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6.41 pm

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser), who spoke knowledgeably about circumstances in his constituency. I, too, wish to concentrate on detention and removal issues, principally in the light of my experience as the Member of Parliament representing the Yarl's Wood area.

First, I want to make one or two general remarks. I welcome this further attempt to ensure the practicability and acceptability of legislation on immigration and asylum matters. Like all other hon. Members who have spoken, I believe that it is important to have this debate and for it to be conducted in the tone that has now firmly been set, especially by Front Benchers on both sides of the House. That consensus of tone is welcome, but it is important that in proceeding with that consensus, we do not gloss over any difficulties that may lie under the surface. Failure to conduct our examination rigorously and with great scrutiny would be an error with regard to the Bill, just as it would be in any other aspect of this matter.

I welcome the attempts to deal with nationality and citizenship. If a nation is to be anything more than a collection of its parts, it is essential that we find those things that are common to us so that we can group around them and create some form of identity. Britain has a great deal to be proud of in its values and history, but it is important to recognise that what is happening now is just as important as what happened in the past, and that as a nation we have enough values to use them in looking forward. For youngsters, 2045 is just as important as 1945, but all too often we look back rather than forward. I see this debate as a way of looking forward, and it is important that we should seek to do so.

I want to raise one delicate matter in the same tone in which we have spoken about other issues, and ask the Government about their view on the greater use of national emblems—especially the Union flag and the cross of St. George. I raise the matter for two particular reasons. First, I resent deeply, as I suspect most hon. Members do, the attempts made for at least a couple of decades and probably more to appropriate the Union flag and the cross of St. George exclusively for parties of the

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far right. We have all been much too relaxed about the matter and have found ourselves in very sensitive areas with regard to it. If I may say so, it has been especially difficult for Labour and Liberal Members to speak out and be bold on it because of its associations with the far right.

Secondly, I raise the subject now as we have never had a better opportunity to deal with it, because of two events this year. With a bit of luck, we will be swamped in the jubilee celebrations with red, white and blue for all the best reasons. The World cup is another such opportunity, with regard to which I am thinking especially of the English aspect of the Union. These events give us all a great opportunity to take back the Union flag and the cross of St. George and make widespread use of them.

Do not the Government believe that if we encourage greater use of flags in our schools, town halls and courts, and even in MPs' offices, we might start to make a dent in this aspect of life? Our relaxed attitude to the flag has allowed people with whose views we have no truck to gain an advantage that they should not have. If we can use the opportunity that we have this year—we will have to be in it together, so no party will seek any advantage—we will strike a positive and powerful blow against people whose views we reject but who understand the value of a national symbol. It should be ours and not theirs.

I welcome very much the increased penalties suggested for traffickers and pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) in that regard. I served with him in the then Department of Social Security when these problems first became apparent. He was required to take some very difficult steps at that time, when general understanding of the trafficking of human beings through Europe was perhaps not as good as it is now. He took some of the first steps along the road. If there had been as great an understanding then as exists now, we might not be in quite the same difficulties.

As a final general remark, I also welcome very much the attempts to restore the bilateral agreement between this country and France. In terms of public opinion, one of the things that the public least understand is how people can come from an apparently safe country and go through all the processes here rather than on the other side of the channel. If something could be done about that issue, we would all feel much more comfortable.

I should now like to concentrate on the impact of the Yarl's Wood incident on policy in general. In doing so, I want to raise three particular issues: the detention process, practicality and transparency. I remember saying at the time of the incident that its impact was far greater than what happened to the buildings themselves. Two months on, I am still convinced that I was correct. The duty of any Members of Parliament in whose constituencies any form of detention or accommodation centre is planned or situated is obviously for the safety and security of those whom they represent, so we have a duty to the people who work at the centres and live close to them. We also have a duty in respect of the welfare, safety and security of any people who are detained in the United Kingdom for any reason whatever.

On the night of 14 February 2002, those assurances on safety and security were broken for all those whom I represent. In order to restore trust in the process, it is essential that all the lessons are learned. Indeed, they have a direct bearing on our discussions, and I should like to pay tribute to people in my constituency who experienced

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the events at Yarl's Wood because they worked at the centre, lived close by or were caught up as innocents in the fire, as well as the local county councillors who have been working hard with the public services ever since the incident to put things right. I shall speak about the police in a moment.

