HL Deb 17 June 2002 vol 636 cc486-8

3.52 p.m.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith, and at his request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what criteria they use to determine the locations of their proposed accommodation centres for asylum seekers.

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

My Lords, the criteria are based on a number of factors. They include the availability of land, site capacity to cater for several hundred residents in either new build or converted accommodation and our policy to relieve the pressure on London and Kent.

Baroness Buscombe

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. However, does he agree that if the normal planning procedures were followed in respect of those centres it is unlikely that planning permission would be granted? Can he tell us, therefore, what process of consultation is being undertaken with the relevant local authorities and, most importantly, with local people?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, as the House will know, the Crown, as the proposer of the applications for the centres, is not able to submit under the normal planning process. Instead it applies under the relevant circular, which follows a procedure similar to the normal planning process. Planning applications are lodged with the local authority, which has eight weeks in which to make its determination. In all cases we are holding discussions with the relevant local authorities to try to ensure that we have full, proper consultation with local residents and other local interests in respect of the applications.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, does the Minister think that such large numbers of people in such isolated communities is compatible with the Government's aim of integration and inclusion? Does he also accept that at least 30 per cent of people who appeal against the initial decisions are granted leave to remain in the United Kingdom? Is it not better, therefore, for people to be part of the mainstream education, healthcare and service provision—as happens in other European countries—rather than isolating them in remote areas?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, the Government believe that those who are accepted for asylum in this country should be offered full friendship and support from the nation to integrate into the community as early as possible. However, that is very different from saying that the 70,000 or 80,000 people who currently apply each year for asylum should be integrated into the community until such time as their cases have been heard. That is where accommodation centres come in. They provide good support and educational facilities to asylum claimants while their applications are processed. It is our intent that claims will be heard within two months or so of the applicant residing at the centre.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that isolated centres make it difficult for refugee organisations—for example, the Refugee Legal Centre and the Immigration Advisory Service—to provide advice and support to newly-arrived asylum seekers? If the centres are to be isolated, can the Government do something to facilitate access for those groups, on whom many newly-arrived asylum seekers depend?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, the centres will not be too isolated. They will be positioned in rural areas. That is not the same as saying that they will be in the remote extremes of the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, I take my noble friend's point. The Government believe it is important that proper advice, including legal advice, is available to people in accommodation centres so that they understand the process and the timetables. We shall certainly look at the point to ensure that access is available for all relevant services.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, is one of the criteria that these centres should be located, if possible, near places where some of the claimants' fellow nationals are already residing? Or is the overriding consideration simply the availability of suitable accommodation?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, clearly suitable accommodation is something that the Government have to take into account when making the initial selection of the pilot schemes. On the other hand, proximity to other nationals is not necessarily a significant factor. At this point in time, I stress, these people are only applying for asylum and have not yet been accepted. If, as we hope and intend, we manage to continue the acceleration of processing that has been achieved over recent years, successful claimants will be integrated wherever they choose to live in the future, which could include being near to nationals of their former country of residence.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is not simply a matter of how quickly the Immigration and Nationality Directorate can deal with the first application, but how quickly the appeal authorities can hear the appeals that are subsequently made against refusal? How near are they to meeting the target of four months from the date of first decision for the subsequent hearings before the adjudicators? If they are nowhere near that, as I imagine is the case, will people be kept indefinitely in the accommodation centres awaiting those hearings?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, is right. If people exercise their right of appeal, then the appeal process must be gone through. I shall write to the noble Lord with the latest figures on the current turn-around time for appeals. There has been a significant improvement in that this was an area of substantial increase in resources. Therefore the bottom line is that we still expect, even where a person chooses to exercise a right of appeal, to be able to deal with most applications within six months or so.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, would it not lessen the need for the accommodation centres if there could be agreement between the members of the European Union on the common treatment of asylum applications and a requirement that asylum applications are launched in the first safe country? Can my noble friend say how near we are to obtaining either or both of those desirable outcomes?

Lord Filkin

I agree with both points. The Government pressed both points at the Justice and Home Affairs Council of the European Union, which David Blunkett and I attended last week in Luxembourg.