HL Deb 10 July 2002 vol 637 cc689-714

3.6 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Filkin)

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Filkin.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Ampthill) in the Chair.]

Clause 15 [Support for destitute asylum-seeker]:

Lord Bhatia

moved Amendment No. 107A: Page 9, line 16, at end insert "and () there is a place available in an appropriate maintained school for any dependant of school age The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 107A, I shall speak also to Clauses 31 and 32. I want to focus on the issue of education for children. Perhaps I may relate to the Committee the experience that I, as an immigrant, have had when dealing with children.

The children who come with their families as immigrants are, in many cases, in a highly disturbed mental state. They have been asked to leave their homes without understanding why their families have suddenly decided to leave their country and to settle in a new one. Their minds are full of fear because of what they hear from their parents. They do not understand what is being said, but the fear stems from hearing their parents talking, in some cases, about prisons and police. One fine morning their family decides to leave their country, more often than not clandestinely and without a specific or normal form of transport.

Such children arrive in this country satisfied by the one notion which their parents are able to give them—that they are going to a country that is free and fair and to a home where they may be able to settle down without fear or isolation. Those are the children who arrive with their parents in this country. The impressions they carry from the past are those of repression, persecution, prison and so forth. Their expectations are of coming to a free country. They hope to find sanctuary, as their parents tell them.

On both those issues, the children are in a confused state, to say the least. My amendment deals with that situation. One of the things the children probably most understand is that they will attend school as soon as they reach England. If a child suddenly finds that he is being isolated from normal schools, which perhaps are just outside the centre, and that he is expected to attend a specially designed education centre within the accommodation centre, that could bring back images of isolation, persecution and all the other issues which are in the minds of children who arrive here.

Clauses 31 and 32 remove the duty on the local education authorities to provide education for children in accommodation centres. That means that children in the centres will no longer have the right to be educated in mainstream schools. My amendments would remove those clauses and require that families with children of school age may be placed in accommodation centres only if there are school places available locally.

The issue was not debated in the House of Commons. That is a great shame, given the depth and breadth of feeling about it. Indeed, over 140 MPs, over 100 of whom were Labour, signed a Motion calling on the Government to withdraw this part of the Bill. As a result of some of that pressure, the Home Secretary offered to ensure that after six months the education of children in accommodation centres would be reviewed. But that does not represent any significant change in the Government's position, given that they have always indicated that asylum seekers would spend about six months in the centres.

The Government have also sought to justify the proposal by saying that most asylum seekers who end up being recognised as refugees will remain in accommodation centres for only two months. But in the Standing Committee, in response to calls for a six-month time limit on a stay in an accommodation centre, Angela Eagle said that six months was "a tough call" in terms of processing claims.

Segregated education is regressive and discriminatory. Our education system should be freely available to all children living in this country, as was envisaged when it was created. To say that a child's refugee status should determine whether they can attend mainstream school is a dangerous and unprecedented attack on the principle of universal access to mainstream schools.

The concept of "separate but equal" was discredited decades ago. What is more, such an argument misses the point. Opposition to this proposal is grounded not on differing opinions on the nature of the quality of the education that will be provided, but on the fundamental principle that is at stake. That principle is simple: no group of schoolchildren should be compulsorily educated separately from other children on the basis of their immigration status.

It is interesting to note that some of the arguments used by the Government to defend this policy were also used to defend vouchers. We were told that vouchers would be equal to what other people receive, only different, and that they would be necessary for short periods, so the strong opposition was unwarranted. Vouchers were abolished and I believe that this discriminatory policy on education for children will fail, like all other discriminatory policies before it.

Children (like adults) and asylum seekers (like all of us) have fundamental human rights. Those are set out in detail in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the UK signed up in 1991. The convention makes clear that rights within it must apply to all children without discrimination. Furthermore, Article 28 sets out a child's right to be educated on the basis of equal opportunity and states that different forms of secondary education should be available and accessible to every child. It is difficult to see how refusing refugee children access to mainstream schools could not be in violation of Article 28.

Article 3 of the convention is also relevant. It states that in all actions concerning children, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration". I strongly contest any assertion that the best interests of the child are guiding this policy. The Government state that it will be better for children seeking asylum to be educated separately, but that flies in the face of what we are told by the charities and organisations which work with such children. On what evidence is the claim that the children will be better off being educated in the accommodation centres based? In particular, which professional organisations and other experts have endorsed that view?

The list of experts and broad spectrum of organisations fiercely opposed to the education proposals on the basis that they are not in the interests of children and violate their rights includes: Save the Children; the Refugee Council; the T&G Union; the Children's Society; the National Union of Teachers the National Society for the Protection of Children the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association Barnardo's; Oxfam, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers; UNICEF, and many others.

Children seeking asylum have deep concerns about the proposals. One child consulted by Save the Children said that they would feel as if they were in prison if they were not allowed to go to the local school from the accommodation centres. Another pointed out that they would learn English more quickly if they went to school. The Joint Committee on Human Rights recently issued its report on the Bill. In respect of education proposals the report stated in paragraph 62: We understand the disquiet which has been expressed at the prospect of removing the children of destitute asylum-seekers residing in accommodation centres from mainstream schools, and educating them separately in accommodation centres. It gives rise to troubling echoes of historical educational regimes in some other countries where children were educated separately on the basis of race or colour, under the now discredited pretence that the separate provision was equal. Separate education on the basis of ethnicity or national origin breeds and entrenches social and educational inequality and inhibits or even deters integration". It is difficult to see how this disturbing policy squares with the Government's broader social inclusion agenda, particularly in terms of ensuring that the same opportunities are available to all children in the UK, whatever their circumstances. Elsewhere, the Government are making strenuous efforts to promote inclusion and integration. Those efforts will clearly be undermined by the ramifications of the segregated education system. The draft children's strategy published by the Children and Young People's Unit at the end of 2001 states: We believe that all policies and services for children and young people should be: Equitable and non-discriminatory. All children and young people should have access to, and be enabled to participate in, services that they need, when they need them, in a way which respects diversity and their individual needs. It would be interesting to know how much the Home Office talked to colleagues in the Children and Young People's Unit and in the DfES when this policy was formulated. It certainly does not inspire confidence in the Government's claim to be promoting joined-up thinking across departments. It is important to recognise that for children, integration cannot wait until a final positive decision has been made on their asylum claims. What may be a relatively short period for an adult can seem like a lifetime for a child and represents a significant part of childhood and development.

