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5 Nov 2002 : Column 159—continued

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover): Is my hon. Friend aware that during the difficult times that Dover experienced when we were receiving more asylum seekers and asylum-seeking children than we could cope with, local head teachers gathered together and approached me to ask whether a central school could be provided so that interpreting, special needs services and all the other facilities did not have to be provided on three, four, five or six sites?

Beverley Hughes: My hon. Friend is very well aware as a result of the significant numbers of asylum-seeking families in his constituency of the pressures that schools and communities can experience. He is right to draw our attention to the experience of teachers and schools in his area because it is germane to the debate.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): Will the Minister give way?

Beverley Hughes: I want to make more progress as I am very aware that other hon. Members want to speak. I will give way in a moment.

My hon. Friend has outlined some of the pressures and issues and, of course, the UK is not alone in facing them. In Denmark, children are educated in accommodation centres rather than in schools. In Spain, the Madrid regional government is introducing an initiative, which will begin early next year, under which liaison centres will be established for migrant children who arrive during an academic year and whose Spanish is not very good. That is not segregation or stigmatisation; it is not putting children's needs second. Crucially, it will not prevent the integration of those who are allowed to stay. Indeed, as I have argued, it will provide a very strong base for that integration to be planned and managed much more comprehensively and in a way that meets the needs of families.

Glenda Jackson: Will my hon. Friend give way on that point?

Beverley Hughes: No, I will not give way on that point.

We are not being inflexible either. The Government amendment makes it clear that, where special circumstances call for provision that can only or best be arranged by the local education authority, the education provider can recommend that to the LEA. That has always been our intention, and we have now made that clear in the Bill.

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I believe that the Liberal Democrats' amendment is designed to leave the choice of whether education is provided on site or in the accommodation centre to the LEA. However, as drafted, it would mean that the LEA would allow a family to stay in an accommodation centre only if it felt that it had the capacity to educate the family's children in a maintained school or an alternative educational establishment. Clearly, we cannot accept that amendment because if the LEA decided not to bid to provide the education at a centre and believed that it did not have the capacity to educate the child at a maintained school, we could still not be able to place the child in a centre. The family would need to be supported and we would simply have to support them in a dispersal area where the LEA would have to provide education even if it did not believe that it had the capacity to do so.

I am sure that that is not the intention behind the amendment, but its effect could contradict the very purpose of an accommodation centre. Furthermore, effectively, it would allow an LEA to decide that an asylum-seeking family with children of school age should not reside in that area because the LEA had deemed that it did not have the capacity to educate those children. I hope that hon. Members will understand that that cannot be accepted.

Simon Hughes: I said in my letter to the Home Secretary that if there were drafting issues, we would be happy to discuss them, because this is an important matter. The Minister will understand that the amendment is designed to reflect the concern of her colleagues in local government, which we share, that it should be for the LEA to decide whether—to pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser)—it has capacity in its existing schools, or whether some other provision is needed. What is important is that the LEA has that choice, and that if something else is needed it retains responsibility—even if the provision is on-site in the accommodation centre.

The Minister understands the point of our proposal. We are happy to discuss the drafting of the amendment, but I hope that she is sympathetic to the principle that the LEA should take the lead responsibility. My understanding of discussions taking place elsewhere is that that point is being discussed. The Government need to move their position to accept that the LEA is the right body to make the first choice.

Beverley Hughes: I do not think that that is possible within the arrangements that we will have to undertake to establish accommodation centres. Within that procurement process, it will not be logistically possible to ensure that an LEA has lead responsibility. However, there are several ways in which the role of the local authority can be assured.

The Bill provides the opportunity for a local authority, which can include the LEA, to bid to provide an accommodation centre in its entirety. Secondly, the local authority, either as the LEA or as part of an LEA consortium—perhaps through the Local Government Association—could bid for the education provided within a particular centre. Thirdly, it is open to the local authority to help to develop the detailed proposals for the education within a particular centre—that is

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happening at the two sites currently under discussion. Fourthly, in any case LEAs have an advisory role in relation to all education provision.

Let me point out that, even in our maintained system, it is the schools that provide the education. The schools run themselves—the LEA is not the direct provider. The Liberal Democrats need to take that into account when thinking about what they are trying to achieve. I want LEAs to be involved—I would welcome their involvement—and I have outlined the several ways in which, to a greater or a lesser extent, including total provision, they can be involved. I hope that those possibilities satisfy the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Willis: The Minister misses an essential point that many Labour Back Benchers have made, which is that currently an LEA does not have the option of saying that, if it has the capacity, it will educate all the children in mainstream schools. That strikes me as a point that the Government could concede without losing face on any of the other issues, because that is already the duty of an LEA. It is precisely the same duty as an LEA would have if, for example, a group of Romanian itinerants entered its area. The LEA would have a duty to educate the children and it would have the choice of either educating them on the site, if that is what is wanted, or placing the children, or some of them, in local schools. That is a perfectly legitimate and reasonable halfway house, and better than saying that the only place in which the children we are talking about can be educated is in the camps.

Beverley Hughes: The hon. Gentleman uses the pejorative term Xcamps" to support his position. His proposals on LEAs having the right to say that they will provide for the children's education if they have the capacity in maintained schools go against the essential feature of accommodation centres, which is on-site provision. Therefore, what he wants cannot be achieved. However, we can achieve the involvement of LEAs in the ways that I outlined.

We are quite willing to see the local education authorities provide education in the accommodation centres—for instance, if they are part of a wider local authority bid. We will add a further safeguard, as I said, to ensure that together with the bidders for accommodation centres, we will endeavour to engage in each case with the local education authorities so that they are able to put themselves forward as a subcontractor, perhaps in a consortium with other LEAs, or as bodies with specialist experience, if they wish.

4.45 pm

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): As I understand it, the central argument in the case for accommodation centres is to maintain close contact between those asylum seekers and the Home Office while a decision is being made. In what way does educating the children of asylum seekers at local schools undermine that central purpose of the accommodation centre?

Beverley Hughes: The logistics of trying to provide for education in schools for a significant number of families

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in a particular place, who would have to travel out to different schools, make for very complicated arrangements and cut across the fundamental objective that we are trying to achieve in the accommodation centres—close contact with people and the provision of services on-site, so that they do not impact on local schools in the way that we have seen in many areas.

Gregory Barker: The Minister alluded a little earlier to the visits that she had made in the past weeks and months and her conversations with asylum-seeking families. In her discussions with the asylum-seeking parents of school-age children, did the parents express views about whether or not, in their first few weeks or months of settling in this country, they would like their children to be educated in units dedicated to the particular needs of their children, or in mainstream schools?

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