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5 Nov 2002 : Column 177—continued

Jeremy Corbyn: The health issue is very important. I have come across a number of distressing cases in which general practitioners simply refuse to take asylum seekers on their lists until they have been pushed into it by the local health authority. The local papers then chip in and say that asylum seekers are dominating the casualty units in local hospitals. They have no alternative because GPs and the health service are failing them. It is a duty of the health authorities to provide a GP and health care for everybody.

Mr. Prosser: Absolutely. Who could argue with that? However, I keep pulling hon. Members back to the real world and to what is happening in practice. When we know that services have not been provided properly with the level of care necessary, we must find a different model. What is on offer is a different model. I accept that it is very much a trial or pilot scheme, which must be tested in the real world. However, with the changes that we have discussed and the assurances that we have had from the Minister, I am happy to support the motion.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke: I shall be as brief as I can, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) also has time to strive once more to catch your eye. I would say in passing that it shows the state to which the House of Commons has reduced itself that our timetabling is now so tight that when we consider amendments passed by an unelected House which has the time to debate these matters at leisure, our discussions are so truncated that we have one hour for all Back Benchers to consider a whole bundle of very important issues which, in my opinion, remain unresolved. However, that is for another day.

I confine myself to Lords amendment No. 17, which essentially bears on the suitability of these large, isolated, rural sites as accommodation centres for the holding of asylum seekers before what we hope will be quicker decisions on whether they are to be allowed to remain.

I want to make it clear that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury, I and others welcome large parts of the Bill. We need a fair system of immigration control and a fairer system for deciding on the applications of asylum seekers. It must be effective and reach swift decisions, and should help us to integrate properly the people whom we want to accept as refugees from persecution, from wherever they come. It should also help us to remove as decently and in as civilised a fashion as possible those who have, unfortunately, no legal right to be in this country.

Nor do I adopt my position from an attitude of nimbyism. I support the idea of accommodation centres, but it is not the case that I would be wholly in favour of huge camp-like holding centres for refugees if only they were 50 miles down the road in somebody

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else's constituency. My constituents hold the same view. They, too, think that setting up such an institution in a rural part of Nottinghamshire is unsuitable, but that it would be equally unsuitable in any other rural part of the country.

Indeed, one part of the Home Office did not know what another part was doing, so six miles away, in the equally rural village of Whatton, it is proposing to double the size of a large prison that specialises in holding sex offenders. There is some debate about that, but there has been no opposition in principle from significant numbers of inhabitants of rural villages in my constituency. They accept that there is a duty to protect us from such offenders and also that there should be proper rehabilitation facilities in modern prisons. The arguments are about where the entrance should be and whether surface water will make flooding worse than it was before—but those are not matters that will ever trouble the House.

At Newton, on the other hand, it is proposed to set up, as a trial, a large accommodation centre, designed to hold in isolation for as short a time as possible a transient population of 750 people at any one time. We are told that that will offer a sensible means of dealing with the delicate problem of asylum seeking.

Amendment No. 17, about which the Minister seemed to take an ambiguous view, would not rule out the hon. Lady's proceeding with that policy if she can justify it. However, it provides that such policies should not proceed unless she and her colleagues are satisfied that the proposed location Xis suitable" for the needs of the asylum seekers. What she resists is the idea that the Home Office and its Ministers should be subject to any check on such decisions.

The planning applications will go to a public inquiry where town and country planning issues can be debated—schools, buses, roads and so on—and questions can be asked about rural areas. However, the decision that that is a suitable way to handle 750 asylum seekers at any one time will not be a proper matter for an inspector appointed to a planning inquiry. It is a policy matter. We are told that it is unthinkable that Home Office Ministers might have to justify such a decision in a court of law and try to satisfy people who point out that the proposed location is not suitable to deal with the needs of asylum seekers.

I have to agree with Labour Back Benchers, among others. The last Department of which I would say XHeaven forfend that its decisions on the suitability of such measures should be exposed to any challenge before a court or an independent tribunal" is the Home Office, especially when it is dealing with immigration and asylum.

The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) anticipated some of my points. He asked why large rural camps were chosen. That relates to the atmosphere in which the policy was first introduced. It has to do with process; it has nothing to do with what we are talking about today—the educational needs of children or access to legal services. I shall not burden the House with precise descriptions of Newton in my constituency, just as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury will not have the opportunity to describe the rural areas of his constituency, but Newton was chosen for its isolation. It is a very tiny village.

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The choice of such a rural area was designed to ensure that the Home Office was less likely to lose touch with large numbers of people who were waiting for asylum decisions. They would be less likely to vanish and get lost during the asylum process. When the policy was announced, the then Minister obviously fondly imagined that as all the inhabitants would be required to be in the centre at 11 o'clock at night—no doubt, at roll call—if they missed overnight residence, their application would be turned down and they would be turned away. I suspect that the Home Office now has legal advice that it cannot do that. Just because people refuse to live in a camp at RAF Newton, the Home Office cannot tell them that it will not consider their application for asylum. That was the original idea, however, and since then the Home Office has been struggling to maintain that it would be common sense to hold a large group of assorted nationalities, some families and some single people, in an isolated accommodation centre, telling them that most of them will be deported.

The Lords held a long debate, by the end of which the Government, yet again, had no friend for their policy. From beginning to end, the Government have won no significant support for their policy either on the right or the left of the spectrum. My right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary cited a list of groups which had challenged the policy; for example, the Refugee Council, the Red Cross and the Immigration Advisory Service have no time for the policy. They are fearful that it will make it more difficult to deal in a civilised way with the individual problems of applicants and their families. Furthermore, there will undoubtedly be potential for tension and management problems in institutions as large and unattractive as holding centres for asylum seekers deep in rural England, far away from where any of the asylum seekers actually want to be.

Mr. Patrick Hall: Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clarke: No, because that is why people are being cut out of the debate. With any luck, I shall confine my speech to 10 minutes.

The Minister has moved to some extent, which is welcome. She has dropped one of the three proposed rural camps to make room for an urban experiment. I shall not be churlish and say that the last and greatest treason is to do the right thing for the wrong reason. I suspect that the Minister has dropped the Worcestershire camp because the Home Office cannot get it to run owing to local planning issues. The Government have probably reassessed the cost. They are spending millions on these so-called trials and they can probably only afford two big ones and a little one.

The Minister's third proposal has been urged on her from all sides. It is in line with successful experience on the continent. It is what legal advisers, educationists and most of the advisory bodies want—smaller camps that are nearer urban facilities. It is a belated step in the right direction that, minutes before the measure was subject to further parliamentary scrutiny today, the Government were prepared to make that modification.

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If the Minister would tell us that, for the time being, she will set aside the big rural camps that nobody wants and assess whether a small urban camp can work in a civilised way, that would be a much better way to proceed. If she continues to insist that the Home Office should be immune from any review of its decision that big camps are suitable, we should support the Lords in their amendment No. 17.

Sooner or later, the Government will quietly abandon the policy. They have not won a friend for it from the moment they announced it. They are scrabbling on, through humiliation after humiliation, trying to defend their large-camps policy. They want to save face today by insisting on using their majority to reverse their lordships' amendment. However, I hope that they will find a dignified way of saving a bit of face by eventually adopting the more sensible policy that has been urged on the Minister by Labour Back Benchers with the same vigour as by Liberal Democrats and by my right hon. and hon. Friends.

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