HC Deb 11 June 2002 vol 386 cc740-56

'Where an asylum seeker is resident in an accommodation centre under this Part, an initial decision on his claim shall be made at the accommodation centre by the Secretary of State, and any appeal to an adjudicator shall be made by the adjudicator at the accommodation centre.'.—[Mr. Letwin.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.29 pm
Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

I should love to hear the arguments that the Home Secretary would make for my new clause, but I fear that he will not have that pleasure.

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 164, in clause 15, page 9, line 5, after "accommodation", insert— 'for no more than six months (subject to the provisions in subsection ( ) below)'.

No. 2, in page 9, line 6, after "centre", insert— 'for a maximum period of 10 weeks'.

No. 31, in page 9, line 10, at end insert— '( ) A person may only be accommodated in an accommodation centre for a maximum total of six months, except in exceptional circumstances when the Secretary of State may arrange for an extension of at most a further three months in total.'.

Mr. Letwin

As the Home Secretary knows, the Conservative party has welcomed the idea of accommodation centres, not least because the Conservative party originally made the suggestion. Indeed, it was my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) who earned such opprobrium from Labour Members for making that suggestion. She taught us the need to think hard about how the accommodation centres should be constructed.

We are thus in agreement with the Government on the fundamental principle that there should be accommodation centres as a way of beginning to bring again some order to the chaos of our asylum system. However, the world is unfortunately a more complicated place than administrators would like it to be. It is not the case that adopting the right idea in general will deliver the right results in general. If the right idea is adopted but the details are wrong, the results will be wrong. Alas, the accommodation centres as proposed by the Government—so far—are not structured in a way that leads us to believe they will achieve the admirable results that both the Home Secretary and I want to see: the rapid processing of claims by asylum seekers so that those who are refugees, who have in many cases fled from appalling persecution, quickly find a home in this country, and those who are misusing the asylum system as a way around the immigration rules are speedily dispatched from this country.

In order to achieve those admirable results, the accommodation centres need to be structured in a way that gives real hope that the processing can be quick. That is why I am moving new clause 1, tabled in my name and those of my hon. Friends, and especially amendment No. 2, also tabled in our names. I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will be willing to allow us to vote separately on the new clause and amendment No. 2, as each is, in our view, of sufficient importance to deserve a separate vote.

New clause 1 has a simple purpose: to ensure that both the initial decision and the adjudication of any appeal are made in the accommodation centre itself. In a moment, the Home Secretary may—I hope that he will—explain to the House why, to date, the Home Office has resisted that suggestion. Perhaps there is some reason—some rational grounds—for that resistance, but I have to say that we have not yet heard those rational grounds.

I know that it is unfamiliar for those who are, in effect, judges to be told where to sit. I know that the Home Secretary—like previous Home Secretaries—has sometimes had some difficulty in dealing with the judiciary and with the Lord Chancellor's Department, and indeed with adjudicators, but I maintain my faith that if the Home Secretary and the Home Office work hard enough the adjudicators could be persuaded that it would be appropriate for them to sit in the accommodation centres.

Why would that be an advantage? At present we face an enormous paper chase. The Home Secretary will be much more vividly aware than I, considering the matter from a distance, can possibly be of the colossal amount of bureaucratic effort currently going into sending pieces of paper around the countryside in order that appeals can be heard at places that are often extremely distant from where the decisions were originally made and where the asylum seekers in question are resident. If the accommodation centre is to have its purpose fulfilled, it needs to be a place where that paper chase does not occur. Only if the adjudicator is on site will the paper chase be abolished.

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

Is not the answer to the problem posed by the hon. Gentleman more efficient administration at the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department? In other words, if the paper chase that he describes is dealt with, it does not really matter where the adjudicators sit—the administrative problems would be solved.

Mr. Letwin

In principle, the hon. Gentleman is right, but the problem is that human beings are involved and they tend to behave in ways that we are all familiar with in our own case.

Let me try to illustrate for the hon. Gentleman the two pictures that I have in my mind. One—we shall come to the other as we proceed through the amendments and new clauses today—is of a smallish place in which asylum seekers largely from one location, and, I hope, in many cases, entirely from one location, are grouped. For example, let us consider a small centre, probably in a city, inhabited by asylum seekers from Somalia. It is occupied by decision makers equipped with an independent country risk assessment in which they can have real faith. They get to know about the intricacies of Somalia. No Member of the House could be expected to know much about Somalia unless they had visited it, read about it, and talked to people who really understand its current politics, tribal make-up and so forth. Similarly, decision makers cannot be expected to know those things unless they are dealing with those matters. An adjudicator on site, next door, who also understands the circumstances of that country, can make a judgment quickly about whether the applicant, given the information presented, is likely to be a refugee.

