Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle): I hope I can reassure the Committee. As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey has emphasised, these are trials. The Bill deliberately does not prescribe a size for the accommodation centres because that would be too inflexible for the future. I will resist any amendment that would specify a number in primary legislation, because that will not give us the operational flexibility we need to develop accommodation centres in future if the trials work and we decide to go ahead with them. Numbers should not be specified in the Bill as a matter of principle.

I understand that the amendments have been tabled so that we can have a debate on size, and so that Opposition Members can explore the Government's intended scale for the accommodation centres. I welcome the fact that no hon. Member has objected in principle to the idea of accommodation centres. I note that many of the difficulties raised affecting local services and how to support people when they arrive in a new area apply particularly to accommodation centres, but also to dispersal. How should we welcome people and ensure that they feel at home? How should we deal with the effect of the arrival of large numbers of asylum seekers in areas where there may not have

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previously been ethnic minorities? Those problems have been experienced, sometimes with a great deal of angst and difficulty.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester): Much has been made about the numbers involved and the circumstances under which we now operate. It is worth reminding the Committee that it is not unusual for local authorities to have contracts that involve several hundred—often 500—refugees. What reception do refugees get when they end up in the poorest urban centres? [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey is looking perplexed, but such contracts are not unusual. To use his terminology, that is not a new concept.

Angela Eagle: We are trialling accommodation centres, which the Bill gives us the power to do. It also contains powers to extend accommodation centres if the trial works. Hon. Members made important points about the difficulties of dealing with a large influx of asylum seekers into a particular area. The question is whether to disperse them to a cluster area or to have an accommodation centre. There is universal support for the idea behind accommodation centres. We are trying to discover whether we can cater for the training, education and health needs of people who are awaiting a decision more efficiently, cost-effectively and humanely in an accommodation centre than under the current system of dispersal. Dispersal often leaves people in private-sector accommodation with little support nearby. They are, in effect, left to themselves in an area that they do not know and where the local people have no knowledge of them or their culture. We all know about the operational difficulties of the dispersal system.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): Whether one can support the Government's proposal depends on what an accommodation centre is. There is a huge spectrum. A large unit in a rural area that is cut off from all services looks like a large prison and is more like the Australian model, which is almost like a detention centre. A smaller unit with all the appropriate services could be called a reception centre. Size is a critical factor. A centre where services are available is closer to the reception-centre end of the spectrum and is acceptable. A centre that is remote, cut off and large is less acceptable.

Angela Eagle: I object to the hon. Gentleman's view that we are talking about detention centres or removal centres when we talk about accommodation centres. We would call them detention centres or removal centres if that is what we intended them to be, and the people in them would be locked up. The hon. Gentleman knows from all the assurances that have been given since the statement was made and the White Paper was issued that accommodation centres do not require people to be locked in. I assumed that he agreed with the concept, as his hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said that the Liberal Democrat party supported it. I am used to shifts of opinion in the Liberal Democrat party, but we appear to have two different opinions

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from the two Liberal Democrat members of the Committee. We look forward to seeing how that develops. I simply took the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey at his word.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover): My hon. Friend may be aware of the difficulties in Dover in 1996-97. We had experience of the picture that she painted. Large numbers sought asylum in Dover, which had insufficient accommodation, and no meaningful experience of ethnic minorities. We probably had the smallest ethnic minority—0.6 per cent. of the local population—of any constituency in the country. The numbers took the community by surprise and caused apprehension, fear and tension. We all know about the incidents that occurred. We were not sure about dispersal at first, but it worked. The situation would have been unsustainable if the legislation had not provided for dispersal. Who knows where we would be today? A more structured approach that involved accommodation centres would have been of use to us.

The Chairman: Order. That was far too long for an intervention.

Angela Eagle: I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser). He knows from first-hand experience the difficulties and tensions that can be caused by unplanned influxes of asylum seekers. When people arrive on our shores, there will inevitably be something unplanned about what we have to deal with. We are simply trialling structures to see whether we can deal with those difficult issues.

We must recognise the difficult issues involved in race relations, such as how we deal with sudden influxes and how the existing population feel about and react to the individuals. They are common issues in dealing with asylum seekers in any system. We have great experience of how dispersal works and some of its difficulties. We also know about how necessary it was to relieve the pressure on constituencies such as Dover, as my hon. Friend just mentioned. The Bill will allow us to try a different way forward and see whether it works.

The Home Secretary said on Second Reading that he is happy to examine smaller accommodation centres as part of the trial, and we are considering how we might do that. As we have no experience of running such centres, we have no hard and fast view about different scales. We do not have endless funds and an open cheque book, so we must strike a balance between having centres that are economical enough to provide a good service and seeing what works practically. We will reach that balance by trialling the centres and ensuring that we provide services at a reasonable cost to the taxpayer. The Committee must realise that, especially as later amendments would make us provide services, which we are anxious to provide, such as one-stop shops and medical, interpretation, legal, training, education and leisure services.

Ahead of a trial, I have no idea about the answers. The Bill will give us the power to trial, and we have announced certain proposals outside the Bill because it rightly makes no particular judgments about size. To

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do so would have been too constraining. The trial will allow us to find out what works, and we can proceed from that point.

Simon Hughes: The Minister and her officials must have thought a little about the policy because it has been on the stocks since the general election. First, what are the largest accommodation centres that she is aware of in other EU countries? Secondly, is the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) right in saying that there have been provisions for groups as large as 750 people, other than through dispersal around a city or community? If so, where in England or Wales have they been? Thirdly, the Government must have upper and lower limits, and it would help us to decide whether to force a vote if the Minister gave us parameters, even if they did not tie her down to a specific number such as 250, 500 or 750.

Angela Eagle: I suppose that everyone has done the calculation that four times 750 equals 3,000. That is one way of doing it, but we have already said that we are examining smaller centres to see whether they would work any better. If we accept the amendment of the hon. Member for Woking, we would have to have 12 sites and concomitant increases in cost. We must be able to work out the unit costs in the trial, and I hope that it will show us a clear way forward with economies of scale and minimum and maximum effective sizes. I cannot confirm anything more than that now, but the trial will be evaluated openly and we can discuss it further when we have more experience of how it works.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the largest centres in the European Union. One centre in Belgium currently has 640 expanding to 800, but the main approach in Europe is in favour of smaller sites. The accommodation centre concept, as I have outlined it, with on-site facilities, is not a common occurrence in Europe. The hostel-type accommodation in the hon. Gentleman's constituency does not contain the one-stop shop service element that we are attempting to develop with the accommodation centres in the Bill. They are not exactly comparable. As I said, we shall trial the schemes and see what practical experience teaches us before we take lasting decisions about how best to proceed.

11.15 am

Mr. Barker: May I take the Minister up on the one-stop shop? It is important and welcome that the Government are proposing a comprehensive range of facilities for the centres—that will make for more efficient and speedier processing—but those services do not need to be offered around the clock. For example, 24-hour access to legal or welfare services is unnecessary, and clustering the camps or smaller accommodation centres around a regional core may be more effective. There is no need to offer all the services on one site.

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