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7 Nov 2002 : Column 459—continued

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That processing will be better for asylum seekers who have gone through dreadful circumstances and are refugees. It will be better for those who are economic migrants who are seeking to use the system. If they are to be refused, it is better that they should be refused sooner rather than later. It will be better by far for those of our electors who are concerned about the abuse of the system. Finally, it will be better by an enormous proportion for the Home Secretary and his hard-pressed officials if they are not searching round the country for people who have taken a long time to process. It is our joint aim to process fast, fairly and well

I hope that the Home Secretary will look again at something that we have said throughout these debates and which does not reflect on the proposed legislation. As he rightly said, it reflects on the administration of the process, which is the be-all and end-all, however good the legislation. I refer to the human reality that underlies the current chaos. It is that no one of us in the House will be placed in the current position of the decision makers, who are asked to make decisions about people from a dizzying array of different places at great speed, through days and, in some instances, through early evenings. That is done on the basis of abstracts. Thank goodness, as a result of amendments, the abstracts will come under the guidance of independent advice.

None of us, if we were decision makers, could possibly make accurate and compelling decisions about a person from Somalia at 9 o'clock, from Bosnia at 10 o'clock and from Zimbabwe at 11 o'clock. In human terms, that is not doable. I hope and pray for the Home Secretary's sake as much as ours and for the sake of all those who are involved in the process that the right hon. Gentleman will reconsider how it can be so arranged that within the accommodation centres, and more generally outside them before they become the norm, decision makers are asked to make decisions in respect of matters that they actually know about because they relate only to a particular place with which they have a genuine familiarity. That is the crux of turning the system back from a nightmare into a process that operates.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): When my right hon. Friend spoke about Hampstead liberals, I hope that he did not have me in mind. If he did, he may be

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setting out to ruin my reputation. I warmly welcome what he said about administration, which is important, but it is not the key issue of this debate.

I take a rather cynical view of the length of time that we have spent on the question of accommodation centres. I do not consider it an unimportant question, and the principle about education was an important one, but other parts of the Bill, such as those that will change the support system for in-country applicants and the significant changes to appeals, have not had the attention that they deserve. We would not have spent so long on accommodation centres if none of the sites proposed had been in Tory constituencies—in fact, I doubt that we would have been here this afternoon. I see some heads shaking, but it will be interesting to see what the reactions are when the trials go ahead.

It is a pity that we have spent so long on what is not the most important part of the Bill. The other evening, not a single Back Bencher was able to speak on the vital issue of cutting off support to, potentially, thousands of asylum seekers, because of the way in which the timetable operated.

I none the less welcome an amendment that gives a role to the monitor and clarifies the issues that he can take into account. It recognises that different asylum seekers will be in different situations. Asylum seekers are not a homogeneous group. The monitor will be able to consider whether people are being placed into accommodation centres in a way that suits their individual needs. I do not know how far it will be possible for him to do that for individuals, rather than looking at the broader picture, but the wording of the amendment suggests that he may be able to examine in some detail whether people were being placed appropriately, relative to their needs.

I shall ask two or three specific questions, and I hope that if my right hon. Friend does not have time to answer in detail now, he will be able to put the answers in writing to me later. In the context of location and need, I do not understand why an urban location is seen as suitable for a trial of smaller centres for single people only, but not as somewhere where families might be placed, where, irrespective of the issue of education, children might benefit from community links. What is being proposed seems at odds with that idea.

I want to ask about where people who make Xlate" applications will be placed, and whether location and need will match. I assume that in general, people who make late applications—that is the term used in the Bill—will be in a situation different from that of somebody newly arrived. Obviously, such people will have been living somewhere within the UK already, but presumably they may still be offered places in accommodation centres. If such a person said that they intended to refuse a placement because the location was unsuitable and did not meet their needs, would that have any implications for the decision on whether their late claim for support would be considered?

In the previous debate we had no opportunity to consider the terms of the decision on late application, so it would help if at some point, if he cannot do so this

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afternoon, the Home Secretary set out some of the criteria, and told us about any codes of guidance that may be used in making that critical decision.

Mr. Blunkett: I promise that we will write to my hon. Friend with answers to his questions, but I make it clear now that the in-country claim—the late claim—does not disqualify people from having their asylum claim tested.