Those are genuinely difficult human decisions to make. If they are made on the basis of remote location and paper, no matter how hard the bureaucrats in the Home Office, the Lord Chancellor's Department and the court service work—I understand that they will strive hard—it is extraordinarily difficult for someone dealing with a range of different places and cases at a remote location to avoid sending back some of the papers for further verification and inquiry. Paper moves back and forth because human beings find it difficult to operate under circumstances in which they are dealing with a wide array of matters and are widely dispersed. We will not process these claims in a rational amount of time until we acknowledge that.

I do not have to speculate about whether I or the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) is in the right, as the Home Office has admitted that I am. It says that it will take about six months to process claims in the accommodation centres. That is why we wish to press amendment No. 2, which limits the processing to 10 weeks. I do not accept that 10 weeks is a proper time—it seems well beyond the proper time—but I think that it is a proper limit, because there will be exceptional cases that have to take longer than the main run. I think that I am right to say—my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald will correct me if I am wrong—that when she first put forward the idea of accommodation centres, she expressed the hope that claims might be processed in six weeks. I share that hope.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett)

You are living in fairyland.

Mr. Letwin

The Home Secretary—this is an interesting remark—says from a sedentary position, and I am sure that he does so sincerely, that we are living in fairyland if we hope for that. I fear, however, that that remark tells us everything we need to know about what has happened. The Home Secretary and his Ministers have been captured by a corporate culture within the bureaucracy, which has come to believe that 18 months is the norm, six months is a heroic achievement, and six weeks is fairyland. While that culture obtains, we will never have an orderly and effective asylum system in this country.

Mr. Blunkett

I do believe that six weeks, as the limit not the norm, is fairyland. In 1997, the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, inherited a time span of 20 months from entry into the country to final conclusion of appeal. That was under a Government in which the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) served as a Home Office Minister. With respect to the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin)—with whom I have a lot of sympathy on his first proposition, to which I shall refer later—reducing the period from 20 months to six weeks is fairyland.

Mr. Letwin

I want to make three responses to the Home Secretary's remarks. First, I do not think that the proper limit can be six weeks—amendment No. 2 suggests a limit of 10 weeks, as I accept that there will be exceptional cases. Indeed, if the Home Secretary were to propose a mechanism for extreme exceptional circumstance, to be subject to a further extension, we would consider it. To establish a norm of six weeks, we need a general limit that is slightly longer. Were the Home Secretary to imagine that six weeks will be the norm in practice without setting a limit and by merely expressing a hope that everything will be achieved in six months, he will indeed be living in fairyland, because it will not happen.

Secondly, if the system is operated in its current form, three years from now I will have the great electoral advantage of being able to explain that the Home Secretary has failed to address the chaos of the system because he has not dealt with many applicants. If there are 3,000 people and a six-month processing period, it does not take more than simple arithmetic to demonstrate that the system will deal with only 6,000 applicants out of, perhaps, 100,000, including dependants. A six-month processing period will not solve the problem. The Home Secretary has as much incentive as I do—perhaps even more—to find a way to turn six weeks as a norm into something that is far from fairyland. I accept that six weeks would not be the absolute limit, but unless he turns it into a norm, we will not bring order out of chaos.

Thirdly, it is no part of my purpose to claim that previous systems or Governments were perfect. The right hon. Gentleman's predecessor was not and the same is true of him so far. We all share the blame for the fact that the system is in chaos. We need to discuss how to put it right. However, if it is still in chaos in three years' time, it will not be possible for the right hon. Gentleman to claim that it is someone else's responsibility. I think he recognises that it will be his responsibility. I assure him that he will not fulfil that responsibility with a six-month processing period. I am delighted to hear that he might be sympathetic to the idea of having adjudicators on site because that is the single biggest step, although not the only one, that he could take towards achieving something like a six-week processing period. If we could reach agreement on that, it would be a major step forward.

I do not want to tarry much further because there is no point spinning out speeches once the point is made. However, one other matter is relevant. We propose that the centres are short-term items, through which people pass at great speed. They should be on a small scale and situated in the centre of cities. That model would avoid the problems created if they are structured as envisaged in the Bill. Our proposal would not require the measures that the Home Secretary is taking, which have proved so difficult for him to defend to his party. It is to the advantage of the Labour party itself that he should seek a model that conforms to our image of the centres. That is the way to avoid the problems. No one would worry about where a few children in a small centre were educated for six weeks. It is because human beings are to be in vast camps for six months that all the problems arise.

