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5 Nov 2002 : Column 152—continued

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire): I am delighted by the decision on Throckmorton, and my constituents—particularly those living in Pershore, which is two or three miles from the proposed site—will be especially delighted. However, is the Minister now saying that the needs of asylum seekers who will be

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residents of such centres should not be taken into account? If those needs should be taken into account, surely the whole matter should be subject to judicial review. What is the point, therefore, in keeping the provision off the statute book?

Beverley Hughes: The amendment refers to suitability and, as the hon. Gentleman makes clear, tries to link it to need. In terms of what is provided within the centre, we are clearly very concerned about meeting asylum seekers' needs, and ensuring that, in doing so, we can progress claims in the best and fastest possible way. However, that point does not relate to the question of suitability of location, which is the aspect of the amendment that I do not want to accept.

I turn to length of stay and Lords amendments Nos. 19, 25 and 26. Under the terms of Lords amendment No. 19, a person could be supported in an accommodation centre for a maximum of four months only, unless there were Xexceptional circumstances". I am sure that there are no differences among Members—certainly not among Government Members—on the primary objective of establishing a fair and fast asylum process. We have made it clear throughout the Bill's passage that we are committed to faster processing, which will form a key part of the evaluation of accommodation centres. We want asylum seekers to be supported in an accommodation centre throughout the process of initial decision and subsequent appeal, but at this stage we do not believe it sensible to include in the Bill a four-month time limit.

Since coming to power in 1997, we have made significant progress in processing: about 70 per cent. of initial decisions in new applications are now made within two months. However, we must remember that existing statutory limits for appeal rights—which take into account practice directions issued by the chief adjudicator, irrespective of Government—would make a total limit of four months, including the appeal process, impossible to achieve in a manner fair to the applicant. At the moment, a substantive appeal hearing before an adjudicator will not be given less than seven weeks from the date of receipt of an appeal in respect of standard track cases. If we accepted a four-month time limit at this stage, we would run the risk of allowing all those seeking leave to appeal to the tribunal to leave the accommodation centre. Most such cases would involve those whose claim had been refused and where the decision was upheld by an adjudicator. They are precisely the people with most to gain by leaving the centre, with its tighter contact management arrangements.

We are all committed to the same principle of speedy decision making and we all agree that it is in nobody's interest for asylum seekers to spend long periods waiting for their claims to be determined. However, I wish to make it clear that I do not accept the argument that the accommodation centres will be bad places in which to be supported: they will not.

4.15 pm

In the light of the amendment made in the other place, and discussion about the issue, we have, as hon. Members will know, brought forward a revision that gives a clear indication of our intentions and provides

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the assurances that are being sought. Our amendment will mean that a resident will remain in an accommodation centre for a maximum of six months, unless in the particular circumstances of the case the Home Secretary decides that it is appropriate that the person should remain for a short time longer. If the Home Secretary does decide that, it will be for a maximum of a further three months.

We have also provided for an order, which will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, to be made allowing Parliament to shorten—only shorten—either or both of the six-month and additional three-month periods. That is a clear indication that we are not just saying that we will accept that those limits are as good as it gets. What that says is that we will continue to do all we can to drive down processing times in the way that we have done since 1997 to secure a speedy, fair and credible system that commands people's confidence.

The amendment made in the other place recognises that there will be exceptions, and our amendment follows that logic. There will be cases, for example, in which somebody is due to receive a determination shortly after the six-month time limit and it would make sense to require the person to remain for that short period beyond six months rather than to subject them—and the process—to upheaval. Of course, the intention will be to complete as many cases as possible, end to end, within the initial six months in the accommodation centre. However, some cases are particularly complex and documentation for them needs to be obtained from overseas or from other organisations. In other cases, the asylum seekers themselves may have delayed the process. In those instances, it is sensible to ensure that we have the capacity to require the applicant to remain for a short while longer in the accommodation centre.

Furthermore, our amendment ensures that somebody may remain in an accommodation centre beyond the six-month period if they want to. Whatever views some appear to have about accommodation centres, our aim is to make them supportive environments where people will feel secure and where their needs will be met. It would make no sense to require someone to leave when they wished to stay.

The remaining amendments with which we are disagreeing—Lords amendments Nos. 41, 42 and 44—are consequential.

Simon Hughes: The Minister's announcement about time limits will be widely welcomed. Her announcement that the Government are willing to contemplate bringing the time limits down is also welcome. I am grateful that the Liberal Democrats' suggestions that we cannot reach our intended destination immediately, and that exceptions to the best practice should be allowed—such as permitting extensions to stays of a few more months—have been accepted, after passing between the Chambers. Am I right in thinking that the final package will apply to all people in accommodation centres, because that is slightly different from the original Government acceptance, which applied to families only? If that is the case, we will be entirely satisfied with the Government's proposal and will not push our four-month proposal this afternoon.

Beverley Hughes: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention. As he has already deduced

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from the amendments, I confirm that the new amendment composites various suggestions, in that it applies to any resident of the accommodation centre, not just families with children. In the spirit of the progress that we have already made in reducing the time taken to deal with claims, I hope that the House will accept the Government's amendments.

The amendments on length of stay in accommodation centres are also relevant to some of the concerns that hon. Members have about education provision on site. I recognise that this is a key issue for many hon. Members. I share the position on which they base their views and from which their concerns arise—that, although we need to establish a good asylum system, the main priority is the best interests of the child.

The amendments accepted in the Lords have deleted the provisions in the Bill ensuring on-site education. Amendment (a) tabled by the Liberal Democrats to Lords amendment No. 20 would allow the local education authority to choose whether the education should take place in the accommodation centre or local schools. I am grateful to Liberal Democrat Members for their kindness in showing the amendment to me and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary before the debate, but there is a problem with its drafting. As drafted, amendment (a) would make the LEA the arbiter of whether a child could be placed with his or her family in an accommodation centre. That is something that the Government cannot entertain.

I hope that the debate about education issues and the impact on children of being educated in an accommodation centre for a period of time can be based on the reality of what happens to some children now and on an understanding of some of the advantages that will arise from the proposed arrangements. I therefore ask that hon. Members do not think in simple ideological or dogmatic terms. I do not mean to be pejorative, as I know that hon. Members hold very strong views on these matters, but thinking about the best interests of the children involved means that we must think about the reality of the experience faced by many asylum-seeking children, both before their arrival in this country and, sadly, afterwards.

The reality is that not all is rosy for those children in terms of their integration in schools in the dispersal system. We intend to provide those who are given permission to stay here with education geared to their needs. Because that education will be provided in a centre, there is the potential that it will give the children a period of stability and be to their positive advantage. I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind, for this debate at least.

Mr. Iain Coleman (Hammersmith and Fulham): Will my hon. Friend give the name of one organisation working with children or refugees that has supported the Government's proposals not to allow asylum-seeker children to go to mainstream schools?

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