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5 Nov 2002 : Column 162—continued

Beverley Hughes: I did not specifically ask the parents that question, but I got a strong sense, as I tried to convey to the House, that for some of those families, their experience day after day of seeing their children unhappy in local schools was profoundly difficult for them.

I want hon. Members to understand that I share the spirit of what they are trying to achieve. I expect LEAs to be well placed to provide the service at the accommodation centre, and I very much hope that they will want to work with us and the contractors in that way. However, I do not want to rule out the possibility of other bidders putting forward their proposals.

On legal advice and amendment No. 28—

Tony Baldry (Banbury): Is the hon. Lady conscious that we have just over two hours for this debate? She has spoken for nearly an hour, which means that there is only an hour for the whole of the rest of the House to contribute. I hope that she is not seeking to filibuster out any opportunity for colleagues to contribute to such an important debate.

Beverley Hughes: It is a question of being damned if I do and damned if I don't. I have tried to be generous with hon. Members while I am speaking, to give them the opportunity to scrutinise what I am saying directly and to ask me questions. Indeed, I have had to decline many hon. Members whose questions I would have liked to accept. If hon. Members tot up the time that I have spoken and the time that I have taken interventions, I do not think that they will find that I can be accused of filibustering.

I will try to deal quickly with the next issue, as I hope that we have been able to meet the concerns about it. I refer to amendment No. 28 and access to legal advice. The amendment in another place provides for the Secretary of State to arrange for the provision of facilities in an accommodation centre for the use of a person in providing legal advice to a resident of the centre, and obliges the Secretary of State to provide a resident with access to legal advice from suitably qualified advisers.

During the Bill's passage, debates have focused sharply on access to early legal advice as an important part of a swift and fair initial decision-making system

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that would reduce the scope for delay, and we have taken that on board. To confirm and deliver that commitment we have brought forward an amendment that requires the Secretary of State to take reasonable steps to ensure that a resident has an opportunity to obtain legal advice before the initial substantive interview. That clearly addresses the points made by the noble Earl Russell in another place when the amendment was introduced and, as I said, focuses clearly on the initial stage.

Let me explain what we mean by reasonable steps. We all agree that we want to cut out opportunities for delay, so we need to ensure that an amendment does not inadvertently allow a person to disrupt the system by failing to turn up for an interview, which the amendment introduced in the other place would have done.

What we have introduced makes our obligations clear. The Secretary of State must take reasonable steps to ensure that a resident has an opportunity to obtain legal advice. We will, for example, make sure that people are informed in reasonable time of the date of their asylum interview and how they should, if they wish to do so, access legal advice. We are all agreed about the quality of the legal advice that must be guaranteed. All solicitors and advice agencies holding contracts with the Legal Services Commission are checked.

We do not believe that there is any advantage in references to Xsuitably qualified" or Xcompetent" in the Bill. Again, we are concerned that such references could open up the possibility of unnecessary challenge and delay. I hope that the Government amendment deals with the concerns raised and that it will be accepted.

Accommodation centres have received tremendous attention and I acknowledge the strong principles that are the source of the concerns of many hon. Members. Our rationale for the centres is clear—fast processing, and good facilities, relieving the pressure on local services. We may not have been able to accommodate all hon. Members' concerns, but I hope that they will acknowledge that my responses today on a variety of matters show that we have listened to those concerns and, where we have felt able, tried to meet them. Different models of centre will feature in the trial, there will be a time limit in the Bill to provide the incentive that we want to speed up the process, good quality education will be delivered and there will be access to legal advice.

Mr. Letwin : I begin by accepting what the Minister said towards the end of her remarks. There is no doubt that the Government have listened to much of what was said in the other place, and we are grateful for that.

In essence, the debate on accommodation centres springs from two quite different visions. One is the Opposition's, which the Home Secretary may originally have entertained, and the other is that which the Government happened upon, presumably as they discussed the issues with their officials. Our vision was of small, one-stop-shop centres in urban areas, each devoted to handling the cases of asylum seekers from a particular area, country or region. At each would be present the relevant translators, lawyers and decision makers for those people, who would become expert in

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the affairs of the area or region rather than dealing with Somalia at 9.15 am and Bosnia at 10 am in a dizzying sequence as at present, as well as the medics to provide such evidence as was necessary and the adjudicators—effectively the judges holding the appeals. That would allow everything to be done on site and at a speed wholly different from that to which we have alas had to become accustomed.

Like me, the Minister has talked to asylum seekers in centres throughout the kingdom and will have come across cases in which individuals have two or three different Home Office records in slightly different names. In such cases, different decisions are sometimes made in relation to two or three different sets of records applying to the same person. We have also met people with lawyers based 200 miles away whom they do not meet until the appeal; people in respect of whom decisions are made on the basis of inadequate documentation; and people who find that the adjudicator places no faith in the decisions made by the decision maker. That can happen because the decision maker often does not know much about the subject of the decision—not because he or she is unworthy but because he or she will have been called upon to make decisions about six different countries in the space of a day.

