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8.39 pm

Mr. Marsha Singh (Bradford, West): As one of those who did not oppose the voucher scheme and who voted with the Government, may I say that—

Simon Hughes: You were wrong?

Mr. Singh: May I say that it was not the first time that I have voted with the Government and been wrong. When I came to the House, it was a revelation to find that hon. Members sometimes have to vote for things that they disagree with, at least until they are as brave as some of my hon. Friends.

I welcome the ditching of the voucher scheme. It proved ineffective, inefficient and demeaning. I give a guarded welcome to the new two-year probationary period for spouses. In my constituency, I have come across many cases of women who complain bitterly about their treatment by their husbands, who, after a year, having been given leave to remain indefinitely, have just scarpered. They want me to try to have their husbands deported. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) has talked about the difficulties of being a

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third party in such cases. I have to add a caveat to my welcome, however, because the provision could lead to the mistreatment of wives who come to this country if it takes them two years to get their stamp. We need to think a little bit more about the measure.

I have no problem at all with an oath of allegiance. If I want the privilege of having a British passport and British citizenship, the least that Britain can expect from me is my allegiance. I also have no problem with a language test. I have always advocated, as we all do, that English is the currency of this society, and without it people will not get anywhere. I have no problem with the idea of asking people to have a knowledge of life in the UK, but whose life in the UK should they have knowledge of? What does "sufficient knowledge" mean? Will such tests prove to be a real test of allegiance or commitment? I believe that Anthony Blunt spoke perfect English, but he was one of the biggest traitors that we have ever seen.

I welcome clause 37, which allows support to be provided for failed asylum seekers awaiting removal. We have all seen people in our constituencies who have no means of subsistence at all. I also welcome clause 43, which allows the Home Secretary to establish a refugee settlement programme. That could be helpful in times of crisis in particular countries. I welcome too the announcement today of the abolition of fees for visitor appeals.

After all those welcomes, I must point out that I have a number of concerns. All hon. Members have mentioned accommodation centres. I firmly believe that 750-bed centres are too big, although I do not know what the right size would be. I think that having such large numbers of people in a centre would lead to tensions. If we are to have accommodation centres, it is essential that they are run by people who do not make them into de facto detention centres. Who will run them? Will it be Securicor? We have to think carefully about the location of accommodation centres, not just because people will say, "Not in my backyard," although they will say that, but because the location must be appropriate for the people who will be in the centres. Will there be communities nearby to whom they can relate or will they be completely isolated? We need to be very watchful of that.

I am very worried that children resident in the centres will not have access to normal education provision. I can confirm that 64 languages are spoken in schools in Bradford, and I am very happy and proud about that. My hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) has pointed out that more than 160 languages are spoken in Tottenham schools. However, it does not matter how many languages are spoken—if those children do not speak English and they are being taught in English, they will still have to be taught English. For the host of reasons already explored in the debate, mainstream education is where those children should be.

I do not know why detention centres are to be renamed removal centres. Neither name sounds better than the other—in fact, I think they both sound pretty crap. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary would not be too happy if I called them concentration camps.

Mr. Lammy: To return to the education issue, does my hon. Friend accept that if the system works well, teachers

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in mainstream education services will welcome the fact that refugee children escaping vulnerability have had intensive English lessons and intensive education prior to entering local schools?

Mr. Singh: Whether or not I accept that, such arrangements will deal only with the tip of the iceberg. Most refugee children will not be housed in the centres—why should they be treated differently from and not have the same rights as other children who are claiming refuge?

Angela Eagle: I cannot let the hon. Gentleman's comment about detention or removal centres being comparable to concentration camps go unanswered. He should visit Harmondsworth, which is just by Heathrow and therefore quite convenient for the House, where he will see that the facilities are excellent, with training, education and health services available. I resent very deeply indeed his use of that term.

Mr. Singh: I accept the Minister's point. I hope that she accepts that I was speaking in jest.

