Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): I cannot support the amendment because it would require that the Bill should specify a certain number. However, I understand the points that were made, as I raised the matter myself on Second Reading. The size of a centre is critical, because from that flow issues such as the exclusion of children in the centres from mainstream education, which we will consider in this part of the Bill. A local school system will not easily be able to accommodate the significant number of children from large centres.

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We must consider where people are accommodated now, and bear in mind the fact that the dispersal system is beginning to work well in some parts of the country. Asylum seekers are already placed in hostels, hotels and bed and breakfast accommodation with 50, 100 or even 200 people in one place. Should we not consider what services we can provide to those people? It was suggested that accommodation centres with 750 people would need services on site, to ensure that people have access to medical and legal advice and support. There is also a reporting requirement. Although the Bill does not mention legal advice, the Minister said that it should be available. Such services are beginning to work well in some sites in dispersal areas.

I share some of the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) about the impact on an area of an accommodation centre for 750 people. If those centres are in rural or, at best, semi-urban areas, they will have a significant impact, whether we like it or not. We will later discuss the impact on children in the accommodation centres.

I am worried about the attitude of people when they suddenly discover that they have a centre in their area which accommodates 600 or 700 young, single men without much to do. Like it or not, that issue will arise and it needs to be faced.

Simon Hughes: I support what the hon. Gentleman said. In Southwark, there are 750 people in an hotel at the Elephant. It was argued that the numbers were so big that it was not possible to arrange sport or other activities for them. The centre became too big for the local authority or any provider to manage.

Mr. Gerrard: In the light of such experiences, we should be wary about providing centres of that size.

Another consequence of large centres was pointed out to me recently by the chief executive of the Refugee Council. He referred to his previous experience of working with homeless people and explained that the larger the centre, the harder it is to manage. If we are talking about accommodation rather than detention centres, the bigger the centre, the more difficult it will be to create an open regime with a reasonably relaxed atmosphere.

We are supposed to be trialing these centres. It is pretty obvious that it is hard to find sites where local people and the local authorities will accept 750 people. If at the end of the trial we decide that accommodation centres have worked, how many centres of 750 would we need to accommodate a larger proportion of asylum seekers? If we had four they would provide 3,000 places. If they were used twice a year they could accommodate 6,000 people. If we manage to get the decision-making process speeded up and each place is used three times a year, which is unlikely, 9,000 people would go through those four centres.

I suspect that that is an exaggeration of the numbers we would get through. What do we do in three or four years' time? Will we have 10, 20, 30 centres of that size? If so, where will they be located and how will suitable sites be found? Realistically, there will be less chance of

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finding suitable sites for large accommodation centres outside urban areas than for smaller centres in urban or semi-urban areas. Simple, practical problems will inevitably flow from the decision to have large centres.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster): I should like to speak in support of the amendment. If we are to set up these accommodation centres they must be successful, and we must get the formula right. Only a small proportion of all those seeking asylum will be able to be placed in these centres, but 250 people is a large number to a local authority if they are to be provided with the necessary support services so that they can be dealt with quickly and decisions can be made quickly. If their appeals are successful, they can then be absorbed into the local community quickly. They can find jobs and accommodation and become full members of society. If their applications are unsuccessful, they can be removed equally quickly.

Local authorities will need to be consulted fully about all the support services, particularly in the planning process before the accommodation centres are set up. The health authorities will need to be consulted about their ability to absorb numbers of people who are likely to have quite complex health needs. There will be people who are traumatised, who are injured or who have been tortured. They will have a variety of specific health needs that may not normally be presented to every health authority. It is important to ensure that all those services are available.

The larger number of people there are in any one place, the more difficult it will be to provide those comprehensive services, especially proper legal services, which are quite unlike some of the pseudo-legal services that are on offer. Some of my constituents find months down the line that they have parted with large sums of money for pseudo-legal advice that proves useless to them. Services must be of proper quality to enable people to have their asylum claims dealt with effectively.

