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5 Nov 2002 : Column 155—continued

Beverley Hughes: I shall shortly cite the findings of a report from one of the major children's organisations in respect of these matters, but my hon. Friend raises an important point. There is confusion when it comes to

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distinguishing those children who are refugees—who have been given permission to stay and whose families' claim to be fleeing persecution has been decided in the affirmative—from those children whose claims are still being assessed. Children in the latter category are seeking asylum but have not been granted it. Most of them will not be granted asylum and—as was made clear in the previous debate—they will return within six months to the country from which they have come. We are therefore talking about two categories of children. Focusing on the experience of the children in the two groups is essential if we are to evaluate the current system and the potential advantages of what is being proposed.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): I have a certain amount of difficulty in understanding how the experience of a child could be improved by putting that child in an accommodation centre, however short the stay might be, rather than a mainstream school. However, I was most concerned when my hon. Friend said that the experience of asylum-seeking children has not been entirely rosy. Is she implying that the reception given to those children by the teachers and pupils in our schools is not rosy? If so, what work is she doing with the Department for Education and Skills to ensure that all teachers make it abundantly clear to all indigenous pupils that asylum-seeker children should be welcomed?

Beverley Hughes: No, I am not implying that at all. Schools and teachers make considerable efforts, often in very difficult circumstances. However, I will deal in a moment with the points that my hon. Friend wants me to address in terms of some of the problems in the current system.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): I have an asylum unit in my constituency and I visited a number of the schools there both last week and yesterday. They are coping, although with difficulty, and the children are settling in. However, the teachers and head teachers told me that if the throughput of asylum seekers continues as the Government want, so that decisions are made rapidly, primary schools in particular will have difficulties if children enter and then leave after some months, to be replaced by others speaking different languages. It is asking a lot of those small junior schools to cope with such disruption.

Beverley Hughes: I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution, which dealt with some of the implications for schools and children here. It therefore has a direct bearing on asylum-seeking children as well, and we should be concerned about some of these issues.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): My hon. Friend will be aware that education is a matter devolved to the Scottish Executive, while asylum-seeking is reserved. What consultations has she had with the Scottish Executive?

Beverley Hughes: I have had two meetings with the Deputy Minister for Social Justice in the Scottish

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Executive—I made a visit to Scotland not long ago and she visited me in London. Discussions on those matters continue.

Glenda Jackson: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Beverley Hughes: No, I should like to make some progress, if my hon. Friend will forgive me.

I would like hon. Members to understand what can happen to asylum-seeking children when they enter the dispersed system. They often undergo an induction process if they come through Dover. Assessing them takes several days—it can take up to a week. Arrangements for dispersal can take some time and they may be in emergency accommodation until that can be arranged. During that time, the children receive no education. There is then the difficulty, in many parts of the country, of finding a place for the child to go. Those three stages can mean that a considerable period elapses between a child entering the country and going to school. That is one impact.

Some children have difficulty in integrating in the first instance. Over the summer, I talked to several asylum-seeking families and went to the accommodation where they were staying. I heard several stories from parents and children about the difficulties that they were still experiencing three or four months on. A young Ethiopian boy is still taunted every day on his way to school. He has one friend in school, another asylum-seeking child. I do not say that that is the norm, but it is not uncommon. The pressures that the current system is creating in some of our most hard-pressed communities means that it is sometimes difficult for the resident population to be as accepting of asylum-seeking families, and for resident children to be as accepting of asylum-seeking children, as we would like them to be.

4.30 pm

I want to refer to a report published by Save the Children.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): Will the Minister give way?

Beverley Hughes: I want to finish my point; it is an important one.

In September, Save the Children reported on some work that it had undertaken in Glasgow, with examples of the experiences of young asylum seekers in the city. The main findings of the report rightly referred to school being the Xhighlight" in the lives of many young asylum seekers. However, the report detailed the views of children who had been in Glasgow for many, many months and so were fully integrated.

The report dealt with other key issues. It included quotes from children about racial abuse, violence and bullying. The detail of the report showed, tellingly, that to help children to integrate, schools in Glasgow had to provide separate classes for them during the first few weeks of their attendance. Schools then had to work to manage the movement of each child into mainstream classes. That was because the experience of many of those children was traumatic. Their journey to England and their experience when they first arrived created uncertainty. Many children do not speak English

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sufficiently well to be able to go straight away into a class with other children and make the most of the education that is on offer.

Some people would have us believe that the experience of school is unproblematic and the best possible for children in terms of integration. However, for some children—perhaps for many—that experience is not all that it should be.

Mr. Willis: What the Minister described is the norm for many children who are already settled in the United Kingdom. That is what happens every day. It is up to the schools to overcome the problems. Can the hon. Lady give the House a shred of empirical evidence that demonstrates that segregation promotes integration?

Beverley Hughes: The hon. Gentleman's labelling of the experience in an accommodation centre as segregation is unnecessarily pejorative. It is not segregation; all the children will be educated together in the accommodation centre. For children who are then given permission to stay, that will provide a stable and rich educational environment that relates to their greatest needs, especially for English language acquisition, in a way that an inner-city primary school could not hope to achieve.

Several hon. Members rose—

Beverley Hughes: I am going to make some progress.

Glenda Jackson: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Beverley Hughes: With regret, no; I want to explain what accommodation centres can offer.

Accommodation centres can offer a safe protective environment when people first arrive in the UK. They can offer a sound and decent preparation for mainstream schooling, especially in English. They will offer a high standard of education that will be inspected by Ofsted and will offer the national curriculum.

I draw the attention of Members to the remarks of the bishop-elect of Birmingham, Bishop Sentamu, in a recent radio interview. He said:

[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) does not like what I am saying and wants to drown me out from a sedentary position, but he will not succeed.

Mr. Willis: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Beverley Hughes: I have been generous in taking interventions, so I will finish the quotation.

The bishop said:

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I am not asking hon. Members to assume that the advantages of accommodation centres necessarily meet the needs of every asylum-seeking family or individual. Clearly, most people will still be in the dispersal system. We are talking about a trial involving a maximum of 3,000 people. It seems to me important, however, that we recognise some of the issues with which people arrive in this country, and that there is potential for a different way of meeting and dealing with those needs for us to evaluate.

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