I use the term "vast camps" advisedly. It is not that I think the Home Secretary intends to create inhumane places. I am sure he will try be as nice as possible when he structures the centres, but he must think about how they will look and feel. Let him reflect on what happened at Yarl's Wood and on the security costs of vast accommodation centres when claims take months to process. Those are real and practical considerations. Let us have in our minds a different model of small, quick, specialised, one-stop shops, because on that basis we can make real progress.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

Although the debate will be relatively short, it is important because it deals with the sort of accommodation centres that we should have. There are grounds for consensus if the Government can be persuaded to move closer to the position advocated by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. It is interesting that all parties agree that it is worth trialling accommodation centres. The idea has been put forward, in different guises, by different people. Everybody agrees that we are talking only about trialling them; they are not meant suddenly to take all asylum seekers, because most of them will be dispersed through the current system.

This debate is about how big the centres will be and how long people will stay in them. It is about what will happen when people arrive at the centres and, in particular, whether adjudication should occur on-site. I take the view, and previous speeches by the Home Secretary are as good a basis for it as any, that people should spend no longer than six months in an accommodation centre. I think the Home Secretary used the phrase "God forbid" about the idea that anybody should be in a centre for more than six months. We want to tie him down to that objective, and we think that amendment No. 31 is a reasonable means of doing so. It provides that the six-month limit would apply other than in exceptional circumstances, when the Home Secretary would be able to grant a three-month extension.

4.45 pm

We tried to respond to the debates in Committee, in which the Government understandably said they did not want legal action to be taken simply because a person's stay in a centre slipped over the limit by a day or a week. We hope that the second stage of looking after people and determining their needs could be achieved in six months in normal cases and in nine months in exceptional ones. After all, it is contemplated that there will be only a handful of places. According to the Government, if 3,000 asylum seekers are to be accommodated, there will be only three or four centres, and if the centres were of the size suggested by Opposition Members, there would be at most 12 of them. I hope, therefore, that the House will be sympathetic to the idea of a maximum stay in a centre of six months, even with a three-month extension in exceptional cases.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking)

There is a lot in what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Does he accept that there is an interesting parallel in criminal law with custody time limits? Those are absolutely fixed and rigidly adhered to, but they can be extended in particular cases by special permission from the judge.

Simon Hughes

Not only that, but along with some of my Scottish colleagues behind me, I am aware also that Scotland has a much more rigorous tradition of fixed time limits, and cases must be dealt with within 110 days.

Where there is a will, there is a way. People will go into a reception centre for a week or two when they first arrive, and then there will be a second phase of assessment. Again, we must not forget that the centres are to be trialled, so this is a matter of preparing for them. If we build into the process enough staff and facilities, surely it will be possible to deal with cases within a certain time. We are starting from scratch; we do not have to plan around any historical difficulties. I hope, therefore, that amendments Nos. 164 and 31 will find favour with the House.

We dissent from the Conservatives' view that the process can be completed in 10 weeks. That is near to being impossible, and I would rather start by setting a possible target. The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), who has legal experience, and others have made perfectly practical points. We have to be realistic because we are trying to find a working model, and I do not think that 10 weeks will be long enough. Whether or not the adjudication is done on-site, it is unlikely to be possible to do paperwork and translation, to check facts and to get evidence in one place. I flag up the fact, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that when the time comes we will seek to persuade you to allow us to vote on amendment No. 164 or amendment No. 31, according to the convenience of the House.

I turn now to new clause 1. I listened to the debate in Committee, and I listened to the hon. Member for West Dorset today. I have been persuaded that it would be possible, on a trial basis, to bring the adjudicator to the asylum seekers rather than take the asylum seekers to the adjudicator. I say that because a maximum of 12 and a minimum of four places around the country would be involved, because there would be a regular flow of casework and decisions, and because there will inevitably be a regular flow of people who want to exercise their right of appeal from the initial decision, which may be no, and go to adjudication, which might result in a yes.

Although I am sure that most hon. Members remember this, I remind the House that a significant number of cases succeed on appeal. If 20 per cent. succeed in round one, the initial decision, one in five cases—a further fifth—succeed on appeal. If one is going to win in round two, it is important that round two happens soon after round one so that one does not have to endure the trauma of thinking that one's case has failed. It is also important that someone who is not a civil servant or a member of the Government or the Executive should make the decision, which will hold for a long time. An independent adjudicator, who is nothing to do with the Executive and who is seen to be independent, should come. So long as the process is clearly arranged so that the people whose cases are to be determined understand that the people who are to adjudicate are independent and not part of the decision-making process, and so long as the tribunal or court, as one might call it, comes to the place where the people whose cases are to be determined are, it is worth trying.

There are many points on which we might disagree more fundamentally, but I hope that the House agrees that the proposal is worth trying. I hope, too, that the Home Secretary will agree that a six-month maximum, with an extra three-month period if that is really needed, comprise a reasonable middle way that can be adopted for the first accommodation centres. In that way, we might get a principle on which we all agree working in practice.