Proposals to provide services and to educate refugee children separately will have a long-term detrimental effect on their development and successful integration into society.

Save the Children works with children seeking asylum in this country and, based on its experience, believes that inclusion is a vital ingredient of rehabilitation. It has found that mainstream schools are the ideal starting point for refugee children to rebuild their lives and to enable the genuine inclusion of all children and their families in our communities. The structure and routine of a regular school day can help to provide a sense of normality and security in a child's life, which is vital to promoting their emotional, educational and social well-being.

It is interesting—and disturbing—to consider what kind of messages we are sending to the public by not just sanctioning a system of segregated education but actually creating one. There is surely a danger that that kind of measure has the unintended but predictable consequence of giving oxygen to prejudice and signalling to the public that discriminatory treatment of asylum seekers is acceptable. It is a sad lesson to teach children that if you are different you are set apart.

The status of children seeking asylum as asylum seekers should always take second place to their status as children. Uppermost in our minds as we formulate policies that affect these vulnerable children should be a clear and a genuine desire to discharge our duties to protect and care for them and at all times to promote their best interests.

If Amendment No. 107A is accepted, Clauses 31 and 32 would be redundant as refugee children would be educated in mainstream schools. I beg to move.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

I express my warm support for the amendment. I believe that it goes to the heart of the question of whether the Government really and seriously put the welfare of the child before any other consideration in caring for them while they are in this country and preparing them, in many cases, to be fully integrated into British society.

Yesterday the Minister said on a number of occasions that he believed that accommodation centres would be good places for asylum seekers to be. That may be the case for some people. It may be the case for some of the adults. I believe that it is not the case for any children. It is self-evident that children will be better cared for if they are educated in mainstream schools.

There are serious worries about the educational provision that might be made in accommodation centres. The teachers there will not necessarily be required to have completed an initial teacher training course. What will the quality of teaching be? Matters such as anti-bullying policies and discipline will not be covered by statutory duties but set out in individual agreements made for each accommodation centre. There will be no obligation for an accommodation centre to have a child protection policy in place. That is a serious worry.

No one quite knows what the role of the LEA will be in the delivery of education in such places. It becomes clear that the education to be provided in such places would be less good than the education in maintained schools. By definition, we cannot want asylum-seekers' children to be educated in this way.

It is important to recognise the experience in mainstream schools of caring for asylum-seeker children, which, by and large, is quite good. It can be challenging but it can be successfully achieved. Some comments made by head teachers are relevant here. One said: We challenge anyone to stand in our playground and pick out the refugees from the rich array of children happily playing together. We regard the presence of refugee children with their particular experiences as a unique benefit to other pupils". Quite apart from the benefit to themselves of being in that place, They [other pupils] learn a great deal from them and develop knowledge, respect and acceptance". Another head teacher said: My point is not that the proposals are illegal"— which of course they would not be if the Bill were to be enacted— nor that they are morally indefensible (which I believe them to be), but that they are unnecessary, resource-inefficient and fundamentally at odds with the Government's avowed commitment to pluralism and social inclusion. I am convinced that educating refugees and asylum seekers in a mainstream school actually works, and that my experience, backed by the judgement of Ofsted and HMI, supports that conviction". There is evidence that it works; that it can be done; and that it is a better way of doing it. Certainly children, so far as they know their own minds, want to go into schools, as the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, has said. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has commented critically on that part of the provision of the Bill.

I wonder whether the Minister has done his sums on the matter. Yesterday it was claimed that 80 per cent of asylum seekers would be young single men and that 20 per cent would be partly single women and partly families. Families comprise parents as well as children. Might it be reasonable to suggest that 5 per cent of asylum seekers will be children of school age? Even if we have accommodation centres on the scale of 700 people, which I hope we do not, we shall have 35 children in each centre. One does not have to be a genius in educational policy or mathematics to know that schooling provided in such a place for 35 children, ranging in age from five to 16, would be an educational disaster, however good the teaching. The evidence is that the teaching will be less good than that provided in maintained schools.

It is self-evident that this amendment is a highly desirable one. I beg the Government to accept it so that families will go into accommodation centres only if schooling is available for school age children in mainstream schools.

Lord Moser

I strongly support the amendment put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia. This is one of the most regrettable—I feel almost like saying disgraceful—parts of a Bill which sets out to be positive and welcoming to asylum seekers and to refugees generally. I dread to think what would have happened to me if, when I came here at the age of 13, I had been somehow prevented going to a mainstream school.

As the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia has said, these clauses send exactly the wrong signals to the rest of the country and to communities. They send a signal that for some reason or other best known to the Government these children will be educated in ghettos called "accommodation centres". That is exactly the wrong signal. The clauses go against all the worthy remarks that we have heard from Ministers about integration. On the first day in Committee, when I spoke about naturalisation, I questioned the Government's insistence that applicants for naturalisation, who were probably previously children of asylum seekers, should be tested not just for English, which is desirable, but for their knowledge of society. The whole signal was meant to be that these people should be integrated totally into our society. How do the Government square that with this attempt to separate children to begin with from the hope of total integration? It goes exactly in the opposite direction.

There are other objections of a more technical kind. What will happen to these children after six months when, having been in the obscure accommodation centre and separately taught, they go into a mainstream school—if that is what happens. I could go on, but the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, has made all the points. There are no sound arguments in favour of Clause 15 of the Bill.

I regard the Home Office's attitude to this amendment—the Home Office, as I remember from my days in Whitehall, is not always the most flexible of government departments—as a litmus test of its attitude in general.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Dholakia

We would like to hear much more from the Minister about some of the important issues raised by the three noble Lords, and, in particular, by the excellent contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, on the issue.

So far we have not disputed the establishment of accommodation centres. The Minister is well aware of our approach. There should be a time limit. Asylum seekers should not find themselves in such accommodation centres for more than six months. However, one of the difficulties is the blanket approach that the Government seem to have taken to the matter of education.

I shall cite an example. We must recognise that, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford said, there will he children and young people with different educational needs. We must bear in mind that a substantial number of asylum seekers are well-qualified people—doctors, vets and engineers. They have left their country to seek asylum here because of the persecution that they have suffered. Their children would have been to an educational establishment in their own country and are here only because of the persecution that their parents suffered. How will we arrange for the education of people who have obtained certain qualifications in their homeland? Will we, for example, provide classes in the accommodation centres for youngsters doing something in physics, botany or zoology? It is highly improbable that accommodation centres would have the facilities. That is why it is so important that we recognise the different needs.

