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Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire): Why does every organisation across the political spectrum, except the Government, oppose large accommodation units in rural areas?

Mr. Blunkett: I am not sure that that applies to everyone of every political persuasion. It does not apply to people in my constituency. They already welcome transient people and will do that for the foreseeable future, through, for example, 130 units of accommodation, usually for approximately 250 people, but without facilities such as on-site language provision in the mother tongue or adult education. The children are found places in schools that are not oversubscribed. In my city, that applies to schools that are not in the south-west of Sheffield; schools in that area are massively oversubscribed because they have the best educational outcomes.

5.15 pm

Of course, when people find that they are under pressure in an area, as happens in many parts of London, they go private in large numbers. I am not just talking about Kensington and Chelsea, where more than 50 per cent. of residents send their children to private schools. In Hackney, one of the most deprived boroughs in the country, 16 per cent. of residents send their children to private school at secondary level. So, there are opt-out facilities for some, but not for others.

I am not advocating that all accommodation centres should be in rural areas. I am simply saying that there should not be a presumption, such as the one put forward earlier. I am not seeking to pick on the shadow Home Secretary—as hon. Members know, I like him, and we are getting on far too well for that—but he did mention that it would be a good idea if the accommodation centres were in urban areas. I am merely saying, for balance, that there is a case for having a rational distribution.

I also accept the rational approaches that have been made to us by the Refugee Council, for which I have the most enormous respect, regarding experimentation with smaller centres. I only have so many resources, I have to achieve economies of scale, and I have the ability to put the centres in place and to see whether they work, but I am not dogmatic about their size or their location. We are also about to embark on evaluating the private and voluntary sector proposals. If people can come forward

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with alternative sites, I ask them please to do so. I do not think that we have handled the detailed consultation and the initial proposals as well as we might have done, and I think that my hon. Friends who have also been dealing with this matter accept that as well.

So, here we are this afternoon, with all the hype outside, and with general agreement that we should have a trial, and that the people in accommodation centres should be there as briefly as possible. There is also general agreement that it is not evil or discriminatory to educate children in an accommodation centre, where they will receive mother tongue and English support as well as a broader education, inspected by Ofsted and supported by the local education authority, without placing an undue burden on local schools, and that they should be there for as short a time as possible—with a maximum of six months for families in terms of their educational interests being assessed. That seems to be a reasonable compromise, and I am prepared for us to encapsulate it in an appropriate amendment in the House of Lords.

Mr. Iain Coleman (Hammersmith and Fulham): May I push my right hon. Friend a little on that point? I do not think that anyone on this side of the Chamber who has major concerns regarding the proposal to take children out of mainstream education is saying that that proposal is intrinsically evil. Bearing in mind the number of children involved, which would, as I understand it, be between 100 and 120 in any one accommodation centre, I think that my right hon. Friend is being slightly disingenuous—unwittingly, I am sure—when he says that those children could place a huge burden on local schools. In my local education authority area, more than 10 per cent. of primary school children and more than 8 per cent. of secondary school children are asylum seekers or refugees. The people who run the local education authority—the people at the coal face—have expressed sincerely and genuinely their belief that they are not being overburdened. So, how could such a tiny number of children—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Gentleman's intervention is now growing into a speech.

Mr. Blunkett: I shall return to my initial distinction. The facts that are put to Members need to be investigated. I am happy to do so in terms of determining whether we are talking about those who are in transit as seekers of the right to remain as refugees, or those who are seeking asylum, plus those who have gained refugee status, plus those who have come in through other migration routes. I accept that that can often be a major plus to a locality and to a school—I have said so already.

The issue is which school or schools close to an accommodation centre could take 120 children, bearing it in mind that we have accepted that, with few exceptions, people are in principle in favour of trialling the accommodation centres.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Blunkett: Let me finish. I received some acclaim from my hon. Friends behind me for which I am eternally grateful, as the Home Secretary does not often get it, when

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I said that the centres should not simply be in the most deprived areas of the country. However, places available and deprivation regrettably go together, because parental preference often leads, from those who are on the edge—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have allowed the Home Secretary a certain discretion, but he is gently wandering over amendments that we have yet to discuss. I would be grateful, as would the House, if he confined his remarks to the amendments that we are dealing with.

Mr. Blunkett: I stand corrected, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think I have made the point.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): A moment ago, my right hon. Friend said that people are in favour in principle of accommodation centres. Can he give me the name of any organisation or group of people that is in favour of centres that accommodate 750 people?

