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7 Nov 2002 : Column 455—continued

Mr. Blunkett rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I have reminded hon. Members that the amendment deals with accommodation centres and their location, not education.

2 pm

Mr. Blunkett: I take your strictures, Madam Deputy Speaker. I merely observe, however, that I would say Xcollaboratively" rather than Xprior" given the fact that education authorities no longer run schools as they did 15 or 20 years ago. That is emblazoned on my heart because I dealt with it for four years before I took on this job.

We are dealing with end-to-end reform of the process once people reach our shores, from new induction centres through accommodation centres and, where appropriate, dispersal and reporting, to integration or speedy removal. The task is clear: to provide a fairer and

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more effective service. When people reach our shores, we must make it clear that we expect them to claim asylum at that point and port of entry unless they have a good reason for not doing so. Once they have claimed asylum, the new induction centres, which will be crucial to assessing their needs, will come into play. For the foreseeable future, the vast majority will continue to be in an improved dispersal system. Trial accommodation centres are a crucial part of the process. We intend to ensure that we learn the lessons rapidly. They offer an option, which we must explore, dramatically to speed up the process, and I think the Conservatives agree that that is the way to proceed.

I have tabled an amendment to enable the new independent monitor of accommodation centres to consider

In doing so, we emphasise the needs of the resident. We should not be diverted by the argument about whether all asylum seekers should be accommodated in urban locations. Indeed, it has been implied that that would be in the most deprived urban areas that have the space or the facilities. We reject that. There should be a plurality. It should not be a case of one or the other. We need an experimental approach when deciding on the most appropriate location. The emphasis is on whether a site meets a need of the individual.

Tony Baldry (Banbury): By implication, surely we are talking about a proposed location. The Government will not go to the expense of building an accommodation centre before they ask the independent monitor whether it meets the needs of asylum seekers. Clearly, the Government will have to ask the independent monitor to express that view on a proposed location before an accommodation centre is built. Otherwise, there will be considerable nugatory expenditure.

Mr. Blunkett: We want to ensure that we have thought the matter through and have an evidence-based approach. My hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration said on Tuesday that different needs will have to be met in different types of centre. Some centres will be appropriate for single individuals. Others will be designed to meet the needs of those from a particular region who have a particular language requirement. That will help us to deal with the adjudication process, which requires not only legal advice but interpretation of that advice. If an identified need cannot be met, the other parts of the process will kick into play. The measure is an addition, an underpinning and a reinforcement of the process with regard to, for instance, education, on which we said that a special or specific need might have to be met in a different way. We now accept that that might be dealt with in a broader context, with the monitor offering a view.

We have listened and we expect others—in particular, the other House—to listen to what we have said.

Mrs. Ellman: Will my right hon. Friend commit the Government to assessing in the experimentation that is now to go ahead the model proposed by the Refugee Council as one possible way in which to run the centres?

Mr. Blunkett: Some bodies, organisations and agencies have taken what they would regard as a

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principled stand and they have opposed our proposals, full stop. Others—the Refugee Council is one of them—while disagreeing fundamentally with the Government have been prepared to engage in dialogue, which is a two-way process of listening and responding. We have responded: my hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration said on Tuesday that we were prepared to continue to work with the Refugee Council on the configuration of the smaller centre, and we will respond to its other ideas, not least core and cluster.

We are continuing that process of dialogue. I mention the Refugee Council in particular because it has had slightly more impact on us than others, not because it has been less vigorous, but because it has been more reasonable. When it has been given assurances, it has been prepared to accept them, and when an argument is put to it, it has been prepared to listen.

Let me conclude by making one thing absolutely clear, and I hope that those in the other House will hear my words: we are now at the last throw of the dice. I will make no more amendments to the Bill. I hope that the other House will allow us to pass the legislation and so enable us to do what we all want to do, which is to establish a more effective, reasonable, sensitive and sensible system in which the British people have trust and which people throughout the world will know offers them a better opportunity to come to this country legitimately, to work here legitimately, or to seek sanctuary here in a more effective fashion.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): I echo the Home Secretary's thanks to my colleagues, my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) and my noble Friends Lord Kingsland and Baroness Anelay of St. Johns, for their splendid work on the Bill as it has proceeded through its parliamentary stages.