We are talking of cases in which it is perfectly possible for youngsters to benefit from mainstream education in the area in which they find themselves. If the Minister or the system were, ultimately, to decide that those families do not qualify to stay in this country, we should try to ensure that, at the least, they return to their homeland with a high opinion of the standard of education that they have received, rather than adopting the broad-brush approach that accommodation centres would provide all the relevant facilities.

That important exception must be made. I hope that the Minister will consider seriously the substantial arguments made by noble Lords about the matter.

Baroness Whitaker

I should like to express some concern about the amendment, although I do so with great trepidation and with apologies to the NGOs that have discussed the matter with me. I also apologise to the noble Lords who moved the amendment, for whom I have a high regard.

It seems to me that education in accommodation centres could be safer—safer than some secondary schools that I know—not only for the children but for the parents who would take them to and from school. I say that with knowledge of secondary schools. Such provision could also be more appropriate for children who have, almost certainly, come through a traumatic experience. It ought, of course, to be of a standard equivalent to that in mainstream education. However, it must be for only the short period in which the families seek asylum. The matter is entirely different when such people become refugees.

Like other noble Lords, I have had many letters about the contribution made by refugee children, and I have direct knowledge of it. However, those letters are about refugees. I wonder whether some pressure groups have been confounding refugees with asylum seekers. The noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, used the term "refugee children" when moving his amendment, as did the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford when he quoted the head teachers.

I add two riders to my feeling that education in accommodation centres might be better. First, the education must really be appropriate and be provided by qualified, expert and committed teachers who know about the context of asylum seeking, not by those who cannot get work elsewhere. Secondly, it must last for only a short period. As was said yesterday, six months is too formative a period in a child's life.

I remind noble Lords who referred to the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the committee did not come down entirely against education in accommodation centres. The report says that such matters call for careful judgment an d that the new clauses will be useful in various ways. I invite my noble friend the Minister to show such balanced, careful judgment in dealing with the amendment.

The Earl of Sandwich

I am sure that my noble friend Lord Bhatia is right to say that universal education should mean just that and that no group in our society should be denied it. Those who seek refuge from persecution and arrive on our shores already belong to our society. In contrast, various clauses in the Bill provide for asylum seekers to be left in a kind of limbo of accommodation centres and with another version of education, until they are recognised as refugees.

Children who enjoy a range of rights under the two UN Conventions and our Children Act 1989 would, apparently, be denied those rights because of a perceived failure on the part of their parents, rather than the state. There is a duty on local authorities that goes back to the Education Act 1944, and it should not be interfered with. That point was reinforced by the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland—I see that she is in her place—who, in reply to a Parliamentary Question in January, said that children of asylum seekers and refugees had the same rights of access to the education system in the United Kingdom as any other child. We might argue about the word "system", but I submit that the noble Baroness might well be thought to be sympathetic to the amendment.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford referred to the JCHR report, so I shall not quote from it. However, I refer noble Lords to section 62, on page 24. I recognise that the amendment does not solve the problem of asylum seekers for whom there are no places in local schools. However, the Bill would represent a retrograde step, and I strongly support the amendment.

I must apologise to the Minister. I have an urgent appointment and must leave the debate.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

The Government's problem is the size of the centres that they plan to have. There might easily be 50 children descending on a village school. We cannot do that; it would not work. If the centres were smaller, there would be no problem, and I agree with the noble Lord who moved the amendment that that is the ideal solution. There is a problem, and it must be seen from the point of view of the local authorities who run education.

Lord Joffe

Normally, it would be indefensible for us to create a law that stipulated that a particular group of children was to be prohibited from going to school because of their immigration status. That would be legislating for discrimination. However, in order to understand the Government's proposals, we must consider whether there are compelling reasons that would, none the less, justify having segregated education for the children of asylum seekers.

Many of the Government's arguments in defence of the policy are flawed and inconsistent. On the one hand, they say that they want to promote the integration of asylum seekers; on the other, they develop a policy that is in stark contradiction to that, proposing to segregate children in accommodation centres. On the one hand, they say that they want schools to be inclusive; on the other, they say that a particular group of children is not allowed to go to school. On the one hand, they say that the quality and nature of the education in accommodation centres will mirror that in schools; on the other hand, they say that it has not yet been decided whether the teachers in accommodation centres will even be required to complete initial teacher training or whether the full national curriculum will be available.

I shall put aside those flaws and contradictions, for the moment. A better starting point for objective consideration of the issues would be to apply the test that flows logically from the justification for trialling accommodation centres that the Minister provided yesterday. I shall paraphrase what he said when he spoke of accommodation centres being the best way of providing the support that asylum seekers need while waiting for their applications for asylum to be speedily determined.

Extrapolating from those remarks, the crisp issue in relation to education is whether segregated education is the best way of providing the support that the children of asylum seekers need. Certainly the major children's charities and teaching unions that have the practical experience of teaching refugee children do not think so. In recent weeks the major children's charities and teachers' unions have been saying repeatedly and unequivocally that children seeking asylum are better off in mainstream schools where they can gain the full benefits of the richness and value of social interaction with peers and can enjoy fully the social and developmental dimensions of the school experience so vital to their well-being.

Another message emerging from schools with refugee children is that their presence benefits all children by helping them to learn in practice—not just in theory—about tolerance, respect and diversity. The head teacher of a school with a significant proportion of refugee children among the pupils has been quoted by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford. Another headmaster, this time of a secondary school in south Camden, says: I believe the most appropriate place for refugee students to be educated from the time of their arrival is in mainstream schools. I am very proud of the asylum seeking children we have in our school. They contribute a great deal to our school and I very much respect their commitment to education and their parents' commitment to their children's education". Nobody is trying to argue that the inclusion of children seeking asylum in mainstream schools does not present a substantial challenge to individual schools, teachers and local education authorities. But it is worth remembering that the inclusion of other groups of children, such as homeless children and those whose first language is not English, can bring similar challenges. We have successfully found ways of rising to those challenges. Surely we have all reached a common understanding over the years that the answer is not to segregate groups of children who are viewed as problematic, but rather to share the good practice that has been developed and to work closely with schools and teachers to ensure that adequate and appropriate strategies and resources are in place. A different approach in the case of children seeking asylum sets a dangerous and undesirable precedent.

