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7 Nov 2002 : Column 463—continued

2.30 pm

We accept that the Government's amendments are a substantial improvement on the view that they have taken before, in that some scrutiny will take place. I add my voice to the point made by the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), and by the right hon. Member for West Dorset from the Conservative Front Bench, that the monitor should be requested to consider the proposals in advance. That is the logical approach. It is no good spending time on planning, design or planning applications unless the monitor says that the location is good. I hope that that is what will happen in practice. It would be helpful if the Home Secretary could confirm at the first available opportunity that from now on all the sites that he may have in mind—large or small, mixed or single sex, for families or single people—will be the subject of prior consultation with the Local Government Association, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the equivalent organisations in Wales and Northern Ireland, if the Government have those places in mind.

We would have preferred the original wording, under which the decisions would have been open to judicial scrutiny and we could have been satisfied that a particular location was suitable. That was not possible, so we would have preferred the wording added by the other place last night, which provided that the Home Secretary should have regard to the needs of the people to be accommodated. We may not win that argument either, although we will vote for the Lords amendment. However, I have talked to my colleagues in the other place and they accept that if the Government prevail in the House this afternoon, they will not further obstruct the passage of the Bill and it will pass into law before the end of the Session.

The Liberal Democrats have sought to put their case on the Bill, and we therefore divided the House nine times on Tuesday. We were grateful to colleagues from all parties for joining us on many of those occasions. The last three attempts at legislation in this area have not been hugely successful. We hope that this Bill will be more successful, but not everything will be right. Our job is to be vigilant at local government level, Government level and Parliament level, and to take up matters with Ministers if we are not doing the right job by asylum seekers. We must seek to change the things that turn out to be wrong.

In dealing with those who come to Britain seeking asylum, humanity and decency are as important as efficiency. Our international reputation is as much affected by how we treat the strangers at our gates as it is by how we treat our own. That is why this has been an important debate. We are glad to have been able to influence the Government to make significant changes so that the Bill is now in much better form than when we started.

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Glenda Jackson: We have little time and I know that other hon. Members wish to participate. I am also mindful of your strictures, Madam Deputy Speaker, on entering the no-go area of the separate education of refugees' children and of the sensibilities of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to a too passionate advocation, using certain adjectives, of deeply held feelings in my constituency.

I took some hope from what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said about the system. He said that the Government would concentrate on making it firm, fast or fair, and acknowledged that it is none of those things at present, despite the claims that have been made.

I shall come to the question of location in a moment, but first I shall deal with accommodation centres. Running them will require lots of money and people, and they will take no small period of time to bring into being. They will deal with a comparatively small number of asylum seekers, compared with the numbers already in this country and the numbers who will arrive before the centres open.

When I speak about the failures in the system, I mean no criticism of the incredibly dedicated and hard-working people in the IND. The right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) spoke pertinently about the decisions that they have to make every day. The IND requires additional support, finance and staff. The system also needs to be streamlined, so that staff do not have to deal with so many cases at the same time. Often those cases are at different stages of processing. I hope that the Government are looking at that matter now, as it is no exaggeration to say that many people—my constituents among them—have been waiting an unconscionable time for their cases to be prosecuted.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady is going somewhat wide of the amendment.

Glenda Jackson: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I turn now to the location of the accommodation centres. The proposal is that the numbers involved will be much smaller than first advocated, and that the centres will deal only with single men. I do not expect my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to answer now, but I should be grateful if he would write to me with answers to the questions that I want to ask.

What will be the age range of men in accommodation centres? In my constituency, it is not unusual for a member of a family to arrive in this country who is then followed by the rest of the family at a later date. A single man coming into this country may not understand that the word Xsingle" in this context means unmarried, in our lexicon. If asked whether he is a single man, he may well say that he is, even though he has a wife—or a common law wife—and children. What will happen if his family succeeds in gaining entry to this country? Would that man have to stay in the accommodation centre? Where would the rest of his family go? When the monitors assess locations, will they also assess the changes that the presence of asylum seekers undoubtedly cause?

I am also worried about the facilities that will be provided in the accommodation centres. We have heard about the need for the centres to provide everything that

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asylum seekers might need. However, concerns have been expressed about the proper provision of health services. I shall not go down the road of asking whether every school in the country has its full complement of teachers, but serious questions remain—for instance, about the services provided by members of the legal profession into processing asylum cases. It seems to me that there will be an unavoidable conflict between what will be provided in the areas where the accommodation centres will be located, what will be provided for the centres, and what will be provided to improve the system that is provided by the IND.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) spoke about the image that this country will present when we make clear our approach to people fleeing from a justified fear of persecution. I agree with what he said, and believe that this country will retain its reputation for offering asylum to people who are frail and often very vulnerable. It is surely an indication that a country is civilised when most of its people want asylum seekers to be treated speedily and effectively.

Tony Baldry: On Second Reading, I said that everyone in the House must share the responsibility of trying to get this legislation right. As a consequence of the work that Parliament has done—by persevering throughout the passage of the Bill, with the help of the House of Lords—the legislation is substantially better. We have an independent monitor for accommodation centres, which was not included in the Bill to start with.

Today, the Home Secretary announced a substantial concession, because the monitor will effectively be able to determine whether a location meets the needs of asylum seekers. Realistically, before any accommodation centre can be built, the Home Office will have to announce a proposed location and the monitor of accommodation centres will have the opportunity to hear views on whether that location would prevent any of the needs of the proposed residents from being met. In so doing, the monitor will obviously want to take evidence not only from local people but from all the organisations that wrote to the Home Secretary on 3 May—the Refugee Council, Immigration Advisory Service, National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, Commission for Racial Equality, and others.

As I am sure the Home Secretary will appreciate, one reason why the House of Lords so persistently returned the Bill to this House—in particular, this part of the Bill—was that the Government had not found a single supporter among the organisations most concerned about the welfare of refugees. In the letter of 3 May and subsequently, every organisation that was concerned about the welfare of refugees opposed the suggestion that accommodation centres should be large and in rural locations.

In the proposed amendment—the concession that the Government are making—the Home Secretary is giving all organisations the opportunity to express their concerns rationally to the independent monitor, supporting them with such evidence as they have. I

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should have thought, therefore, that it must be in everyone's interests, not least the Treasury, for the right hon. Gentleman to announce as soon as it is convenient that he is going to postpone the planning applications for Bicester and the proposed site in Nottinghamshire until the independent monitor has had the opportunity to consider those locations. Otherwise, the planning application will go ahead and it will involve much public spending—not only for the Home Office, but for the local authorities concerned. That could result in a ludicrous situation—all that money might be spent and then the independent monitor of accommodation centres might be of the opinion that the location would not meet certain needs of the asylum seekers.

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