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Earl Russell: If the noble Lord, Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, wants to discourage people traffickers, as I do, would he not be more effective by attacking carriers' liability than by segregating the children of their victims?
Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: Certainly not. That is an entirely different issue. Members of the Committee may have heard me try to argue my view that under the 1951 convention, applications for asylum should be made in the first safe country in which the asylum seeker finds himself and dealt with by the diplomatic posts in that country. But that is another matter.
I was describing the dreadful state in which such children and their parent or parents arrive in this country and are sent to accommodation centres. They will remain in the centres for between 16 and 26 weeks. What then is the point of saying, "Yes, go into the nearest local school, but if your application is refused, and if that is confirmed on appeal, you will be out of that school"? That further change is avoidable if they are educated properly in accordance with the national curriculum, as my noble friend will confirm
At that stage, the children are not refugees; they are the children of asylum seekers. There is no reason why the education provided in accommodation centres for that short period should be isolated from that being delivered in local schools. In fact, there is every good reason why every attempt should be made to foster links between local schools and the children in the centres. I am sure that that is the view of teachers, too.
We are losing sight of the fact that we are dealing with children who have not had regular experience of education. That is not for one minute a reason to deny them proper educational provision, but it is not as though they are moving school from Durham to Surrey. Most of the children come from extremely deprived circumstances and, if recent events in Afghanistan were anything to go by, the girls were banned from attending school.
We should concentrate on getting the education delivered within the accommodation centres right during the relatively brief period in which the children are expected to be there, rather than assuming that they will suddenly become refugee children and be denied mainstream education. That is not the Government's intention.
Lord Mayhew of Twysden: I approach this difficult question on the premise that it will be better for a child in an accommodation centre to be educated in the local school than in the centre. The noble Lord, Lord Corbett, knows a great deal about these matters and was a distinguished chairman of the All-Party Home Affairs Committee in the other place. However, I was disturbed by his speech because it leads to the conclusion that because many of the children have had a rough and rotten deal for many months, they shall be exposed to a rough deal in the context of education for up to 26 weeks.
Lord Mayhew of Twysden: That is a conclusion, if my initial premise is correct. The noble Lord said that it is not the purpose of the centres to educate the children. I agree that the primary purpose is to give them somewhere safe to live. But an extension of that argument might be that it is not the purpose of the centres to maintain the children's health if we do not propose to exclude them from the local hospitals.
In that regard, I object to the fact that the Bill makes it mandatory that no such child shall attend the local maintained school. A Member of the CommitteeI have forgotten whosaid today that we are trialling accommodation centres. That echoed what the Minister said yesterday. With customary frankness, the Minister said that the Government are not certain
The provision need not be mandatory, because of course there are problems. My noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour pointed out a most important one; that in some schools there is not sufficient accommodation. That will not always be the case. Indeed, we heard significant second-hand evidence from head teachers about the advantages to the schools and their pupils of having the children attend.
I ask merely that the Government should think again about the matter. They should delete the mandatory prohibition and, in proper cases after proper consultation, allow children to attend mainstream schools. That is all I ask. The arguments I have heard so far have not persuaded me in favour of maintaining the Bill as it is.
Lord Chan: I strongly support the amendment. I make a plea as one whose professional career has been in the care of sick children. The number of children likely to be housed in accommodation centres, as calculated by the right reverend Prelate and confirmed by the Minister, is small. They are not all of the same age. However, it is important to appreciate that all the children have been subjected to psychological trauma. They will continue to be segregated from other children in the community, whom they will see on the streets. I understand that the centres will not be behind barbed wire. Segregating them from a normal school environment will merely prolong their sense of isolation and psychological trauma.
Most of the children in accommodation centres are likely to stay there for up to six months, unless the Minister has plans to shorten the period. If one of the considerations relates to the security and safely of asylum seekers, surely keeping children away from school will not help. Allowing them to attend a mainstream school in a normal environment will have two advantages. First, they will recover from their psychological trauma more rapidly. Secondly, they will meet normal children. Their parents will certainly not abscond, because they and the children live together in the centres.
However, even more important is the consideration of our high reputation for fair and humane treatment of all people in this country. The Government's proposals will deal that reputation a severe blow. If we are found to be segregating the children of asylum seekers, where is the reputation for fair and humane treatment? The welfare of all children, irrespective of their status, surely must be kept uppermost in any arrangements we make for asylum seekers in this country.
Finally, when the trial on the four accommodation centres commencesI agree with the comment made a little earlierwe should place at least one or two children in normal schools, even if we did want a group to be educated within the centre.
Most important, I hope that the Minister will be able to give us an assurance that the results of this experiment will be analysed. As I have said, the issue with regard to children that should be considered as uppermost is their welfare. That is of paramount importance.
Earl Russell: If I had been addressing a medieval congregation rather than a modern House of Lords, I would have found the notion of the noble Lord, Lord Moser, being prevented from attending a mainstream schooland then being greeted by a roar of anger from the heavensan irresistible subject for a sermon. However, I do not intend to preach a sermon, but I shall treasure that as one of the nicest moments of drama that I have heard in this House.
The proposers of the amendment have made a very powerful case. I refer in particular to the questions asked by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford. He referred to the disapplication of much of our education legislation, covering teacher qualifications and so forth. They will require a deal of response. On the other hand, I was also extremely interested in the right reverend Prelate's arithmetic. He assumed that there would be 35 children in each centre, which is not unreasonable. If we presume that a range of subjects is to be taught, then more than one teacher will need to be available. That will create a pupil:teacher ratio which will be the gross envy of the indigenous population outside. The difficulties of the argument "separate but equal" should work both ways.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, is rapidly becoming the conscience of the House on this Bill. He expressed a dislike of segregated education, which I believe we all feel. But on the first day of our deliberations he also expressed a dislike of accommodation centres, which I also feel. My late friend Lady Seear, when addressing a Liberal summer school on ethics in politics, once commented that, in politics, the problem is always trying to choose the lesser of two evils. That is why we on these Benches will reserve our position until we have heard and probed what the Minister has to say on the forthcoming government Amendment No. 114A, containing a regulation-making power to fix the length of time that people may be required to stay in an accommodation centre. That is because our highest priority is to keep the time during which people are consigned to a centre as short as possible, a wish also expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker. We hope that six months will mean six months.
I felt somewhat disappointed on reading the Minister's response to a point put by my noble friend Lord Greaves last night while I had a belated bite of supper after our debates on the regulations. He appeared to assume that in all cases it would be necessary to detain people in accommodation centres for as long as their cases and appeals were pending. I hope that that is not to be his final word on the matter. If it were, then on Report it would affect very materially indeed our position on this amendment.
If people can be taken out of accommodation centres within six months, then I think that we might be induced to tolerate the Government's proposals. But were there to be a serious slippage in that position, we would have to reserve our opinion and think through the whole thing again.
Meanwhile, by far the most practical and helpful speech of the debate was that made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden. If there is to be a way forward, I hope that the Minister will consider whether perhaps that might be the direction in which the way might lie.
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