I end with a warning: if we take the wrong road, if we create accommodation centres that are far too big, if we put them in the wrong place, if we do not provide facilities in them, the centres will not succeed. They will be unpopular, unsuccessful and inhumane. We have a duty to try to get the system right. Not all the wisdom is found on the Government Benches or in Government offices; it lies in the experience of those throughout the country who know what they are talking about and who want to share it so that the House can reach the right decisions.

Mr. Blunkett

I will attempt to be brief, but I want—and I think the House expects it of me—to use this initial debate to set out our position in the general debate on accommodation centres, so that hon. Members know where the Government stand and what we will ask them to vote on at 7 o'clock.

First, let me say in response to the opening remarks made by the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) that there is not as much distance between us as might first appear. I accept that there should be a presumption that adjudicators should be on site, rather than that those on site should go to the adjudicators. I am prepared to consider how the House of Lords think such a provision might be phrased on the face of the Bill, and to talk to the Lord Chancellor and the chief adjudicator about the best way to organise it.

The arguments that the hon. Gentleman put today and that have been rehearsed previously lead us to a desire to ensure that we do not have to take asylum seekers out of a centre when it is not necessary to do so. One of the clear justifications for having accommodation centres and trialling them is the ability to create a fast-track, simple, administratively manageable process that cuts through the sheer mind-blowing bureaucracy that has bedevilled the immigration and nationality directorate since its inception. If we can do that, the morale of those working in the service at every level, including the adjudicators, will be improved. Furthermore, those who want their case to be dealt with speedily and expeditiously, and Members of Parliament who have to deal with enormous case loads because they have substantial dispersal centres in their constituency—I am one of those Members—would experience great relief. It is therefore in everyone's best interests to get the system right.

The first thing to do may well be to pick up the suggestion that one centre trials the programme, but I accept that, given scepticism about the process of dealing with nationality and asylum, Members want a provision to be included in the Bill. I hope that that helps the House and assists the main Opposition on what they feel they need to press to a vote, given the time pressures of debate for three quarters of an hour, followed by a vote.

Mr. Vaz

I, too, am persuaded by the comments of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). It is not a matter of where the adjudicators sit; what matters is the quality of justice and the administrative support that is given. The Home Secretary may recall that when visitor appeals were first introduced, Labour Members suggested that adjudicators should travel to Mumbai and New Delhi to deal with those cases much more swiftly. I welcome what he has said and hope that we can pursue the matter.

Mr. Blunkett

I am not giving way on the amendment as tabled because there will be cases in which it is appropriate for someone to be transported to another place for adjudication if that makes the process easier.

That brings me to the substantive issue on which so much else rests. If I am right, the disquiet of people who are concerned about families in particular and the nature of services, including education, to be provided on the premises is based primarily on the length of time that people are likely to be in an accommodation centre. That has to be the case, I suggest to the House and colleagues whose views I respect and understand, because there are many disruptions to the lives of children and families as they go through the existing process, including dispersal.

It is worth rehearsing the argument that the dispersal system was put in place because enormous pressures on London and the south-east resulted in great difficulty in providing services and disruption to social cohesion and community well-being. My predecessor therefore established a dispersal system which has been gradually improved, but still leaves a great deal to be desired. There were pressures in certain parts of the country, often in areas with the highest proportion of empty accommodation and where services were more readily available—for instance, there were places in schools which had not been taken up locally—so we ended up with major clusters of dispersal.

It is worth reminding ourselves that we are talking about asylum seekers who are seeking leave to remain or refugee status, not immigration per se. The way in which articles are written, interviews undertaken and speeches made—I exonerate entirely Front Benchers from the two main parties and, indeed, my colleagues—shows that some people, either by misunderstanding or mischief, have mixed the concept of immigration and the social, economic and cultural value that immigrants bring to our community, with the issue of dealing with those who enter the country on the premise that they risk life and limb if they remain at home or, in other words, are seeking refugee status.

I make that point because we are debating how long someone should be in an accommodation centre on a trial basis before going through the whole process if they press their claim to final appeal; there is layer on layer of appeals, as we debated on Second Reading and have discussed elsewhere.

Simon Hughes

As the Home Secretary knows, I share his view on that. I also share his view that there has been witting or unwitting confusion by commentators, which is unhelpful. May I repeat a practical suggestion that I made in Committee? When we have dealt with the Bill in the House, we should try to separate the provisions on asylum from those on immigration, as different rights and processes are involved. This major Bill would be much clearer if one part dealt with one issue and another dealt with the other.

5 pm

Mr. Blunkett

I understand what the hon. Gentleman says. I think that it was important to include the issues in the same Bill, just as I put the proposition that it was crucial that they were dealt with in the same White Paper. That is the case for reasons that most people accepted on 7 February as being part of an attempt to achieve a coherent nationality, immigration and asylum policy, instead of merely an asylum policy, which is what people have often accused Governments of different persuasions of having.

