Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Mr. Malins: I made it clear a moment ago that not all cases are straightforward. Some are more straightforward than others; one or two are more difficult. The Minister will know that, if it costs £1,620 to keep someone at Oakington for a week, it will cost a fair amount to keep someone at an accommodation centre. I do not expect her to know the figure, but for the sake of argument let us say that it is £1,000 a week. Presumably £1,000 a week for six months is a lot more expensive than £1,000 a week for two months.

The Minister made a mistake in suggesting that I had to justify my position that speed would result in more expense—quite the reverse. I think that speed would result in money being saved that could go into—[Interruption.] I hope that that is not my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) telling me that I have said the wrong thing. The reality is that a speedy process will be more efficient.

Mrs. Gillan: Does my hon. Friend agree that some evidence is emerging, not least from the Immigration Advisory Service, that the length of time for which someone is held—wherever they are held—can result in their requiring extra medical treatment? I am thinking about the psychiatric implications of prolonged detention. I believe that evidence from Finland shows that the longer the period of detention, the greater the likelihood of adverse effects, and therefore many of the affected individuals will require medical treatment that involves extensive costs.

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Mr. Malins: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, who points out that the longer the period during which the claim subsists, the more likely it is that there will be extra medical and other expenses. She is exactly right to cite foreign examples.

I shall now ask the Minister specific questions, and I should like her to be as precise as she can. Does she envisage that asylum seekers will be present at an accommodation centre throughout the whole process, from application to conclusion of appeal? Does she envisage that the process will take no more than six months, except in a handful of cases?

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It would be helpful if the Minister could give full answers, but the way in which the debate has gone suggests that she will find it hard to summarise the real benefits of accommodation centres. If there is to be no legislative pressure on the Government to have the cases of persons in those centres decided in a narrow timeframe, there will be no difference from what happens to those outside the centres.

The Minister has asked for time, but the Government have had time—1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001. The asylum problems have got more and more difficult every year. I shall not recite again the figures that I quoted the other day about applications, appeals, determinations and removals, but they make for sorry reading. The Government say that they will consider these issues, have some trials and see how fast accommodation centres work. However, the Minister tells us that if the centres are up and running by mid to late 2003, they will perhaps wait for a year to see how they go and then get some figures. That means that we shall probably not have the first results until the end of 2004—two and a half years from now.

Every member of the Committee knows that asylum applications up to determination and the appeal process take too long. We also know that, apart from the cost, the longer the process takes, the less it is in the interests of the asylum seeker and his or her family, who cannot help but put down roots. In humanitarian terms, therefore, it becomes more difficult by the month—by the year, sometimes—to remove someone. If we are to make the slightest difference to the asylum system, it is essential that cases are handled with more speed and thus more efficiency. Otherwise, what are we doing here? A greater turnover would be in everyone's interest.

That is why the Opposition believed it right to table an amendment to tell the Government that no one must spend more than three months in an accommodation centre. It is time that we, as legislators, put down rules governing how much time is taken to do the job. That is why I want to press the amendment to a vote.

Angela Eagle: I disagree profoundly with the hon. Gentleman that flexibility means lack of rules. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North, I believe that the law of unintended consequences operates with arbitrary time limits. Under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, technical refusals on first tier appeal moved the pressure on to the appeals systems without considering the initial decision effectively.

Mr. Malins: If the Minister is so reluctant to have a time limit, can she explain why the Home Secretary laid down a time limit in juvenile courts for the period between arrest or charge and disposal of a case for a juvenile? That succeeded, so why is there no parallel in this case?

Angela Eagle: There are no relevant parallels between examining asylum claims and dealing with those who have committed crimes under the criminal justice system. Asylum claims are different. They often require further inquiry with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other countries to

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discover what may have happened in particular states. If someone claims to have been tortured, we must often establish identity first. Individuals often arrive on our shores having destroyed all their identity documents and claiming nationalities that they do not have.