I thought that the Home Secretary made both an ingenious and an elegant little Third Reading speech, which skilfully avoided any direct reference to the matter in hand—the Government amendment. That is understandable, given that it would not have been conducive to his having a good morning were he to have admitted that it echoes extremely closely an amendment first suggested by my noble Friend Baroness Anelay on 10 October—at which time the Government denied that it was in any way possible to accommodate the problems of accommodation centres by doing what they now suggest should be done. However, it would be churlish of me not to welcome what the Government have done, because they have done what needs to be done.

The amendment creates an independent arbiter who will be required, as well as requested, to look into whether the place in which a particular accommodation centre is put is appropriate from the point of view of its residents. To make that judgment, the monitor will need to look both at the nature of what is being put in that place, and at the place in which it is being put. That was the intent of the original amendment, No. 17, and it is far from our intention to cavil at the replacement of one amendment proposed by Conservative Members in the Lords by an amendment that is, in effect, another of our amendments. It is an excellent result, which we welcome.

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I have two observations and one request to make. The first observation is that amendment No. 37, which underlies the amendment that is before us, makes it clear that the

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), who has played so notable a part in our proceedings, asked the Home Secretary whether it would be the case that the monitor would report before the centres in question were established. That was for him a particularly important question because my hon. Friend represents one of the places where, at present, it is intended to establish one of the centres.

The Home Secretary gave one of the most masterly pieces of obfuscation as a reply that I have yet been privileged to hear, even from his mouth in this place. I do not think that I could have matched in any way the efforts that he made to avoid answering that question, but I can answer it for him. Unless the right hon. Gentleman intends—I am sure that he does not—to delay unreasonably the appointment of a monitor, it will be the case that a year from now the monitor will report on this issue. I will lay an extremely large wager that the accommodation centre in my hon. Friend's constituency will not have been built one year from now. I suspect that it will not have been given planning permission a year from now. I suspect that the monitor will have reported long before the centre is built. Therefore, the answer to my hon. Friend's question is yes. That does not require any obfuscation.

Secondly, so far as we can see, if the monitor is to report to Parliament as amendment No. 37 dictates specifically that he shall, the monitor will need to explain to Parliament what depositions he has sought and what depositions he has received from experts. That is necessary to avoid judicial review of his process. I am sure, therefore, that he will seek the views of the various groups that concern themselves with and have expertise in relation to the needs of those who are to be housed in accommodation centres. We know which groups these are because 10 of them wrote to the Home Secretary not long ago to make their views known on these matters. We can reasonably accurately predict what they will say to the monitor about the proposed large rural locations. The monitor will clearly need to take their views into account.

The monitor will obviously have to take into account what the Home Secretary says to him. None of us is in a position to determine what the monitor will take as his view in the light of the two sets of depositions from the Home Secretary and from other bodies. However, it seems likely that if the monitor concludes that the needs of those who are to be housed are not properly to be met in large rural accommodation centres, that will at least provide a prima facie basis for a judicial review of the original decision. It is a different thing for the monitor to conclude on the merits and for a judge to conclude on whether the Home Secretary's view was reasonable. We have always accepted that the reasonableness test is a harsher test than the merits test. In other words, the monitor might conclude that the place was not a good one. Yet a judge might take the view that the Home Secretary, in reaching the opposite conclusion, was reasonable. We accept that.

In fact, the Home Secretary is replicating the effect of that which the Minister of State said was impossible to replicate and which the Government would never accept

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replication of, either the day before yesterday or yesterday. The circumstances of the Conservative party are such that I have lost track of time in the past 48 hours.

Finally, I have a request. It is that following the passage of the amendment—I shall be asking my right hon. and hon. Friends not to oppose it, and similarly my noble Friends in the other place—and therefore the Bill, I hope that we shall move forward and discover what is likely to lead to the rapid processing of claims. I believe that that is the aim of everyone in the House. The Home Secretary made that clear in his remarks. It is certainly the aim of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and of every Member who has spoken in these debates.

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