I am not concerned about names. My concern is that families with children should not be detained in removal centres. That commitment should be firm. Families with children are not likely to abscond, and the only justification for keeping people in a detention centre is that there is strong likelihood that they will abscond.

Annabelle Ewing: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Singh: I am sorry, but I am running out of time.

I am puzzled by the absence from the Bill of any proposals to deal with delays in immigration cases and immigration appeals. Delay is one of the biggest problems and the greatest cause of frustration to my constituents. Such proposals should be added to the Bill.

I wish that further consideration had been given to guarantees or bonds for family visitors. Those proposals were rejected and then dropped the last time this type of legislation came before the House, but I think that they should be re-examined.

One of the biggest changes that we could make through the new Bill is to the way in which we treat elderly parents and grandparents. The hurdles that they have to overcome to join their children or grandchildren in this country are huge. If I, living in this country, do not send my grandparents in another country any money, so that they have to live in the most appalling conditions, they are allowed to come here, but if I am a dutiful grandchild and send them money, so that they live in better conditions, they cannot come here. That is appalling, and I wish that we could do something about it in the Bill.

I am dismayed that this is the fourth immigration and asylum Bill in 10 years—dismayed because it means that all the others have failed; had they not, we would not be debating this Bill today. The reasons why we are getting immigration and asylum wrong are world events, the number of people involved—no system could possibly have coped, and ours is not coping now—and delays. I am reminded of our policies on drugs: no matter how much money we throw at the problem or how many police officers we have chasing drug barons, drug abuse continues to increase.

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We need to take a more radical approach. First, we must act urgently to secure international agreements on asylum. Secondly, we must work hard to eradicate poverty in the developing world, because that is why people want to come to the west. The problem is not confined to the United Kingdom; it is a problem of the west, and it is one that the west created by making other countries poor. Strong action is needed. With the current backlog and an extra 65,000 appeals in the pipeline, how can the new system succeed? It is doomed to failure. Thousands of people are coming in every day and the backlog is growing daily and monthly. Only one solution promises any chance of success in managing the system. The whole House and the parties in it must agree—one party will not do this on its own—to have a general amnesty now, wiping out the backlog and starting with a clean sheet. Without such action, the system is doomed to failure. I hope that Members on both sides of the House will look at that proposal. If we are to have any chance at all of managing a difficult system in the future we must start with a clean sheet.

8.50 pm

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): In the short time available, I shall concentrate on the children of asylum seekers and the way in which the Bill will affect them.

I welcome the Home Secretary's announcement that the voucher scheme will end earlier than planned; that has been strongly welcomed in Wales. I also welcome the fact that, as the Home Secretary said, people can approach the country honestly via the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I welcome the proposed category of economic migration and many other changes. Much of the Bill is positive; it is essential to get a system that is trusted by the public.

As one of my colleagues said earlier, it is essential that the children of asylum seekers are treated first and foremost as children and have the same rights and access to services as other children in Cardiff, North, Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom. I want to look briefly at the way in which the system is operating in Cardiff via the National Asylum Support Service and the way in which it will be affected by the Bill. Just under 1,000 people have come to Cardiff via the dispersal scheme; 336 children have been dispersed to the city under NASS, 253 of whom are of school age and 83 of whom are of pre-school age. We are therefore talking about small numbers compared with the thousands of people in other constituencies about whom my hon. Friends have spoken.

The scheme is operating reasonably well despite the strain on resources. Local bodies have worked together extremely well, and I congratulate the Bro Taf health authority on recently holding a successful seminar about the health needs of asylum seekers. I also congratulate Cardiff council on leading the scheme, and all the voluntary bodies involved.

