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Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester): The hon. Gentleman makes some interesting points about the current dispersal system. On the creation of reception centres, he seems to think that the changes do not go far enough. Is he proposing the creation of more reception centres, or the contradictory approach of widening the dispersal areas, which currently take in largely urban areas? Is he suggesting that the spa towns that surround certain urban areas be included?
Mr. Letwin: I shall discuss the size of the centres in a moment. I am not advocating that they house more than 3,000 inhabitants in the first instance, but I am advocating that, by the means that I have described, we institute a system that stands a chance of processing applications in, say, an average of five weeks. According to the Home Secretary's officials, at the moment some 3,000 people are taken through the system twice a year, but under my proposal, the same amount would be processed 10 times a year. In other words, some 30,000 applicants would be processed each year, instead of 6,000. Rather than making an approximately 10 per cent. difference to the current level of applications and dispersals, a vastly greater difference30, 40 or 50 per cent.would be made.
In short, I want an experiment to be conducted on a far greater scale, so that much more can be done to relieve the pressure on the dispersal system. I shall describe later how we hope that the remaining pressure on the system might be taken care of, so that it virtually disappears by the end of this Parliament. That must be our aim.
Mr. Dawson: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the phrase "one-stop shop" is perhaps a slight misnomer for the type of institution that he describes? In referring to a process in which all needs are met, all assessments are completed and all judgments are made, he is describing something more akin to a total institution. That is somewhat foreign to the liberal democracy to which the Bill seeks to welcome people, and which it recommends as the way forward.
Mr. Letwin: No, I simply do not agree. I accept entirely the Home Secretary's point that people will be able to come and go from accommodation centres, but I see no reason why the addition of adjudicators and better legal services on site would make such entities less attractive from a democratic point of view. If we resolve the chaos in the system, we will succeed vastly more quickly in allowing the victims of persecution to enter this country. That would be a triumph for tolerance and democracy.
Much of the problem alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury is caused by the proposed size of the operations. As I said, a total of 3,000 inhabitants is a reasonable aim if the other adjustments that I described are made, but four vast centres, each housing 750 inhabitants, is not a sensible way forward. I was pleased to hear the Home Secretary mention the possibility that at least some centres will be significantly smaller, and I take his point that a minimum scale is sensible. We should not seek to lay down particular sizes for ever, because the economies of scale will doubtless differ over time and across languages, for example. It would be sensible to try to create centres that specialise in particular kinds of asylum applicant from particular places, so that, for example, specific translation facilities and expertise can be developed.
In short, economies of scale are determined not merely by the numbers of people being processed, but by the aptness of institutions to the particular character of the people whose cases they are processing. I do not want to offend the Home Secretary's hard-working officials, but I sense that the establishment of four centres each holding 750 people is an example of the Home Office's characteristic desire that such projects should be neat, large and systematic. What we really need is a set of centres that are effective because they are tailored to the characteristics of the human beings with whom they are dealing.
Smaller units would make it much easier for my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury and the other hon. Members who are affectedand, more importantly, their constituentsto accept accommodation centres in
All my experiencewhich I suspect that the Home Secretary sharesof watching Governments at work suggests that they take a very long time to put large projects in place. That is because we in this country increasingly, and rightly, respect local rights whenever a large project is about to be dumped on a local population. There is no getting around the fact that the local populations involved will feel that they have been dumped on, even though the construction of these units is very much in the national interest. For all sorts of reasons, therefore, it would be very helpful if the Home Secretary were to reconsider the centres.
The combination of one-stop shops, the reduction of scale that I have outlined, the introduction of independent assessments, the speeding up of the proposals for establishing accommodation centres and quicker processing of applications in those centres once they have been established will, I believe, vastly alleviate the problems to do with education described by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), among others. It seems to me to be perfectly tolerable that specialised education should be available on site if people are staying in the centres only for a matter of weeks. Her complaint seems to arise from the fact that the Home Secretary is envisaging that people will stay for a pretty long time, in separate educational establishments. The approach that I have set out might not solve the problems to which the hon. Lady has referred, but I believe that it would vastly alleviate them.