The National Union of Teachers states: The Home Secretary's proposals are a denial of every tenet of education and equality legislation". The union argues that education within the confines of an accommodation centre cannot equal the range of provision within a school or education authority. It is possible that at any one time in an accommodation centre, there will be children who range from the under-lives to primary, secondary and post-16s. No school in the United Kingdom could replicate that range of provision, let alone an accommodation centre.

The Government have said that the nature and quality of education provided in accommodation centres will be comparable to that of schools. I wish to explore that. I should be grateful if the Minister would provide more information on the following questions. What qualifications will teaching staff in accommodation centres be required to have? What types of support staff will there be in accommodation centres? Will they include educational psychologists and youth workers, for example? What vocational courses will be available to young people aged over 14?

I have further questions for the Minister. What are the estimated costs of setting up and running accommodation centres and, separately, what are the costs of setting up and running the educational services that must be provided? How do those education costs compare with the costs of refugee children attending mainstream schools? It may be that solely in the light of those costs and ignoring the important principles that have been outlined a better way of supporting the children of asylum seekers would be to subsidise the mainstream schools they could attend which, in turn, would overcome all the other problems that exclusion from such schools will generate.

In conclusion, I cannot resist the temptation to refer to another experiment in tailoring courses for a particular group of underprivileged people, which happened in South Africa. I do not compare for a moment the motivation of this Government with that of the South African Government which led to the lack of education for a vast sector of the population. But the lesson to be learned from that regime is that there is great danger in setting precedents in education for particular groups of people. I support the amendment.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

I say immediately that I share the care and concern expressed on all sides of the Chamber about the education of the children of asylum seekers who are placed in accommodation centres while their applications for asylum are dealt with. I underline that because the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, have confused the debate to the extent that the terms "refugee children" and "asylum children" have been used as if they were interchangeable, which they are not.

It is as well that the Committee reminds itself that the purpose of accommodation centres is not the education of the children within them. I say that not in a brutal way. The reason for discussing the establishment of accommodation centres is to provide safe and secure accommodation for people, including families, while their applications for asylum are considered and appeals subsequent to such applications are dealt with. The mathematics, as I calculate them, are that the stay in an accommodation centre will be between 16 weeks and a maximum of 26 weeks, with many families arriving when local schools are closed in any event—for six or seven weeks in the summer, for example, and at intermittent periods throughout the year.

We must focus on the purpose of accommodation centres and swiftly afterwards concentrate on the best way of attending to the educational needs of the children of those who have made an asylum application. Without seeking to cause offence, I have to say that we are not talking about a family discussion as the education of our sons and daughters, or grandsons and grand-daughters is being planned and we decide where they will go to school. We are dealing with adults and children who, under the 1951 convention, have been forced into the hands of people smugglers. In order to make an application for asylum in the United Kingdom, we insist that people travel half-way across the planet, putting themselves at the mercy of people smugglers. Your Lordships have heard me say before that it is a crazy way to run a system, but that is another matter and does not arise on this amendment.

Some, if not all, of the parents and children to whom the amendment refers will have spent many weeks, or several months in some cases, being smuggled and ferried across international borders at least half-way across the planet. That is the state in which those adults and children arrive in this country.

Earl Russell

If the noble Lord, Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, wants to discourage people traffickers, as I do, would he not be more effective by attacking carriers' liability than by segregating the children of their victims?

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

Certainly not. That is an entirely different issue. Members of the Committee may have heard me try to argue my view that under the 1951 convention, applications for asylum should be made in the first safe country in which the asylum seeker finds himself and dealt with by the diplomatic posts in that country. But that is another matter.

I was describing the dreadful state in which such children and their parent or parents arrive in this country and are sent to accommodation centres. They will remain in the centres for between 16 and 26 weeks. What then is the point of saying, "Yes, go into the nearest local school, but if your application is refused, and if that is confirmed on appeal, you will be out of that school"? That further change is avoidable if they are educated properly in accordance with the national curriculum, as my noble friend will confirm will happen. After all, these children have already experienced turmoil and disturbance over several months. That is an argument for the establishment of the accommodation centres. A further strong argument is that those who reside in them have time to become accustomed to new and different surroundings.

At that stage, the children are not refugees; they are the children of asylum seekers. There is no reason why the education provided in accommodation centres for that short period should be isolated from that being delivered in local schools. In fact, there is every good reason why every attempt should be made to foster links between local schools and the children in the centres. I am sure that that is the view of teachers, too.

We are losing sight of the fact that we are dealing with children who have not had regular experience of education. That is not for one minute a reason to deny them proper educational provision, but it is not as though they are moving school from Durham to Surrey. Most of the children come from extremely deprived circumstances and, if recent events in Afghanistan were anything to go by, the girls were banned from attending school.

We should concentrate on getting the education delivered within the accommodation centres right during the relatively brief period in which the children are expected to be there, rather than assuming that they will suddenly become refugee children and be denied mainstream education. That is not the Government's intention.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

I approach this difficult question on the premise that it will be better for a child in an accommodation centre to be educated in the local school than in the centre. The noble Lord, Lord Corbett, knows a great deal about these matters and was a distinguished chairman of the All-Party Home Affairs Committee in the other place. However, I was disturbed by his speech because it leads to the conclusion that because many of the children have had a rough and rotten deal for many months, they shall be exposed to a rough deal in the context of education for up to 26 weeks.

Noble Lords


Lord Mayhew of Twysden

That is a conclusion, if my initial premise is correct. The noble Lord said that it is not the purpose of the centres to educate the children. I agree that the primary purpose is to give them somewhere safe to live. But an extension of that argument might be that it is not the purpose of the centres to maintain the children's health if we do not propose to exclude them from the local hospitals.

In that regard, I object to the fact that the Bill makes it mandatory that no such child shall attend the local maintained school. A Member of the Committee—I have forgotten who—said today that we are trialling accommodation centres. That echoed what the Minister said yesterday. With customary frankness, the Minister said that the Government are not certain that they have got everything right, but let us give them a trial. That was in the context of the numbers of people the centres were to contain. Why do we not carry out a trial of allowing the children to go to the local schools?

