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5 Nov 2002 : Column 169—continued

Mr. Gerrard: I would never accuse my hon. Friend of being too cynical. He has hit on an important issue. The Minister did her best to paint a positive picture of how an accommodation centre could be run, and I would not attribute base motives to her. However, if we step back, the key debate about accommodation centres has never

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been about the best mechanism for supporting asylum seekers. It has been about process. The Home Office's approach is XWe want a process enabling us to make decisions quickly and to keep track of people". All the questions about support are something of a side issue.

I do not believe we can argue that segregation is in the best interests of the child. Others, I know, will have read the annual human rights report from the Foreign Office, published last month. According to a section about Roma,

The report is saying that children come here who have been victims of discrimination and segregation in other countries—and what are we going to do with them? The minute they arrive, we are going to segregate them again. How can we justify that?

5.15 pm

Simon Hughes: I know that we have only about 40 minutes left. I shall try to be as speedy as the last two speakers.

First, let me echo the general point made strongly by the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard). The whole perspective is now wrong. I deal with a huge number of immigration and asylum cases, which constitute between a third and half of my constituency case load. It is the administration of the system that needs reform. Every week I deal with people whose papers have been lost or whose names have been confused—people who desperately need to leave because of an illness, a bereavement, a funeral or a marriage, but cannot break through the system. Others are trying to come here for similar reasons.

It would be better if we devoted only half our current effort, let alone the same amount, to improving the current system. Politicians may not be experienced in many respects, but the Chamber today contains all the experience anyone would ever require to recommend a system that would work for all our constituents. That is the priority; this is, in a sense, merely a distraction. It is a distraction for another reason: we are talking about a pilot scheme involving 3,000 of about 80,000 applicants a year. Notwithstanding what the Daily Mail and Daily Express would have us believe, some 50 per cent. of those applicants are granted the right to stay.

We have been trying to argue for intelligent solutions. The good news is that we have made some progress, as the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) pointed out. Liberal Democrats know that locations that are miles from mixed communities and from services, in the middle of nowhere, are not right. That is why we supported the amendment that was passed in the Lords, and will vote today to retain the requirement for appropriate locations. We will happily vote with the Conservatives on that. If services are to be accessible, whether they are on site or brought in, they need to be in communities that are more likely to be accommodating.

The Government, sadly, have not responded. I heard and understand the Minister's argument, but I do not accept it. I am sorry that the proposals for centres in

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Nottinghamshire and the west midlands are still on the table, because we do not consider either of those locations appropriate.

Beverley Hughes: Let me point out to the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) that it is an implicit and indeed enforceable principle of administrative law that the Secretary of State must exercise his or her powers reasonably. The idea presented earlier that any Secretary of State could decide on the location while knowing, perversely, that it was unsuitable is nonsense.

Simon Hughes: To be fair, I must say that that was not the case argued from the Conservative Front Bench. The amendment proposes that an accommodation centre

That gives considerable latitude. It is not over-restrictive. If I had drafted it, I would not have come up with those words.

Sir Michael Spicer: The decision on Throckmorton is welcome, but it has been reached on the ground of the difficulty of purchasing land, not on grounds of needs and suitability, so the Government took the decision on the wrong grounds.

Simon Hughes: To be fair, the reason for the decision was in part the lobbying and in part the difficulty in acquiring the land and in getting planning permission, which should have meant that the proposed centres were out of the frame. I know it is difficult. That is why some of us said that those reception centres should not be as big as planned. I have argued for reception centres but always contemplated that they would accommodate 200 or 250 people and that they would be in existence for a short time. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) said, they should not be like a camp, but if they accommodated 750 or 1,000 people, they would be. They would not be personal but institutionalised. That is why we are sad that, although the Government have accepted a pilot scheme accommodating a smaller number, which is nearer to 250, they have still kept in the frame two reception centres accommodating a larger number.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying but is he not concerned that reception centres in any form become a target for racist attacks? The unhappy experience in Germany has been that a number of asylum seekers living in hostels have been brutally attacked. They were easily located because the fascists knew where to find them.

Simon Hughes: I understand that argument, which is a hugely important issue. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the trouble is that the dispersal system has hardly been friendly and welcoming. People have been dispersed literally around the country and have not been supported. For example, they have had no one from their own language group to offer support. We must try

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to find some alternative to the current arrangements. We have argued that appropriate locations for small centres should be found to accommodate people for a short time when they first arrive. In communities such as the hon. Gentleman's and mine, people are used to lots of people coming and going. I hope that the new centres will not be the focus of antagonism and racism, which is the worst risk in any of the provisions.

