Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

[back to previous text]

Angela Eagle: The Bill allows us to offer accommodation centres in the future if they work. In theory, it gives us the power after a trial to decide on a more long-term, design-build and operate arrangement and about contracting-out. It would be odd to enter any long-term contract at the trial stage. The contracts that we are considering for the accommodation centres in the trial are, for obvious reasons, not PFI, but design-build and operate or design and build contracts.

Mr. Allan: Under the model that the Minister describes, the fabric of the centre would be owned entirely by the public sector. The private sector would be paid only for the design and building work. It is as if I had commissioned a house for myself, which I would own at the end of the process.

Angela Eagle: The Bill does not exclude future PFI contracts, but we are not entering any for the trial period. Therefore, in the short term, there will be no PFIs. If we get through a successful trial and wish to expand the accommodation centre estate, we may consider another way of doing so. However, it is not sensible to enter a 25-year PFI-type contract when we are only at the trial stage.

On the matters raised on clause stand part, we are thinking of a ratio of between 200 and 300 staff to a 750-bed centre. We do not know the weekly running

Column Number: 95

costs yet; that is partly what the trial is about. We are not expecting them to be as expensive as Oakington, but time will tell.

The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle gave the impression that he believes that asylum seekers are more likely to be criminals or to engage in criminal activity than anyone else of their age in this country. I do not agree.

Mr. Barker: My key point was that there is evidence that asylum seekers are more vulnerable to crime and to coercion because of the nature of their stay in Britain.

12.30 pm

Angela Eagle: The hon. Gentleman went on about the association between asylum seekers and crime, criminality and gang warfare. I wanted to put on record that there is no propensity for asylum seekers to be any more criminal than the indigenous population of any country. We all know from crime statistics that young men are more likely to be involved in such activity than any other section of the population. There may be a propensity to the extent that 80 per cent. of asylum seekers are single young men, but criminality is not associated with their being asylum seekers.

Accommodation centres are meant to be communities where people can live freely and have access to on-site facilities such as leisure, training, education and health. We also envisage accommodation centre residents becoming involved in voluntary activity off site. It is not in our interests for accommodation centres to be run along gang lines or dominated by particular groups. The staff will be trained appropriately to deal with such behaviour and to nip it in the bud. It would be in our power to move someone elsewhere if they were excessively disruptive, or to make them subject to criminal charges depending on what they were doing, although that would be a matter for the police. They might be subject to detention in certain circumstances. The safety and happiness of those in accommodation centres will always be a priority for the staff and the management. Liaison with the local police is important for that reason, so that there will be a continuing watch. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman, and that hon. Members will withdraw their amendments.

Simon Hughes: In my experience, asylum seekers do not cause more trouble or commit more offences, and are no more prone to engage in criminal activity. We must be careful when we discuss such issues. I shall be blunt: there is no logic, history or evidence to suggest that asylum seekers commit or are liable to commit more offences, or that they are more likely to be less law-abiding than any other group in the community.

There are significant numbers of asylum seekers in my constituency, and have been for some years. The police have been good enough to go to community meetings with me to make that point to members of the community who sometimes complain that groups of

Column Number: 96

young men are hanging around committing offences. At one community meeting, a senior police officer said that if 700 18 to 30-year-old single male police officers with no money were put into a run-down hotel for months with nothing to do, it is likely that there would be much more disorder and criminality than with asylum seekers. I hope that the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle will revise whatever thought processes led him to his view.

It is true that asylum seekers are more frequently the victims of crime. They have had little money and support, and it is amazing that they are not more prone to seek resources illegally.

I agree with a point made by the hon. Member for Walthamstow in a debate on Kosovan refugees. If we had a policy that used asylum seekers' abilities earlier and more readily, they would jump at the chance. Most asylum seekers spend idle time only because they are not allowed to do anything. My hon. Friends and I have long argued that we need to give people early opportunities for training and work—irrespective of whether or not they go back to their own countries—so that they can contribute to the community. They are often more keen to do so, and work harder and for longer hours than many people born here who are much less willing to make a contribution to society.

Mr. Barker: May I rebut totally the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey's suggestion that I made some sort of blunt, even quasi-racist point? That is not the case. I was pointing out that a number of these people, because of the way in which they enter the country, have come into contact with the criminal underworld at some point. They are smuggled into the country, often by gangs mounting illegal operations. It is vital that they are freed from that connection at the earliest opportunity. They risk being coerced into doing things against their will. It is to protect the vulnerable, displaced and weak that we need to ensure special policing requirements for these areas, so that they do not fall prey to the unsavoury elements of society that may have brought them into the country.

The Chairman: Order. That intervention was too long.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle provided helpful clarification. My experience is that most traffickers dump asylum seekers on the other side of the channel and leave them to make the last stretch of the journey on their own—having taken $10,000 from them, as I was told at Sangatte. People in this country have recourse to criminality, but that is no more the case with asylum seekers than with others. People involved in sex trafficking or trafficking of workers for sexual exploitation are not necessarily asylum seekers; some may come here legitimately. I do not mean to misunderstand the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle and I hope he does not misunderstand me. I want to place on the record that there is no evidence to suggest that asylum seekers are more likely to be criminals or commit more offences than any other group. The Minister is right to say that age and other relevant profiles are more common factors.

Column Number: 97

I shall read Hansard and reflect on the Minister's comments as to whether other legislation covers the points raised by amendments Nos. 170 and 181. I am a veteran of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, which was a great advance and covered many issues. I shall look at it in detail.

I shall also reflect on the response to the hon. Member for Woking on amendment No. 141 and to our amendment No. 182 on contracts. I expected the Minister to say that the matter was confidential and that the Government would not reveal the information. I am not sure that we are satisfied with her response, but I shall not pursue the matter now.

We are in a new age of new Labour. Everything is up for grabs. It is not clear what, if anything, new Labour believes should remain in the public sector. It is having an internal debate, as are we, not least this very day. However, we take as a presumption that some matters should remain in the public sector; and this is one of them. I have a moral and ethical concern about and objection to the idea that people should profit from housing and managing asylum seekers. It raises an ethical question. I am uncomfortable about profit-making from other jobs in society. It is true to say that I am on the left wing of my party.

Mr. Allan: Stalinist.

Simon Hughes: No, but some in my party would take a more free-market view. For as long as we have accommodation centres—certainly for the trial period, but in our view for the provision in the legislation—they should remain in the public sector. We should not give private sector companies the opportunity to profit from this activity. The Minister offered a theoretical concession, and there might be a meeting of minds if she accepted that services should be provided only by not-for-profit organisations. That may be a way forward, but understandably I am not hearing more about that yet.

I am sure that deep down the Minister, like many other colleagues on the Labour Benches, shares my view. I do not know at what point in government everyone is required to sign up to the mixed economy for everything, with the private sector doing everything traditionally done by the public sector. My hon. Friend and I are clear. For accountability and other reasons, we want these services and the people employed in them to be kept in the public sector.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 2, Noes 10.

Division No. 3]

Allan, Mr. Richard
Hughes, Simon

Buck, Ms Karen
Dhanda, Mr. Parmjit
Eagle, Angela
Gapes, Mike
Gerrard, Mr. Neil
Lazarowicz, Mr. Mark
McGuire, Mrs. Anne
Prosser, Mr. Gwyn
Rooney, Mr. Terry
Winterton, Ms Rosie

Column Number: 98

Question accordingly negatived.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 7 May 2002