Mr. Gerrard: I fully appreciate that, but the arrangement introduces a new hurdle before people can qualify for support and accommodation, does it not? Rather than there being only the one hurdle, of proof of destitution, to clear, there will be a second hurdle—whether the application has been made in time. Presumably, unless the timing hurdle is cleared the question of support, and the test of destitution, will not arise. It would be helpful if we could be given more detail about that, because in the previous debate there was no opportunity to discuss it.

I have another question about need in connection with late applications. One of the categories of people who will still be supported even if they make a late application is defined in the Bill as people with special needs. I assume that if someone has a special need, the location of their accommodation could be critical. Would factors such as the availability of specialist health care be considered? I assume that if an applicant were HIV-positive and would therefore require specialist help, or someone had mental health needs, those special needs would be taken into consideration when determining the location.

It would help us to get a clearer picture if the Secretary of State spelled out some details; again, he can do this later if there is not time this afternoon. This will affect us all when we have to deal with individuals who come to see us because they have been refused support, and it will help if we understand more clearly what Xspecial needs" means, what conditions will be treated as special needs, and how that will affect the location of any accommodation centre in which people may be placed.

We should welcome the change to establishing a monitor with wider powers, and I echo the comments about getting the monitor in place sooner, rather than later. It would also be helpful to know whether there is scope for individuals who feel that they have been located somewhere unsuitable for their needs to ask the monitor to consider their case.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I thank the Home Secretary for his tone, and for the way in which he introduced what I anticipate is this House's last debate on the Bill. Quite properly, it has occupied many of us for a considerable time in recent months, and I make no criticism of the time spent on such matters. In fact, there is much agreement among us, as there was in respect of many elements of the original Bill, such as nationality law reform. The view was correctly reflected that we spent a disproportionate amount of time on accommodation centres, compared with other parts of the Bill.

The Home Secretary, however, was a bit mischievous, as he often is. He said that he is always open to persuasion, and that he responds to arguments not of opposition and rudeness, but of persuasion. I do not

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doubt that, but it always helps, of course, if one has been persuaded because part of Parliament blocked one's own suggestions. One of the great consolations of a two-Chamber Parliament is that it provides better scrutiny than a one-Chamber Parliament. A paradox about which the Home Secretary and I doubtless share a view is that it is in the unelected Chamber that Labour's share of the vote is much closer to its share of the vote in the country at the last election. It has 28 per cent.—

Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. May I please remind the hon. Gentleman of the limits of the debate on this amendment?

Simon Hughes: I shall try to keep very close to those limits, Madam Deputy Speaker. Labour's share of the vote in the unelected Chamber reflects its election result much more accurately than does its share of the vote in this Chamber, whatever the differences between us. The House of Lords has been able fairly regularly to say to the Government, XNo, you cannot go down that road." The issue of accommodation centres was, as recently as yesterday, an example of that.

This exercise has already produced many changes on accommodation centres, four of which have been welcomed, and one of which gave rise to today's opportunity. A monitor of accommodation centres was not proposed at the beginning of our deliberations on the Bill. Because we now have a monitor, the Government were able to use that new institution and individual to come to the rescue today. We welcome that, and the fact that persuasion and a bit of political pressure has led not only to a monitor, but to a normal time limit of six months, which even the Government now want to reduce. Legal advice will also be provided, and we know who the dependants are, so a lot of progress has been made.

As the Home Secretary knows, my colleagues and I have argued from the beginning for some form of reception centres. We entirely share the view that the more that we can speed up processing of claims, the better the system will be for all concerned, compatible with justly looking at them all. As I have said before, there is no theology concerning size or location. However, according to all the advice, and to the instincts of those of us on the Liberal Democrat Benches, centres of 750 people and above are much more like camps than accommodation centres. If we place such people away from the services that they need to be linked to, we are also not providing them with the best service.

My final important point about the change is that there is a good case for having people together, with services that are close to each other. As the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) said, there is a very good case for trying to make life easier by getting officials who know about a particular part of the world to deal with those who come from there. My understanding is that that is the intended use for Oakington after the Bill is passed. Certain groups of people, perhaps those from EU applicant countries, will go there. I hope that we are all united in saying that if that is the argument we should make it, and should not let it by implication—not in this House, but elsewhere—be acceptable that asylum seekers are to be dealt with only in places where they are out of sight and, therefore, out of mind, in the way that lepers and mentally ill

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people were treated in the past. That is not the approach to take. We have an international obligation to look after people and we should do so.

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