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Asylum Seekers (North-East Lincolnshire)

12.59 pm

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby): I shall raise the specific issue of the transfer of use of Springfield Hall in Grimsby to accommodate about 209 asylum seekers and the general issue of the dispersal of an unknown but probably substantial number of asylum seekers to north-east Lincolnshire. That is being done without the consultation of North East Lincolnshire council. Indeed, it found out what was proposed only by accident. South Humber health authority and the education committee were not consulted either. They have all been treated with contempt as a result of what looks to be an administrative cock-up or mess. There has certainly been confusion, and I would like the Minister to say who is responsible for the mess and exactly what is going on.

The shaft of light that has fallen on dispersal procedures as a result of the situation shows neither an attractive picture nor a process that will win good will and consent. I emphasise that this is not a matter of racial hostility or hostility towards asylum seekers in general. Indeed, North East Lincolnshire council has shown the way by welcoming asylum seekers. Early in the process, the local authority made a voluntary offer to accommodate asylum seekers. I think that 50 or 60 have been going through--or 40 at any one time--and they are accommodated in the Towers.

The situation has worked well, as it should have done. Grimsby is a good place in which to be or to live. I hope that the asylum seekers have enjoyed being there and liked it, because they have certainly caused no problems. The reaction to them in Grimsby has been supportive and welcoming, which is in total contrast to the experience in Tetney, which is across the border of civilisation down in Lincolnshire. There have been problems with accommodation provided there, including fighting, racial hostility, the eventual disappearance of some asylum seekers and the closure of accommodation.

That has not been our experience in north-east Lincolnshire, but we share the circulation of a newspaper, so problems in Lincolnshire become headlines in north-east Lincolnshire even though the problems and the fault for them are not ours. I want to make it clear that north-east Lincolnshire is not hostile towards asylum seekers--I am not and nor is the council. The problem is the consequences that flow from the initial and maintained generosity of offering accommodation for asylum seekers. As a result, Grimsby, not Cleethorpes, was designated a cluster without being consulted or asked.

Answers to my parliamentary questions, however, show that we should have been asked. One answer says:

The answer to another parliamentary question--I have tabled a substantial number--says:

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More important, North East Lincolnshire council was not told the consequences of any designation as a cluster area. The problem with being a cluster area is that it opens the door to larger numbers. Even if it had been told, the consequences that now apply did not apply in 1999 when the area took the first asylum seekers. Since 1999, private accommodation providers have been brought into the game, financed by NASS--that is, by the Home Office. Clearly, the incentive for private accommodation providers, who have access to the clusters for dispersal, is to buy where property is cheaper and where they can make the biggest profit. That has nothing to do with the suitability of an area; it has to do with local house costs.

One of the joys of living in Grimsby is that our house prices are comparatively low. I will bore you some time, Mr. Deputy Speaker, with the sad tale of the depreciation on my house in Grimsby, which was a heart-breaking experience. Property prices are an incentive for accommodation to be sought by private accommodation providers. Indeed, that will be a mandate.

On 30 April 2001, the Minister told me what neither I nor the local authority knew, that there are now four private contractors and one registered social landlord seeking to purchase property in north-east Lincolnshire. "Seeking to purchase" indicates that the process has gone some way. That does not give the number who have not yet found property, but shows the number who are looking for it. That is disastrous, because north-east Lincolnshire does not fulfil the criteria set down for an area to be designated as a cluster. Those criteria were set down by the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), in answers to parliamentary questions and in a letter to me of 24 April 2001. She says:

Grimsby does not fulfil the criteria. It does not have a substantial ethnic population that can provide asylum seekers with supportive networks and contacts. It seems

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at times that I am the only immigrant in Grimsby, because a total distaste for Yorkshiremen is advertised from time to time in graffiti--not, I hope, directed at me. There is only a small ethnic population, mainly of professionals. Indeed, the health service in Grimsby would not keep going without the ethnic community. However, many of the applications for education finance have been turned down because Grimsby does not have a sufficiently large ethnic population to qualify for special educational measures. Therefore, it seems ludicrous that Grimsby is supposed to have a large enough ethnic population to accommodate networks and support for asylum seekers, but is considered too small to qualify for anything else. That is nonsense.

