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Mr. Letwin: I want to make three responses to the Home Secretary's remarks. First, I do not think that the proper limit can be six weeks—amendment No. 2 suggests a limit of 10 weeks, as I accept that there will be exceptional cases. Indeed, if the Home Secretary were to propose a mechanism for extreme exceptional circumstance, to be subject to a further extension, we would consider it. To establish a norm of six weeks, we need a general limit that is slightly longer. Were the Home Secretary to imagine that six weeks will be the norm in practice without setting a limit and by merely expressing a hope that everything will be achieved in six months, he will indeed be living in fairyland, because it will not happen.

Secondly, if the system is operated in its current form, three years from now I will have the great electoral advantage of being able to explain that the Home Secretary has failed to address the chaos of the system because he has not dealt with many applicants. If there are 3,000 people and a six-month processing period, it does not take more than simple arithmetic to demonstrate that the system will deal with only 6,000 applicants out of, perhaps, 100,000, including dependants. A six-month processing period will not solve the problem. The Home Secretary has as much incentive as I do—perhaps even more—to find a way to turn six weeks as a norm into something that is far from fairyland. I accept that six weeks would not be the absolute limit, but unless he turns it into a norm, we will not bring order out of chaos.

Thirdly, it is no part of my purpose to claim that previous systems or Governments were perfect. The right hon. Gentleman's predecessor was not and the same is true of him so far. We all share the blame for the fact that the system is in chaos. We need to discuss how to put it right. However, if it is still in chaos in three years' time, it will not be possible for the right hon. Gentleman to claim that it is someone else's responsibility. I think he recognises that it will be his responsibility. I assure him that he will not fulfil that responsibility with a six-month processing period. I am delighted to hear that he might be sympathetic to the idea of having adjudicators on site because that is the single biggest step, although not the only one, that he could take towards achieving something like a six-week processing period. If we could reach agreement on that, it would be a major step forward.

I do not want to tarry much further because there is no point spinning out speeches once the point is made. However, one other matter is relevant. We propose that the centres are short-term items, through which people pass at great speed. They should be on a small scale and situated in the centre of cities. That model would avoid the problems created if they are structured as envisaged in the Bill. Our proposal would not require the measures that the Home Secretary is taking, which have proved so difficult for him to defend to his party. It is to the advantage of the Labour party itself that he should seek a model that conforms to our image of the centres. That is the way to avoid the problems. No one would worry about

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where a few children in a small centre were educated for six weeks. It is because human beings are to be in vast camps for six months that all the problems arise.

I use the term "vast camps" advisedly. It is not that I think the Home Secretary intends to create inhumane places. I am sure he will try be as nice as possible when he structures the centres, but he must think about how they will look and feel. Let him reflect on what happened at Yarl's Wood and on the security costs of vast accommodation centres when claims take months to process. Those are real and practical considerations. Let us have in our minds a different model of small, quick, specialised, one-stop shops, because on that basis we can make real progress.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Although the debate will be relatively short, it is important because it deals with the sort of accommodation centres that we should have. There are grounds for consensus if the Government can be persuaded to move closer to the position advocated by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. It is interesting that all parties agree that it is worth trialling accommodation centres. The idea has been put forward, in different guises, by different people. Everybody agrees that we are talking only about trialling them; they are not meant suddenly to take all asylum seekers, because most of them will be dispersed through the current system.

This debate is about how big the centres will be and how long people will stay in them. It is about what will happen when people arrive at the centres and, in particular, whether adjudication should occur on-site. I take the view, and previous speeches by the Home Secretary are as good a basis for it as any, that people should spend no longer than six months in an accommodation centre. I think the Home Secretary used the phrase "God forbid" about the idea that anybody should be in a centre for more than six months. We want to tie him down to that objective, and we think that amendment No. 31 is a reasonable means of doing so. It provides that the six-month limit would apply other than in exceptional circumstances, when the Home Secretary would be able to grant a three-month extension.

