefield site and others, it made it clear that it was doing so with the intention of offering them to the Home Office for use as accommodation for asylum seekers. That is absolutely true, as I understand it. As I have already said, however, we are under no obligation to accept those properties for that or any other purpose.

Let me make it clear that the decision on where asylum seekers are housed does not lie with accommodation providers. That decision is one for the Home Office and ultimately Ministers, and I emphasise that the company did not buy the property at the request of the immigration and nationality directorate. Following the Angel Group's purchase of the former Prison Service college, it sought planning permission to use the property as hostel accommodation for asylum seekers. A member of the procurement section in NASS made an informal visit to the site at that time, but, following that visit, the company was told that NASS did not wish to use the building as dispersal accommodation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield has said that he met my predecessor, Lord Rooker, in October last year to discuss the Angel Group's proposal. At that meeting, Lord Rooker confirmed that NASS had declined the offer made by the Angel Group and said that, if the situation were to change, there would be full consultation before the property was accepted if we considered doing so.

My hon. Friend met Lord Rooker again on 30 January this year, when Lord Rooker made it clear that the property was unsuitable for use as dispersal accommodation and that it was not being considered as one of the sites for the trial of accommodation centres, but he said that, although no plans for the site were being considered, it was not possible to rule out its use in some way in the future.

As has been said, the Angel Group's original application for planning permission was refused, but then allowed on appeal. That is a matter for the local authority, as my hon. Friends will know, and I cannot comment on that application. However, the Angel Group has now formally offered the accommodation to NASS. I am happy to assure to my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield—I wish to make this absolutely clear—that we shall not use the property as dispersal accommodation or in the trial of accommodation centres.

There is, however, a current need for some additional emergency accommodation, and NASS has been considering whether the sites at Wakefield and High Ercall would be suitable. I have decided that that would not be appropriate in the circumstances because there are significant problems with both those locations, so neither site will be used for our immediate or foreseeable needs. Although I cannot foresee a time when the problems involving both sites will be such that I would agree to use them, I cannot give my hon. Friends a categorical, absolute and indefinite assurance that they will never be used because I cannot predict how the situation that I am trying to manage with officials may change.

I am very grateful that my hon. Friend recognises the inherent difficulty that we face in managing what is and must be seen as a national issue, with some shared ownership, with which many areas will have to help us to deal. As he has acknowledged, Wakefield is already doing so. In the unlikely event that I consider it necessary to use either property, should they remain available, I reaffirm the commitment to consult thoroughly with them and the local parties with as much notice as possible.

My hon. Friend raised a couple of specific issues on which I want to touch. In relation to the contents of the Land Registry record, and the inclusion of an acceptance that use of this site for asylum seekers would be appropriate, as he knows, the college at Love lane was declared surplus during the summer of 2000 and scheduled for closure later that year. Subsequently, it was given over to the Prison Service estates section for disposal. I know that my hon. Friend will argue—in a sense, he is right—that that is part of the Home Office, and therein lies some of the difficulty in deciding whether it is a case of the Home Office trying to sell to the Home Office. The Prison Service estates section, however, is a separate section, and it was dealing with that disposal. Given the college's size and layout, and the pressures that IND was under at the time to provide emergency accommodation, the site was offered to IND, but it decided that it could not make use of Love lane. It was therefore placed with agents to sell on the open market. As he now knows, unconditional offers were received, and it was sold to Angel Group, whose offer was the highest.

Mr. Hinchliffe

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's helpful and thoughtful response. Accepting that different tribes operate within the Home Office, may I assume that, if, at some unforeseeable point in the future, a need is perceived to use this particular building, the NASS tribe might consult the prison tribe on the security implications of asylum seekers being accommodated directly opposite the wings of Wakefield prison.

Beverley Hughes

As I said, given the issues raised by my hon. Friend, I think that it is highly unlikely that we would think that that was an appropriate location. I can say with absolute assurance, however, that should such a need arise, however unlikely at this point of time, I will insist on a full appraisal of all of the issues in relation to location, and particularly the security issues, as he raises a valid point in that respect. Arguably, given the concerns expressed to him by people working in the Prison Service, that point should have come to the fore in an appropriate way.