I want to know what research has been done on Grimsby and who carried it out. Is it just opportunism that the Home Office is now working on its well-known principle of never giving a sucker an even break? Grimsby volunteered to take asylum seekers in 1999 and now it is facing the problem of accommodation providers coming in because property prices are cheap.

The Minister stated that another criterion was the provision of services and back-up, but health services and education provision are already under strain in north-east Lincolnshire, because of inadequate finance in the past. Neither South Humber health authority nor the education authority has been consulted. Responsibility for the decision to designate Grimsby as a cluster was attributed to the Yorkshire asylum consortium, which issued its own press release three days ago stating that Grimsby is not suitable to take large numbers of asylum seekers. That is a clear statement that the consortium is not happy with the designation, so why was it given?

I want Grimsby's designation as a cluster area to be withdrawn, because it was imposed without consultation and without the consequences being explained. Local good will is needed if the necessary services and support are to be provided, but if a decision to designate an area as a cluster is imposed, that will not be forthcoming. If there is to be harmony and acceptance, there must be consultation and co-operation. Dispersal of sizeable numbers will not work if local opinion is not taken into account; if the local authority and local services are not consulted, they will not willingly co-operate or give their support.

An application has been made for the change of use of part of Springfield Hall, an old hospital which was in existence when I was elected Member of Parliament for the constituency, and which has been used as accommodation for students and nurses. There is an old people's home and a creche nursery nearby in the hospital grounds, and old people's private accommodation in the surrounding area. It is a quiet area about a mile and a half from the centre of Grimsby and two miles from the more swinging centre of Cleethorpes--south Yorkshire's holiday paradise. There is not much to do in Springfield for 209 asylum seekers. The first that the local authority knew about the matter was the planning application, which caused alarm and concern, especially as one big application indicates that an unknown number of others are in process.

The locals are most upset and I have had a large amount of mail on the subject from my constituents. I was called to a protest meeting on Tuesday which was

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packed with very angry people. One gentleman at the back kept bawling, "We won't re-elect you." I had to point out that I could not do much for people if they did not re-elect me. However, that is the atmosphere that has been produced.

The only control available is planning. The local authority has to give its planning consent for the change of use; a planning application is pretty well automatic, but it does not consider local reaction or the needs of social services. It might be difficult to take such an application before November, but as substantial money is involved, if it is rejected the purchaser will appeal to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the cost of that appeal will fall on Grimsby. That is no way to decide a major issue which has considerable social repercussions.

The arguments about suitability will be considered only after the planning application. The Minister of State said in answer to earlier questions that local authorities may in some cases advise that particular areas, identified by postcode, may not be suitable for asylum seekers and that that information will be taken into consideration in determining whether to accept accommodation for asylum seekers. However, that consideration will come only after the planning application--which cannot take account of such matters. Suitability should be considered first, not second.

In conclusion--words that my hon. Friend the Minister has been eagerly awaiting --I say that the situation is a totally unacceptable mess into which the local authority should not have been put. It is a cock-up. Who is responsible for it? The Home Office owes us the consideration of reconsidering--indeed, of withdrawing--the cluster status that has been imposed on us without our consent. It is no use approaching such a major and emotive issue as dispersal--right and proper though dispersal is--with a mixture of cock-up and opportunistic grabbing at the cheapest property around. Local good will, support and co-operation from the local authority are needed, as is careful management. That is why the acceptance of 40 or so asylum seekers into my area in 1979, which has been maintained since by careful management and preparation, has been successful.

For a policy to work, we also need to assure local people that we are working on a level playing field. There has been no dispersal to the neighbouring authorities of North Lincolnshire or the East Riding of Lincolnshire, for example. The only safe action seems to be to withdraw the cluster. NASS is seeking new cluster areas. It will not find them if it operates in such a fashion; it will not gather good will from the areas that it is approaching. We want the unsuitable planning application, which is conditional on the cluster status, to be withdrawn and to start over. The local authority has been treated with contempt, which is disgraceful. The people of Springfield have been upset and made resentful. As their Member of Parliament, I cannot justify or even explain what has happened. It is not a policy; it is a farce. I appeal to the Minister to withdraw the cluster status. We are happy to talk about the issue and to do our best to accommodate asylum seekers--voluntarily, and with good will, not in the way that it has been done.