We are all desperately trying to move towards such a policy. Those who attempt to inflame the debate outside—some of them know better and should be devoting their charitable work to children and families who are at risk in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere—do not do anyone a service when they denigrate the efforts of some of us to put on to this country's agenda a positive migration policy that welcomes people from throughout the world.

That involves welcoming people who are making a contribution to our communities, doubling the number who can receive work permits, establishing new migration routes and ensuring with the UN that we can provide gateways for refugees so that they can apply for asylum from outside the country instead of having to seek entry clandestinely in order to make an asylum claim.

If we can have a debate of the sort that we had on Second Reading and in Committee, between people with a genuine intention to see off racism and prejudice and put in place a trusted system that builds confidence in our communities and deals with those who flee from persecution, we will be doing everyone a favour.

It is in that spirit that I want to address the issue of time limits. I have already made it clear that we do not believe that a 10-week provision is feasible. I believe that a six-week provision is fairyland. The shadow Home Secretary was right to say that the history of the issue under discussion is bedevilled by good intentions that are followed by complete failure. Having praised the enormous efforts of the immigration staff and people working for the support service for having reduced from 20 months to the current average of 11 months the process of taking people from induction to final appeal, it is unusual for a Home Secretary to say that there is so much further to go that it is breathtaking that people have put up with the system for so long.

It is true that that process is better than those in other European countries. Our removal record is better, but it is still abysmal. Everyone who has ever dealt with a constituency case on asylum—for reasons that I have given, two thirds of my constituency cases relate to asylum in one form or another—knows that we have to get to grips with the matter once and for all. I have responsibility for policy and my officials have responsibility for administration and competent delivery. However, in the end, I accept that, as the shadow Home Secretary rightly said, I will carry the can if I am still in the job. Indeed, I suppose that I will also carry the can if I am put out of the job, so one way or the other, I will carry it.

Let me explain what I hope we will be able to do. If we can achieve adjudication on site after immediate induction, we will be seeking to break the current cycle in which people come into the country, make themselves available and are usually put into temporary accommodation, where, regrettably, they usually live for some time while dispersal arrangements are made. It is unusual, but not impossible, for the children of families who are seeking asylum to be found an educational place, but it is difficult to envisage that happening in the first week or two. I remember my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) saying on Second Reading that the process takes time, so the issue is about time. Other hon. Members, including the two previous speakers, have pointed out that we are talking not about the principle of trialling accommodation centres, but about how long people will stay inside them.

Under the current system, when people are dispersed, the relevant authorities find them the services that they need. They find accommodation, often by working with the voluntary sector, and a GP, and also a school if they have children. It therefore takes time to complete the second round of assessment following the dispersal, having already utilised temporary accommodation. If we could cut that out, and move people from induction straight into accommodation, we would be able to provide those services almost immediately, providing an initial assessment of people's needs, including, in the case of those with children, the needs of the child.

I guarantee that we will consider how best to ensure that children's educational needs, having been assessed when they first enter, can he renewed at a certain point in their stay in the accommodation centre, which most hon. Members believe should be as short as possible and should not be more than six months, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said. There will, of course, be exceptions. People extend the appeals process in all sorts of ingenious ways, helped by ingenious lawyers. That is their right. They try to extend the process for as long as possible, having not succeeded initially.

Let me pause for a moment to give a picture of the length of time for which people will be in accommodation centres. Over the past two months, we have got the initial decision down to less than eight weeks for 70 per cent. of applicants. That is still not good enough; it is still not reaching the target for a year, but it is getting there very rapidly. Given that I have been quite robust about the nature of bureaucracy in the system, I pay tribute to those in the immigration and nationality directorate who have worked really hard to make that possible.

We know that by granting either exceptional leave or refugee status we can get a quarter of those who initially apply through the system very quickly indeed. We are therefore left with those who go into the adjudication system and beyond. I believe that within the six-month period we should be able to, and in fact must, get through the adjudication system and at least the early part of the new revised second appeal procedure, which was discussed in Committee and will undoubtedly he debated in another place at great length if we do not get to it tonight.

We are therefore talking about the small number who reach the six-month point. I am prepared to provide for that in the Bill where it occurs in relation to families. It is not a major problem for singles, who are often single young men. Occupying them, however, is a problem. Anyone who walks about the centre of Sheffield, Birmingham or townships around the country this summer will soon find that out. Young men from Kosovo, Romania or Poland—you name it—will be hanging about. I would rather that they were occupied properly. There is still much to be done on providing and facilitating volunteering. I should like them to be occupied meaningfully in accommodation centres. All those who go in will have a language facility for their own mother tongue and the ability to start learning English, which, if they do not stay, will be of help to them when they return.

Ultimately, of course, the majority do not stay, so here is the nub of the question. What favour will we have done to families and children, when we come to remove them, if we have put their integration into neighbourhood schools at the top of the agenda? It is virtually impossible to drag a family away from a neighbourhood school.

