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7.41 pm

Mr. Shaun Woodward (St. Helens, South): The debate has been remarkable for the broad consensus evident on the matters that have been discussed. I suspect that this will not be the last asylum Bill to occupy my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), as there will probably be another four such Bills in the next decade.

I shall concentrate on children, and how they are to be protected. I shall speak too about the apparent disparity between children who are UK citizens, and those seeking asylum.

Hon. Members may have seen last year's excellent report from Save the Children entitled "Cold Comfort". The charity spoke to 125 young people who were either seeking asylum or were refugees. All the young people had been separated from their parents. One of the report's major findings was that

The Bill will alleviate those children's chaotic experiences, and that is to be welcomed, especially because the care of young people will be tightened up as a result of the creation of specific offences to deal with the traffic in prostitution.

One of the major difficulties that we face in protecting young asylum seekers and refugees is that there is a lack of co-ordinated information. Last year, the social services in West Sussex—an authority responsible for significant numbers of unaccompanied, asylum-seeking children—did some important and detailed work with regard to the number of children being trafficked through its services.

The authority identified a pattern. It looked at the cases of children from a particular geographical area—in this instance, they were girls from west Africa, and especially from Nigeria—who had entered the UK unaccompanied. It found that girls were passed on to residential care homes, often in the south-east of England, but that they simply disappeared after that. Often, the girls went to other parts of Europe after they had been contacted by a trafficker.

In West Sussex alone, 66 children went missing between 1995 and 2001. They simply disappeared from the authority's care. The authority's investigation revealed that dozens more had been at risk. The authority believes that the vast majority of those who had disappeared were unaccompanied asylum seekers, and that they had disappeared because of the traffic in prostitution.

That is a particular problem in London and the south-east, because most unaccompanied and accompanied children live in the area. Last year's Save the Children report estimated that more than 4,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were being supported by the London boroughs. For the UK as a whole, the figure is two or three times as large.

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As a result, clause 113 is very much to be welcomed, as its aim is to outlaw trafficking. For the first time, it establishes the explicit offence of trafficking in people for the purpose of sexual exploitation. The provision follows from the Government report entitled "Setting the Boundaries", which was published in July 2000. My only disappointment is that the Bill does not go as far as that report encouraged people to expect. The report stated:

I hope that the Home Office will give some consideration to taking matters to their logical conclusion and introducing a specific offence in relation to children. The maximum penalty imposed by the Bill is a sentence of 14 years, which is both welcome and appropriate. However, we should recognise that the offence extends beyond the prostitution of a person, and that it should include the trafficking of children for the purposes of prostitution.

The Government are right to introduce the proposed penalty, but we need more information if the policy is to be effective. We need more studies such as that carried out in West Sussex, which has helped to reduce dramatically the numbers of children going missing through the introduction of a multi-agency approach involving social services, the police and others. The problem is that there is still no comprehensive database of separated children that includes both accompanied and unaccompanied children and states whether they were seeking asylum.

The creation of such a database would go a long way towards dealing comprehensively with the problem of trafficking. The production of separate data on asylum decisions concerning young people would also be helpful.

Last year, a group of Members of Parliament was invited to meet some of the young people to whom Save the Children spoke in compiling its report, and we were deeply moved by their stories. Many of their problems stemmed from the fact that the children had been unaccompanied. In part, that was because our system has not kept pace with the scale or diversity of the problems involved. Fairly or unfairly, local authorities bear most of the burden of responsibility for those children's care.

The Save the Children report recommended that the Home Office should increase grants to local authorities for the support of young separated refugees so that they would be able to meet the reasonable costs of support. Clause 36 goes some way towards that. Crucially, it removes the age distinction that previously meant that payments could not be made by the Secretary of State to people under 18. However, there is still concern that the provisions in the Bill will be insufficient.

Will the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), who will wind up the debate, say whether she will consider removing the distinction between the amounts available to children under 16 years of age, and to those over that age?

Young asylum seekers or refugees under the age of 16 who enter local authority care usually come under sections 17 and 20 of the Children Act 1989. When they reach the age of 18, because they have come under section 20, those young people will not be dispersed. There are

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very good reasons for that: the young people involved have built up ties with the community and are supported by a network of care.

However, a young person of 16 or over who enters the care of a local authority usually is covered only by section 17 of the Children Act 1989. The ludicrous result is that they can be dispersed at the age of 18, as happens very often.

The consequence of that is that all those dispersed children's community supports disappear, and that many of them are tempted to go underground. At the moment, age is the prime determinant of service provision for those young people. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under–Secretary will consult with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to strengthen guidance on how and when section 20 of the Children Act 1989 should be applied, as the Save the Children report recommends.

Children and young people who are asylum seekers present us with special problems and special responsibilities. Article 3 of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child makes it clear that the best interests of the child should be the primary consideration. We signed up to that convention because it is right, so in dealing with this group of young people we must be sure that we are acting in the best interests of the child. It is difficult to see a justification for distinguishing what is the best interest solely on the ground of whether a child is a UK citizen or a refugee and providing different standards of care, protection and services accordingly.

Others have spoken about the impact on children placed in accommodation centres and the opportunities for them to participate in social, leisure and other activities that may not be available to others. My concern about this potential disparity is also about the inspection regimes and frameworks for child welfare that will apply in the accommodation centres. How will the provisions of the Children Act 1989 and the Care Standards Act 2000 apply? If there were to be an accommodation centre in Wales, as has been proposed in south Glamorgan, would the powers of the children's rights commissioner be extended to such a centre? In short, will the Home Secretary guarantee that there is no possibility of less rigorous procedures and practices being undertaken towards children in accommodation centres?

My final concern, to which other hon. Members have referred, is education. Many people are genuinely concerned about whether it is appropriate to educate children in accommodation centres. We are talking about 750 people of various ages gathered together from different places, with different cultures and speaking different languages. Is it practical to believe that we could provide a comprehensive education service for children in these centres? Even if they are there for only six months, that is a very long time for a frightened and vulnerable group of people. I hope that the Home Secretary, in the spirit of openness, will be prepared to listen to the words of other hon. Members.

The evidence in the Save the Children report is that young people who came here unaccompanied or accompanied value, above all else, being integrated into full-time education. We will therefore be taking something away from those people that we currently provide. It may be right; there may be very good reasons for doing so, but I have not heard them. The onus is on the Government to make a clear, coherent and

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compassionate case for why children will be better served by being educated full time in accommodation centres for those six months than in the community.

Overall, I welcome the Bill. I am sure that it will not be the last of the asylum Bills, but it is a good step. It is pleasing to see the degree of consensus that has emerged and the spirit and tone in which this debate has been conducted across the House.

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