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1.17 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke ): First, I apologise for being present instead of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), the Minister of State who deals with asylum matters. She is engaged in parliamentary business in the European Standing Committee discussing common asylum procedures, a matter close to her heart. She has asked me to stand in for her today, which I am happy to do. She had a substantial meeting with my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) on Thursday last week to discuss several of the issues that he has raised. I shall report on the progress made on them.

It is important to place on record our appreciation of my hon. Friend's point that his approach is not informed by racial or other hostility to asylum seekers or by a NIMBY--"not in my backyard"--syndrome. We also entirely accept his fundamental point that it is important for our dispersal policy to be warmly received by the local community. Before dealing with the issues that my hon. Friend addressed, it is appropriate to make a couple of remarks about the overall policy on asylum seekers.

When the Labour party came to office, the responsibility for providing housing for destitute asylum seekers fell on the shoulders of local authorities, in particular those in London and Kent where our main ports of entry are situated. That situation was not helped by the fact that most asylum seekers preferred, for a variety of reasons, to stay in London or other parts of the south-east, which has meant that those areas have had to bear a disproportionate responsibility for our obligations in regard to asylum seekers, with economic implications in certain circumstances of the type that my hon. Friend described.

We decided at an early stage that that situation was not sustainable. We attempted to devise a scheme that would lead to the transfer of responsibility for the support of destitute asylum seekers from local to central Government, and we set up the National Asylum Support Service to administer a support scheme. A feature of the scheme is the provision of housing that is located away from the south-east of England for those asylum seekers who need it.

In order to achieve that, it was necessary to ensure that the National Asylum Support Service had access to a range of accommodation across the country that was ready for use by asylum seekers who turned to the service for support. To that end, in the latter part of 1999, the National Asylum Support Service set in hand the procurement of accommodation from both the private and the public sectors through a tendering process. The aim was to negotiate contracts to provide for the delivery of accommodation in areas to be known as cluster areas--hence, the word "cluster", which my hon. Friend used.

Before going into detail about the situation in north-east Lincolnshire and Great Grimsby, I want to emphasise that I believe that our policy to disperse

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responsibility among different areas is the right policy. I did not hear my hon. Friend say that he does not agree with that policy, but he might correct me.

Mr. Mitchell : I accept that.

Mr. Clarke : My hon. Friend commented on the way in which the policy had been put into effect in his local authority and the constituency that he serves. I appreciate his comments, and we will examine the issue.

The approach that we took was to establish the cluster areas where there is suitable and available accommodation, where it is possible for asylum seekers to link with existing communities and where the support of voluntary and community groups can be developed. However, we accepted that at first it might not always be possible to achieve our aims completely, because all the criteria might not be in place before asylum seekers were dispersed. It is also the case that some support structures are unlikely to develop until asylum seekers are actually located in an area.

I now turn to the key point that my hon. Friend raised: the identification of cluster areas and the process by which that happened. The identification of areas relied on research carried out centrally by the National Asylum Support Service and on local and regional information fed through to us by regional consortiums, local authorities, voluntary sector groups and other organisations. The National Asylum Support Service has been circulating, and continues to circulate, information about the areas that we are using and are likely to use and the languages that we need to accommodate.

We understood that the Yorkshire and Humberside regional consortium had nominated Grimsby--there might be an issue for discussion here, to which I shall return in a second--and that Grimsby had been an active member of the Yorkshire and Humberside consortium until at least last June. However, it appears that there was a lack of understanding about what was involved in the process, and we are now addressing that.

The Minister of State, Home Office--my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green--wrote to all Members of Parliament on 25 May 2000, informing them of the cluster areas throughout the country. Grimsby was specifically mentioned at that time. None of that excuses the problems that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby raised, because a parliamentary letter or a particular process is not enough; it is necessary to have a proper dialogue about what one is trying to do. My hon. Friend said that, in his opinion, such a dialogue did not take place at the appropriate time.

