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

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

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

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

Mr. Vaz: I, too, am persuaded by the comments of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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5 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me explain what I hope we will be able to do. If we can achieve adjudication on site after immediate induction, we will be seeking to break the current cycle in which people come into the country, make themselves available and are usually put into temporary

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accommodation, where, regrettably, they usually live for some time while dispersal arrangements are made. It is unusual, but not impossible, for the children of families who are seeking asylum to be found an educational place, but it is difficult to envisage that happening in the first week or two. I remember my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) saying on Second Reading that the process takes time, so the issue is about time. Other hon. Members, including the two previous speakers, have pointed out that we are talking not about the principle of trialling accommodation centres, but about how long people will stay inside them.

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

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

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

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

We are therefore talking about the small number who reach the six-month point. I am prepared to provide for that in the Bill where it occurs in relation to families. It is not a major problem for singles, who are often single young men. Occupying them, however, is a problem. Anyone who walks about the centre of Sheffield, Birmingham or townships around the country this summer will soon find that out. Young men from Kosovo,

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Romania or Poland—you name it—will be hanging about. I would rather that they were occupied properly. There is still much to be done on providing and facilitating volunteering. I should like them to be occupied meaningfully in accommodation centres. All those who go in will have a language facility for their own mother tongue and the ability to start learning English, which, if they do not stay, will be of help to them when they return.

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

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

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

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

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

We are establishing new economic migration gateways and offering people alternative routes into the country. I therefore hope that vast numbers of people will not claim asylum when they are not at risk of life and limb but try to come here legitimately and openly as economic migrants. Agreement across Europe, which I shall endeavour to

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kickstart properly on Thursday in Luxembourg, will facilitate that. We will thus lessen the pressure on the system, including dispersal, which will continue for some years if the trial centres are a success. We must get dispersal right. We must provide support for schools, housing and GP practices that have to take the challenge of large numbers. I am deeply grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills for being present.

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


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