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7.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) on securing this debate and also on the way in which he has put his case. I thank him for citing the debate that I am having in Committee with the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), who is in his place, in which I talked about the duty of national and local politicians to deal responsibly with issues that are, by their essence, emotive. I hope that we can continue in that vein, but that does not mean that the constituents of the hon. Member for Mid–Worcestershire do not have important views on, or emotional reactions to, something that affects them as much as he has explained tonight.

I wish to take this opportunity to dispel some of the myths about the Home Office's intentions on planning procedures. Accommodation centres are supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House, although we disagree with Conservative Front Benchers about the size and location of the centres. The proposals in the White Paper were welcomed as an effort to secure a more effective and faster procedure for obtaining final decisions than we manage at the moment with the dispersal policy and the current arrangements for asylum applications. It is important that we put that on record, because if we are to pilot such sites, they have to be located somewhere. Different people have different opinions on where they should be, but it is important to put on record the general agreement on both sides of the House that the proposals are worth pursuing.

I do not accept that we will be "dumping" asylum seekers, and that is a pejorative word to use. Asylum seekers need a better, more supportive environment while we proceed with their asylum claims. Instead of being left in dispersal areas, often in strange places with no real support services—which is the experience of many asylum seekers now—they would be placed in a cluster centre, where we could have training, language tuition,

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other education, access to primary health services and legal services available. We could then pursue the claims more effectively and efficiently while guaranteeing asylum seekers a safe environment in which to wait. That is a beneficial approach, and we all think so. So I do not accept that we will dump asylum seekers, but I do accept that the parties disagree about the size and location of the centres.

It is argued that the burden will fall unfairly on certain areas, and the party political point is made that all the current sites are in Conservative seats. That is purely a coincidence. We are searching for sites and shall continue to do so. Those sites will be anywhere that we think appropriate. Clearly, Throckmorton is on the radar at present, as the hon. Gentleman knows. I thank him for welcoming the fact that we have kept him and other hon. Members informed.

Currently, just over 40,000 asylum seekers are in cluster areas—the vast majority in urban areas and in cities where political representation is overwhelmingly Labour or Liberal Democrat. We need to put that point on record. I understand that people might think that the sites should not be in their area. Those concerns can be dealt with through the planning system.

It is highly optimistic to think that the site—or any site—will open in March. The first accommodation centre will probably open towards the middle of next year. I should not like people to think that the process will be sudden.

The hon. Gentleman asks how long there will be for replies. I can confirm that there were discussions between Wychavon district council and Home Office officials about the environmental impact assessment, under which 16 weeks are allowed. There were some disingenuous comments from the local authority to the effect that the Government never intended to use the normal planning processes; but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, because we are the Government we cannot use the normal planning processes—we have to use circular 18/84. However, we are following the eight-week process—not the speeded-up one provided for in the circular. We are allowing additional time for the environmental impact assessment, so there will be 16 weeks. In effect, we are mirroring the ordinary planning process in the only way that we can. As it is a Government application, there are special circumstances.

Mr. Luff: We are grateful to the Minister for dropping the original idea of using the special urgency provisions. Wychavon district council was concerned about that. Is the hon. Lady saying that the period will definitely be 16 weeks? Last week, a letter to the council from her Department stated that it would be only eight weeks.

Angela Eagle: It is my understanding that the local authority and Home Office officials have agreed to include the environmental impact assessment in the process, so that implies 16 weeks.

We never intended to use the fast-track process. That is a myth. Many such myths have grown up in all the areas where there may be detention sites or accommodation sites—but they are only myths. We want to pursue the planning process as closely as we would if this were not a Government issue.

The hon. Gentleman asked about policing. I confirm that we are holding discussions with the West Mercia police, but we have not yet submitted the planning

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application. It will be with the council shortly and the hon. Gentleman will be given warning of its dispatch. He should understand that our discussions are at an extremely early stage. However, we shall hold consultations with all those who may be affected by the proposals so that we can make a proper assessment of the implications.

Mr. Luff: May I draw the Minister's attention to the answer that she gave me on 13 February? She stated that:

I am grateful that the hon. Lady has backed down, but it was not a myth—it was the Government's policy.

Angela Eagle: It was a policy that we considered because it is allowed by the circular. However, we have tried to be open with hon. Members who represent areas where we may build detention or accommodation centres. We are trying to mirror the ordinary planning application process.

The Government have to balance many things. Many people are urging us to deal with asylum matters—not least Conservative Front-Bench Members. At one turn, we are asked to get on with things quickly; at another, we are asked to slow things down. Clearly, there is a tension there, but the important thing is to reassure the hon. Gentleman's constituents and those of Labour Members who represent neighbouring constituencies that this is a process that is transparent, open and above board and that will involve ordinary planning issues.

On health and assessments, discussions are taking place on the effect of having an accommodation centre in the area. The intention is that accommodation centres will have as many services as possible on site and available—certainly, access to primary health care, education for the children, training, language training and legal advice. We are considering whether adjudicators could be based at the centres to speed up the process for people who have lost a first-stage appeal and wish to continue their appeals.

That is the intention behind the accommodation-centre model and providing such services on site would minimise the effects on local services. Clearly, if someone had complex health needs that could not be dealt with on site, there might be an implication for acute services outside. We will, however, consult and work with local authorities in the areas concerned to ensure that the implications will be manageable for services in the area.

It is not true that some police services are refusing to police areas where accommodation centres may be based. Clearly, the police have a duty to ensure that any policing needs are met. We will be discussing—as we are with the West Mercia police—the implications of such a development.

Yarl's Wood is a detention centre where people were moved prior to removal from the country, because we did not know their identity, or because they were thought

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likely to abscond. If an asylum seeker is in the country and has a serious criminal background, we may well not know about it. It is not envisaged that accommodation centres will be used as prisons. They will be open. People will not be locked up or detained in them. Indeed, we will ensure that if they need to go off site to have access in the first stages to appeal hearings before we co-locate, that will be arranged. They will not be waiting for local buses. Services will be made available to facilitate that process.

On serious criminals, it would be wrong and alarmist for people to make the connection between asylum seekers and criminality that is anything out of the ordinary compared with what one might find in the local population. Certainly, the centres will not be used as proxies for detention centres, which are a different issue.

On planning and whether the centres are against local planning rules, clearly that will be a matter for the planning process. The hon. Gentleman will not expect me to express any opinion on that tonight.

I understand how difficult these issues are for the hon. Members concerned. Organisational issues are involved in dealing with asylum seekers and their needs, whether in a cluster area or in an accommodation centre. I am pleased that we have consensus across the House that piloting accommodation centres is a way forward that we ought to consider. I understand that there is a difference of opinion about size and location, which we will no doubt discuss at greater length when we consider the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill.

We will keep the hon. Gentleman in touch with developments. The planning process will be a proper one and, in terms of what we are intending for Throckmorton, there is no intention of suddenly doing something underhand that will circumvent the due process. I hope that with those reassurances—

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