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Orders of the Day

Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

[1st Allotted Day]

As amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

Mr. Speaker: I call on Mr. Blunkett to move new clause 1.

New Clause 1

Accommodation centres: decisions and appeals

'Where an asylum seeker is resident in an accommodation centre under this Part, an initial decision on his claim shall be made at the accommodation centre by the Secretary of State, and any appeal to an adjudicator shall be made by the adjudicator at the accommodation centre.'.—[Mr. Letwin.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.29 pm

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): I should love to hear the arguments that the Home Secretary would make for my new clause, but I fear that he will not have that pleasure.

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 164, in clause 15, page 9, line 5, after "accommodation", insert—

'for no more than six months (subject to the provisions in subsection ( ) below)'.

No. 2, in page 9, line 6, after "centre", insert—

'for a maximum period of 10 weeks'.

No. 31, in page 9, line 10, at end insert—

'( ) A person may only be accommodated in an accommodation centre for a maximum total of six months, except in exceptional circumstances when the Secretary of State may arrange for an extension of at most a further three months in total.'.

Mr. Letwin: As the Home Secretary knows, the Conservative party has welcomed the idea of accommodation centres, not least because the Conservative party originally made the suggestion. Indeed, it was my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) who earned such opprobrium from Labour Members for making that suggestion. She taught us the need to think hard about how the accommodation centres should be constructed.

We are thus in agreement with the Government on the fundamental principle that there should be accommodation centres as a way of beginning to bring again some order to the chaos of our asylum system. However, the world is unfortunately a more complicated place than administrators would like it to be. It is not the case that adopting the right idea in general will deliver the right results in general. If the right idea is adopted but the details are wrong, the results will be wrong. Alas, the accommodation centres as proposed by the Government—so far—are not structured in a way that leads us to believe they will achieve the admirable results that both the Home Secretary and I want to see: the rapid processing of claims by asylum seekers so that those who are refugees, who

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have in many cases fled from appalling persecution, quickly find a home in this country, and those who are misusing the asylum system as a way around the immigration rules are speedily dispatched from this country.

In order to achieve those admirable results, the accommodation centres need to be structured in a way that gives real hope that the processing can be quick. That is why I am moving new clause 1, tabled in my name and those of my hon. Friends, and especially amendment No. 2, also tabled in our names. I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will be willing to allow us to vote separately on the new clause and amendment No. 2, as each is, in our view, of sufficient importance to deserve a separate vote.

New clause 1 has a simple purpose: to ensure that both the initial decision and the adjudication of any appeal are made in the accommodation centre itself. In a moment, the Home Secretary may—I hope that he will—explain to the House why, to date, the Home Office has resisted that suggestion. Perhaps there is some reason—some rational grounds—for that resistance, but I have to say that we have not yet heard those rational grounds.

I know that it is unfamiliar for those who are, in effect, judges to be told where to sit. I know that the Home Secretary—like previous Home Secretaries—has sometimes had some difficulty in dealing with the judiciary and with the Lord Chancellor's Department, and indeed with adjudicators, but I maintain my faith that if the Home Secretary and the Home Office work hard enough the adjudicators could be persuaded that it would be appropriate for them to sit in the accommodation centres.

Why would that be an advantage? At present we face an enormous paper chase. The Home Secretary will be much more vividly aware than I, considering the matter from a distance, can possibly be of the colossal amount of bureaucratic effort currently going into sending pieces of paper around the countryside in order that appeals can be heard at places that are often extremely distant from where the decisions were originally made and where the asylum seekers in question are resident. If the accommodation centre is to have its purpose fulfilled, it needs to be a place where that paper chase does not occur. Only if the adjudicator is on site will the paper chase be abolished.

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East): Is not the answer to the problem posed by the hon. Gentleman more efficient administration at the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department? In other words, if the paper chase that he describes is dealt with, it does not really matter where the adjudicators sit—the administrative problems would be solved.

Mr. Letwin: In principle, the hon. Gentleman is right, but the problem is that human beings are involved and they tend to behave in ways that we are all familiar with in our own case.

Let me try to illustrate for the hon. Gentleman the two pictures that I have in my mind. One—we shall come to the other as we proceed through the amendments and new clauses today—is of a smallish place in which asylum seekers largely from one location, and, I hope, in

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many cases, entirely from one location, are grouped. For example, let us consider a small centre, probably in a city, inhabited by asylum seekers from Somalia. It is occupied by decision makers equipped with an independent country risk assessment in which they can have real faith. They get to know about the intricacies of Somalia. No Member of the House could be expected to know much about Somalia unless they had visited it, read about it, and talked to people who really understand its current politics, tribal make-up and so forth. Similarly, decision makers cannot be expected to know those things unless they are dealing with those matters. An adjudicator on site, next door, who also understands the circumstances of that country, can make a judgment quickly about whether the applicant, given the information presented, is likely to be a refugee.

Those are genuinely difficult human decisions to make. If they are made on the basis of remote location and paper, no matter how hard the bureaucrats in the Home Office, the Lord Chancellor's Department and the court service work—I understand that they will strive hard—it is extraordinarily difficult for someone dealing with a range of different places and cases at a remote location to avoid sending back some of the papers for further verification and inquiry. Paper moves back and forth because human beings find it difficult to operate under circumstances in which they are dealing with a wide array of matters and are widely dispersed. We will not process these claims in a rational amount of time until we acknowledge that.

I do not have to speculate about whether I or the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) is in the right, as the Home Office has admitted that I am. It says that it will take about six months to process claims in the accommodation centres. That is why we wish to press amendment No. 2, which limits the processing to 10 weeks. I do not accept that 10 weeks is a proper time—it seems well beyond the proper time—but I think that it is a proper limit, because there will be exceptional cases that have to take longer than the main run. I think that I am right to say—my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald will correct me if I am wrong—that when she first put forward the idea of accommodation centres, she expressed the hope that claims might be processed in six weeks. I share that hope.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): You are living in fairyland.

Mr. Letwin: The Home Secretary—this is an interesting remark—says from a sedentary position, and I am sure that he does so sincerely, that we are living in fairyland if we hope for that. I fear, however, that that remark tells us everything we need to know about what has happened. The Home Secretary and his Ministers have been captured by a corporate culture within the bureaucracy, which has come to believe that 18 months is the norm, six months is a heroic achievement, and six weeks is fairyland. While that culture obtains, we will never have an orderly and effective asylum system in this country.

Mr. Blunkett: I do believe that six weeks, as the limit not the norm, is fairyland. In 1997, the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, inherited a time span of 20 months from entry into the country to final conclusion of appeal. That was under a

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Government in which the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) served as a Home Office Minister. With respect to the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin)—with whom I have a lot of sympathy on his first proposition, to which I shall refer later—reducing the period from 20 months to six weeks is fairyland.

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