On removal policies, I inherited the most enormous target that hon. Members on both sides of the House pleaded with me not to fulfil—when it happened to affect people in their own constituencies. Local papers run local campaigns to stop people being removed. But if the Government do not have a removal policy, we have no borders and no asylum or immigration policy. We might as well just say, "Invite everyone in." That is pretty near to what one or two people have written—until, of course, those whom they represent lose their jobs or are unable to maintain the minimum wage because they are undercut by the flow of people.

On a lighter note, the blessed name of Nicholas Ridley comes to mind. When he was Secretary of State for Transport, he devised the most brilliant solution for traffic jams: he suggested doing away with traffic lights. Market forces would have come into play, and no one would have been able to get the car out of the drive, let alone down the road. People would have had to leave their cars at home, and traffic jams would have been a thing of the past. The same circumstances would apply to mass immigration to Britain if we had no border controls and no semblance of an asylum policy. The real world tells me that we must take cognisance of what happens in practice when we try to effect our end-to-end policy, including removals.

In the House of Lords, I hope that we can include the educational interests of the child in the Bill so that the children of families who have been in an accommodation centre for six months can be assessed by the education service before the time has elapsed. Unless the family wishes to stay, it will be presumed that they will move out of the centre. I pick up the Liberal Democrat suggestion that there will be a maximum of a further 12 weeks for people to remain. It is right to provide for that, not least because it puts the onus on the immigration service to get its act together and ensure that people's cases are heard.

Given that the majority do not qualify for refugee status, it would help us to be able to remove them to removal centres, which also detain. An article in a newspaper this morning wrongly used the term "detention centre" for accommodation centres. It would be helpful if those who did not qualify for refugee status could be put in a removal centre and removed.

We are establishing new economic migration gateways and offering people alternative routes into the country. I therefore hope that vast numbers of people will not claim asylum when they are not at risk of life and limb but try to come here legitimately and openly as economic migrants. Agreement across Europe, which I shall endeavour to kickstart properly on Thursday in Luxembourg, will facilitate that. We will thus lessen the pressure on the system, including dispersal, which will continue for some years if the trial centres are a success. We must get dispersal right. We must provide support for schools, housing and GP practices that have to take the challenge of large numbers. I am deeply grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills for being present.

I understand why hon. Members say that we should not put accommodation centres outside urban areas, but we cannot have an asylum and immigration policy that provides that only deprived, inner-city areas take those who are transient because they are seeking the right to remain in the country. We cannot have that; it is not right in principle or morally or for race and community relations.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire)

Why does every organisation across the political spectrum, except the Government, oppose large accommodation units in rural areas?

Mr. Blunkett

I am not sure that that applies to everyone of every political persuasion. It does not apply to people in my constituency. They already welcome transient people and will do that for the foreseeable future, through, for example, 130 units of accommodation, usually for approximately 250 people, but without facilities such as on-site language provision in the mother tongue or adult education. The children are found places in schools that are not oversubscribed. In my city, that applies to schools that are not in the south-west of Sheffield; schools in that area are massively oversubscribed because they have the best educational outcomes.

5.15 pm

Of course, when people find that they are under pressure in an area, as happens in many parts of London, they go private in large numbers. I am not just talking about Kensington and Chelsea, where more than 50 per cent. of residents send their children to private schools. In Hackney, one of the most deprived boroughs in the country, 16 per cent. of residents send their children to private school at secondary level. So, there are opt-out facilities for some, but not for others.

I am not advocating that all accommodation centres should be in rural areas. I am simply saying that there should not be a presumption, such as the one put forward earlier. I am not seeking to pick on the shadow Home Secretary—as hon. Members know, I like him, and we are getting on far too well for that—but he did mention that it would be a good idea if the accommodation centres were in urban areas. I am merely saying, for balance, that there is a case for having a rational distribution.

I also accept the rational approaches that have been made to us by the Refugee Council, for which I have the most enormous respect, regarding experimentation with smaller centres. I only have so many resources, I have to achieve economies of scale, and I have the ability to put the centres in place and to see whether they work, but I am not dogmatic about their size or their location. We are also about to embark on evaluating the private and voluntary sector proposals. If people can come forward with alternative sites, I ask them please to do so. I do not think that we have handled the detailed consultation and the initial proposals as well as we might have done, and I think that my hon. Friends who have also been dealing with this matter accept that as well.

So, here we are this afternoon, with all the hype outside, and with general agreement that we should have a trial, and that the people in accommodation centres should be there as briefly as possible. There is also general agreement that it is not evil or discriminatory to educate children in an accommodation centre, where they will receive mother tongue and English support as well as a broader education, inspected by Ofsted and supported by the local education authority, without placing an undue burden on local schools, and that they should be there for as short a time as possible—with a maximum of six months for families in terms of their educational interests being assessed. That seems to be a reasonable compromise, and I am prepared for us to encapsulate it in an appropriate amendment in the House of Lords.