Those are the real-life problems of our current asylum system. Our idea was to establish accommodation centres that dealt with them all at once. The Government may have begun with a similar idea, but they moved away to the idea of establishing huge accommodation centres with only very partial delivery of the various facilities that are necessary to achieve rapid processing. The intention of the Lords amendments was to move the Government from one vision to the other—from their vision to ours. That endeavour was shared in great part with Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, to whom I pay tribute. It was also shared with Cross Benchers and some Bishops and Law Lords, and on several occasions with notable and distinguished Labour peers who gave support by their absence or by their presence in voting with us.

The Government have come a good way, for which I am grateful. The Bill is not perfect on lawyers, but we accept that it is the best that we can persuade the Government to provide. In my view, the six-month/nine-month rule, if I can describe it in that fashion, provides for a time limit that is vastly too long, but we accept it as the best that the Government are willing to offer. I am grateful that the Minister gestured towards reducing it further.

It is hugely in the Government's interests to move in the directions in which we sought to make them move. We sought to give the Secretary of State—in this case, the Home Secretary—power against his own officialdom. By forcing matters legislatively, he has not wholly taken that on board, but he has conceded a six-month/nine-month time limit, after arguing for many months that no time limit could conceivably be administered. We accept that in the spirit of good grace with which it is offered.

There will be further discussion later about education. Listening to the to-ing and fro-ing in the Chamber, I remain as I have always been on the matter—in two minds. One thing about which I am absolutely clear is

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that, if the accommodation centres were as quick in processing as they would be if our vision were implemented, and took only six weeks to fulfil their task, there would be no discussion. Nobody in the House would claim that it makes sense to argue strenuously about whether a child who has just arrived in the country and may go home six weeks later should have separate or a mainstream education. Either course of action could be adopted and a separate education might make perfectly good sense. We are all a bit queasy—indeed, some of us are more than a bit queasy—about the idea of children being educated separately for months or years. At some time scale or other, the idea becomes utterly intolerable. I suspect that, if the Government really move towards quick processing, that problem will disappear.

Our main concern, however, remains with Lords amendment No. 17 and the Government motion to disagree thereto. That is the one matter on which we remain wholly apart. Before I describe the Government's position and point out what I think is a serious defect in ministerial logic, I should like to pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), who are in their places, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff), who has rightly shot off to appear on the BBC to announce his victory for his constituents in Throckmorton, and my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who has played a notable part in our proceedings. They have acted not only in the interests of their constituents but with considerable force and dignity.

I also pay tribute to many people who have nothing to do with the Conservative party who have helped to argue the case against large rural centres. For example, a letter was sent on 3 May from the immigration advisory service, Amnesty International, the Immigration Law Practitioners Association, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, the Law Society, the Commission for Racial Equality, Shelter, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture and the Electronic Immigration Network. They are not normally the most strenuous advocates of the Conservative cause. All wrote to the Home Secretary and made it clear that they were worried about whether large accommodation centres in rural areas would work.

The organisations said that they believed that such centres could cause serious problems both for those accommodated in them and for local residents. We believe that neither fast processing nor harmony—or indeed any desirable result—is likely in vast rural centres. We may be wrong. We are more than fallible: we are not only human beings but politicians. We may well have made an error. Have the Lords sought through amendment No. 17 to force on the Government the truth of our view? By no means.

The Minister rightly read out the amendment. Let me remind hon. Members of its terms. Their lordships asked that

The Minister presented some strong and persuasive arguments. However, when she considered the amendment, she was neither strong nor persuasive. How

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can the Home Secretary reject the idea that, before establishing an accommodation centre, he should be satisfied that it is

Do the Home Secretary and the Minister seriously maintain that they propose to establish accommodation centres, which, in their considered opinion, are not suitable? Surely that is not the Government's policy.

The Minister cited judicial review as the main reason for her objection. Would judicial review judge whether the Home Secretary had found a suitable place? No; that is not its role. Judicial review would establish whether the location was sufficiently close to suitability to lead the Home Secretary and the Minister, were they reasonable people, to judge it suitable. The Minister argued—I presume seriously and not as a joke—that she resisted the Lords amendment on the ground that she believes that she will be open to judicial review because she intends, on the Home Secretary's behalf, to establish not only unsuitable centres but centres that could not be deemed suitable in the opinion of a reasonable person. That is not a serious argument.

I take it that we are dealing with Home Office lawyers' earnest desire to protect Ministers—their perfectly proper job—by ensuring that there is no basis on which ministerial decisions can be challenged by judicial review. That is another example of the Government's trying to limit the scope of judicial review. Their objection is not well founded in logic and cannot be founded on rational policy. It cannot be Government policy to establish centres that no reasonable person could regard as suitable. That approach is founded on a profound aversion to the intervention of the judiciary in the affairs of the Executive, and is not a tolerable policy for the Government to adopt. I shall, therefore, be asking my hon. Friends to vote in favour of the Lords amendments by doing what is open to us in the House, namely disagreeing with the Government' s motion to disagree.

Since the Government have made so much progress towards consensus by means of so many helpful concessions—not just in this section but throughout the Bill; we welcome, for example, the huge change in what was previously a ghastly Guy Fawkes clause at the end of the Bill—I profoundly hope that we shall not see this legislation getting into trouble in the Lords purely on the basis of an indefensible proposition advanced for no better reason than to limit the scope for judicial action.

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