On the detention process, soon after Yarl's Wood began to receive its first detainees, I was called to the centre on account of a hunger strike there. That was the start of a regular series of contacts from detainees. During the next couple of months, I built up an idea from them and the people who represented them of the sort of glitches and difficulties that were arising. I think that those problems led to the frustrations that were part of the reason for the Yarl's Wood incident, so they need fully to be taken into account.

The hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Hall) and I had arranged a meeting with Lord Rooker, the Minister for Asylum and Immigration, on 14 February, quite by coincidence, to discuss some of the things that we had found out. That very evening, things were on the move at Yarl's Wood. Some of the points that we put to him are still entirely relevant. First, I found that I lacked an independent source of advice on the welfare of detainees at Yarl's Wood. Typically, I would get a contact alleging something. Naturally, my only source of information was the Home Office. I trust the Home Office in such circumstances, but it is understandable that a detainee who comes from a different culture might not find it quite so easy to do so. To have an independent source of reference at the centre to assure the detainee that practices were correct and that their welfare was being properly looked after would assist both the Member of Parliament and the Home Office. I hope that that can be taken into account.

Secondly, it is vital that access to legal advice means access to good legal advice. The charlatans and those who have sought to make money out of innocent detainees and asylum seekers must be identified, and should be deprived of that work. Too many people have been let down by them. Thirdly, it is essential that the Home Office should be completely frank about who is coming to each of the centres, in terms of the policy behind those decisions and other criteria. We know from remarks that the Home Secretary has been gracious enough to concede that there were some problems in relation to those who eventually ended up in Yarl's Wood, as opposed to those who were originally to have gone there. That helped to build up the tension in the place and led to some of the problems in February.

If local police forces, such as the Bedfordshire police, offer to carry out background checks into the circumstances of detainees who have been in the community, those offers should be accepted, not rejected, as they were in the case of Yarl's Wood, by the immigration services. Those who are looking after people in a confined area need to know everything there is to know about them, and we need to get to the bottom of why inappropriate placements were made at Yarl's Wood.

On my second point about the implications of the events at Yarl's Wood, we need to be certain that the practicalities are dealt with in the new system described by the Home Secretary today. Local authorities need to be more involved in planning procedure than they were at Yarl's Wood. In terms of security and safety, we need to

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know whether fire drills take place, what planning exists to deal with major incidents affecting safety, and how that would impact on security. It is clear that none of that took place at Yarl's Wood as the numbers there were building up, which helped to cause some of the problems that night in February.

Practicalities such as how to raise the alarm in the area around a centre if people have escaped from it need to be dealt with. Residents near Yarl's Wood say that they found people sleeping in outbuildings on their properties the morning after the events there. There were no incidents relating to those detainees, but there could have been, so it is essential to take note of those issues. I also urge the Home Secretary to take note of the caution that has been expressed over the size of detention centres.

On transparency, because of the circumstances at Yarl's Wood, it is important that the inquiry asks the questions that need to be asked as soon as possible—not least the questions on why the police were prevented from gaining access to the site quickly, and on the extraordinary insurance aftermath. Bedfordshire police are being presented with a bill for £96 million by the insurers. That is the amount being demanded of the police force in Bedfordshire and, potentially, the council tax payers of my constituency. It is nonsense that insurance matters were not immediately apparent to those putting the centre together, and that is one of the practicalities that now has to be dealt with.

A whole series of things, alas, went wrong at Yarl's Wood. It would be helpful for those looking after detainees if they had a timetable for when Yarl's Wood will come back into service, and information on the scale on which it will operate when it does so. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell the House anything about that. Some of my constituents were placed at extraordinary risk at the time of the incident, and many people performed heroically that night—particularly the police force, the fire brigade and other public services. It is important that lessons should be learned if the integrity of the system is to be preserved for the detainees who are passing through, those who advise them and those who live in the areas concerned. Transparency—

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