Mr. Blunkett: People's contributions to the debate have varied. In fact, the organisations that made representations often made different ones. When the Immigration Advisory Service and Refugee Action responded to the White Paper, they were quite willing, so long as there was no lengthy stay in accommodation centres, for them to have different volumes. The Refugee Council did not like the idea of 750 places. I have agreed that we shall experiment with a smaller centre, and we shall work with the Refugee Council on achieving that.

There is an argument about size as well as duration of stay and what should go on in the centres, but the case that I am making is that those matters can be resolved through trialling and a bit of give and take. Broader services, including education, provided on the premises, so long as too long a stay is not involved, can be a plus, not a minus, for those who would otherwise be in transit from one place to another as they pursue their claim, as they are supported through the National Asylum Support Service system and as they eventually reach the point when integration becomes a reality for some and we need to support them better, but also when for the majority—more than 50 per cent.—removal has to be the final conclusion.

In that spirit—within the overall context of the White Paper, with a drive for new routes for immigration and with a welcome for the diversity and the culture that it brings in respect of entirely new views here and, I hope, across Europe on the value of inward migration and an understanding of the worldwide movement that is taking place—I ask the House to reject the amendments and to accept the assurances that I am giving after listening and responding to Members on both sides who have put a rational case.

Tony Baldry (Banbury): I support my hon. Friends on the Front Bench, particularly on amendment No. 2. The Home Secretary must know that not a single organisation concerned with the welfare of asylum seekers supports the combination of an accommodation centre for up to 750 people and a remote rural location, and he will recall that

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on 3 May a number of organisations ranging from the Refugee Council to Amnesty International wrote to him to express their concern about that combination.

Sir Michael Spicer: To add to that list, the Transport and General Workers Union has come out today in support of that position.

Tony Baldry: Yes. We probably all heard Bill Morris on the "Today" programme saying that the policy—the combination of scale and location—was fundamentally flawed. The Government's White Paper, published in February, said that asylum accommodation centres would be judged on other things, including reduced decision times and tighter management of the interview and decision-making process.

The Home Secretary said this afternoon that he was content that people should stay up to six months in accommodation centres. We know from answers given in Committee that up to 80 per cent. of asylum seekers are single young men. We are told that accommodation centres will contain up to 750 people. If the accommodation centres reflect the asylum-seeking population as a whole, at any one time up to 600 single young men will be in such centres; the impression is given that they will be there for six months.

I would like to invite every hon. Member of this House to come and visit the site chosen for the accommodation centre in my constituency. The Home Secretary was candid enough to say that he thought that the consultation up to now had not been as good as it might have been. I say to him that there has not been any consultation up to now. There has been minimal consultation between the Government office for the south-east and the local planning authority on simple planning grounds, but there has not been any consultation with local people.

It is a pity that no Minister has come to visit the proposed site. I wish I could say that the most exciting thing that can happen in the neighbourhood is seeing the traffic lights change. The only problem is that there are no traffic lights. The proposed site is between two villages. There is a pub in one of them, and a village shop in one of them. The nearest town is five miles away. There is no cinema in the town, and no college of further education. Facilities are fairly limited. What will these young men do for up to six months in that centre? They are going to get bored out of their minds. The Home Secretary made some comments earlier about people getting bored in the summer; six months is a very long time.

We were told in Committee that only 8 per cent. of applications actually succeed. That means that a large majority of applications to remain as refugees under the UN convention fail. If people are to remain in remote rural accommodation for up to six months, I predict that a number will just drift away to where communities of their own nationalities live. That will not be to the benefit of the Home Secretary, who wishes to see these accommodation centres succeed.

If we are to have accommodation centres, we require a much greater sense of applications being dealt with as expeditiously as possible. If the impression is simply given that large numbers of people are to be housed in remote locations for up to six months, asylum seekers will find that incredibly frustrating. There is a likelihood that

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we will start to see a significant number of those asylum seekers, particularly those who predict that their claims may fail, simply fading away because they know that their chances of being deported, even if they are discovered, are fairly remote.

The Home Secretary is determined to have these large accommodation centres in remote rural locations, and no hon. Member need doubt the remoteness of the locations selected. We all know why that is; as he acknowledged this afternoon, the Home Secretary was tight for funds and had to make a deal with the Treasury. The only way in which he could do that was by using existing MOD or other Government land, some way away from London and the south-east. If he wants this to succeed, there needs to be a much greater sense that applications will be dealt with expeditiously, as opposed to the impression of drift that he gave this afternoon.

The idea of 750 people, 600 of whom are single young men, being bored and frustrated in remote rural locations for up to six months suggests that this is a trial destined for failure.

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