The provision need not be mandatory, because of course there are problems. My noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour pointed out a most important one; that in some schools there is not sufficient accommodation. That will not always be the case. Indeed, we heard significant second-hand evidence from head teachers about the advantages to the schools and their pupils of having the children attend.

I ask merely that the Government should think again about the matter. They should delete the mandatory prohibition and, in proper cases after proper consultation, allow children to attend mainstream schools. That is all I ask. The arguments I have heard so far have not persuaded me in favour of maintaining the Bill as it is.

Lord Chan

I strongly support the amendment. I make a plea as one whose professional career has been in the care of sick children. The number of children likely to be housed in accommodation centres, as calculated by the right reverend Prelate and confirmed by the Minister, is small. They are not all of the same age. However, it is important to appreciate that all the children have been subjected to psychological trauma. They will continue to be segregated from other children in the community, whom they will see on the streets. I understand that the centres will not be behind barbed wire. Segregating them from a normal school environment will merely prolong their sense of isolation and psychological trauma.

Most of the children in accommodation centres are likely to stay there for up to six months, unless the Minister has plans to shorten the period. If one of the considerations relates to the security and safely of asylum seekers, surely keeping children away from school will not help. Allowing them to attend a mainstream school in a normal environment will have two advantages. First, they will recover from their psychological trauma more rapidly. Secondly, they will meet normal children. Their parents will certainly not abscond, because they and the children live together in the centres.

However, even more important is the consideration of our high reputation for fair and humane treatment of all people in this country. The Government's proposals will deal that reputation a severe blow. If we are found to be segregating the children of asylum seekers, where is the reputation for fair and humane treatment? The welfare of all children, irrespective of their status, surely must be kept uppermost in any arrangements we make for asylum seekers in this country.

Finally, when the trial on the four accommodation centres commences—I agree with the comment made a little earlier—we should place at least one or two children in normal schools, even if we did want a group to be educated within the centre.

Most important, I hope that the Minister will be able to give us an assurance that the results of this experiment will be analysed. As I have said, the issue with regard to children that should be considered as uppermost is their welfare. That is of paramount importance.

4 p.m.

Earl Russell

If I had been addressing a medieval congregation rather than a modern House of Lords, I would have found the notion of the noble Lord, Lord Moser, being prevented from attending a mainstream school—and then being greeted by a roar of anger from the heavens—an irresistible subject for a sermon. However, I do not intend to preach a sermon, but I shall treasure that as one of the nicest moments of drama that I have heard in this House.

The proposers of the amendment have made a very powerful case. I refer in particular to the questions asked by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford. He referred to the disapplication of much of our education legislation, covering teacher qualifications and so forth. They will require a deal of response. On the other hand, I was also extremely interested in the right reverend Prelate's arithmetic. He assumed that there would be 35 children in each centre, which is not unreasonable. If we presume that a range of subjects is to be taught, then more than one teacher will need to be available. That will create a pupil:teacher ratio which will be the gross envy of the indigenous population outside. The difficulties of the argument "separate but equal" should work both ways.

The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, is rapidly becoming the conscience of the House on this Bill. He expressed a dislike of segregated education, which I believe we all feel. But on the first day of our deliberations he also expressed a dislike of accommodation centres, which I also feel. My late friend Lady Seear, when addressing a Liberal summer school on ethics in politics, once commented that, in politics, the problem is always trying to choose the lesser of two evils. That is why we on these Benches will reserve our position until we have heard and probed what the Minister has to say on the forthcoming government Amendment No. 114A, containing a regulation-making power to fix the length of time that people may be required to stay in an accommodation centre. That is because our highest priority is to keep the time during which people are consigned to a centre as short as possible, a wish also expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker. We hope that six months will mean six months.

I felt somewhat disappointed on reading the Minister's response to a point put by my noble friend Lord Greaves last night while I had a belated bite of supper after our debates on the regulations. He appeared to assume that in all cases it would be necessary to detain people in accommodation centres for as long as their cases and appeals were pending. I hope that that is not to be his final word on the matter. If it were, then on Report it would affect very materially indeed our position on this amendment.

If people can be taken out of accommodation centres within six months, then I think that we might be induced to tolerate the Government's proposals. But were there to be a serious slippage in that position, we would have to reserve our opinion and think through the whole thing again.

Meanwhile, by far the most practical and helpful speech of the debate was that made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden. If there is to be a way forward, I hope that the Minister will consider whether perhaps that might be the direction in which the way might lie.

The Earl of Listowel

If she is to reply to the debate, could the Minister elaborate on the proposals put forward by her noble friend Lord Corbett to establish links with local schools. How would such links be promoted? Where would the funding be found for them? What would be the specific intention with regard to sporting and other activities between local schools and accommodation centres? I would find that information extremely helpful.

Lord Avebury

Perhaps I may pursue a little further the question of arithmetic. If the right reverend Prelate is right in his assumption that, of the 750 inmates in each accommodation centre only 35 will be children, then 18 per cent of those children would be released into mainstream education after two months; that is, at the point at which their families' applications were successful. According to the arithmetic detailed yesterday by the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, a further 10 per cent would then be released after a further four months; that is, at the point at which their families were successful on appeal. So we are not referring to 35 children spending the whole six months in the accommodation centre, but to a gradually diminishing number as families are successful in their applications. Thus my noble friend Lord Greaves was correct to point out that the final outcome would be that, if 50 per cent of the cases were successful, then by the end of six months only some 17 children would be left in the accommodation centre. How will adequate education for a handful of children be provided across the whole age range that might be represented in a particular centre?

That question leads me to put the following question to the Minister: is it to be the Government's policy to distribute the families evenly over the four accommodation centres, or will single people be housed preferentially in two or three centres, reserving the fourth centre for families? A much greater concentration of children would then be achieved in one centre. In so doing, it would be possible to provide better educational facilities than if the resources to be made available for this purpose had to be spread across four different centres. We have not discussed this point, but surely it would be sensible to concentrate the necessarily limited resources in a smaller number of centres rather than seek to provide adequate arrangements in all four of them.

