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6.53 pm

Mr. Goodman: It was interesting that the Minister devoted so much of his summing up to means-testing. It was no accident that, of all the various elements in the Bill, he chose to concentrate on that one, because it is at the heart of new Labour thinking on this matter. Old Tory means-testing is apparently bad, but new Labour means-testing is apparently good.

At this point, hon. Members should remember who is, as it were, the "onlie begetter" of the Bill. It is not the Minister, nor even the Secretary of State, but the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is absolutely confident that, by extending these credits both through his Department and—I hope that the Minister will not be embarrassed by this—his proxies in the Department for Work and Pensions he will be able to raise the living standards of poorer pensioners. I believe that it is widely acknowledged in and outside the House that the Minister is an admirer of the Chancellor. I am sure that the Under-Secretary, who is sitting next to the Minister, will not mind my putting that on the record.

There is a difficulty with the Chancellor's approach. According to the Government's figures, 2.5 million pensioners are entitled to the MIG, but only 1.7 million have taken it up. Some of us find it hard to distinguish between old and apparently wicked Tory means-testing and new, wonderfully effective Labour means-testing. As the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) ably pointed out, between a fifth and a third—the latter was his figure—do not get a penny of the MIG.

The Government have presented no evidence that the take-up for the pension credit will be higher. I acknowledge that the Government hope that it will be higher, but they cannot reassure any hon. Member about that. The fundamental flaw in the Government's approach,

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which the Chancellor masterminded, is becoming clearer as time goes on. The Minister placed great stress on means-testing in his summing up because he is so worried about the failure of new, apparently effective Labour means-testing that he wants to meet the point head on. However, he cannot guarantee that the take-up will be higher. He is naturally unwilling to listen to criticism from the wicked Tories, but perhaps he should take account of the concluding paragraph of the report by the Labour-dominated Select Committee on Work and Pensions. It states

that is, the Government—

That acknowledges that the poorest pensioners do not benefit in large numbers from the MIG and that they may not benefit from the provisions of the pension credit.

In short, we know that those who take up the pension credit will be better off, but the system is gradually becoming increasingly complex. It is not so easy for my elderly constituents, especially those who are of an ethnic minority, to pick up the telephone, as the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (David Cairns) suggested, and get their benefit, as Tommy Cooper would have said, just like that. The Select Committee believes that, in practice, it is enormously difficult for many pensioners to cope with the complexity of the forms and take up the benefit as the Government want.

The Select Committee report concluded:

By placing so much stress on means-testing, the Government introduce a fundamental weakness into their plans that affects the country's poorest pensioners. I believe that they will pay dearly for it in the long run.

6.58 pm

Mr. McCartney: I simply want to place on record my thanks to my Front-Bench and Back-Bench colleagues who have taken the Bill through its stages. I also want to thank the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and his colleagues and the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb). They have battled and put their cases with rigour. I hope that, at the end of our debates, the Bill is stronger and that many pensioners will receive a clear signal that, for the first time in their lives, they have a Government on their side, who will represent their interests. On income, social care, health care, transport or any public service, the Government are on the pensioners' side.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.

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Woodley town centre

7 pm

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East): I would like to present a petition from 4,356 concerned residents of Woodley in the Reading, East constituency. The petition states that

To lie upon the Table.

23 May 2002 : Column 490

Throckmorton Asylum Centre

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mrs. McGuire.]

7.1 pm

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): I am grateful to the Speaker for this opportunity to raise a matter that is of extreme importance to my constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) wish to associate themselves with many of my remarks, but constituency engagements prevent them from being here tonight. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Woking (Mr. Malins) and for West Worcestershire (Sir Michael Spicer) for informing me in advance of their interest in this debate and for their presence here this evening.

I should also like to express my gratitude to the Home Secretary, who recently wrote me a very generous letter congratulating me—and, implicitly, the local residents around the Throckmorton site proposed for the asylum accommodation centre—on the anti-racist nature of our campaign. I admire the way in which the local community has organised itself against this proposal, and those who have organised the protest group Protest at Asylum Centre at Throckmorton—PACT—also deserve to be congratulated on the splendid way in, for example, which Sunday's mass rally of 1,000 local residents was organised.

