Previous SectionIndexHome Page

5 Nov 2002 : Column 180—continued

6 pm

Mrs. Ellman: I have no doubt about the Government's good intentions in this matter, but my deep concerns come from my experiences of trying to assist asylum seekers in my area, where I have seen the practical problems of the present system. I am worried that those difficulties will be intensified in the pilot schemes. I want to refer to practical issues.

My first concern is about large detention centres in rural areas, in isolated places. I always have a fear about the treatment of people who are isolated from mainstream services. That makes them particularly vulnerable.

The big question is who will be running the centres. I am told that Ministers will be deciding who is contracted to run the centres, but who will advise Ministers? Will it be the National Asylum Support Service, which has stood by while the discredited provider in Liverpool, Landmark Liverpool Ltd., has offered an appalling service to asylum seekers? Only after three years of intensive campaigning, finally involving the chief constable of Merseyside, did NASS stop using the tower blocks to house asylum seekers in appalling conditions and under great duress.

I have no assurance whatever that under the proposed system—presumably where NASS-advised Ministers decide who should run these isolated detention centres—companies such as the discredited Landmark Liverpool will not be running a detention centre full of vulnerable people who are isolated from mainstream services. I have very deep concerns about that.

I accept that the Government are proposing a pilot scheme, but I have not heard from my hon. Friend the Minister how it will be assessed, on what criteria it will be assessed or, indeed, who will conduct the assessment. Will hon. Members be involved in deciding whether the scheme will cease to be a pilot? It seems to be the Government's intention that the pilot scheme will be a precursor to a general scheme based on such an arrangement. Indeed, some of my hon. Friend's remarks in introducing the amendments have given me reason to believe that that is so.

5 Nov 2002 : Column 181

If we allow the proposal to go through, could the Minister—perhaps another Minister—in silence and away from public scrutiny take a decision to expand the system without hon. Members who are at the practical end of what happens having any input?

Mr. Patrick Hall: Some of the points that my hon. Friend rightly raises could be addressed when we see the outcome of the inquiry into the Yarl's Wood fire. Does she agree that it may be premature to take positions on the size of accommodation centres, never mind their location, until we see the outcome of that inquiry?

Mrs. Ellman: I share my hon. Friend's concern.

Above all, I am extremely concerned that the Government appear to be toughening their stance on asylum seekers and leaping into the unknown in a way that will evade the scrutiny which has always applied to the provision of mainstream services. We are dealing with vulnerable people; they deserve proper attention. I am extremely concerned about the implications of what we are being asked to agree.

Tony Baldry: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) for having been so concise.

I am privileged to chair the Select Committee on International Development, which I suppose takes me to more countries where there are potential asylum seekers than many hon. Members. One could begin to consider the issue from the perspective of asylum seekers themselves. Indeed, the Lords amendment does so. One concern that everyone in the House should have is that not a single organisation concerned with the welfare of refugees or asylum seekers supports what the Government are proposing. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), the shadow Home Secretary, read out a letter dated 3 May from a lot of organisations, many of which we all support. Ministers have had since 3 May to convince those organisations that the Government's proposal is right. They have not won over a single organisation. I am sure that I am not alone in making that comment. Indeed, other hon. Members have said that even today the Refugee Council has been lobbying Members, seeking to persuade us that the Government need to adopt another approach.

The Home Secretary—I do not mean this pejoratively—is an honourable man, and the Minister has had the decency to listen to those in the communities involved, but they are committed to the trial. I am sure that everyone in the House would want a trial of this kind and importance to succeed, but knowing—I hope—my patch pretty well after representing it for nearly 20 years, and given that the proposed accommodation centre is to be located in a genuinely isolated area, I am concerned that anyone who is stuck there for up to six months will be bored out of their minds. Against that background, the experiment is likely to fail. I therefore very much hope that the other place will cause this House to think again if Ministers try to drive through the proposal with their large majority.

The Minister sought to give the impression that the Government were making concessions. They have not made any concessions on accommodation centres; they

5 Nov 2002 : Column 182

are still intent on establishing large, 750-person accommodation centres in rural areas. The Minister did say in her opening comments that the Government intended to abide by the planning system and to acknowledge whatever the planning inspector had to say. It may be of help if I tell her that only today residents in my constituency, together with a house builder, have lodged a writ in the High Court seeking judicial review against Ministers' decisions not to conduct an environmental impact assessment. Clearly, that judicial review will have to be heard and determined before there can be any public inquiry. Nevertheless, I certainly welcome the fact that there will be a full and proper public inquiry, as indeed do the 10,000 or so of my constituents who petitioned Parliament asking for it, and at least town and country planning matters will be considered by an independent inspector.

I ask the Secretary of State and those on the Treasury Bench to reconsider the policy of establishing very large accommodation centres in remote rural areas, because I fear that against that background the experiment is likely to fail. Of course Ministers may easily say to me or other hon. Members that I would make such comments in seeking to represent the concerns of my constituents over many issues that I do not have time to go into, or would point out the extra statutory burdens that might fall on district and county councils, about which they are understandably concerned, especially against the background of the Government's cutting their grants. Ministers can discount what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and I have had to say, but why on earth are they discounting the comments of Amnesty International, the Law Society, the Refugee Council and the Immigration Advisory Service, which deal with refugees and asylum seekers daily?

One would have expected those organisations at least to reach some compromise with the Government on this issue, or the Government to move some way towards those bodies' concerns, but all that Ministers have done is to say that, in addition to the very large centres that they intend to establish, there might be, as part of the experiment, other smaller centres. That does not meet the concerns that have been raised by all those organisations.

If the Government choose to drive through their proposal by the weight of their majority in this House, I hope that, given that the issue is so serious and that so little attention seems to have been paid to the organisations most concerned with the welfare of refugees and asylum seekers, the other place will yet again cause this House to think about what we are doing.

Glenda Jackson: I associate myself with the remarks of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) on the issue of the present inefficiencies of the Home Office in dealing with asylum seekers.

The bulk of this debate has been concentrated on those who will be coming into this country for the first time and on how we will deal with them. I should like to raise the plight of so many of my constituents who have been in this country for a considerable number of years—eight years is not unusual—and who are still

5 Nov 2002 : Column 183

awaiting a final decision on their applications. The processing of appeals is taking longer and longer. Once an appeal is granted, the relevant paper that informs the asylum seeker of that is lost or delayed. Passports are lost; travel documents and applications are lost.

Linked to that is this vital question: why are we going down the road of vastly expensive accommodation centres, which no one wants and no one in their right mind thinks will be a success, when we might spend a fraction of that money to employ a minority of the people involved to improve the present system, so that it does indeed become firm, fast and fair? Currently, it is none of those things.

The central issue is the abomination of educating the children of asylum seekers outside mainstream schools. That seems to me to be unutterably heinous, and the practicalities strike me as absolutely absurd. The Home Office briefing talks about structuring classes for children dependent on their age. That presupposes that every intake of would-be asylum seekers has the relevant number of children of a certain age to create a proper class. That is highly unlikely. It is also highly unlikely that all those asylum-seeking children will speak only one language. It is entirely possible that they will be attempting to learn English when no one around them—let alone the person who is teaching them—speaks even their own mother tongue.

Next Section

IndexHome Page