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Session 2001- 02
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Standing Committee Debates
Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Standing Committee E

Thursday 9 May 2002

[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]

Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

9.00 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle): I beg to move,

    That in the Order of the Committee of 30th April 2002 relating to programming, the following shall be substituted for the entries in the Table for the 2nd to 8th sittings—

    ''2nd, 3rd and 4th Clauses 14 to 33 7pm at 4th sitting
    5th and 6th Clauses 34 to 58 9.55 pm at 6th sitting
    7th and 8th Clauses 94 to 126, Schedule 7, Clauses 127 to 129 7 pm at 8th sitting
    9th and 10th Clause 59, Schedule 3, Clauses 60 to 78, Schedule 4, Clauses 79 to 90, Schedules 5 and 6, Clauses 91 to 93, New Clauses, New Schedules and remaining proceedings on the Bill. 9.55 pm at 10th sitting''.

I shall spend a couple of minutes explaining why we reconvened the Programming Sub-Committee this morning. We want to create the potential for another sitting on 21 May, if it is needed. That may be useful, because we expect to table new appeal proposals on Tuesday, and the change will give hon. Members an extra seven days to seek advice and form opinions on the new procedures. I hope that that is convenient.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): I am grateful for the Minister's explanation and for the generous time available to scrutinise the Bill. The official Opposition have no objection and concur with the Government's proposal.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): As the Minister knows, we anticipated that we would need extra time, and if there are to be significant new clauses, it is logical to have time to examine and debate them properly. My only question concerns the final two sittings. Is it not more logical to deal with the provisions on initial decisions before appeals? She may not be able to give an immediate response, but will that point be considered?

Angela Eagle: We had a quick look at it in the Programming Sub-Committee and did not see much difference, but I shall keep the hon. Gentleman's request in mind.

Question put and agreed to.

The Chairman: Before we resume the debate, I should make it clear that that change means that the proceedings that were to be completed by 11.25 am, as detailed on the selection list, must now be completed by 7 pm. I hope that all hon. Members are clear about that.
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Clause 15

Support for destitute asylum-seeker

Amendment proposed [7 May]: No. 129, in page 9,

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line 12, after 'centre', insert

    'for a maximum period of three months'.—[Mr. Malins.]

Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are taking the following amendments: No. 171, in page 9, line 16, at end insert


    (c) neither the person nor his dependants has previously been accommodated in an accommodation centre for a period of six months in total.'.

No. 138, in clause 20, page 11, line 26, at end add

    'for a period of no longer than three months'.

No. 177, in page 11, line 26, at end add

    'for a period of no longer than six months in total.'.

No. 140, in clause 21, page 11, line 31, after 'centre', insert

    'for a period of no longer than three months'.

No. 179, in page 11, line 31, at end insert

    'for a period of no longer than 6 months in total.'.

Simon Hughes: This debate raises the second set of important issues concerning accommodation centres and, specifically, how long people should be kept there. As the Committee will see and as a marker for the debate, the Conservative amendments would introduce a three-month maximum, while my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) and I propose a six-month maximum. The two work both as a proposition for the maximum stay and as a trigger for a debate, which we shall have partly now and partly later, on how long the payments system, which is altered by the Bill, should cover people when they are in accommodation centres. We had much of that debate in our previous sitting and I do not want to repeat it, but I will make some short points.

On 7 February, the Home Secretary said on the Floor of the House:

    ''God forbid that anyone should be in an accommodation centre for six months.''—[Official Report, 7 February 2002; Vol. 379, c. 1037.]

If that is his view, it is reasonable for Opposition colleagues to say that that should not happen and to suggest an end date. The Minister said that most people in accommodation centres are, inevitably, young adult men, as most asylum seekers are young adult men. The dangers of keeping people for a long time are boredom and stress, and a situation that is more difficult to manage. It is in everyone's interests that the period is kept to a minimum.

The difference between the propositions made by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats is that we believe, and have believed for some time, that wider latitude is better and more realistic. Although a three-month period may be desirable, a six-month period is sufficiently wide. We also hope that all the processing and assessment of need could be achieved in that period. Our proposition is therefore not ungenerous,

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but realistic. We would all be troubled if we subscribed to the idea that accommodation centres could keep people for more than six months. If the Home Secretary agrees, it is better to refine the period to six months.

Colleagues outside the Committee have inquired about the proceedings and progress. They realise that this is an important debate, and they want us to tie the Government down to a maximum. If the Minister cannot accept the amendments, will she at least consider an upper limit? Six months is a reasonable alternative to three. I hope she accepts that.

Angela Eagle: The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) would limit the period to three months, and that tabled by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) would limit it to six. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey rightly quoted the remarks made by the Home Secretary on the Floor of the House on Second Reading. I confirm that we do not want people to stay in accommodation centres indefinitely, and that six months is an appropriate time. After six months, we would seek to make other arrangements. However, it is not sensible for the Bill to include such a statutory limit, which would give us no flexibility in dealing with individual cases.

On an exact day and regardless of individual circumstances, we might have to move individuals or families out of an accommodation centre where they are settled, close to the end of the determination process, and about to be accepted as refugees, integrated and moved out. Alternatively, arrangements may be under way to return a failed asylum seeker who is still living in the accommodation centre, but we may have to wait a few days over the six-month limit to obtain tickets and the appropriate Government say-so to return that national to their country of origin. That often happens, and the practicalities of getting papers, tickets and flights to return people are also involved.

If the amendments were accepted, we would have to uproot someone and move them somewhere else for only a few days, which is absurd. We need that flexibility around the edges, but that does not mean that we intend to keep people in accommodation centres month after month while making no attempt to move them on or move them out if there are issues with their cases.

Simon Hughes: I accept the Government's good faith. If we need flexibility around the edges, will the Minister accept on Report an amendment specifying seven or eight months?

Angela Eagle: We should not have statutory limits in the Bill, for the reasons that I have set out. I hope that the hon. Gentleman equally accepts the good faith of what I said about the time that we intend and expect people to be in accommodation centres.

We must consider how fast and how effectively we can complete the asylum process, which we all want to be carried out quickly and efficiently. It has been

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suggested several times in Committee, as it was on Second Reading, that it could be completed much faster—that is our aspiration for all cases—but three months is pretty rapid, according to our experience. Five weeks, which has been suggested by the official Opposition, is so rapid that it is difficult to see how, given the current structure of the appeals process, it could be achieved except in very straightforward cases.

I hope that we shall be able to reduce the six months through the changes and appeals streamlining under the Bill and some administrative changes that we are making on the personal serving of decisions, reporting requirements and much closer contact with asylum seekers, whether in accommodation centres or dispersed in the other systems. Hon. Members have rightly said that 48 per cent. of applications have initial decisions served within two months and that 45 per cent. of appeals go through both tiers of the Immigration Appellate Authority in four months. That is the ''two plus four'' six-month period that we are talking about.

We have managed to get first-tier decisions and appeals heard faster at Oakington, but cases go there because they are straightforward. Other cases are not as straightforward. The hon. Member for Woking knows from his previous experience that the caseworker may have to seek other documents if an asylum seeker presents with a particularly complex history. If the individual has been tortured, an extra report is needed from the Medical Foundation on what may have happened. Individual doctors will consider what happened and examine the individual. Then we must wait for the report before we can progress the case.

There are all kinds of scenario in which thinking that we might achieve five weeks is fantastical. There would have to be an initial decision in all cases in one week, which is what we achieve at Oakington with straightforward cases, but that is not achievable in all, due to their complexity and the difficulty of establishing what has happened. We would then have to hold an appeal within a month. Again, we can do that in some cases, but not if there are complications.


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