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5 Nov 2002 : Column 173—continued

Mr. Prosser: In my constituency, we already have an induction centre, a removal centre and accommodation for more than 200 unaccompanied minors. So I am very aware of the impact—I have seen it and felt it—of placing such facilities in areas where they are not welcomed with open arms by all residents. Things are much better in Dover now, but we went through some

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difficult times. In the light of that background, I certainly welcome the Minister's announcement concerning flexibility in respect of the size—and, to some degree, the location—of accommodation centres. In my experience, numbers—the number of asylum seekers entering an area, compared with the total indigenous population—are everything.

I keep closely in touch with Dover's migrant helpline, so I get the monthly figures for people coming through the port, and the total for those who have actually settled: those who are in the induction centre, in the removal centre, and in the centre in which unaccompanied minors are kept. I can almost estimate the numbers of asylum seekers in Dover from the atmosphere at my surgeries and street stalls in the centre of the town. If there are many people seeking refuge, the queue of local people with complaints is long. Most of the complaints are about practical matters, such as difficulties with local services or with getting children into local schools. We have already debated the issue of schooling children in areas that do not have the provision to meet demand. Numbers are important and that is why I am glad to see more thought put into the problems.

On the issue of the provision of education support, I have already mentioned that we experienced real difficulties when more children were coming into Dover than could be accommodated in local schools. In practice, it is the less popular schools in the more deprived areas—and east Kent still has areas of serious deprivation—that are required to take in the asylum-seeker children. Those children bring enormous riches to the schools and it is a joy to visit the schools that are doing things properly and well, and to see the children relating to each other. I remember a local Dover boy telling me the story of an asylum seeker and his trek from Kosovo. Such examples warm the heart.

To return to practicalities, the resources of schools are still limited. We must support schools but we cannot support all of them with interpretation provision. Interpretation services are necessary from the beginning, because communication is necessary before the children begin to pick up the language. We cannot supply that resource in my constituency on the necessary number of sites.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) questioned my hon. Friend the Minister about whether the changes were being proposed because schools were not treating asylum-seeker children properly, and if so, whether we should in fact complain to the Department for Education and Skills. I agree that we should complain, but it is true that some schools are not welcoming children from asylum-seeker families properly. Two years ago, when things were more difficult in Dover, I went to address a school group on the role of a Member of Parliament. We should have had a friendly exchange, but for an hour I listened to questions from young children, aged nine and 10, that were framed in the most pejorative terms. All the myths that are peddled by papers such as the Daily Mail and the Daily Express were churned up. I was asked, XWhy do asylum-seeker children get free buses to

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schools? Why don't asylum seekers have to tax their cars? Why do the Government give asylum seekers free tokens?"

Mr. Coleman: I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend. Is he seriously suggesting that the best way to deal with the lies and propaganda of certain tabloid newspapers is to segregate the children of asylum seekers, so that they do not have the chance to mix?

Mr. Prosser: No, of course not. Indeed, since I made approaches to my local education authority, matters have improved. The situation will never be perfect and the reality is that not all schools are performing well in that area now. As the Minister said, the picture is not completely rosy.

Jeremy Corbyn: Is my hon. Friend able to say something about the role played by local newspapers in the Dover area, because they did much to foment racism against Roma people and other people arriving? Is it not the duty of the House to tell every local education authority and every school that it is their duty to promote mutual respect, support and integration, instead of bowing to racist pressures?

Mr. Prosser: My hon. Friend is right. One former editor of the Dover Express went into the gutter with his attacks on Romany families and asylum seekers in general. He linked asylum seekers with bootleggers and drug smugglers, describing them all as human sewage and saying that we did not have the resources to flush them down the drain. That is how low that newspaper went for a time. The editor has been sacked and, although it is not perfect, the paper is much better.

In Dover, people are genuinely concerned about the practical problems that they face in a town that they sometimes feel is being overwhelmed by asylum seekers. They feel threatened, as often happens when there is a perceived threat. Education for asylum-seeker children must be provided in a way that is safer and more practical. The proposal will benefit those children more than would be the case if they went to a mainstream school, as long as the period involved remains short.

In an earlier intervention, I noted that the head teachers of my local schools had asked whether education provision for asylum-seeker children should be centralised. At the time, many Romany people from the former Czech Republic were arriving in Dover. They would stay for two, three or four months before being sent home or moving on. The head teachers wondered whether the children involved were being best served by being put into mainstream education. In schools, the asylum-seeker children began to integrate with local children and to put down roots in the community, but they were then dragged out and sent home.

Ms Buck: Does my hon. Friend agree that the overwhelming majority of asylum applicants, including families with children, will continue to be taken through the dispersal system? Their service needs will continue to be met in the mainstream community, so some of the problems mentioned by my hon. Friend—and no one should be romantic and deny that they exist—will still

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have to be tackled head on. I feel strongly that asylum-seeking children should not be given a separate education, but I accept that that is a minority case and that we have to deal with service needs across the board in all the dispersed communities.

Mr. Prosser: I agree with nearly all those points. I support the proposals in the Bill because they can be regarded almost as a trial or a pilot scheme that will serve to test the waters. The proposals deal with 3,000 or so places in half a dozen sites. I think that they will be successful. The Government got it wrong with tokens, which I also supported. At least, the Government were big enough to admit that they had got the tokens scheme wrong and to change and improve it. The other contentious proposals in the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 had to do with dispersal. That was disputed as hotly as this matter tonight, but it has been highly successful in Dover, east Kent and the south-east coast. We were in an unsustainable position, with the National Front holding marches and the British National party putting out literature. The problem of the numbers involved had brought us to a crisis. The 1999 Act's dispersal powers, under whose authority people were moved to other parts of the country, prevented that hostility from spilling over into more aggressive behaviour.

5.45 pm

Glenda Jackson: I entirely concur with my hon. Friend on dispersal. As someone who represents an inner-London seat, I know only too well the problems that were being experienced by asylum seekers regarding serious overcrowding in their accommodation. However, I argued, as did every refugee association in London, that dispersal alone would be useless and non-productive in affording assimilation to those who were granted refugee status in this country if they were not actively and intensively supported in the areas to which they were sent. That support was not forthcoming and I now see people coming back from those areas of dispersal, perfectly prepared to do without any kind of housing benefit and attempting to exist on the measly amount that they are afforded, because they simply cannot stand that sense of isolation. This scheme will, in my view, be exactly the same—under-resourced, underfunded and not thought through in any detail.

Mr. Prosser: The dispersal system has not been perfect; it has been good in parts, like the curate's egg. It has worked very well in some areas while in others it has been a disaster. I have had the same problem of people coming back to Dover, meeting up with friends and living there again, having been dispersed some time ago.

On the margin, the overall benefit of dispersal was that it made our position in Dover sustainable. Let me take that a stage further: surely it is because of some of the deficiencies and problems of the ad hoc dispersal system that we are now testing a system that will be much more structured and focused, giving us the ability to provide all the services that were not in place under the old system.

Other advantages of making central provision relate to health services and health screening, when local resources can become overwhelmed. Local authorities

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and health authorities in areas such as Dover have recently started focusing on the need to introduce new asylum seekers and refugees into the medical system as they settle, to check them and ensure that their health needs are being provided for properly on a central basis. It is only since that happened that asylum seekers have received the support and care that they should have received from the start.

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