Previous SectionIndexHome Page

5 Nov 2002 : Column 149—continued

Beverley Hughes: We are about to debate an issue that is of great concern to many Members across the House. I hope that hon. Members will find it helpful if I take a little time—not too much, as many Members will want to speak—to set out our position. We need to address a number of specific issues on accommodation centres.

The Lords amendment provides that an accommodation centre shall be established only when the Secretary of State is satisfied that the proposed location is suitable to the needs of the persons to be accommodated therein. Clearly, great attention has been focused on accommodation centres. I shall set out what we are hoping to achieve with the trial of accommodation centres.

First and foremost, we all share the view that our asylum system must be fast, effective, efficient and fair. We believe that that can be achieved only if asylum

5 Nov 2002 : Column 150

seekers know what is expected of them, so we must keep in close contact with them and they with us. Secondly, we need to do that in a way that reduces pressure in the system and on local services. That is another important principle underlying our decision to trial accommodation centres, and why we wanted to provide facilities on site as part of the new centres.

4 pm

The accommodation centre trial is necessary to enable us to test the extent to which such centres can contribute to a more efficient management of the asylum process, while taking pressure off hard-pressed local services, particularly in the south-east and our main dispersal areas. I hope that Members will agree that the need for the trial is both clear and increasingly urgent. It is an essential part of our policy on asylum.

In the first instance, so that the trial could be effective, we decided to develop large out-of-town facilities that could be self-contained, thus allowing on-site provision of services to be thoroughly tested. In choosing sites, we look principally to previously Government-owned land. We are committed to developing trial centres in such locations, and for that reason we are vigorously pursuing our proposals for centres with 750 places at Bicester and the former RAF Newton.

In another place, we were challenged about location and accused of pushing on regardless of the points put to us. Lady Anelay argued that the amendment to clause 14 was necessary because

We have listened carefully to what has been said in both Houses and by others, and we have accepted the need for the trial to include different models. Indeed, the Home Secretary and I made exactly that point—not recently in response to the House of Lords debate, but more than a month ago to the Select Committee on Home Affairs.

I can announce today, as testimony to that commitment, that at least one of the trial centres will be smaller, for single men only. That will allow us to test the alternative approach against the larger centres to which I have referred. It may be that such a centre, because of its smaller size, can be in or on the edge of an urban area. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will welcome that, as well as organisations such as the Refugee Council.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): I welcome what my hon. Friend has said. Has she seen the model proposed by the Refugee Council for a core-and-cluster centre? What does she think of it? Might she proceed down those lines?

Beverley Hughes: My hon. Friend anticipates my next point. I have met representatives of the Refugee Council, who gave a presentation on their core-and-cluster model. I spoke to the general secretary again today.

I have given a commitment, in saying that we want to go on working with the Refugee Council on its alternative cluster-based proposal. I think that it has

5 Nov 2002 : Column 151

some interesting possibilities. There are issues on which we do not currently agree, but both sides are committed to trying to resolve them. I enter the negotiations in that genuine spirit.

I can also announce today that I have decided not to pursue our proposal for a centre at Throckmorton airfield as part of the trial. Although I consider the site itself to be suitable, we have not been able to settle satisfactorily the necessary land acquisition arrangements that would allow it to be developed within an acceptable time for the purposes of the trial. That issue needs to be evaluated urgently. I will make announcements on potential new sites in due course.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): I hope that I will be able to speak later, but it would be wrong for me not to express my gratitude to the Minister at this point. A huge sense of relief will sweep through the community of Throckmorton, which has already borne a great deal for the rest of us. May I invite the Minister also to acknowledge what the Home Secretary was generous enough to acknowledge—that the campaign waged by the people of Throckmorton was strictly anti-racist, and not at all motivated by nimbyism?

Beverley Hughes: I risk introducing a note of discord but my conversations with the elected leaders and representatives of people at Throckmorton were cordial, courteous and in no way racist.

I hope that the three elements of my announcement today will convince hon. Members that there is scope for flexibility in the trial—the Home Secretary and I have been committed to that for some time—that I am serious about having flexibility in the models that we trial, and that there is scope within the arrangements that are in place at the moment to incorporate flexibility.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe): I thank the Minister for showing flexibility in looking at the form of future accommodation centres, but now that she is prepared to look at smaller centres near urban areas, which have been urged upon her by everyone with an interest in the proper handling of asylum applications and by a large number of other interests across the political spectrum, will she set aside the proposal to proceed with the large accommodation centres in isolated rural areas, which so far as I am aware would still attract universal condemnation? Why spend all that money on the large rural camps when she is prepared to contemplate testing the kind of accommodation centre that everyone has been urging upon the Government for the past six months?

Beverley Hughes: I am sorry but I cannot go as far as the right hon. and learned Gentleman would like me to go in that regard. I have made it clear that we want the trial to include a mixture, a range of models. The advantage of having a site for one classification of person—for example, for single people—is that the range of facilities that we would need to provide on that site would arguably be less than if we had a large mixture of people, particularly if we included families. That is part of the reason why we can contemplate a smaller site. The range of services that will need to be provided

5 Nov 2002 : Column 152

on that site will not be as great as that for other types of asylum seekers. Because I want to retain a mixture and because we are in the process of a planning inquiry on those two other sites, I cannot give him the assurance that he wants but I hope that other hon. Members will take comfort from the fact that we want it to be a genuine trial and are looking to have a mixture of models in our arrangements.

Annabelle Ewing (Perth): Can the hon. Lady indicate what the size of the smaller site for, for example, single males will be?

Beverley Hughes: I cannot give the exact size, but I would have thought that the site would accommodate about 400 people, as opposed to 750 people at the other sites. I would not want to be held exactly to that.

Simon Hughes: The Throckmorton announcement will be welcomed but I would like to push the Minister. Has she concluded that there should be a smaller centre or is she just thinking about it? Her colleagues in the Lords were thinking about it and we had hoped that by now the Government would have said that there would be one. Does she believe that all centres should be able to meet the test in amendment No. 17, and do the two original sites that have been publicly announced meet the appropriate location test in the judgment of the Secretary of State?

Beverley Hughes: I will deal with the latter point in talking about the amendment. On the first point, as I have announced, subject to the practicalities of real life—of finding a site and all that—we will have a smaller centre and that will be one of the models in the trial.

The amendment would open up scope for challenge to the location of an accommodation centre in all sorts of ways and from all sorts of sources, particularly by way of judicial review, so we cannot accept it. It would create the possibility of delay and uncertainty before and after planning consent has been secured, and, indeed, throughout the entire life of each centre. The Government have made it clear that we will abide by the planning process, and by the outcome of any public inquiry. That is both fair and democratic, but we do not believe that a further avenue should be created. Such an avenue might be exploited by those who seek to avoid the creation of an accommodation centre in their area, or the provision of support in such a centre.

When introducing Lords amendment No. 17 in the other place, the Opposition made it clear that their resistance to siting accommodation centres related to rural areas. They welcomed the concept of centres and our trialling of such an approach—perhaps not surprisingly, since their previous policy was to detain all asylum seekers in secure conditions. However, for the reasons that I have outlined, I hope that the House agrees that the amendment is unnecessary.

Next Section

IndexHome Page