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5.45 pm

Amendment No. 4 deals with legal advice, another matter debated in Standing Committee. Many of us believe, along with respected non-governmental organisations in the field, that it is essential that top-class legal advice be provided, on the spot and from the very beginning. One reason why Oakington works well is that great numbers of lawyers from various bodies are available there. For example, the Immigration Advisory Service alone has 54 caseworkers on site. When asylum seekers arrive at Oakington, they are provided, within minutes, with the best skilled legal advice possible. They do not have to travel 20 or 30 miles to a nearby town to find a solicitor, because the legal advice that they need is on hand.

So far, the Government have stubbornly refused to include legal services among the facilities that they must provide at accommodation centres. They say, "Of course we will provide legal services there", but why does that requirement not appear in the Bill? Early legal advice is vital, and makes for efficiency.

The Standing Committee was told by the former Minister, the hon. Member for Wallasey, that there was

If so, why does the Bill not make that a requirement? The hon. Lady also said:

Those phrases bear consideration. I assume that the rather weak phrase

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is another way of saying, "We are going to do it." In addition, I have always been confused by the word "co-located". Does it mean "on the site"? I hope so, but if it means "next door", or "down the road", the Government should say so. However, I do not know what the development of co-located services or of access to services will mean in practice.

Moreover, the phrase "access to services" is meaningless if people at accommodation centres are told that the nearest legal services to which they have access are a number of miles away, and that they can make their own way there if they want to. The Government's response on the issue was not very satisfactory.

The Minister who dealt with this matter in Standing Committee did not want the requirement to provide access to legal services to be included in the Bill because, as she told the Committee, the vast majority of legal services are funded not by the Home Office but by the Legal Services Commission, which already has adequate powers. That makes me scratch my head, as I am not sure what it means in practice. I think that she meant that the Legal Services Commission has some money and some powers, and that it is for the commission to decide whether to make legal advice available in the centres. That is not at all satisfactory.

The Minister also referred to another aspect that is very troubling. I only spotted these words again this morning, at an appallingly early hour, when I was looking at today's amendments. The hon. Lady referred to moves to shift funding of NGOs from the Home Office to the Lord Chancellor's Department to ensure that there was no perceived conflict of interest about the Home Office running a system and funding advice to people in it. However, there has been no perceived conflict of interest for many years with the principal organisation providing legal advice and assistance—the Immigration Advisory Service—which has been funded by the Home Office since its inception. I pay tribute to the previous Conservative Government for the level of funding that they provided to the IAS. I also pay sincere tribute to this Government for the level of funding that they have provided to the Immigration Advisory Service. How else could the IAS have its lawyers all around the country in different bases and at Oakington, were it not for Government funding?

During the time that I spent as chairman of the trustees of the Immigration Advisory Service, not once did the then Government ever seek to influence the service in one way or another. Conservative and Labour Governments have always given the IAS the grant and said, "Get on with the job." We have the best system in Europe when it comes to Governments who make immigration and asylum laws and also fund organisations to act against them, without interference. I pay tribute to them for that.

The Government need not trouble themselves about a perceived conflict of interest, but they should trouble themselves about there being a duty on them to provide legal advice on site. I am aided in my argument by all the respective NGOs. The Law Society also believes that asylum seekers should have access to good quality legal advice and representation at all stages of the system. Good quality independent legal advice at the earliest stage saves time and expense. Frontloading the services results in minimising delay and costs.

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The Law Society has carefully considered the Government's comment that access to legal advice and representation is not included in the list of facilities to be provided at accommodation centres, as such services are largely funded by the Legal Services Commission. However, the Law Society says that access to legal advice and representation is of such fundamental importance to the applicant and for the proper and efficient running of the asylum system that it should be included in the Bill.

If the Government remain concerned about funding issues, legal services could be included in the Bill, in the same way as facilities for health and religious observance are provided for in clause 26(1)(g) and (h)—that is, by referring to facilities relating to or facilities for legal services. That would ensure that the Bill provides for access to legal services while still dealing with the Government's concerns about funding, whether those concerns are real or not. I hope that the Government will think again about this important issue.

This part of the Bill relates to the conditions of residents at accommodation centres. A glance at clause 27 reveals that it remains similar, if not identical, to the one that caused all Opposition Members some concern in Committee. Amendments Nos. 133, 136, 137 and 138 would remove, from time to time, the word "dependant" from clause 27. This is the mischief about which I am complaining. Clause 27(4) states:

It was hard in Committee to make the Government clarify exactly what conditions could be broken that would give rise to the draconian step of requiring a resident to leave the centre, but many of us felt distinctly uneasy at the prospect of not only the offender but everybody linked to that person, such as a spouse or dependant—who may not have behaved remotely badly—being required to leave the centre.

Subsection (5) states that if a dependant of a resident breaches a condition, the Secretary of State may require the resident and any dependant to leave the centre or authorise the manager of the centre to require the resident and any dependant to leave the centre. Therefore, if someone who is dependent on someone else breaks a condition of residence, not only is the dependant chucked out but so is the resident because of the sins or faults of another.

We need reassurance that someone will not be thrown out of an accommodation centre for breaking a minor condition. The only parallel that I can think of is in bail hostels, where minor infringements are often overlooked. I hope that the Minister can reassure us on that point. I should also like some understanding from the Government about our unease at the prospect that people will, in effect, be treated harshly because of the sins of others. This issue needs a sensitive touch—a light touch—and a realistic approach.

I have outlined my amendments in this group. I commend them strongly, with some hope that the Government will accept them. There cannot be a reason for not accepting the appointment of a visiting committee. There are awfully good reasons, at this stage of the Bill's

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progress, for the Government to accept this proposal and agree that it is their duty to provide various services and to have the provision of legal advice inserted in the Bill.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): I shall speak briefly to the amendments in this group that outline some of the Liberal Democrats' remaining concerns about accommodation centres. I am conscious that important groups of amendments remain to be debated, so I will not detain the House for long.

Liberal Democrat Members support new clause 3. We believe that a visiting committee would be a helpful addition for the accountability of the new accommodation centres. In amendment No. 30 we express our view that, for the first 10 years at least, there should be a commitment on the part of the Government that the accommodation centres remain in public ownership. We went through this in Committee, where the then Minister, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) was open about the fact that the Government were considering a number of options.

6 pm

In principle, we have general concerns about the use of the private sector for prisons and facilities that deprive an individual of liberty. As the new accommodation centres will receive a great deal of public scrutiny, it is important that there are clear lines of accountability from the centre to Ministers. Obviously, one hopes that nothing will go wrong in any of the centres, but if it does, people will not be satisfied if it is suggested that the fault lay with a particular contracting company. The amendment relates to the establishment of clear lines of accountability and in our view that means retaining the centres in public ownership—at least initially.

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