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Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Mr. Blunkett: I will give way to my hon. Friend, but I promised, with bated breath and trepidation, to give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington.
Ms Abbott: My right hon. Friend will appreciate that whatever might have been said in the House, tens of thousands of asylum seekers, especially women and mothers, are grateful that vouchers have been abolished. People had to endure the humiliation of using them in supermarkets, often walking miles to find the nearest one that would take them. They note what has happened and are glad.
Mr. Blunkett: I am deeply grateful to my hon. Friend for that comment. I hope that we can progress in that spirit now that I am about to deal with accommodation centres, and I shall try to respond in a like-minded way.
Mr. Dawson: On unaccompanied young people who seek asylum, surely the problem is eminently soluble. Why cannot we require every social services authority in the land to have some responsibility for those extremely vulnerable young people? Why cannot we ensure that they get the effective and thorough assessment of their needs and experiences when they are dispersed? They need to be set on a good course, whether in this country or elsewhere. Surely we have the means to provide for unaccompanied children in section 17 of the Children Act 1989 and do not need to use bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
Mr. Blunkett: My hon. Friend is right to say that we should not have to use bed and breakfast, but, as with everything to do with nationality, immigration and asylum, there are complications. Over the years, the need to find a place where those young people will be accommodated in circumstances where their language and other needs are met has led to attempts to find a geographic placement that is near enough to a host community that can provide support. That has meant not
My hon. Friend was right about the ideal, which, with the help of the Local Government Association, we shall try to work towards in a much more coherent fashion than has been possible in the past.
Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): Does my right hon. Friend realise that some unaccompanied minors, who may have undertaken college courses and subsequently established themselves in their new community, are dispersed to areas where they do not have such links when they reach adulthood and are ready to make a contribution to that community? That practice has created problems for many such youngsters. I know that my right hon. Friend has exercised his discretion in relation to particular cases on which I have made representations to him, but will he ensure that those youngsters are given more security in future?
Mr. Blunkett: I am in danger of dealing with just about every problem on the immigration and asylum front as part of the Second Reading debate, so I must move on shortly.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point, and we need to deal with it. I entirely accept that there is an anomaly. Getting the young person's placement right when they enter is crucial to ensuring that we do not end up with the unacceptable practice of further dispersal after adulthood is reached.
Mr. Iain Coleman (Hammersmith and Fulham): Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Mr. Blunkett: I must make more progress on the Bill so that hon. Members have the opportunity to debate it and to question me on its more controversial elements.
On accommodation centres, I want to explain what we are doing so that there is no misunderstanding. From the dispersal report, we learned of the difficulties that arise where large numbers of people awaiting clearance through the appeals process are clustered together because of the nature of the dispersal centre. Hon. Members who have such a centre in their constituency, as I do, will be aware of the problem that it is effectively an accommodation centre, but without the forward planning and provision that enables the community adequately to support and work with the individuals concerned.
We are trialling the system because we know that we need to get it right and that we may not have all the answers, and because we need a comparator between the best and the worst of dispersal and accommodation centres to determine what is appropriate. We may require accommodation centres that are not closed and secure, but open; that provide facilities on site that are needed for families, as well as for individuals; and that are designed to fast-track people through the system, not to hold them for long periods. We are happy to concede that where there is a danger of people being held in accommodation
The whole objective is to avoid the unacceptable position at the moment in which people wait an inordinate length of time to be dealt with administratively through the appeals process, or their legal and other advisers counsel them such that the process is dragged out, as we know, for months and sometimes years.
The accommodation centre trial is designed to give people the support that they need and to give them full education, health and language provision on the premises. The humanitarian requirements under the 1951 convention will be met at the same standard or, in some cases, at an even higher standard because centres will be able to take account of people's very specific language requirements. We can cluster services in such centres and provide extra interpretation and support services based on those language needs.
The trial is designed to find out whether, if we can do that, we can ease the challenge posed to schools and GP practices in areas through which large numbers of transient people pass. The number of places available in schools determines where children are placed, and challenged schools often have more places. For the same reason, centres, including accommodation centres, with available places are often in the most difficult and disadvantaged areas, which reinforces the difficulties.
I shall read to the House what a GP practice said to me, referring to the need, as the GPs saw it, for massive extra resources to deal with asylum seekers. I ought to stress that they are not griping about doing the job or complaining about asylum seekers coming to this country; they are merely pointing out the enormous task that they have and its knock-on effect on their work. They said:
Tony Baldry (Banbury): I hope that the Home Secretary accepts that there is probably not a single Member of the House who does not wish to be reasonable and supportive of him in what is clearly a shared responsibility for us all.
I hope that the Home Secretary is aware of the Refugee Council's suggestion that accommodation centres should not have more than 100 bed spaces and should not be in remote rural areas. I accept that we can all make value judgments about what is remote and what is rural, but I hope that he is willing to consider suggestions about limiting the size of accommodation centres. He has just used words such as "swamped" and "overwhelmed". An accommodation centre for 750 people proposed for my
Mr. Speaker: Order. That is far too long an intervention.
Mr. Blunkett: I shall not respond in the usual knockabout debating terms. It has been put to us, in particular by the Refugee Council, that we might consider a different configuration in one of four trial centres. I have agreed that it might be sensible to do that, provided we do not fall into the trap of having a centre that is so small that it is not possible adequately to provide the services that I have just described, not possible to provide language and interpreting support, and not possible, because of economies of scale, to provide the sort of facilities, including leisure facilities, that make it possible for people to stay comfortably in an accommodation centre. We are considering that now.
Wherever we put a trial accommodation centre, there will be people who are worried or who complain. I pay tribute to hon. Members whose areas have been considered for an accommodation centre, run either by the immigration service or a private operator, and who have taken on those who have issued scurrilous leaflets and sought to whip up hate and prejudice. We need to take on that sort of thing wherever it arises, whether from large-scale dispersal under the existing system or from the prospective siting of accommodation centres.