Initially, it was mainly young men who came to Cardiff, but now it is predominantly families, usually with a lone female at the head; the majority of such families come from Somalia. The community physician has seen a third of the children, in 50 per cent. of whom physical, developmental or mental and behavioural problems have been identified. A block grant from the National Assembly for Wales has been used to set up a primary care general practice with a salaried GP service, which is

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needed because of the pressure on local services mentioned by several hon. Members. The new service is working effectively and ensures that children have a comprehensive medical examination and, if appropriate, receive inoculations that may have been missed. Severe problems have been identified by the community physician, including congenital heart disease, Down's syndrome and severe emotional distress; there was also one case of a child who lost a hand in a grenade attack. Health and local education authorities have worked together through the charity Children of Conflict, which operates in schools, to deal with traumatised children; health services for children and adolescents have also been supportive. The general feeling is that everybody is pulling together and that the system is generally working. It is unlikely that the same skills could be provided to children who were housed in accommodation centres. Certainly, there would be a duplication of resources if the accommodation centre that is planned just outside Cardiff went ahead.

There has been a proposal to use Sully hospital as an accommodation centre. The hospital is 10 miles from Cardiff in the neighbouring constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith). I do not know the current status of that proposal—I know that it has not been finally wiped off the list—but the suggestion to use a site such as Sully indicates to me the type of accommodation that is being considered. I know the hospital well because I worked there for many years as a hospital social worker when it was a chest and heart hospital. It originally started as a TB hospital and was chosen for its remote position and its view of the sea—a place where patients could spend months recovering.

Sully hospital is in a fairly isolated position. Any accommodation centre there would not easily make links with the local community. The policy of establishing an accommodation centre there is entirely at odds with all the other policies in Wales that are working towards integration and inclusivity. As many hon. Members have said, 750 individuals housed together is a very large number. It would be extremely difficult to manage such a large group of diverse people, including families and single men.

In addition, there would be the cost of converting a hospital such as Sully or building new accommodation centres, as I believe is planned elsewhere. It has been estimated that it would cost £7 million to bring Sully hospital up to standard, which would include the replacement of the sewerage system. The walls are porous and the location was deemed unsuitable for psychiatric patients, who were moved out. I fail to see how it can now be considered suitable for asylum seekers.

I understand the Home Secretary when he says that he is considering accommodation centres to relieve the pressures on the services, but if a centre were established in such a position, just 10 miles away from the dispersal system operating in Cardiff, I do not see that it would be possible to provide resources in the accommodation centre that would match those available in the community. The enormous sum that it would cost to bring Sully up to standard and to build new centres could be much better spent on improving resources for the children being dispersed throughout the country. In Cardiff, the system is beginning to settle down.

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It has been said that the proposal is to house people in accommodation centres for only six months. Six months is a long time in a child's life. I am concerned that asylum seeker children may not have access to the same resources as other children in the community in Wales. We have a children's commissioner, the first in the UK. What duties and powers would he have over the children in an accommodation centre? Will children in families living in such an institution have the protection of the Children Act 1989? I hope that the Minister will answer those questions when she replies.

What opportunities will children have to participate in normal community life? Some of the children will gain refugee status. Surely the opportunity should be offered as early as possible for them to get involved in the community. I am particularly concerned that the Bill proposes that children in accommodation centres will receive education on site in schools managed by the Home Office. That seems to remove the children's right to a normal education.

One of the best ways to acquire a normal pattern of life is to go to school. We all know about the socialisation that takes place at the school gates. Local schools in the small villages in the surrounding area will obviously not be able to cope with a large influx of small children from an accommodation centre, so those children will not benefit from going to the local schools.

There are many unanswered questions and issues still to be addressed, particularly about education. It is important to emphasise the point that has been made several times: the children need to learn to speak English. The best way to learn to speak English is to go to a school where children are taught in English and a number of the children speak English. Many children who come to Wales learn to speak English or Welsh because those are the languages spoken by the majority of the people.

There is a lot in the Bill to recommend it, but I hope that in Committee changes will be made to the proposals for accommodation centres, particularly with regard to how they affect children.

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