People should be dealt with properly in small numbers so that local and health authorities can provide the comprehensive range of services that they need. They should also be dealt with quickly, so that they are not languishing in anonymous places for a long period. If necessary, they should be moved on swiftly into proper accommodation with proper job prospects in the community.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): I want to speak briefly and expound the point of view sent to me in a briefing from the Churches Commission for Racial Justice. The Minister may be able to respond to it in her winding-up speech.

For those who are not aware of it, the Churches Commission for Racial Justice has for some time been monitoring trends in UK and European asylum policy, together with advocacy in support of good race and community relations in Britain. It is a multi-denominational body: Churches in Britain and Ireland together have made wide representations and have considerable experience on which to base their conclusions. The CCRJ has worked with the British Medical Association, the Family Welfare Association,

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Oxfam, the Refugee Council, Save the Children, the Children Society and the Transport and General Workers Union. It is therefore well worth echoing its views on this group of amendments.

The CCRJ believes that we require a more imaginative and humane approach to all aspects of the asylum process, including the reception of asylum seekers. It argues that it would not start from where we are now. However, given that part 2 of the Bill is the Government's response to the problem, it argues that four conditions must be met. First, asylum seekers should spend as short a period as possible in a centre; secondly, accommodation centres should be run as little like detention centres as possible and opportunities for engagement with the local community should be created; thirdly, any children accommodated in centres should be educated at local schools with the necessary financial resources invested in the child at the school; and fourthly, accommodation centres should be constructed and designed on a human scale.

The CCRJ goes on to say that the number of people in any given accommodation centre is less important than the circumstances in which they are accommodated. It believes that units should be varied in size, accommodating families when required. The accommodation should be safe from hazard and potential attack. The building and surrounding grounds should incorporate the concept of defensible space so that people who already feel fearful can feel safe. Any children accommodated in the centres must neither be, nor feel, at risk.

All practical facilities and services, CCRJ continues, should be supplied in an accessible, friendly and efficient way, but proper provision should be made for pastoral care and chaplaincy offered by experienced people from faiths and denominations appropriate to the asylum seekers. The CCRJ is already in contact with many of those who currently provide such support for asylum seekers, and it realises from reports that it is hard to overstate the level of stress, strain and trauma that many asylum seekers experience when they arrive. Such problems arise from the cause of their departure from their homeland, and are exacerbated by their flight to this country. CCRJ believes that accommodation centres must provide an environment that eases rather than increases suffering—a point on which we can all agree.

In conclusion, CCRJ urges the Government to use the opportunity of our debate on this group of amendments to commit themselves to taking all possible measures to ensure that the new accommodation centres are small and not institutional; that they support asylum seekers and do not add to their burdens; and that local communities are helped to engage with the asylum seekers for as long as they remain in the centres.

I hope that the Minister will respond to the points made by the CCRJ, and that they add to the debate.

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11 am

Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): I, too, want to pledge my wholehearted support for the amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), and to voice the concerns of rural communities facing the imposition of these large centres. They arise not because many people in rural areas are unsympathetic to the plight of asylum seekers, but because their own public services are already overstretched. Support services in rural areas do not have the capacity to take on large, new populations, be they in accommodation centres or new-build housing estates.

I want to press the Minister on the planning system. Will she clarify the rules that will govern the construction of the new accommodation centres? If there are to be 750 places, that will require a huge building, more like a complex. Whether it is proposed that most asylum seekers should be housed in single living or dormitory accommodation, a large building will be required. Even if the sites are unused former airfields or military bases, a great deal of new construction will be necessary. Will the Minister explain whether local authorities will have full powers to govern the direction of the new buildings as they would normally over any proposed new construction? If so, surely smaller buildings will be easier to pass through the planning system. The problems thrown up by the construction of a 750-person site would be infinitely greater than those involved in a 250-person site. Will the Minister clarify the planning guidelines for the construction of the new centres, and bear in mind the already overstretched nature of public services for people in rural areas?

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