4.45 pm

We tried to respond to the debates in Committee, in which the Government understandably said they did not want legal action to be taken simply because a person's stay in a centre slipped over the limit by a day or a week. We hope that the second stage of looking after people and determining their needs could be achieved in six months in normal cases and in nine months in exceptional ones. After all, it is contemplated that there will be only a handful of places. According to the Government, if 3,000 asylum seekers are to be accommodated, there will be only three or four centres, and if the centres were of the size suggested by Opposition Members, there would be at most 12 of them. I hope, therefore, that the House will be sympathetic to the idea of a maximum stay in a centre of six months, even with a three-month extension in exceptional cases.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): There is a lot in what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Does he accept that there is an interesting parallel in criminal law with custody time

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limits? Those are absolutely fixed and rigidly adhered to, but they can be extended in particular cases by special permission from the judge.

Simon Hughes: Not only that, but along with some of my Scottish colleagues behind me, I am aware also that Scotland has a much more rigorous tradition of fixed time limits, and cases must be dealt with within 110 days.

Where there is a will, there is a way. People will go into a reception centre for a week or two when they first arrive, and then there will be a second phase of assessment. Again, we must not forget that the centres are to be trialled, so this is a matter of preparing for them. If we build into the process enough staff and facilities, surely it will be possible to deal with cases within a certain time. We are starting from scratch; we do not have to plan around any historical difficulties. I hope, therefore, that amendments Nos. 164 and 31 will find favour with the House.

We dissent from the Conservatives' view that the process can be completed in 10 weeks. That is near to being impossible, and I would rather start by setting a possible target. The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), who has legal experience, and others have made perfectly practical points. We have to be realistic because we are trying to find a working model, and I do not think that 10 weeks will be long enough. Whether or not the adjudication is done on-site, it is unlikely to be possible to do paperwork and translation, to check facts and to get evidence in one place. I flag up the fact, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that when the time comes we will seek to persuade you to allow us to vote on amendment No. 164 or amendment No. 31, according to the convenience of the House.

I turn now to new clause 1. I listened to the debate in Committee, and I listened to the hon. Member for West Dorset today. I have been persuaded that it would be possible, on a trial basis, to bring the adjudicator to the asylum seekers rather than take the asylum seekers to the adjudicator. I say that because a maximum of 12 and a minimum of four places around the country would be involved, because there would be a regular flow of casework and decisions, and because there will inevitably be a regular flow of people who want to exercise their right of appeal from the initial decision, which may be no, and go to adjudication, which might result in a yes.

Although I am sure that most hon. Members remember this, I remind the House that a significant number of cases succeed on appeal. If 20 per cent. succeed in round one, the initial decision, one in five cases—a further fifth—succeed on appeal. If one is going to win in round two, it is important that round two happens soon after round one so that one does not have to endure the trauma of thinking that one's case has failed. It is also important that someone who is not a civil servant or a member of the Government or the Executive should make the decision, which will hold for a long time. An independent adjudicator, who is nothing to do with the Executive and who is seen to be independent, should come. So long as the process is clearly arranged so that the people whose cases are to be determined understand that the people who are to adjudicate are independent and not part of the decision-making process, and so long as the tribunal or

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court, as one might call it, comes to the place where the people whose cases are to be determined are, it is worth trying.

There are many points on which we might disagree more fundamentally, but I hope that the House agrees that the proposal is worth trying. I hope, too, that the Home Secretary will agree that a six-month maximum, with an extra three-month period if that is really needed, comprise a reasonable middle way that can be adopted for the first accommodation centres. In that way, we might get a principle on which we all agree working in practice.

I end with a warning: if we take the wrong road, if we create accommodation centres that are far too big, if we put them in the wrong place, if we do not provide facilities in them, the centres will not succeed. They will be unpopular, unsuccessful and inhumane. We have a duty to try to get the system right. Not all the wisdom is found on the Government Benches or in Government offices; it lies in the experience of those throughout the country who know what they are talking about and who want to share it so that the House can reach the right decisions.

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