Mr. Iain Coleman (Hammersmith and Fulham)

May I push my right hon. Friend a little on that point? I do not think that anyone on this side of the Chamber who has major concerns regarding the proposal to take children out of mainstream education is saying that that proposal is intrinsically evil. Bearing in mind the number of children involved, which would, as I understand it, be between 100 and 120 in any one accommodation centre, I think that my right hon. Friend is being slightly disingenuous—unwittingly, I am sure—when he says that those children could place a huge burden on local schools. In my local education authority area, more than 10 per cent. of primary school children and more than 8 per cent. of secondary school children are asylum seekers or refugees. The people who run the local education authority—the people at the coal face—have expressed sincerely and genuinely their belief that they are not being overburdened. So, how could such a tiny number of children—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Order. The hon. Gentleman's intervention is now growing into a speech.

Mr. Blunkett

I shall return to my initial distinction. The facts that are put to Members need to be investigated. I am happy to do so in terms of determining whether we are talking about those who are in transit as seekers of the right to remain as refugees, or those who are seeking asylum, plus those who have gained refugee status, plus those who have come in through other migration routes. I accept that that can often be a major plus to a locality and to a school—I have said so already.

The issue is which school or schools close to an accommodation centre could take 120 children, bearing it in mind that we have accepted that, with few exceptions, people are in principle in favour of trialling the accommodation centres.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Blunkett

Let me finish. I received some acclaim from my hon. Friends behind me for which I am eternally grateful, as the Home Secretary does not often get it, when I said that the centres should not simply be in the most deprived areas of the country. However, places available and deprivation regrettably go together, because parental preference often leads, from those who are on the edge—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have allowed the Home Secretary a certain discretion, but he is gently wandering over amendments that we have yet to discuss. I would be grateful, as would the House, if he confined his remarks to the amendments that we are dealing with.

Mr. Blunkett

I stand corrected, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think I have made the point.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

A moment ago, my right hon. Friend said that people are in favour in principle of accommodation centres. Can he give me the name of any organisation or group of people that is in favour of centres that accommodate 750 people?

Mr. Blunkett

People's contributions to the debate have varied. In fact, the organisations that made representations often made different ones. When the Immigration Advisory Service and Refugee Action responded to the White Paper, they were quite willing, so long as there was no lengthy stay in accommodation centres, for them to have different volumes. The Refugee Council did not like the idea of 750 places. I have agreed that we shall experiment with a smaller centre, and we shall work with the Refugee Council on achieving that.

There is an argument about size as well as duration of stay and what should go on in the centres, but the case that I am making is that those matters can be resolved through trialling and a bit of give and take. Broader services, including education, provided on the premises, so long as too long a stay is not involved, can be a plus, not a minus, for those who would otherwise be in transit from one place to another as they pursue their claim, as they are supported through the National Asylum Support Service system and as they eventually reach the point when integration becomes a reality for some and we need to support them better, but also when for the majority—more than 50 per cent.—removal has to be the final conclusion.

In that spirit—within the overall context of the White Paper, with a drive for new routes for immigration and with a welcome for the diversity and the culture that it brings in respect of entirely new views here and, I hope, across Europe on the value of inward migration and an understanding of the worldwide movement that is taking place—I ask the House to reject the amendments and to accept the assurances that I am giving after listening and responding to Members on both sides who have put a rational case.

Tony Baldry (Banbury)

I support my hon. Friends on the Front Bench, particularly on amendment No. 2. The Home Secretary must know that not a single organisation concerned with the welfare of asylum seekers supports the combination of an accommodation centre for up to 750 people and a remote rural location, and he will recall that on 3 May a number of organisations ranging from the Refugee Council to Amnesty International wrote to him to express their concern about that combination.

Sir Michael Spicer

To add to that list, the Transport and General Workers Union has come out today in support of that position.

Tony Baldry

Yes. We probably all heard Bill Morris on the "Today" programme saying that the policy—the combination of scale and location—was fundamentally flawed. The Government's White Paper, published in February, said that asylum accommodation centres would be judged on other things, including reduced decision times and tighter management of the interview and decision-making process.

The Home Secretary said this afternoon that he was content that people should stay up to six months in accommodation centres. We know from answers given in Committee that up to 80 per cent. of asylum seekers are single young men. We are told that accommodation centres will contain up to 750 people. If the accommodation centres reflect the asylum-seeking population as a whole, at any one time up to 600 single young men will be in such centres; the impression is given that they will be there for six months.