On Report, we argued to the Home Secretary—I moved an amendment—that we knew that we could not get from the present terribly long-winded system to the system we would like in two minutes, so a six-month maximum time limit, with an opt-out to give a bit of flexibility after three months, would be acceptable. That is what the Minister has come back with.

In the Lords, to try to get the maximum agreement between the parties, we moved towards the Conservatives' position and they towards ours and we proposed a four-month limit, which we hope is achievable—I share the view of the right hon. Member for West Dorset—but the proposal for a six-month limit is greatly welcome. It will set a discipline. I hope it will deal with many of the problems that we have all identified which keep cases going unnecessarily for far too long. The new proposal marks progress and we will not disagree with the Government.

Amendment No. 21, on which we will not force a vote, refers to the occasions when the Secretary of State gives himself power not to deal with a case. That proposal is important to many of us who believe that each case must be dealt with fairly. The amendment says:

We all know the danger of a case being rejected on a formality, not on its substance. Far too many cases fail not because someone does not have a good case but because they did not sign the form on the right page or whatever. I seek an assurance from the Minister that the terms of Lords amendment No. 21 do not fall below the standards that are being negotiated at a Europe-wide level in the proposal for a Council directive laying down minimum standards on the reception of applicants for asylum in member states. We must ensure that we have common standards that accept good cases on their merits and do not turn them down by some defective process.

5.30 pm

The other issue on which an accommodation has been reached concerns legal advice. We cannot provide a proper service for asylum seekers without providing proper legal advice. That is why my hon. Friends and I will argue against the requirement to go abroad to make an appeal. That is a nonsense of a system—people cannot make a proper appeal from abroad. The Minister responded to the compromise position in Lords amendment No. 28, but my concern is that simply giving someone the name of the Refugee Legal Centre or the Immigration Advisory Service might be considered as discharging the obligation to provide legal advice. We need some reassurance that Xlegal advice" means real legal advice from competent individuals on site, so that people can ensure that their rights are not lost.

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There are many other issues to which this huge group of complicated amendments gives rise, but I want to finish by discussing education—the issue that has proved the most controversial in this House and in the other place. As Ministers know, I said that, provided that the time involved was very short, I might be able to accept the idea of educating children on site. I am conscious that that was never the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough; indeed, many others in my party were unhappy that insufficient guarantees had been provided in that regard. In the Lords, we sought the guarantees that are effectively encapsulated in the relevant amendment before us. We argued that local education authorities should take the lead in education: that they should decide whether they have the capacity, and whether such schooling should be provided in an accommodation centre. Such a process could be subject to Ofsted, and to inspection by qualified teachers.

Those are the things that we all want for asylum seekers in schools in London—I am the chairman of governors in one such school—and elsewhere. We hoped to make sufficient progress on that issue in the Lords, but in the end we did not. That is why, when the Bishop of Portsmouth's amendment was moved, we decided that, if the Government cannot deliver, we would support the bishops and insist that such provision be offered by LEAs. We voted accordingly, as did some Labour and Conservative Back Benchers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough and I have worked on this issue. We have talked to our local government colleagues and, indirectly, to Labour local government colleagues. The hugely widespread view exists that education should be the responsibility of LEAs. For example, if Worcestershire LEA were unable to provide education on a particular site, it could call on the expertise of other LEAs. If such provision still could not be made, Worcester could enter into a contract with the private sector. It is LEAs who should have such responsibility. They know best—they are the ones on the ground.

I accept that Opposition amendments are always liable to the argument that their drafting is flawed, but I am saddened by the Minister's not accepting the principle behind ours. I am also saddened because, in the end, the Home Office position won against that of the Department for Education and Skills. The Home Office's view was that it must run matters and contract out the service. Our view is that the education service should run things and supply the service, wherever it may be. We will therefore press our amendment to a vote, and we hope that colleagues will support it. It would give LEAs the lead, and if it is defeated, we will support the position that we supported in the Lords. We will do so not because it reflects the common view of us all, but because, unless the Government can produce adequate guarantees, their proposal should not be accepted by this place or the other place.

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