I wish to put a further question to the Minister. It arises out of the undertaking given in response to the criticisms voiced by the Joint Committee on Human Rights to the effect that the success of accommodation centres in their efforts to provide education for the children residing in them should be one of the criteria to be considered when evaluating the initial trial. In pursuance of that undertaking, will the Government give a further undertaking to the Committee that if, at the end of the trial, they find that the outcomes for the children are less favourable than they would have been had they been provided with mainstream education, they will review the whole policy? That would meet the logic of what they said to the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

Lord Bridges

The powerful speeches made by my noble friends Lord Bhatia and Lord Moser have thrown light on the difficult question of discrimination. We have all found that a most disagreeable aspect of what is involved here. Perhaps I may suggest a rather more practical approach when considering the problems faced by children as they arrive with their parents at the accommodation centres. If they are to make progress, then their greatest single need is to acquire some knowledge of English.

In my family it happens that we have some experience of those difficulties. Some 20 years ago, when I was posted to work in the Foreign Office in London, my wife qualified as a teacher in English as a foreign language in order to make a contribution to the family income. Subsequently she taught for a year or so in a GLC school. When listening to her account of the way in which those classes were conducted, it became apparent that there is a very particular art to teaching English to a group of people who have one thing in common: they do not know our language.

I suggest that it might be a focus of whatever educational activities take place in these accommodation centres to equip the children with a sufficient knowledge of our language. In that way, if they have to stay there for a long time they could then be transferred to local schools where they could be absorbed into school life and have a normal school education. I hope that this suggestion will help.

Baroness Howe of Idlicote

We all have considerable sympathy for the Government because of the sheer size of the problem they face and the numbers involved. Obviously there are tremendous advantages in having accommodation centres with, perhaps, temporary courts alongside so that rights are protected, and so on, but I agree with my noble friend Lord Bridges that it is absolutely essential that English is taught in the accommodation centres from the word go. The possibility for learning English should be available.

I strongly support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Bhatia. When children have suffered to the extent that these children will have suffered—and, let us face it, we cannot be sure that the period we are talking about will be only six months; we know how things drag on—it must make sense to put families with children in separate areas, smaller areas if possible, where the children can go to local schools. This is a crucial area. We must be able to accommodate them and we must know that there is space for them in such schools. Only this morning I heard about one part of the United Kingdom which is so overcrowded with looked-after children that the local area is not able to cope. I know that will be of concern to the Secretary of State for Education.

I firmly support the amendment. I hope that the Government can assure us that the considerable concerns that have been raised and the pleas that have been made will be listened to and taken into account.

Lord Dubs

I plead with the Government to show flexibility in their approach. After all, some asylum-seeking children or children of asylum seekers may well speak fluent English and have a reasonable educational attainment. They could move into a local school, if it is not too far away, seamlessly and quickly. Others would not be able to cope with a local school because they would need to learn English first, as has been said.

In some instances the accommodation centre may be close to local schools, which could take some of the children; in other instances the accommodation centre may be too far away. We should be flexible. Where children can move to a local school as soon as possible, they should; where there is no appropriate local school or the children's English is not good enough, they should stay and receive their education in the accommodation centre. In that way we can move forward in the best interests of the children.

Lord Greaves

I am grateful to—

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

It is appropriate that I should speak at this time. We have now had more than an hour's debate on a very important issue and it is right that the Opposition Front Bench should state its position. It has come across very clearly that all noble Lords have firmly at the front of their minds the welfare of the child, and there has been some debate about how that may best be achieved. We have made it clear in the past—we do so again—that many of the problems highlighted so carefully and clearly today could be resolved if the Government would reconsider the way they are going to structure accommodation centres, so that the processing of applications would be far brisker and would leave the children in education in those centres for a much shorter time.

We acknowledge that the longer children remain in accommodation centres the more difficult it becomes to maintain the argument that they should be educated there. Who can fail to be impressed by the number of teachers and parents who have written to noble Lords to say how they would welcome children into their schools? That surely shows what a tolerant society we are trying to build in this country, and succeeding in many respects.

There has been reference to the suggestion of my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew of Twysden. As ever, I pay tribute to his ability to think of a practical new approach. He suggested that the Government might trial a system whereby children could go to local schools because accommodation centres in themselves are projects and not finished products.

I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, referred to the distinction between asylum children and refugee children as though the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford was perhaps using the wrong term. As regards the distinction between asylum-seeking children and refugee children, can the Minister confirm that the 1951 convention defines refugees as those outside their country with a well-founded fear of persecution, and that NGOs therefore use the term in its broadest sense while the Government use it in its narrowest, legalistic sense? Is it correct that the Government cannot grant refugee status but can only recognise it? That is important given that the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, raised a question in regard to that definition.


Lord Greaves

I congratulate—

Lord Filkin

Perhaps I may now reply to the debate.

Lord Greaves

I have been trying to intervene. I can speak after the Minister if he wishes, but I would rather speak before the Minister so that he can answer my questions.

Lord Filkin

Very well.

Lord Greaves

I am grateful. I congratulate the mover of the amendment on allowing this important debate to take place, particularly at this time of day. As to numbers, if the figures the Minister gave last night are correct—that perhaps 40 per cent of people in an accommodation centre of 750 residents will be either asylum seekers who are heads of families or members of those families—then the number of children in such centres could be 200 or perhaps higher. Can the Minister clarify the numbers we are talking about because it will make a great deal of difference?

The debate today has been polarised. I support the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and, I think, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, that more flexibility is required. What is possible will depend on the size and location of the accommodation centres. If you have a centre of 750 in the countryside, with 200 or 300 children in that centre, it will be impossible for them to attend local schools. The location and the size of the centre will be absolutely critical.

Another critical factor is the amount of time people will spend in the accommodation centres. In the debate last night periods of two months, six months and so on were mentioned. I understand all the points that have been put forward, but it seems to me that children who do not possess English would benefit from separate education within the accommodation centre for a limited period of time—perhaps two months—which might indeed be in the summer when ordinary schools are closed.

What will be the curriculum for these children? To talk of the national curriculum in such circumstances is irrelevant. What is relevant is whether they can be given a course which concentrates heavily on the learning of English so that if they then move on into the community the children will have those English skills and will be at a much greater advantage when going into ordinary mainstream schools.

If, unfortunately, from their point of view, they have to be removed and returned to their countries of origin, they will have a facility in basic English which will benefit them for the rest of their lives. The point of view that under no circumstances should these children be educated in accommodation centres is wrong, provided that they receive only an initial course which does not last very long. In my view, six months would be too long.

