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Standing Committee E
Tuesday 7 May 2002
[Mr. Alan Hurst in the Chair]
Establishment of centres
Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): I beg to move amendment No. 18, in page 9, line 6, after 'of', insert 'a maximum of 250'.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the following amendments: No. 44, in page 9, line 6, after 'of', insert 'no more than 250'.
No. 19, in page 9, line 8, at end add
'(3) Each accommodation centre shall hold a maximum of 250 people at any one time.'.
Mr. Malins: I begin by welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Hurst, after our short break for the bank holiday. I also welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan). It is important to welcome the Whip, and I make a practice of doing so. I am sure that we will be assisted by her presence.
Amendment No. 18 would limit the number of persons at an accommodation centre to 250 at any one time, and the other amendments in the group have a similar purpose. It is commonly said that small works better, and nowhere is that truer in than in a centre for the accommodation of asylum seekers. As we understand it--although this is not in the Bill--the Government propose four centres to accommodate 3,000 persons seeking asylum, with the four bases each holding 750 people. I believe that eight possible sites have been selected, and I hope that the Minister will tell us which sites are most likely to be used.
With more than 80,000 people seeking asylum per year, those 3,000 places represent a small proportion of the total. Even if the people stay in the centres for only six monthswe would like to know the Minister's plans for length of stay6,000 is still a small proportion per year. The rest will be dispersed around the country, often in unsatisfactory conditions, as has been the case hitherto. The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) was never more right than when he said that legislation does not necessarily do the trick: it is Home Office action that causes the system to become more efficient.
Will the Minister tell us when the accommodation centres will be established? I understand that the Government have told citizens advice bureaux that it will be as soon as possible, but the pilot may not begin until the middle of 2003, and it may be 2004 or 2005 before the centres are up and running. We support the concept, but are concerned about the numbers and size.
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Talking of numbers takes one's mind back to the arson and breakout at Yarl's Wood in the middle of February. When full, Yarl's Wood could take 900 persons, but only 380 people were there at the time. The Minister may say that Yarl's Wood was different from the proposed accommodation centres, because it held only those people who were being detained prior to removal. However, according to my understanding, of the 380 at Yarl's Wood, 294 were due for removal and the other 86 had current claims. They are no different from the people who will be in the accommodation centres. Undoubtedly, there will be pressures and tensions in an accommodation centre that holds as many as 750. Our amendment suggests that there should be a maximum of 250 in each centre.
The Home Secretary rightly said that we must safeguard the interests of local people. Will the Minister tell us what research the Government have done into similar centres throughout Europe? An accommodation centre or its equivalent in other European Union countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands holds fewer than 750. I understand that the Home Office considered the position in other countries when drawing up its practices and policy. The larger the number in accommodation centres, the greater the tensions are likely to be. Smaller centres in urban areas are less likely to be regarded as obtrusive to local residents, and we address that issue in later amendments.
Representatives of several organisations with experience of asylum and current detention centres say that 750 is too many to make an accommodation centre effective. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) has expressed concerns on behalf of local residents about a proposal for an accommodation centre at Piddingtona village in a rural area near Bicesterwhich we will discuss later. The proposed size of the accommodation centre is one of those concerns. An accommodation centre may be placed in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), where local residents have also expressed concern about the proposed number to be accommodated.
My remarks are intended to get the debate under way. The figure of 750 is unwieldy, and is likely to create tensions in the centre and concerns in the local community. All the organisations that deal with asylum day in and day out tell the Government that that figure is too large. Although it is early days, is the Minister able to tell the Committee that the accommodation centres in the proposed pilot schemes will be much smaller than currently envisaged? The smaller the number in each centre, the more likely it is that they would be efficient, humane, decent and safe. Local residents would find smaller centres easier to cope with and to understand.
Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I support the hon. Gentleman's amendment, which is unsurprising as I tabled a similar amendment. We must get the strategic policy right before we get site specific. The Liberal Democrat party was, I believe, the only party in the previous Parliament to argue expressly for accommodation or
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reception centres as a first point of contact for those seeking asylum, where their initial needs would be met and their applications processed. Such centres would also provide a range of services, which we will discuss later. As far as the Liberal Democrats are concerned, the concept is not original, and we support it in principle. We had two views about the centres: first, that people should stay in them for a limited time; and, secondly, that they should be a reasonable size. I share the hon. Gentleman's view that all the arguments stack up in favour of centres being smaller rather than larger250 places rather than 750.
At the beginning of the year, I visited the camp at Sangatte, which holds 1,500 people. It is an enormous cavern of a place, and its size depersonalises the whole institution. A centre with 750 places would be only half that size, but even with half the number of people in Sangatte, we are still talking about a centre getting on for the size of one of our larger comprehensive schools. All the people in the centre will suddenly have been placed together. They will not know one another, and will have different cultural and language backgrounds. In a centre of that size, it is unlikely that we could give people the reception and accommodation that we should and to which they are entitled under international law.
The centres are not meant to be the equivalent of a Red Cross holding camp for people whose applications are not being processed. This is about Britain fulfilling its duty under international law to process people whose applications have been made. Whatever the outcome of an applicationwe all want judgments to be correct and based on the factswe do Britain, our values and the standards of public life no good if we make these centres so big that they cannot accommodate people's needs.
There are huge numbers of asylum seekers in my constituency, and probably no surgery goes by without asylum seekers attending. Some may not have horrific stories to tell, but others do. I have had people from Kosovo. A mother was raped in front of the family, and the father is hugely traumatised and mentally ill as a result. They are trying to bring up their children here, in decent circumstances. People Sierra Leone have witnessed family members having limbs chopped off and being killed. We must ensure that people's needs can be met personally and individually, and not just as part of a processing line.
I also have three simple practical suggestions. First, the Government have identified a few sites, but there will not be many sites that can accommodate 750 people. If they are considering ex-military sites, they are usually found in the country and away from conurbations or communities. By and large, disused airfields and military accommodation are not found near communities. A smaller site, for 250 people, would not have that disadvantage, and there would be many more places where 250 people could be accommodated.
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Secondly, if people are not to be locked in the centres, and if the aim is to let them have some sort of life while they are awaiting adjudication, it would be more convenient for them to use local facilities, such as the supermarket, cinema or post office. However, if people have little money and are living outside a village, a long way from a town, that will not be so easy.
The third issue, which we will all be exercised about, is the need to be careful that we do not aggravate racial and community tensions. The Government are mindful of that. My judgment--indeed, the logical conclusion--is that large holding centres for large numbers of people will be perceived by the community, rightly or wrongly, as more intimidating than a small place.
That simple argument reflects the attitudes of all people who see new communities moving into their areas. I was brought up in villages, and the infilling of two or three houses was never seen as a great problem, but when there was an application for a new estate, people would protest. Such a protest may often have been unreasonable, but people perceived a new estate as changing the character of their village.
Over the years, applications have also been made for nuclear waste dumps. Again, the community responds entirely differently to a proposal involving low-level waste and only a small processing job than it does to the building of a large reprocessing plant or nuclear reactor. We must be sensitive, because size matters, as it affects people's perceptions. Whether the length of stay is three or six months, and whether or not the families use local schools and local GPs from the start or after a while, smaller numbers must be better.
The Government made it clear that the proposal is only a trial, which is the right way to proceed, and that it will not cater for the majority of asylum seekers. It should therefore be a trial that is less likely to pose difficulties and more likely to produce alternative sites and to meet the needs of the individuals involved and those who look after them. I hope that the Government will be sympathetic to the amendment, and if they do not accept it as drafted, that they confirm that they are working towards that principle. The hon. Gentleman and I would be willing to work with the Minister to draft an acceptable proposal for smaller-scale accommodation centres to be the norm, rather than the much larger ones proposed by the Government.