I would like to invite every hon. Member of this House to come and visit the site chosen for the accommodation centre in my constituency. The Home Secretary was candid enough to say that he thought that the consultation up to now had not been as good as it might have been. I say to him that there has not been any consultation up to now. There has been minimal consultation between the Government office for the south-east and the local planning authority on simple planning grounds, but there has not been any consultation with local people.

It is a pity that no Minister has come to visit the proposed site. I wish I could say that the most exciting thing that can happen in the neighbourhood is seeing the traffic lights change. The only problem is that there are no traffic lights. The proposed site is between two villages. There is a pub in one of them, and a village shop in one of them. The nearest town is five miles away. There is no cinema in the town, and no college of further education. Facilities are fairly limited. What will these young men do for up to six months in that centre? They are going to get bored out of their minds. The Home Secretary made some comments earlier about people getting bored in the summer; six months is a very long time.

We were told in Committee that only 8 per cent. of applications actually succeed. That means that a large majority of applications to remain as refugees under the UN convention fail. If people are to remain in remote rural accommodation for up to six months, I predict that a number will just drift away to where communities of their own nationalities live. That will not be to the benefit of the Home Secretary, who wishes to see these accommodation centres succeed.

If we are to have accommodation centres, we require a much greater sense of applications being dealt with as expeditiously as possible. If the impression is simply given that large numbers of people are to be housed in remote locations for up to six months, asylum seekers will find that incredibly frustrating. There is a likelihood that we will start to see a significant number of those asylum seekers, particularly those who predict that their claims may fail, simply fading away because they know that their chances of being deported, even if they are discovered, are fairly remote.

The Home Secretary is determined to have these large accommodation centres in remote rural locations, and no hon. Member need doubt the remoteness of the locations selected. We all know why that is; as he acknowledged this afternoon, the Home Secretary was tight for funds and had to make a deal with the Treasury. The only way in which he could do that was by using existing MOD or other Government land, some way away from London and the south-east. If he wants this to succeed, there needs to be a much greater sense that applications will be dealt with expeditiously, as opposed to the impression of drift that he gave this afternoon.

The idea of 750 people, 600 of whom are single young men, being bored and frustrated in remote rural locations for up to six months suggests that this is a trial destined for failure.

5.30 pm
Simon Hughes

This has been an extremely constructive and conciliatory debate on a controversial subject, and I am grateful to the Home Secretary for that, as he calls the shots by virtue of his office. Let me say to him mischievously that he may have led us into trespassing on the next group of amendments, and indeed the two groups following that, but I understand the reasons: clearly, what he said on the issue of size will determine the views that we take on other matters. I hope that he will offer a similar response when we discuss location, for example.

If I interpret the Home Secretary correctly, he has accepted the Conservative proposal on the siting of the adjudication process, which is welcome, as well as accepting in principle, if not in the absolute detail of the wording, the Liberal Democrat proposal for a six-month provision with a three-month extra opportunity in suitable cases. I understand that that is in relation to families only. I appreciate that that is a priority, and it deals with the issue of children. The Home Secretary and I are more closely associated with each other in our ideas on that than we are with some others of our colleagues in our respective parties.

There remains a big issue in relation to single male asylum seekers. I have experience in my constituency of a centre in which 750 of them were housed for a long time, and I do not think that an indefinite period is an adequate outcome for any centre. I hope that we will discuss that constructively again, and I will be happy to take part in any such discussions. We welcome the Home Secretary's openness to consultation, and we will not press amendments Nos. 164 or 31 to a vote.

Mr. Letwin

I join the hon. Gentleman in thanking the Home Secretary for making significant constructive moves towards achieving consensus. I accept entirely that it will be better to see what the Government can come up with in the House of Lords on the question of adjudicators than to press the motion to a vote. I hope, however, that we will have an opportunity—at 7 o'clock, I think—to vote on amendment No. 2, because I persist in believing that the six-month period, although it might seem rational to those immured in the current culture, is likely to generate all sorts of problems. I want to insist on the 10-week limit.

It is no part of my intention to suggest that the centres should all be located in areas of deprivation. In fact, there is a strong case for their not being located there, for just the same reason as there is a strong case for their not being located in remote rural areas. In each case there are particular difficulties, for both the inhabitants and the local populace. That is why we should try to use the 80 per cent. or so of the country, by habitation, that is neither very deprived nor very remote and rural.

I persist in believing, with the Refugee Council, Amnesty International and others, that city and suburban sites would be better. What really distresses me is that the Home Secretary is not even talking about trialling that proposition. A small number of trials in this domain will not satisfy the urgent requirement for order in a chaotic system, but if we are to have trials—as opposed to a fully fledged, fully working system—they should at least encompass all possibilities, so that we can revisit the argument two or three years from now on the basis of full information. I hope that the Home Secretary will make a concession on that point in due course, but in the meantime I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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