Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Mr. Lammy: As a young Member of Parliament, I rely on my hon. Friend, who is chairman of the all-party group on refugees, for advice on these matters. He mentioned the young Kosovan child who received a award from the Queen this morning. Does he accept that if the proposal as drafted works, and we hope that it will, such a child may—may is the important, operative word—have been in the accommodation centre for six months, after which period he will move into the system? He may then turn up at the school to which my hon. Friend referred and, I hope, receive his award. There is no bar on the real, positive social mix that we all applaud.

Mr. Gerrard: Of course there is no bar, but I am not sure what is supposed to be gained by the six-month period. Let us take learning a language. Yes, language classes can be provided, but anyone who has tried to learn another language knows that it does not matter how many classes one goes to; one starts to feel comfortable with a language only when one uses it, or has to use it, to communicate with other people. Language skills develop much more quickly in those circumstances. In that respect, there is something to gain from immediate mixing.

I worry about the social effects of keeping children separate for six months. That is a long time in a child's life and it may take some time to get over the experience. One reason why we were pushed to table the amendment relates to the decision that accommodation centres will, in the main, be large and outside urban and semi-urban areas. Small, local, isolated schools will find it difficult to take the numbers involved, which would be easier to cope

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with in a larger town or city. That contradicts the very idea of refugee integration on which we have been trying to make progress.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham asked what would happen if there was a crisis in the world and significant numbers of families and children arrived simultaneously. If that happened, it is highly unlikely that they would go into accommodation centres, unless we are to leave centres standing with lots of empty places. We would act as we did with the humanitarian evacuation programme from Kosovo, when facilities were found in towns such as Leeds and Glasgow to accommodate 40 or 50 families together, and the children then went to local schools. That is what we would do if a humanitarian crisis resulted in significant numbers of people arriving in this country at the same time.

We might be able to deal with the question of education in other ways. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) asked for a bit more flexibility. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North, I am perfectly happy to consider being flexible, but the Bill does not build in flexibility. That is the purpose of the amendment. We want some certainty, but we should not isolate all the children who end up in accommodation centres.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I shall be very brief, because we may reach clause 30.

I do not start from the same point as the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North, although the arguments are extremely persuasive and were well put by her. She spoke not only from constituency experiences similar to some of us, but, entirely appropriately, from personal experience in which she was honourable enough to make for herself the choices that public policy makers do not always make for others.

Earlier, I forgot the title and author of a book. I have now remembered it; it is called ''The Other Side of Truth''. It received a children's book prize of the year last year, and I recommend it to hon. Members. It was written by the South African journalist and novelist, Beverley Naidoo, and tells in fictional form a true story about two young Nigerian children who fled during the military regime and came to south London. In reality they came to Southwark, although the story does not make that especially clear.

Apart from the awfulness of seeing their mother killed and having to leave Nigeria in a hurry, the kernel of the story was that they ended being taken in by social services. The member of family who was supposed to meet them did not meet them, so they were then fostered and went to a local school. The beginning of their experiences in a pretty rough south London comprehensive was not pleasant. Other asylum seeker children were there, but as we know children can be very hateful to each other, and the other pupils were cruel.

That is why I have some sympathy with the Government's starting position, although I do not have an absolute view. I just share the desire to ensure

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that we do what is right. We have a hospital school at Guy's for children who, for a short or long time, are patients at the hospital. It means that they have a school that meets their particular needs. It arranges classes around their timetables of treatment and care, accommodates their disabilities and physical difficulties and does not require them to travel long distances. There is a benefit in providing such a service at the beginning of a period during which youngsters who come here have particular education needs.