I want to explain the reference to housing asylum seekers as being a possible appropriate use for the site in the Land Registry record. When the Prison Service sells any site, it must ensure that any future use will not compromise the security of the prison, and Wakefield is a high-security prison. That is why several uses have been excluded. For absolute clarity, however, the Prison Service was saying at the time that, of all of the uses that the Home Office might consider, it did not regard housing asylum seekers as a security risk. That does not compromise what I just said about us considering the matter again, but that is the technical reason why that issue was made absolutely clear at the time of the disposal. As a matter of routine, the Prison Service would have to make clear what uses it thought were suitable or not suitable.

In relation to the apparently contradictory information and apparently contradictory statements of intentions by IND officials in various letters over a period of time, I agree that, at the very least, the letters to which my hon. Friend referred were confusing. On the face of it, they are not necessarily evidence of a deliberate intention to mislead. It may be more the case that officials use language very specifically—to them, hostel accommodation means dispersal. Understandably, however, he and residents read that language very generally, so that it may mean accommodation for any purposes. I understand that that is not good practice in terms of communication. As I want to explore the issue, I would be very grateful if he would provide me with all of those documents, some of which—but not all—he was kind enough to fax me this afternoon. I will write to him comprehensively about the issues that he has raised in that regard.

On the question whether there is any kind of inside track for this or any other company, I am aware of my hon. Friend's concerns. The Home Secretary instigated an investigation into that possibility some time ago, after his previous expression of those concerns to my predecessor as Minister, and no evidence of any relationship or untoward dealings was uncovered. I feel, however, that we need to look closely at the routine procedures that are used in our contracting relationships. NASS is in a difficult situation in the sense that, over the past year, we have needed more accommodation than has been readily available. It is understandable, in a way, if the first port of call to look for additional accommodation is with those who already provide it. I have already made it clear to officials, however, that not only must we be completely above board in those relationships but absolutely transparently seen to be above board. I will therefore ask for an examination of all the procedures that we follow to make sure that they are properly documented and that we can account properly for decisions that are made, notwithstanding the sometimes difficult and fluid situation with which officials must deal when trying to house people who turn up in the country at sometimes very short notice.

I hope that my hon. Friend will accept the assurances from me, and, through me, from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary: first, in relation to the likely future for the building as regards any IND use, which, as I have made clear, is unlikely, although I cannot absolutely rule it out; and more generally, in relation to the efforts that I will make to answer his specific questions about communication levels, and to look at our procedures in detail to make sure that we are seen to be behaving in a proper way and that we can account for our decision making fully and openly.

Peter Bradley

Will the Minister give way?

Beverley Hughes

I had finished, but I will give way with pleasure.

Peter Bradley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am glad to hear those assurances, and I pay tribute to the even-handed way in which she has addressed these difficult issues since she has been in office. Can she confirm that the investigation that she mentioned will seek to improve communications between the various tribes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) described them, in the Home Office so that they speak with one voice, and that it will also seek to improve communications with prospective private-sector providers to ensure that, as I have argued, they provide a maximum rather than a minimum amount of information to people who have a right to know?

Beverley Hughes

Yes, I can. I want to provide the assurance not only in respect of private providers, but of NASS and IND more generally. My hon. Friends will be generous enough to accept that this is an inherently difficult issue. Whatever people's genuine feelings about the need to respond to the issue constructively, most people reject the prospect of accommodation of any kind being provided for asylum seekers in their area. They do not want to hear such a message. I hold the strong belief—I may prove to be wrong—that one cannot deal with that difficulty by battening down the hatches and saying as little as possible. We have to face it squarely, provide people with information and argue the case even though people might not want to hear it. IND and the people with whom we work, including the private sector, have more to do to generate the culture of meeting the difficulties squarely and of providing full information. People will still not like the message, but they will not then be able to complain that we have not treated them as adults and given them full and open information.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Eight o'clock.

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