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Mr. Hancock: I am glad to have the opportunity to take part in this debate. When the Minister replies, I hope that she will answer many of the points raised, especially those relating to children.

I draw the Minister's attention to the reply that her colleague gave in another place. In a written answer to Lord Alton, Lord Rooker said:

That suggests that asylum seekers are taken to removal centres on arrival. However, the answer also contains two important statements: first, that that would happen only in exceptional circumstances, and secondly, that it would happen only after appropriate care and assessment. The Minister needs to assure us that nothing has changed since that answer was given.

We also need to consider the statistics on detention. As of 29 December 2001, 38 per cent. of asylum seekers had been detained for less than a month; 28 per cent. for longer than four months; and 65 people—5 per cent. of

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those detained during that year—for more than a year. The hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) asked about the timing of detention and judicial oversight. When visiting the Campsfield detention centre, the previous chief inspector of prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, stressed that it is an important point of principle that when it is deemed necessary to deprive someone of his or her liberty, that should be overseen by judicial process. He also noted that the process should start quickly.

We need to be told about the Government's plans for allowing that to happen. Will judicial oversight of detention take place within days, a week or a month of an order being made and a person being detained? We know that some people are detained for a year. Is it right for them to have wait a year before they have redress to judicial oversight? That would surely be contemptible. I hope that the Minister will clarify those matters because people have a right to know. It would also help those outside this country to know what is happening here.

I also support what the hon. Members for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) and for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) said about children. My experience of leading the largest local authority in Great Britain for nearly five years was that the Children Act 1989 was paramount and took precedence over all other obligations that a local authority or, for that matter, the state had when it came to the rights of the child. To house children in such detention centres is a dramatic and draconian step by the Government.

As one of our representatives at the Council of Europe, I am party to writing a report on a common asylum policy for the 43 countries in the Council's family. It is an almighty task and I wonder how easy it will be to get Governments to agree once we have settled on a policy. Nevertheless, one of the fundamentals of the policy will be the rights of the child. Many of us have visited refugee camps in Macedonia, Bosnia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Those places offer little or no hope to the refugees and sometimes are not even places of safety.

I recently dealt with a family from Kosovo who were refugees in Macedonia. The mother was killed in a road accident in Kosovo. Her death was not connected with any action there. The father and his family were split up in Macedonia and he was put in a camp with his 13-year-old daughter, where she was raped. The father and the daughter got out of the camp, made their way across Europe and inevitably arrived in the United Kingdom. The father was detained on arrival and released fairly soon afterwards, but the daughter was put into the care of a local authority.

We are hearing now, however, that if those people were to arrive here in a few months, in the same circumstances, in all likelihood they would both be detained. The girl had already been through the most harrowing experiences that any child could contemplate, but under this measure she could have been faced with the possibility of being detained, even if only overnight. That is not a pretty picture.

4.45 pm

Mr. Speaker and I were lucky enough yesterday to meet a dozen people from the Basque country. They came to the House of Commons to present to Mr. Speaker a plaque commemorating the efforts of our predecessors in 1937 to evacuate Basque children from the war against fascism to

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the safe haven of the United Kingdom. Those children came here in their hundreds, unaccompanied, and last night several of them, now elderly people, told Mr. Speaker and myself of their experiences.

One woman had seen her father hanged in the street and her mother raped and killed. Others talked about families being bombed and their homes being burnt out. Each of them had stories to tell, and each had an emotional and truly thankful respect for this country and for the fact that in 1937 we welcomed unaccompanied children, who were brought to this country through the efforts of a Member of this House and by the Royal Navy. Two of them ended up staying here because they had nothing to go back to; their families were killed in that civil war.

As a nation, we have a proud record of recognising that children have a special place in all our lives. We know that there are 6,000 unaccompanied children in this country, many of whom have come from the most harrowing circumstances in Africa, central and eastern Europe and the Balkans. They represent 6,000 individual tragedies. Many more children arrive here accompanied by one parent. Surely the Government are not suggesting that any of those children, even those who are unaccompanied, should be subjected to the trauma of possible detainment, even for a short period. That cannot be right.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) made a point about the people who will be responsible for running the centres. It cannot be right that agency staff working for an as yet unknown operation will be able to recruit people, possibly without even training them properly, and then give them powers stronger than those currently available to the police and immigration officers. Surely the Government are not seriously suggesting that they will put such powers into the hands of an organisation over which Parliament will have little or no control and for which Ministers will probably deny liability if anything goes wrong.

Everyone agrees, I am sure, that the Government are right to try to tackle this issue. We must have policies that are clearly understood, and they must be firm but they must also be fair. They have to give people the chance to test the Government's case against them at the earliest possible opportunity. As hon. Members have said, we must ensure that we sign up to conventions on children's rights. We must then adhere to those conventions in responding to children's needs, and their rights must not be watered down. Those conventions must not be subsumed into legislation as though we can bypass obligations to which we have signed up and of which, as a nation, we should be proud.

We are obliged to ensure that we deal firmly and fairly, but also quickly, with asylum seekers. If people are to be detained for three months, surely it is not beyond the wit of the Government to come up with a system that allows people to have access to judicial comfort, either through a review of their case or through legal advice, and deals with asylum applications and the appeals process in a concentrated period. If people are to be detained because the Government believe that there are good reasons why they should not be on our streets, we have to have in place a system that can deal with their cases pretty quickly.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): I am sure that everyone agrees with what the hon. Gentleman just said. Would he

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like to take this opportunity to condemn the words of Liberal Democrat councillor Frank Roderick, who said in a newsletter circulated a few weeks ago that the Government were proposing a "Prison Camp for Speke/Garston", adding:

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is absolutely outrageous that that Liberal Democrat councillor is calling for people's immediate deportation, presumably without allowing them any legal rights whatever?

Mr. Hancock: The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to learn that those comments are news to me. This is the first time I have heard of them, but I certainly would not want to be a party to those suggestions. However, they have already been brought to the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey by the Minister, and my hon. Friend has undertaken to investigate the circumstances. Yesterday, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) made an intervention that was far from helpful to the debate, and he has been equally unhelpful to today's debate by repeating something that is already in the public domain. He has brought a distasteful air to the debate by trying to score a silly political point rather than deal with the crux of the issue.

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