In establishing the regional consortiums, including the Yorkshire and Humberside regional consortium, we tried to provide information. We also consulted on offers of accommodation where the premises would have more than six bed spaces. That is the basic structure that we established.

Turning to the provision of accommodation, we understood from the Yorkshire and Humberside consortium that Grimsby had been identified as a suitable cluster area for accommodation of that type. As I said earlier, we made it clear that we would seek accommodation from both private and public sector

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sources. Indeed, when the scheme started in April last year, we had some difficulty with public sector sources. In fact, we had a contract with only Glasgow city council, but I am glad to say that we now have seven contracts with local authority consortiums: Yorkshire and Humberside, Glasgow, north-east England, north-west region, Cardiff city council, west midlands and east midlands. We are now beginning to achieve the balanced approach that had been our policy ambition at the start. Whether it is a question of private or public provision, we tightly monitor standards of accommodation, because that is a particular issue.

Following my hon. Friend's meeting with my hon. Friend the Minister of State, a close conversation is now taking place between the officials of the National Asylum Support Service, the Yorkshire and Humberside consortium and North East Lincolnshire council to try to establish the precise situation. However, it is clear from what my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby said both to my hon. Friend the Minister of State and in this debate that there are serious concerns about the effectiveness of that dialogue and the process by which Grimsby was proposed to be considered by the consortium.

I am not this morning able to give my hon. Friend the clear answers that he has sought, but I can say--I briefed myself on the matter immediately before the debate, so as to have the most up-to-date information--that conversations are actively taking place to try to clarify the situation. I hope that we can be clearer than thus far. I understand that NASS has dispersed only a limited number of people to Grimsby--no more than 10 as at the end of March; and, provisional figures suggest, not more than another 10 by mid-April. It may be of interest to the Chamber that the languages that are especially relevant in Grimsby--because language has been the basis of the cluster--are Albanian, Cantonese, Mandarin, Polish and English. That may be of use to my hon. Friend when considering how best to proceed with the matter.

My hon. Friend mentioned local speculation about Springfield Hall. Given that we were focusing on Grimsby as a cluster area, the policy has been to look for further accommodation and to invite bids from both private and public consortiums to provide it. Springfield Hall has been offered to NASS by one of our private accommodation providers, and NASS has consulted the regional consortium, but, as my hon. Friend accurately said, that cannot proceed unless planning permission is

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agreed in the normal way. The planning process will be honoured in every particular, as my hon. Friend would want.

My hon. Friend raised an interesting point about the chronological relationship between the offer to NASS of a particular form of accommodation and the planning process. I accept that we need to address that chronological issue, and I assure him that we will do so in policy terms. However, it is the old chicken-and-egg story: if there is to be accommodation, public or private, in a particular locality, that requires planning permission and to be accepted by NASS within the contractual arrangements. It may be that the chronological process is not perfectly established, but I know from my other responsibilities in the Home Office that it is difficult to get such issues exactly right. For example, when locating secure accommodation, the Home Office may view a location as desirable, but it is then for the local planning authority to take its decisions in the proper way. It is not always possible correctly to establish such matters.

Before concluding, I should say that there is also a range of systems of Government support, both in education--I am delighted to see my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards in her seat today, because she has pioneered the establishment of a proper system of support for education for asylum seekers throughout the country--and in health. Of course, all such resources would be available to Grimsby.

To return to my hon. Friend's fundamental point, he asked for explanations, assurances and removals, and we have heard clearly what he has said. My hon. Friend the Minister of State heard it at the private meeting held last week; I have heard it and will ensure that his case is passed on in the clear way that he has put it today. We are now explicitly holding conversations to try to disinter the basis of the misunderstanding that he described, and I can tell him directly that we accept his fundamental point that there must be a proper relationship between the local authority and NASS to produce a system that works. That is what we want, and I hope that we can achieve that. That conversation is now taking place.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising such issues and, in particular, for making it clear that it was not a NIMBY anti-asylum seeker, anti-racial point and that Grimsby is ready to play its part in the process. I want to put right the failures that he has described and we are working actively to that end.

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