We need to acknowledge that asylum and economic migration issues are becoming some of the most pressing and difficult problems facing the world today. It is a challenge for any Government to help the vulnerable, to deal fairly with economic migrants, and to be tough on crime and terrorism, which are often the unattractive side-effects of the issues with which we are dealing here. I have great respect for the Minister who will be replying to this debate, and for her noble Friend Lord Rooker, and I am grateful for the way in which they have kept me informed about developments; they have been very unwelcome developments, but the Ministers have kept me informed none the less.

The Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), said in Standing Committee on the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill on 7 May:

I certainly want to associate myself with those remarks.

So why are we having this debate? First, I am seeking specific assurances on aspects of the way in which the Government are approaching issues as diverse as police resources and compensation for those living nearest to the proposed site. More importantly, I just hope that I might be able to persuade the Minister, even now, that she is wrong, and that the Government's policy is wrong. As Oliver Cromwell famously said to the general assembly of the Kirk of Scotland in August 1650:

To put that more prosaically, "If you're in a hole, stop digging." Those of us who are looking at these developments from the outside think that Government policy on asylum looks like a dangerous mix of back-of-the-envelope calculations and panic.

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There are three key arguments against the proposed asylum accommodation centre. First, it is unfair on the asylum seekers themselves to place them there; secondly, it is unfair on the local community to ask them to bear even more burdens for the sake of the rest of us; and, thirdly, it is contrary to planning policy. I ask the Minister to take one urgent action: please will she do more to help the residents whose lives have been blighted, at least until the public inquiry that will flow from this application by the Government issues its report?

I understand that the Minister will not be able to deal with all my questions tonight, and I shall welcome letters from her subsequently.

My first question concerns the worrying rumours that contractors have been told that the site will open in March. It is our understanding that the public inquiry is unlikely to report until about March, so which is right—what has been said to the contractors, or what we understand from the planning process? Importantly, will Wychavon district council have 16 weeks to respond to the planning notification submission, as Home Office officials and consultants solemnly promised at a private meeting in Wychavon, or will it have eight weeks, as last week's notification letter states?

Throckmorton is a remote rural community, consisting of about 150 people and the additional nearby small hamlets of Tilesford and Hill. There are no appreciable services or facilities. The four neighbouring parishes have a combined population of little more than 2,000. The airfield is about 8 miles from Worcester and 6 miles from Evesham. Pershore is about 3 miles to the south, with Bredon Hill beyond that. During the second world war, the base was an important facility for training and the so-called 1,000 bomber raids. In the 1960s, the runway was extended to enable Valiants from Strike Command to be based there on permanent standby. The airfield is now home to QinetiQ—formerly known as the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency—other research and training activities, and, of course, 130,000 animal carcases from last year's foot and mouth disease outbreak.

I shall deal with the three central points in turn. The first concerns the unfairness on asylum seekers. All refugee organisations, charities and Churches agree that the policy of locating 750-bed asylum centres in remote rural areas is wrong. Nick Hardwick, chief executive of the Refugee Council said:

The Immigration Advisory Service said many things in response to the White Paper, but in essence it took the same view. It considers that,

The Refugee Children's Consortium—consisting of Barnardos, British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, the National Children's Bureau, the Children's Rights Alliance for England, the Children's Society, the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to

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Children, the Refugee Council, Save the Children, and UNICEF—is opposed to the inclusion of children and their families in the piloting of accommodation centres. I urge the Minister to reflect on the wisdom of including families in a population that is 80 per cent. single and economically active. That is an error of judgment that the Minister should seriously reconsider.

The diocese of Worcester has also echoed such concern. Last week, the Bishop of Dudley, the Right Reverend David Walker, said:

The bishop expressed opposition, however, to the principles that the Government propose, and to the chosen site. He was particularly disappointed that such remoteness will mean that Churches cannot play their part in making asylum seekers feel welcome in our community.

Perhaps most tellingly of all, Gurbux Singh, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality said last week:

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