My final point relates to staffing. It is very important that these centres are staffed by qualified teachers, paid on ordinary teacher scales. Their jobs, in what will be akin to continuous reception classes, may be considered more onerous, if that is possible, than those of teachers in ordinary primary school nowadays. Will the staff be qualified teachers, will they be paid at least on the ordinary pay scales for qualified teachers and will the LEAs have a role? Provision is made in later clauses for the School Inspections Act 1996 to apply. What will be the precise role of Ofsted or other bodies in inspecting the facilities provided by the accommodation centres?

Lord Filkin

We have today, as yesterday, had an important debate on an important subject. I regret that I shall have to cover briefly some of the issues that we debated yesterday, because many Members of the Committee who have spoken today were not present when we discussed the broader picture of accommodation centres. However, I shall try to be succinct.

I begin by addressing, as far as I am able, the reality of the situation that the Government and society are seeking to manage. If I have to make one or two generalisations, I hope that I shall be forgiven. We are referring to families with children who arrive in the UK asking for refugee status that has not yet been granted. If they ask for support, by definition they are without shelter or security, will often have come a long way and will be in fear and perhaps traumatised. They arrive in difficult circumstances, and one can well imagine that the children of such families will be distressed or in turmoil. They form a diverse group. One cannot sensibly generalise about what refugee children are like. They have often had interrupted or limited education, or none at all, although there will obviously be exceptions. There has also been evidence that they have experienced some bullying when in mainstream schools in certain areas of Britain.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, put down a challenge. The current system is that when they apply for support, they are moved initially into emergency accommodation, with or without schooling, for perhaps one or two weeks, until dispersed accommodation is sought for them, where they stay for however long it takes for their asylum applications and any appeals that they choose to exercise to be determined. If they are successful in their applications for refugee status or exceptional leave to remain, they are allowed to settle in the country permanently, or for as long as their ELR lasts. Without labouring the point, that system is evidently not perfect in a number of respects.

The central argument about accommodation centres, on which we had a good debate yesterday—I regret yet again boring the Front-Benchers—concerns whether it is possible to accelerate the decision-making timetable rapidly for refugee families by putting them into accommodation centres in ways that give them access to proper decision-making processes, legal support for their applications and fair hearings, and at the same time provide them with better support so that they receive fair decisions much more quickly than has been the case to date. The Government accept the challenge of considering whether, by managing accommodation centres well, they can achieve those objectives.

The relationship of accommodation centres to the education of children is fairly clear. First, if by that process we can rapidly determine that someone has refugee status—in cases determined on initial application, we expect to be able to do that within two months or less—they will then be integrated immediately into British society, as we all wish and accept. Secondly, while children are in accommodation centres, one can provide them with a supportive environment and the quality of education that is at least as good as they would experience in dispersed accommodation in the rest of Britain. I do not intend to oversell the case. The Government believe that there is strong evidence that we can do that.

However, we have also said that this is a pilot scheme. We have said that we shall monitor the process through the first four centres and evaluate it carefully to see whether that hypothesis is true. If it is, it will serve the interests both of the parents, because they will have a faster affirmative or negative determination—whether affirmative or negative, it is better that it should be faster than not—and of the children, who can be moved on while they have had some beneficial educational experience. That is the challenge.

Other challenges have been made in the debate. Yesterday, we discussed the potential benefit of accommodation centres providing a more supportive environment for families and children because of the concentration of support and services in that area. Let me deal with some of the educational aspects of that. First, the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, asked whether the DfES and other parts of the Government had been involved. The categorical answer is that they have. Officials have worked closely together. My noble friend Lady Ashton of Upholland shares my view that accommodation centres have a great potential to offer a better quality of education and support for children than would be the case in dispersed accommodation.

The Government are obliged to provide the national curriculum for any child of school age in this country, but have the freedom to target the way in which it is delivered, better to meet the particular circumstances of a number of children who may have very limited English or have suffered some trauma as a result of their recent experiences. Ofsted's writ will apply specifically to accommodation centres. It will inspect and report on quality and provision, as with mainstream schools. If an inspection report highlights concerns about a centre, it will be required to produce an action plan. Even if there are no concerns, it will be expected to produce an action plan on how it intends to take provision forward. There will be no escape. These educational facilities will be the subject of proper public scrutiny.

The noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, suggested that the accommodation centres may have a long-term detrimental effect on children. I strongly doubt that. The centre managers will employ qualified teachers. There will be a commitment to monitoring, both through Ofsted and through the Department for Education and Skills' monitoring processes. The objective is to make them centres of excellence for the provision of education for groups of distressed children who, if their applications are accepted, are in the process of transition between their own societies and becoming settled into our mainstream society.

The current arrangements for dispersal put children under pressure. They are often thrown in at the deep end, without preparation. One needs to take a child's-eye view of that. We believe that putting them into accommodation centres for what in many cases will be a very short period may give them breathing space, targeted support, language training and an education that they would not otherwise have received.

I have answered the question of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford about qualified teachers. He also asked about the role of the LEAs. The Bill specifies a number of ways in which the role of the LEAs will still exist. However, we expect a partnership to be formed with LEAs on how to take forward that role.

I was also asked about numbers, some of which we gave yesterday. These are early days, but a rough-and-ready assumption is that there could be between 120 and 150 children in an accommodation centre of this type. A further suggestion was made as to whether it might make sense to concentrate all, or many, children in one centre. That is an interesting idea on which, without commitment, we shall reflect in an effort to decide whether such a suggestion is worthy of consideration.

Challenges have been made as to whether the Government are compliant with CRC guidelines. We believe that placing children in accommodation centres is in their best interests. If the family is successful in its application, the process will be speeded up and integrated faster. That is significant. If the family is not successful, there is no case for integration. Indeed, if the application is unsuccessful, the family will unfortunately have to leave Britain. We do not believe that it is in the interests of the child to be moved into a school, or two or three schools—as I instanced could be the case through dispersal—and then have to leave again because the claim and the subsequent appeal have been rejected.

I turn to the questions raised on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as regards Article 28 and Article 3. We are not denying an education; we shall be mirroring the nature of education in mainstream schools. The quality and standard will be the same, and Ofsted inspected. I believe that I have covered most of those points.

We are not talking about ghettos; these centres are an attempt by a civilised society to try to manage a process with both humanity and care in an effort to provide the level of care and education support at least to the standard that is possible. If we are right in that aim, as I said yesterday, these centres will be a beacon of quality across Europe. We shall show that it is possible to manage this difficult problem better than is currently the case in Britain or elsewhere.

