HL Deb 22 January 2003 vol 643 cc695-7

2.58 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith asked Her Majesty's Government:

What consultation is taking place with local communities before country houses and hotels receive asylum seekers.

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

My Lords, the policy in such cases is to consult the relevant local authority, and, subject to necessary considerations of commercial confidentiality at the time, to take views also from those affected in the local community. We recognise that such decisions are of intense interest to the local community. In future, NASS will consult with the local authority throughout the procurement process leading up to contract.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that helpful reply. Can he tell the House who was responsible for the authorisation of agents to seek out such properties?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, my honourable friend the Minister with responsibility for citizenship and immigration would have overall responsibility for pursuing the policy of creating a range of induction centres across the country. That policy was set out in a White Paper which this House considered a year ago. Specifically, the operational practice of the policy would be dealt with by the director of NASS itself. In terms of exactly who said what to whom and at what point in time, I do not have those details here. If the noble Lord would care to specify the question, I would be pleased to write to him.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that induction centres are the first stage in the dispersal policy and that no one is expected to stay in them for longer than 10 days? Yet, by the Minister's own admission, NASS has cocked up the whole process of consultation with local authorities and communities. Is it not time that he took into account the serious criticism by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux in regard to the work of NASS and involved the voluntary refugee agencies in the consultative process to a much greater extent?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, the noble Lord asked a string of important questions. The noble Lord is absolutely right that people stay in induction centres for no longer than 10 days. That is part of the process of managing the asylum system. Induction centres in the South East are able to disperse asylum seekers to other parts of the country so that the South East does not bear all of the burden. We recognise that the processes that were in place were not satisfactory and that local communities and the relevant MP should have been better consulted. Therefore, we commissioned an urgent review of the situation to decide the best way forward. My honourable friend has also said that she will commission an independent review of procurement processes within NASS to try to ensure that we perform better in these respects in the future. As to the wider point about NASS, a process of regionalisation is under way, as we signalled clearly when we discussed the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord said that the Government were consulting local authorities about what houses, including country houses, were available. Do local authorities have lots of empty country houses and, if so, why?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I am not certain whether the noble Earl was making an offer. To my knowledge, local authorities do not have a large number of empty houses although all suitable offers would be seriously considered. Having considered the Sittingbourne situation, we intend to delay sending asylum seekers to the hotel there until we have talked through the issue with local people, the local MP and the local authority. We shall be holding talks for as long as is necessary properly to address the issues.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, would Dorneywood and Chequers be considered suitable?

Lord Filkin

My Lords, to my knowledge, they are not empty.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, is there a risk that some people who are considering asylum may be encouraged to think that they will be put into a three or four star hotel?

Lord Filkin

No, my Lords, that is not the case for two reasons: we are not using four star hotels and people who come to this country applying for refuge under the 1951 convention are in most cases desperate to seek refuge in this country. They are in most cases grateful for whatever level of support the country is able to provide. It is a calumny to suggest that we are extravagant or lavish in our treatment of asylum seekers while properly respecting our international obligations.