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7.32 pm

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): The debate has been remarkable for the fact that the opposition to the Bill seems to be coming from two totally different quarters: the mature and constructive opposition exemplified by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield(Sir N. Fowler) and the grumblings of discontent from those on the Government Back Benches.

I want to bring the perspective of a south coast constituency to the debate. We are all agreed that, nationally, we have a very big problem. Not only is it a massive problem, but no one really knows its dimensions. The figure of 46,000 applications in 1998, when there were only 4,000 a year not that many years ago, gives some idea of the scale of the problem. Figures have been bandied about for the number of asylum seekers who have gone AWOL, as it were, but no one knows, or can know, the precise figure, or anything like it.

One thing that we know with certainty is that the great majority of applicants will not turn out to be genuine asylum seekers. Any regime must recognise that the great majority of applicants--who, of course, should be treated courteously and humanely while their applications are being processed, which we hope will be done swiftly--will turn out to be making bogus applications.

It bears repeating that we have a long and distinguished history of tolerance and generosity to genuine refugees and asylum seekers. After all, did we not permit Karl Marx to sit in the reading room of the British museum writing "Das Kapital"?

I welcome certain aspects of the Bill, as have some of my hon. Friends. The simplified system for processing applications looks pretty good, at least on paper. There is a lot of detail to be gone into in Committee. Again, the

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one-stop system for dealing with appeals looks in theory to be an improvement, and let us hope that it is. We hope that it will not prove to be merely another excess of bureaucracy. The new arrangements for detention also seem sensible.

There are some real concerns, the first of which is what amounts to an amnesty for 30,000 or 40,000 people who are already in the country and whose applications are not to be tested or justified in any sense. They will simply be allowed through the system because they have managed to survive this long without being detected or sent home. What message does that send to future applicants? Is it likely to stem or reduce the flow of applicants?

We have already heard that there are all sorts of problems, in the Balkans and elsewhere, that are not about to get any better. People will not be less likely to turn their eyes enviously to this country. We should not add to that an apparent message from the Government that if people can get here and stay here long enough without being found out, they will be allowed to stay permanently. That is most unhelpful, and it is especially unfair on those who have been through the mill and proved their case, achieving in the proper way the right to stay here.

I want to focus principally on part VI, especially as it affects a seaside constituency such as mine. The plight of seaside towns is bad, and the Bill could make it even worse. I asked the Home Office how many asylum seekers or refugees were currently living in my constituency or residing in council or housing association accommodation. I was somewhat startled at the reply. It said:

I am worried about how the Home Office intends to proceed when it cannot even tell a Member of Parliament how many people are already living in a particular part of the country.

I then addressed myself to Eastbourne borough council. I should explain, by way of parenthesis, the recent background of the problem. The difficulties with asylum seekers come in addition to an on-going problem that we have had in seaside towns for at least a decade, with the change in holidaymaking patterns, whereby, increasingly, guest houses and small hotels have been used as hostels for social security claimants.

In the previous Parliament, some of us got together to lobby for changes. We were successful in changing planning law and we got some tough provisions put in the last Housing Act--1996--of the previous Government. Based on that, many local authorities, including my own, are introducing a tough inspection regime for houses in multiple occupation. I welcome that, but I would like to hear the Minister's thoughts on how the new regime may collide with some of the problems that I am about to describe.

At present, asylum seekers and illegal immigrants can come to my constituency in one of two ways: they can simply find their way to Eastbourne, and by definition we have no way of knowing how many people fall into that category, as unless they make contact with a particular agency, it is unlikely that they will show up on the radar screen, as it were; but dwarfing that problem--as far as I can tell--is the problem of other parts of the country, and especially certain London boroughs, entering into

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commercial arrangements to house people in places such as Eastbourne, where, of course, accommodation such as guest houses and small hotels is readily available, especially outside the holiday season.

One of the startling powers in the Bill is the setting up of what are called, in slightly chilling fashion, reception zones. Albeit those zones can be a matter for consultations with local authorities, the Government intend, as I understand it, to take the power to designate areas and, in effect, billet asylum seekers on particular parts of the country, almost as in wartime.

I raised that issue in a recent meeting with my local council. I was aware of its concerns about the problem, which are shared by many other resorts. The British Resorts Association, of which I have the honour to be a vice-president, has discussed the problem and its president, the hon. Member for Blackpool, South(Mr. Marsden) has corresponded with the Under-Secretary on the issue. The hon. Gentleman specifically raised the problem in his constituency, which is not dissimilar to that faced by many coastal resorts. He queried whether such resorts were likely to be targeted for such accommodation. The response from the Minister was less than reassuring. It stated:

I find that worrying, and so does the British Resorts Association.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman refers to a policy that I understand that Westminster council has followed. Will he condemn that council for its practice?

Mr. Waterson: I shall come on to that point, but my understanding is that Westminster is not one of the major offenders.

Mr. Coleman: Who are they?

Mr. Waterson: I shall come to that point, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me to make my own speech in my own way. BRA was not wholly reassured by that response from the Minister and the minutes of its discussion of the issue state:

According to the hard-pressed council officers who deal with housing in my constituency with whom I had a meeting last Friday, certain London boroughs--I believe the major offenders are Newham, Wandsworth and Haringey, but that is not an exhaustive list and there may be others who use other coastal towns--are using brokers. One of the most active brokers is VIP, which is based at a post office box number in Brighton. Such brokers make block bookings in guest houses and small hotels in my constituency and others along the south coast. They hide behind a veneer of confidentiality, so when my council officers approach the brokers, they refuse to reveal details because of commercial confidentiality. Those brokers are a front for those London boroughs, and possibly other boroughs, to make those block bookings.

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One might think that there would be some comity or a spirit of co-operation between the boroughs involved. The various local government organisations have recognised that best practice in such circumstances is for the boroughs making the placements to share information about numbers, needs and the services required with the recipient boroughs. However, housing officers in Eastbourne tell me a contrary story. They are convinced that the boroughs are breaching best practice. The officers find it very difficult to prise out of the boroughs any details about how many individuals or families are involved, and that is wholly unacceptable. I cannot believe that any hon. Member takes a different view of the issue.

As a result, my local council has no idea of the total numbers involved, the likely stresses and burdens that will be placed on local services or how much greater the problem is likely to become. I ask the Minister to address the issue, because it will take some time for the Bill's provisions to be implemented and in the interim we need proposals to deal with the problem. I am aware that some regional consortiums are being set up that will have some effect on the problem, but will the boroughs involved in trying to offload asylum seekers have a legal obligation to provide the information that I have mentioned? Or will other councils have to rely on such boroughs' good will?

My borough is not atypical. My council officers are doing their best in difficult circumstances, but they have not received the co-operation that they deserve from fellow officers in other boroughs.

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