The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, referred to the wide range of schools. I grant his point. Clearly, a wide range of ages and, indeed, a wide range of schools will be involved. It is perhaps a model based on smaller village schools that currently deal most effectively with children representing a range of ages and abilities. Clause 32 also provides for children with very specialised needs to be educated outside the unit, subject to certain conditions, as we believe should be the case.

Mention was made of teachers in these centres. In so far as there is evidence, it shows that these centres will be likely to attract good teachers. Often refugee children, asylum children, are keen to learn and are highly motivated. Of course, one should not generalise, but there is some truth in what I say. It is quite a satisfactory teaching experience. Therefore, we do not envisage any problem with attracting good teachers who are keen to participate in the process.

The noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, quite rightly highlighted the current burden on schools in some areas. From the evidence supplied by the University of London, it appears that this is as much about the churning effect that takes place; in other words, the constant moving. I shall not go into detail at this stage because time is pressing. However, there is good evidence to show the burden that that places on the school—its teachers and management; and, indeed, on other children—without in any sense seeking to label asylum seekers' children as problems.

The noble Lord, Lord Joffe, asked about teacher qualifications. Clearly, there will be a necessity for support staff. Some vocational courses will be available for adults. No doubt older children could take part in such courses after school. As regards costs comparisons, we are at the beginning of a procurement process. Therefore, for confidentiality reasons, I cannot put such information into the public domain. But, broadly speaking, we imagine that the costs should be comparable with the current cost of running education in normal situations.

I was asked about the involvement of parents. Again, accommodation centres provide considerable potential for that to take place. The noble Lord, .Lord Chan, asked about experimentation and whether it would be evaluated. I reiterate that it will be so. All our discussion yesterday was about four centres initially that we shall evaluate to see whether they provide faster decision-making. A crucial part of that process will be to ascertain whether there is evidence to show that children do at least as well in terms of their educational and their emotional support, as would have taken place if they had followed the existing routes of dispersal. I can also assure the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, that that will be done.

We should also recognise that we have the basis for such an evaluation. There is an alternative system in terms of a dispersal model. There are currently 62,000 asylum children in London alone who are waiting for the result of their decision processes, or for exceptional leave to remain. Therefore, we already have a comparison in that respect.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Campbell-Savours

Perhaps I may ask my noble friend the Minister a question. He referred to Clause 32 and specifically to "specialised needs". I cannot understand where that clause relates to special needs. It refers to "special cases", but not special needs. It seems to me that the intention of the clause is to provide an over-ride on the general provisions in this area of the Bill.

Lord Filkin

When we debate the clause, I am sure that we will inspect that aspect in more detail. In essence, the clause provides the opportunity for an identification of whether children have special needs; and, therefore, whether alternative provision for them might be appropriate.

I turn to the point raised by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, about the period of six or three months. I am not certain that I have seized the challenge that the noble Earl put to me. However, I believe that we are at one in wishing to ensure that the Home Secretary's commitment given in the other place, which we shall be introducing in a later amendment, is both clear and firm. In short, there will be a reassessment if a family is still in the centre at the six-month point. That process will seek to consider the interest of the child. If the family is still in the unit at the end of nine months, it would, if it wished, have a right to move elsewhere, irrespective of the stage of the appeal.

Earl Russell

I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. In that case, the question from this side of the Committee would be whether at the end of six months the children would be released into mainstream education.

Lord Filkin

Possibly, but not automatically, is the response to that query. It would depend on the conclusion of the assessment.

As ever, I am guided by higher, distant forces. I am advised that I should be referring to Clause 31, rather than Clause 32. One can always count on the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, to catch one out on these issues.

The noble Lord, Lord Corbett, spoke powerfully on fostering links with local schools. Although education will be provided in the centre, one should have an open mind as to the benefits of actual linkages with the wider society and with other schools. It would be both interesting and helpful to see how that could be developed.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked whether there would be a biased intake as regards families. I have touched on that as a question, and will leave it there. The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, mentioned sufficient knowledge of language, which is totally germane. One is talking about a particular group of people whose common characteristic, apart from not knowing much about Britain, will be that most of them will not speak English well. Therefore, a short period—even a two-month period—in a school with intensive English training would be of benefit of them, whether or not they were accepted for refugee status.

I am aware that I am exceeding the patience of the Committee. It is almost impossible to answer all the points raised. However, we shall have plenty of other opportunities to discuss such matters. I look forward to taking forward this policy in its development with my noble friend Lady Ashton of Upholland. We are committed to the belief that this is in the interests of both families and children. We accept the challenge to demonstrate that that is true in practice, and the evaluation will allow us to do so.

Lord Greaves

The Minister answered my question as to whether qualified teachers would be employed. However, he did not say whether all the teachers who would be employed would have to be qualified. Can the Minister clarify that point? Further, I do not believe that the noble Lord answered my question about whether the teachers employed in these centres would be paid on pay scales/rates commensurate with those that apply to similar teachers in mainstream schools.

Lord Filkin

Yes, and I do not know.

Lord Bhatia

I do not wish to delay the debate any further. However, I should like to thank Members of the Committee for participating in the debate. It is good to take account of the variety of views expressed on all sides of the Committee. I hope that the Minister will take heed of all the views that have been put forward.

Before I conclude the debate I wish to refer to two or three of the points that were raised. It is necessary to draw the Minister's attention to a debate that took place in the other place on 22nd May during which the Minister, Stephen Timms, said that no decision had been taken as to whether those who would be teaching in the accommodation centres for asylum seekers would be required to have completed initial teachers' training. As things have obviously moved on, I should like an assurance that that is the case.

There were various comments on the length of time in which people will stay in the accommodation centres, and various figures—three months, six months, two months—were mentioned. However, I think that most of the major children's charities believe that a week out of school is a week lost. A critical principle is at stake here. Should there be universal access to mainstream schools? If the answer is that, in principle, access should be universal, the matter of length of stay is neither here nor there.

Whatever we decide, we should think first and foremost about children and their emotional and educational needs. I make only one plea. Let us think about the children who will be in the accommodation centres as if they were our own children. By taking such an approach we might arrive at the right decision. Because of my personal experience—which, 30 years on, I do not wish to think about or remember—I concluded that I had to move this amendment. I hope that those of us deciding this law will think of children and their needs before anything else.

The Minister's answers are good enough for now, but I await the Government's proposals at Report stage. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

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