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Tony Baldry: Does my hon. Friend agree that it might be sensible to give careful consideration in Committee to the size of accommodation centres, and, particularly in relation to trial accommodation centres, to give local people, deliverers of local services and local communities the proper opportunity to be heard at a public inquiry?
Mr. Letwin: My answer is yes. I shall dwell on those matters and several others of practical importance in relation to accommodation centres in a moment. My welcome for them is a welcome for the idea and not for all the details in the Bill, which, as I shall explain in a moment, are in some respects deficient. The two points that my hon. Friend mentions are among the most important.
We also welcome someindeed, mostof the detailed provisions elsewhere in the Bill. In that context, I mention particularly the consolidation and streamlining of the appeals process. There is no doubt that if people are enabled to make several different concurrent or serial appeals, the system will remain in chaos. It is right that the whole appeal system should be consolidated, and the measures that we are considering, the drafting of which we want to inspect in detail, tend in the right direction and will carry our supportnot that the Home Secretary requires our support in this House, but, perhaps more importantly, they will carry our support in the other place, too.
We have concerns about a particular class of asylum seekerthose who have not been refused appeal or lost an appeal, but who are in the course of appeal and are detained. If we understand the Bill correctly, they will not have an automatic right of bail at any timeby that I mean even an automatic right to have the proposition of bail considered. We have received representations about that and we share that concern.
Mr. Blunkett: Because of the length of my speech, I was not able to deal with every single item in the Bill, but I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has raised this matter. It is correct that the automatic rightwhereby anyone who applies for bail will automatically be granted a hearingwill be ruled out by the Bill, but not the right to put a case for a bail hearing. Those concerned will be dealt with on the same basis as other people who applied in similar circumstances. At the moment, there is an automatic right, irrespective of what case is put, for that bail hearing to be heard in circumstances that might allow people to go for bail the day before they are flying out of the country. That is ridiculous. It has therefore been used as a method of ensuring that people could avoid being held temporarily while their removal from the country was being organised.
Mr. Gerrard: On the question of the automatic bail hearing, was not that one part of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 that was never implemented? People do not have an automatic bail hearing at present. The concern is that, although an application can be made for bail, it has proved extremely difficult in the past for people to get it.
Mr. Letwin: That is correct. Part III of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 was never brought into force, which is why that provision is not yet implemented. That is one of the reasons why I raise this issue. We shall debate the matter in Committee, and perhaps the Opposition and the hon. Gentleman will be ad idem on it.
Simon Hughes: May I press the hon. Gentleman on his and his colleagues' view on this issue? Is it his view, as it is ours, that, until the end of the process, or just before it, the presumption should be that asylum seekers are not detained and are at libertythat the loss of liberty should come only at the end, or just before the end, of the process of applications?
Mr. Blunkett: To be even more helpful, may I clarify a point so that there is no misunderstanding? Habeas corpus still applies. People are entitled to that, and the real problem is those who are held inappropriately before they reach the point at which removal is required.
Having said that all those things are welcome and having congratulated the Home Secretary on the manner in which he is pursuing this whole endeavour, I must add that good intentions and an appropriate means of debate are not enough. To produce the results that he and I desirenamely, to create harmony where there is discord and to deny the extremists the purchase that they have or might have on the minds of some voterswe must not merely try hard and in the right spirit, but succeed.
We must take a system that the Home Secretary has correctly described as chaoticit was not in perfect working order in 1997, but it has got substantially worseand turn it into an orderly system that achieves the two results that he and I share the desire to achieve. Those are the rapid, effective admission of refugees fleeing dreadful persecution and the equally rapid and effective removal of those seeking to use this as opposed to other, legitimate means to enter the country, getting round rather than facing the immigration rules.
Those are joint aims, and we must succeed in delivering them to the British publicnot 20 years from now, but very soonif we are to achieve the effects on our democracy that the Home Secretary and I want to achieve. Therefore, it is important to consider whether the practical aspects of what is proposed will rapidly achieve those
I make no apology for repeating certain points, because I still believe them to be true. They did not enter the White Paper and they have not entered the Bill. Now, as the Bill progresses, we have an opportunity to include them in legislation and administrative practice. Everything that I shall say about the accommodation centres springs from a difference of view between the Home Secretary and me about what they ought to be in their first incarnation.
As I understand it, the Home Secretary envisages about 3,000 places in four accommodation centres of 750 inhabitants each, which, on average, will take about six months to process the applications of their inhabitants. Therefore, they will constitute no more than what he accurately described as a trial, leaving the overwhelming bulk of applications to be processed on the same basis as at present and with the dispersal systems as at present. Although his welcome changes on vouchers and the appeals process are exceptions, he is, on the whole, making no significant alterations.
Three years from now, the accommodation centres that the Home Secretary envisages will, I guess, probably only just have been constructed and established, given the planning constraintsI agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) that those must be fairly intenseand the consultative procedures involved. Even then, they will process only some 6,000 applicants out of 60,000, 70,000, 80,000 or 90,000 a year. So, they constitute not a major shift from chaos to order, but, as the Home Secretary envisages them, an experiment on what might later be a means of doing so. The Home Secretary understates the urgency of the problem.
The difficulty with the six-month period arises essentially because the Home Secretary or his officials have not thought of these accommodation centres seriously as one-stop shops. I want to spell out what we mean by a one-stop shop.
We believe that a large part of the chaos of the present system is engendered by the paper chase and the people chase around the United Kingdom, as appeals move people and paper from place to place. What has gone wrong at the initial stages of applications arises from two causes. First, there is an insufficiency of appropriate legal adviceI stress the word "appropriate". I share the Home Secretary's doubts about the behaviour of some of the lawyers. Secondly, there is an insufficiency of reliable, accepted and judicially accepted country risk assessments.
We will not have an effective system for processing applications until we gather together in one place the relevant legal expertise that the Bill envisagesthat is the intention, but we will tease out in Committee how far that is truethe relevant medical expertise and the relevant interpretive expertise, both of which are also signalled in the Bill, the caseworkers who make the initial decisions and the adjudicators. We will not eliminate the paper chase and make the whole process last weeks rather than months unless present on that site is the whole array of expertise required to reach the end of the consolidated appeals process. That is perfectly doable. No doubt there would be expenses, but vast savings would also be made.
Many other risk assessments are not so evidently ludicrous, but are nevertheless questionable. I have been dealing at some length with cases relating to Congo Brazzaville, which is a country that I happen to know well. From what I gather, I have a rather closer acquaintance with developments in that country than those responsible for the risk assessment have. My view is that the risk assessment is not very well assessed, and I suspect that that is the view the courts would take of it.
We will not solve this problem until an independent body, which has the highest possible qualifications for the job and is unchallengeable by the bureaucracy, is responsible for risk assessments. That is mainly because an independent risk assessment would not be influenced by a desire to achieve a particular result in appeals. Paradoxically or ironically, such a body would thereby more frequently achieve a result consistent with the initial decision, which would save time, money and misery.
We believe that one-stop shops should include everyone from the decision makers through to the adjudicators, with all the expertise required, and against the background of proper, independent risk assessments. If that were to happen, and if the energy that the Home Secretary displays in conducting the political battle against us and others were displayed by the people responsible for winning the job of running those centres, those individuals could bring about the miracle of processing claims not in months but in weeks. Much would then alter.