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7 Nov 2002 : Column 452—continued

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Blunkett: I could do nothing else to a Hampstead liberal.

Glenda Jackson: I merely want to point out to my right hon. Friend that my constituents surely have a right to have their views expressed on the Floor of the House, regardless of whether they voted for me or any other political party, especially when their feelings with regard to the segregated education of asylum-seeking children are so deeply and passionately held.

Mr. Blunkett: I am absolutely clear that my hon. Friend has every right to express her view, to do so as vehemently as she did in the debate on Tuesday—to which I listened with considerable interest—to have it taken into account and to receive a response. I heard all sorts of adjectives such as Xoutrageous" and Xabominable" that did not take us much further in

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persuading each other of the case. Throughout the Bill, it is persuasion that has led me to make concessions on amendments that have improved the Bill.

Glenda Jackson: I accept my right hon. Friend's point with regard to persuasion, which is why many of my constituents are bemused that, on the issue to which I have referred, he seems not to have taken into consideration at all the opposition to segregated education from every teaching union and association that deals with the welfare of children and from many others.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The amendment under discussion relates to accommodation centres rather than education.

Mr. Blunkett: In dealing with the broad issue of accommodation centres, I will seek to deal with my hon. Friend's comments. Terminology that describes open centres as prisons has not exactly helped to persuade me that she and those of her constituents who have approached her have fully understood the nature of the centres that we are providing nor their comparators in some of the most liberal countries in the world, including Scandinavia. In the short time that I have available, I will seek to make a case in respect of the amendments in the context of the overall policy that we are trying to pursue. I want to put the issue in context so that the House and those outside understand what we are doing.

The Bill develops a careful balance between our human rights and convention obligations—which we accept readily and openly—and a streamlined and robust process to build trust with the British people. This balance entails the development of new routes of entry for economic migration, which we believe is necessary for our economy and welcome in terms of diversity and culture in Britain. In doing that, we have sought to deter those who use clandestine asylum processes to seek economic rather than refugee status. That is highly relevant to what we are doing today.

We have sought, and will put in place, a new gateway for those desperately seeking refugee status, and who live in circumstances and regions so poor that they are unable to pay organised criminal traffickers. Our proposal means that such people will be able to obtain refugee status in this country. The reality is that many—but not all—of the people trafficked across Europe into the United Kingdom come here only because they or their families have paid large sums of money to the worst kind of organised criminals who exploit the needs of the most deprived. However, the people who need refugee status most cannot get out of the circumstances in which they find themselves. At some point in the future, that may be the subject of a further debate—but I hope not legislation—in the House.

Above all, we accept what has been restated throughout our consideration of the Bill. There is a need dramatically to improve the performance of our immigration, nationality and asylum processes and the directorate that oversees them. My hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) has intervened on me twice, and I hope that she will accept that that was one of the central points that she made on Tuesday. I listened and I accept the point,

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because I believe that is relevant. All sides have said that it does not matter what legislation we put in place if we do not dramatically improve the administration of the system. Unless we do that, even our best intentions will come to nothing.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Does my right hon. Friend recall that I have raised particular concerns about accommodation centres and the lack of control over those running them? One of my greatest fears is that the new isolated centres could be run by people who do not treat the people in them properly. Is he able to offer me any reassurance on that given my past experience in Liverpool?

Mr. Blunkett: I am offering that in terms of both the provision in the Bill for a monitor and the amendment that deals with the role of the monitor. There will also be direct accountability and oversight of the centres by Ministers in a way that has been difficult to achieve in the early stages of dispersal and in the appalling conditions—including in my hon. Friend's constituency in Liverpool—to which people have drawn attention. It is precisely because we wish to avoid a continuation of that situation that we want a system that is better, not worse. Here is the rub, and it is highlighted by an interesting debate—not a debate that I necessarily wish to enter into—that started in Birmingham yesterday. Interest was shown on the radio and in an interview this morning about the nature of what is happening in the inner cities where the largest number of asylum seekers are currently housed and where they seek services.

Let us take the issue of education in accommodation centres, for instance. The faster, more efficient, more improved the administration, the greater the speed with which those resident in accommodation centres will move through the process. If we were to achieve that in dispersal, alongside such improvement in accommodation centres, we would enormously increase the pressure on services—in respect of throughflow in GP practices or turnover—which already exercises the teaching unions and hon. Members, particularly in London, where population turnover is already very high and impacts on both children who are placed and those already there, and on the ability of teachers to do their jobs properly. As a trained teacher, I know that it is a fact that the greater the turnover, the greater the difficulty in managing stability, consistency and teaching of all children who require special attention.

So here is the paradox: the more efficient the system, the more we need accommodation centres. If the system were working as I wished, turnover in schools, GP practices and accommodation would be such that the logistics would be very difficult to manage and problems for pupils, asylum seekers and service providers would be very great.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): My right hon. Friend is making an important point. Does he recognise that, because rapid turnover makes it much more difficult to organise accommodation, teaching and so on, there are all sorts of understandable vested interests in ensuring that the system works as slowly as possible? That cannot be in the overall interests of the country or asylum seekers.

Mr. Blunkett: I agree entirely. After some useful debates, we are getting to the nub of what we are trying

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to do. The official Opposition want us to speed up the process through accommodation centres even further. I promise all hon. Members that we will do our best in trying to ensure that the administration responds and that there is proper accountability to us as Ministers and through us to Parliament. We will try to achieve the substantial improvement that one section of the immigration and nationality directorate has made in first decisions, for which I commend it.

In April 1997, it took an average of 20 months for a first decision to be made. In December last year, it took an average of 13 months. Now, three quarters of first decisions are made within two months: a dramatic improvement that we need to match in every part of the process.

Annabelle Ewing (Perth): The Home Secretary referred to the need for general improvement in the administration of the asylum and immigration system. What time scale has been envisaged and what targets are being set for such improvement?

Mr. Blunkett: This Bill sets in train the targets that we have set the service in respect of those going through accommodation centres. We have debated whether such targets should be two, four, six, nine or 12 months, and we have hit on and now agreed as part of the Bill—that part is not under debate this afternoon—the time scales on which I hope to be able to improve, accelerating the processes. I hope to be able to lay orders before Parliament for still further improvement.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): The Home Secretary is rightly talking about the improvements that have been made to the Bill. The final Division in the other place last night was on the education issue, and, as he knows, the Government's view in the end prevailed. Given that that is now fixed, will he clarify whether it will still be possible for the local education authority to have prior right to run the education service in the accommodation centre, which I know was always an option and was under consideration when I last spoke to his colleagues?

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