Kids are often brilliant at mixing and responding to the rest of the community. They do not worry about language; they just get on with it and sort themselves out within a short space of time. Therefore, there are huge advantages in ensuring that children are with other children as soon as possible, and not only with those of their own type from their own cultural background. If we are going to build a society of tolerance, understanding and respect, the Benetton adverts are right. We must mix children early when they do not notice colour and get on with life. Some needs may have to be met. Primary schools in my borough and elsewhere do a brilliant job of accommodating children wherever they come from. Most teachers will go out of their way to do that. Sometimes it is difficult, especially when the psychological needs are particularly demanding. Those needs may disappear in a short time, but the children must still acclimatise and face uncertainty, as the family may not know whether they will be staying.

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I want to get the process right. It may be right for a short time, but it should be for no longer than a few months if sufficient numbers of children can be placed together. However, there is a danger of their becoming institutionalised, because the longer integration is delayed, the more difficult it is. We must listen to advice outside, as well as inside, the Committee about whether the teaching force has the capacity to deal with the numbers. Teachers in inner London and other urban schools may be better able to cope with a regular flow in an ever-changing class than those in schools in parts of the community where there has not been that tradition. Some of the accommodation centres are in places without much of a tradition of minorities, ethnic communities or asylum seekers. They may find it much more difficult generally. Not all my colleagues believe that. Some believe that there should be accommodation from the start. There are also issues relating to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees' declaration of the rights of the child.

The case was well put by the hon. Members for Regent's Park and Kensington, North and for Walthamstow. I am open to persuasion that children should be integrated from the start. However, a period of transition and acclimatisation may be appropriate for some children. We should explore that and take advice on it. There will never be unanimity, but I hope that we can at least obtain the best solution for possibly the most difficult years for people for whom we have a particular responsibility.

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The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Ms Rosie Winterton): As has been said, the amendment would prevent us from supporting dependent children under the age of 18 in accommodation centres. All hon. Members have spoken passionately on a subject that is obviously of concern. I hope that my remarks will reassure hon. Members. I do not want to go too far down the line of particular education provision, as it is important that we debate the detail when we discuss the relevant clauses. However, I will touch on certain aspects.

The amendment would give rise to scenarios that my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North did not intend. If we were to say that families with children had to be separated if the parents went into accommodation but the children did not, I am sure that is not what my hon. Friend intended. I am sure that she would also accept that there may well be some practical difficulties if, for example, a couple in an accommodation centre had a child and did not want to be removed to other accommodation outside. In a technical sense that is what her amendment would do, and I am sure that she can see the difficulties of that. In that sense, her amendment will effectively mean that we are talking about accommodation centres for single people if we do not allow dependents in. That was not the intention or what the Government want to achieve in these trial—I emphasise trial—accommodation centres.

Many hon. Members have spoken very movingly about the situation of children in schools and the magnificent way in which teachers and the surrounding communities have looked after those children. My hon. Friend spoke of experiences in her own constituency and I know of similar circumstances in my own constituency, including tragic situations that I do not wish to detail. But it was clear that these were very vulnerable children who, luckily, received magnificent support from the school that was able to establish their particular difficulties. I pay absolute tribute to the work that is done in such situations and I am sure, from what my hon. Friend said about her own constituency, that they are also very well able to cope.

The debate brings home to me that a lot of these children are extremely vulnerable and that we also need to look at this matter in the context of our overall policy, as well as what we are trying to achieve through trialling these accommodation centres and the various measures that are being taken in this Bill.

The worst things for vulnerable children in such circumstances are delay and being in limbo, and not knowing whether refugee status is going to be granted or not. It is important that we look at how we can improve decision-making, and the accommodation centres are a vital part of that.

For clarification on a specific issue raised in the debate—I not sure if it was by my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's park and Kensington, North, or my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow—I emphasise that unaccompanied children will not be in accommodation centres.

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We are trialling these accommodation centres and, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said, if these are successful, we may want to them to be introduced on a much wider basis. My hon. Friend mentioned education, but there will be other services on site. In considering the use of accommodation centres on a wider scale—the plan is that, for families with the kind of vulnerable children we are talking about, there should be separate accommodation—it is only right that that we make sure that we are providing the best services for those families and those children.

 
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