I share the aim of all members of the Committee that we deal with all asylum claims as quickly and effectively as possible. I do not see how a statutory time limit on the length of time that someone may stay in an accommodation centre achieves that. If the period were three months and someone's claim had not yet been dealt with, we would have to move them from the accommodation centre to somewhere else at great disruption to the system and using many of the resources that we want to use to get the appeals system right.

Ms Buck: Does the Minister agree that we run the risk of giving priority to accommodation centres by placing a time limit on the people in them? There may be a financial argument for doing so. However, only a tiny minority of people making claims for asylum will be in accommodation centres at any time, while the vast majority of asylum claims will probably end up further up the system at the same time. The priority must be to introduce resources to process everyone's claims quickly and efficiently, regardless of whether they are in accommodation centres or dispersal.

Angela Eagle: I agree with my hon. Friend. That is the Government's intention. It would be arbitrary to have a time limit for one part of the system that is being trialled, but no time limits for other parts of the system. Such a time limit merely provides an incentive to move a claimant who happens to be in an accommodation centre. That accords with the law, but not with the intention behind the time limits in the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Woking.

We are trialling accommodation centres to see whether having people in one place allows us to process claims faster and more efficiently without compromising fairness to the claimants, but gives them a good and humane experience of the system. My guess is that we can achieve that with accommodation centres, but that has to be proved by the trial. If accommodation centres were then to become the norm and the dispersal system were ended, the statutory limit would create total chaos, because there would be nowhere else to send people in those circumstances. The primary legislation would provide that they could stay in an accommodation centre for three months, but if everything was not finished by the end of that time, that would be it.

I cannot accept the amendments, and I have tried to show the Committee that we do not want people to stay for ever in accommodation centres if their claims are not processed for some reason. I do not accept the Oakington parallels, because only particular and straightforward cases go to Oakington. I do not accept the comments of the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) about prolonged detention, because people will not be detained in accommodation centres. There is a difference between accommodation and detention centres.

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I warn Opposition Members about the law of unintended consequences. We intend to trial the new system to assess the potential gains in processing times, which I believe will be significant. I hope that, with my undertakings, the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment, which would cause chaos.

Mrs. Gillan: I appreciate that my choice of words was perhaps incorrect and that I should not have used the word ''detention''. Will the Minister tell us how long she would consider as unacceptable? Does the Minister consider nine months as the outer limit or would she hope to come under that line?

Angela Eagle: On Second Reading, the Home Secretary said that six months was about right. My only hesitation, apart from the administrative consequences of having a statutory bar in the Bill, is that there may be circumstances in which someone was expecting the final decision or due to be deported a day or two after the six months. If the amendment were accepted, we would be required to move them somewhere else. It is those situations that I am imagining when I talk about flexibility. We would have to move some people to removal centres, but that may not be appropriate for all. Decisions are taken on a case-by-case basis, and the people who are taken to removal centres are those who are thought likely to abscond.

Mr. Malins: If there are the odd exceptions, will the Minister consider drafting her own amendment on Report to the effect that no one should spend more than three months in an accommodation centre save in exceptional circumstances?

Angela Eagle: No, I will not, and I hope that the Committee will now understand why.

I shall move on to the specific questions put by the hon. Member for Woking before I forget them and he thinks that I am trying to get out of answering them. He asked whether individuals would be at accommodation centres throughout the whole process. That would be our intention in most circumstances as we trial, but it may be more appropriate for certain individuals to move out. There is no set yes or no, but the hon. Gentleman may assume that we want to achieve that, although there may be some flexibility around the edges.

I hope that the process will take no more than six months other than in a handful of cases. If an individual's application looked like it was suddenly going to become much more difficult, it would be up to us to decide whether it was appropriate to have them in the accommodation centre. The individual arrangements made for the support of asylum seekers are always under review as their circumstances change.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's assertion that there will be no difference in accommodation centres, I hope and believe that accommodation centres will be able to deliver a faster and more effective, efficient and accurate end-to-end processing system. The trials will have to prove that one way or the other. That is my current belief, but it is important to test that before we change the system, so that we get the most effective solution to difficult problems.

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