Ms Abbott: If I seriously thought that people would be staying only a few days or weeks, I would not take such a strong line. However, this is the fifth Bill on immigration and asylum during my time in the House. When Ministers say that people will stay in such centres for a maximum of six months, I know that one should think in terms of a year.
Mr. Letwin: The Opposition have made the same assessment. In our more pessimistic moments, we believe that people could stay even longer. I am delighted that the hon. Lady has said what I speculated that she wouldthat the problems to do with education might not arise if people stayed only a short time in such centres.
The Opposition's proposals would be better for the country, and for the Home Secretary. They would allow him a more peaceful time with his Back Benchers. What could be better? In fact, I can think of many things, but there we are.
My final point about the scale of the accommodation centres trumps all the others that I have made. The memory of the ghastly episode at Yarl's Wood is seared on the Home Secretary's mind more than it is on anyone else's because he has had to deal with the aftermath, even though he was not responsible for its origins. No living individual created that problem. I am sure that the report, when it appears, will show that there is no villain of this piece, and that no individual performed a series of evil acts that led to the problems at Yarl's Wood. No doubt, the report will show that a series of unfortunate elements came together.
I am sure that lessons will be learned, but I am persuadedI admit that I have no empirical evidence on this matter, just a human instinct that I suspect that the Home Secretary might sharethat the chances of such disruption happening are vastly reduced when human institutions are relatively small and on a human scale, when they deal with people from roughly the same part of the world and have translation facilities in good working order, and when there is a sense that human beings are being dealt with as human beings. These huge centres, for 750 men, women and children, stand far too great a risk of creating, or recreating, the friction which, if they do not lead to the events that we saw at Yarl's Woodand I hope that they never domay generate other problems. That is the biggest single reason for making the centres smaller, although there are many others.
Let me turn to matters that are not in the Bill. Some of them cannot be because they are not matters of legislation, but we continue to believe that they are critical. I was encouraged by the Home Secretary's attitude to these matters earlier this afternoon. I wholly concur that he was right, when we last debated this issue, to draw the House's attention to the need to await the results of the French election before proceeding to renegotiate the bilateral agreement. I believe, however, that the only way to solve the problem of our current system is by combining the tactics that I have described which might, if they worked appropriately and took just a few weeks in each case, accommodate about 30,000 applicants. I believe that we will solve the problem only if we can reduce the number of applicants by many thousands more by reinstituting the bilateral agreement. That is the second part of my answer to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. I hope that we can see the withering of the dispersal system by accommodating about 30,000 applicants in the accommodation centres and that the number of applicants will, over time, be reduced by another 30,000 or so after reinstituting the bilateral agreement. I do not think that there is any other way of getting to where we need to be.
I am delighted that the Home Secretary seems to be moving towards a negotiation with the French after their election. I profoundly hope that it will deliver Mr. Chiracin which hope I guess the right hon. Gentleman and I are joinedand a conservative rather than a socialist Government, but certainly not one composed of evil persons. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will appeal to his colleague, the former Home Secretarynow Foreign Secretary and responsible for our diplomatsto exercise some ingenuity in achieving that result. Indeed, I hope that he will do more and achieve a renegotiation of the Dublin convention in Dublin. That convention should be systematically altered so that it reflects what is possible and practical rather than what is imaginary and theoretical.
It is imaginary and theoretical to suppose that one can trace the first port of entry to a safe country. It would be practical and useful to have a general agreement across Europe that when asylum applicants come from a safe country to another safe country, they should return to the safe country from which they started their travels to have their application processed there. If we could achieve that on a Europe-wide basis, our desire to see the dispersal system wither, the whole process take weeks and the system return to a state of order would be deliverable.
In short, we hope to see the Bill not so much change as evolve. We hope that it will be improved as it proceeds through its stages, and we shall support it tonight. We hope that the French election will be won by the right candidate and that the Home Secretary will, through the agency of his colleagues, achieve the renegotiation of which I spoke. If we can do all those things, the Home Secretary will be able to enter the next election not just with a chain of well-intentioned moves or a reputation for having maintained a robust but rational discussion of these matters but with a reputation for resolving them. As a matter of political expediency, that would be a disaster for me, because I would have to go into the next election conceding that he had succeeded. However, as an Englishman, I would welcome it.