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5 Nov 2002 : Column 166—continued

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): I want to concentrate on Lords amendment No. 20, because it is identical to one that I tabled on Report that was never debated or voted on because of timetabling problems.

Before that, however, I want to make one or two more general comments about accommodation centres. We are being asked to set up mainly large accommodation centres, with perhaps one smaller one in an urban area. The immigration and nationality directorate of the Home Office will set the centres up, employ teachers, and arrange for legal advice, health care and leisure facilities in them.

Suppose an organisation outside government—a local authority, a school or a hospital—routinely failed to answer letters for months or years, even letters from

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MPs; routinely lost clients' vital papers; experienced major delays in decision making; and, even when decisions were made, in many cases failed to send out information about the decisions or to enforce them, particularly the negative ones. If such an organisation came to us and said, XPlease can we have millions to spend on an experiment?", would we say, XActually, we remember the last experiment you sold to us. It cost millions as well, and was to do with vouchers of some sort. Of course, you now have a new chief executive who has scrapped the vouchers, so maybe we will think about it."? We would not dream of going down that road. We would say to that organisation, XSort yourselves out."

If we put a fraction of the effort that is going into the plans for accommodation centres into making the system work for the majority of the people who are going to continue in the National Asylum Support Service dispersal system for some time, we would achieve far more than we will ever do by going down that road.

I think we will be back in three or four years' time contemplating another expensive mess. The Minister spoke of the difficulties of the present system, particularly in relation to education and housing, but we set that system up and it will continue for some time. We have to get it sorted out and make it work. We are in danger of being distracted into putting a huge effort into something that is of far less importance than getting decisions made properly and getting them enforced when they need to be.

On Lords amendment No. 20, the letter we have all had from the Home Office on this matter says:

I am sorry but I disagree; it is precisely that. We are dealing with a minority of asylum seekers because only 14 or 15 per cent. have children. However, we are being asked to agree that those families cause massive problems in communities throughout the country. The term Xswamping" was used about schools.

Like many colleagues, I know from my constituency experience that it is difficult for schools to cope with children who speak a variety of languages, who may not be adequately housed and who may move quickly from one place to another. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Coleman) said in an intervention, not a single organisation that we might expect to complain has done so. Teaching unions, individual teachers and parents are not saying that there is a problem and that asylum seeker children should be removed from schools. None of the children's organisations supports the proposals, and that ought to give us pause for serious thought.

Mr. Willis : I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. The Minister said that children would gain a better grasp of the English language by being segregated. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that every method of modern language teaching indicates that target immersion in the language—immersing young people in English not only in the classroom but in the playground—is the best way to learn? This policy will drive children to speak their own language rather

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than to grasp English, which the Home Secretary clearly wants them to do since he said that he wants them to speak English at home.

Mr. Gerrard: I will come to that point later in my speech. Anybody who has tried to learn another language knows that one can sit in a classroom all day but one only starts to develop expertise by talking to people for whom that language is their native tongue. Last week, some of us met a group of asylum seeker children who came to the House. We talked to them about their experiences, and they made that point.

Schools say that they need support in these matters, and of course they do. Many schools have developed considerable expertise in dealing with asylum seeker children. I have spoken to head teachers in deprived inner-city areas who said that the presence of motivated asylum seeker children lifts their school rather than depressing it.

Mr. Prosser: I share that experience. Schools that act properly and tolerantly find that asylum seeker children enhance their whole ethos. However, is it sensible and practical to supply the support mentioned by my hon. Friend at perhaps three or four sites in the same area?

Mr. Gerrard: It is a practice that has been going on for years in my local education authority and many others in inner cities. Many London schools have children from ethnic minorities, and a variety of languages are spoken, not only by asylum seeker children. Support is essential to the entire ethos and education system in such schools.

Glenda Jackson: It is not unusual for primary schools in my constituency and, indeed, in the whole borough of Camden, to find that more than 57 languages were spoken among their pupils. I remember that when Labour was in opposition, groups of London-based colleagues argued for the retention and expansion of section 11 money, which gave precisely that kind of support to children whose mother tongue was not English.

Mr. Gerrard: That mirrors the experience of many of us.

I turn now to the six-month time limit, and I shall simply tell the House what the asylum seeker children we met said. When we asked them how they would have felt if they had been in a centre for six months and had then gone into a mainstream school, they said, XWhen you are a child, six months is a very long time." We should not forget that.

The other issue that has not been addressed is the question of what education is about. I am sure that it would be possible to recruit teachers to teach the national curriculum in an accommodation centre, but education is not just about what is in the curriculum. It is about the social interaction within a school and children learning to get on with one another. The children to whom I have talked who are not asylum seekers often make positive comments about what they, as well as the asylum seeker children, can gain from that interaction.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Does my hon. Friend agree that children from asylum seeker

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families who go to mainstream schools often help to educate the other children in the broadest way? They enable them to have a greater understanding of the situation. Mainstream education also helps to prevent the isolation of the families of those children by making others in the schools and outside aware of the difficulties that they may face.

Mr. Gerrard: My hon. Friend is right. The Minister talked about the difficulties that some of these children face in school, such as racial abuse and being abused as they walk to school. If children have such difficulties, we must sort those schools out, because they will have them whether they go to the schools immediately they come into the country or after three, four, five or six months in an accommodation centre. That problem needs sorting out in the school. I would not for one moment underestimate the hard work that is needed in schools to deal with a variety of children, but the positive experience described to us by many teachers convinces me.

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Gerrard: I shall give way, but I do not want to speak for too long.

Mr. Hall: Will my hon. Friend take it from me that what he has just described is exactly the experience of many schools in Bedford and Kempston? Schools are delighted to impose and develop policies of integration that are contrary to segregation, and they see the presence of a small number—that is what it is—of asylum seeker children as a great opportunity for the whole school. Those schools are asking not so much for support to teach asylum seeker children, because that is their job and what schools are for, but for support to assist the parents of those children to understand English better and to understand the purpose of education.

Mr. Gerrard: That is a well-made point.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South): I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said, but I cannot help but feel, in my cynical way, that he is putting too positive a gloss on what Home Office Ministers are trying to do. I suspect that the Home Office does not want these children to put down roots in the local community. It does not want them to go to school with kids who live in the community, because if their parents were refused permission to stay in the United Kingdom, the Home Office would have to deal with appeals such as those my hon. Friend and I present on behalf of those parents, when we say, XThe children are now part of the local community and it would be a disgrace to remove them, so let them and their parents stay." Does my hon. Friend think I am too cynical?

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