Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Angela Eagle: I hope that the hon. Gentleman ceases to refer to those places as camps.

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Mr. Barker: A slip of the tongue.

Angela Eagle: Communities will develop in those places and we shall try to facilitate improved contact management so that asylum claims can be processed faster. The Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson believes that we can get rid of asylum claims from start to finish in five weeks; he said that on Second Reading. We would all love to be able to do so, but our experience to date suggests that six months is a tough call. We are changing procedures—the Bill will streamline the appeals structures—to do the job faster. We must improve contact management, reduce decision times and use the one-stop shop concept to provide facilities in the accommodation centres with the people expecting hearings close to hand.

All that is about experimenting to achieve a faster turnaround of asylum claims without compromising on fairness or objectivity. We also want to increase the rate of return of those whose claims are refused and to establish an integration strategy for those granted asylum. In trials, we must keep a constant eye on size and establish whether economies of scale are possible. As an economist, I know that they are possible, but that at some stage they tail off and other problems arise. We shall try to establish the optimum number by trial and experimentation, but we have not yet decided on the optimum and we have no blueprint hidden away somewhere that will be whipped out and applied everywhere. If we intended to do that, we would not have instigated trials. I look forward to further debate after the trials have been evaluated and we have assessed how they work in practice.

Simon Hughes: I completely accept the Minister's argument, but I must press her, because someone somewhere must already have formed a view, however provisional, of the largest and smallest size necessary to deliver the requisite range of services. I do not want to tie her to a final decision, but it would help if she defined the parameters within which the arrangements are likely to be set up.

Angela Eagle: Part of the answer depends on the availability of sites at a particular time. If I gave the hon. Gentleman a figure, circumstances might conspire to make it inaccurate. I cannot do so, because we are not yet at that stage. I could say what he wants to hear, but it would not be backed up in reality. I can say only that we shall keep hon. Members informed about our thinking and our plans. We have said that we would consider reconfiguring a smaller site. When we have decided how practical that is and whether there are adequate sites that could be developed, we will let the hon. Gentleman know.

Angela Watkinson: How will people become eligible for places in accommodation centres, as demand is likely greatly to outstrip availability? Will places be allocated first come, first-served or will they be given to people whose applications are most likely to succeed, who will therefore be processed more quickly?

The Chairman: Order. I remind hon. Members that they should not read newspapers in Committee.

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Angela Eagle: We shall publish criteria for allocation to accommodation centres. During the trials, only a small proportion of people will be involved. We want to trial accommodation centres for all types of asylum seeker; as the hon. Lady knows, 80 per cent. of asylum seekers are young single men, and the other 20 per cent. are family units of various kinds. We shall try to ensure that the trial enables us to test how services might be offered in an accommodation centre to all types of asylum seeker. We shall take operational decisions about who is eligible.

The process will be different from that at Oakington, where the cases are much simpler and an assessment can be made more easily so that they can be fast-tracked. It is different from that which applies for allocation to accommodation centres.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): On a point of order, Mr. Hurst. The newspaper article that I was reading is about the Bill, and I want to refer to it later. I meant no disrespect to you or the Minister.

The Chairman: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for explaining the situation.

Angela Eagle: I look forward to the focused questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) will fire at me as a result of her research, which is always impeccable.

The proposal is flexible; it would be inflexible if a number were specified.

Mr. Malins: Will the Minister, first, deal with the planning applications process raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker) and, secondly, give her best guest as to when the first trial accommodation centre will open?

Angela Eagle: The planning arrangements will be made under planning circular 18/84, which the hon. Gentleman may be aware of and which allows both fast and slower track processes for the local authority. We are considering using the slower track rather than the fast. We want as much support and engagement with the matter as we can muster among local authorities and those involved in areas where accommodation centres are being sought.

Mr. Barker: Are the buildings likely to be temporary or prefabricated, or will they be larger and more permanent?

Angela Eagle: There are several options. Some of the established sites are in existing buildings, which may be refurbished. Refurbishment may be a faster way of getting the first accommodation centre up and running than new build. We cannot rule out new builds; we are looking on a site-by-site basis at what would be the most effective approach. It is unlikely to be prefabs.

We are discussing planning issues. We do not want to proceed in a way that alienates local people, which inevitably means that we must go slower than we would like to. It is frustrating for those who might wish to trial the new arrangements that we cannot say

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immediately when it will start. However, the current planning assumption is that it will probably be in summer 2003 rather than at the end of the year.

I hope, with those reassurances, that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his amendment. Putting a number in the Bill is too inflexible for operational need and for matching sites to what we are trying to do. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be reassured by some of the detail that I have given the Committee about how we intend to proceed.

Mr. Malins: I am only slightly reassured. The immigration and nationality directorate said on its website that the Government plan to set up four accommodation centres which will provide 3,000 places. We have to work on the basis that that was the Government's proposal. The Minister has heard Opposition Members and her hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow express serious reservations about the proposed size of the centres. Those reservations are amply backed up in an urgent letter to the Home Secretary on 3 May jointly signed by, among others, the Immigration Advisory Service, Amnesty International, the Immigration Law Practitioners Association, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureau, 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. The Minister knows that there are strong and well-argued feelings about the matter. Although the Bill cannot specify a maximum number, it is vital that these accommodation centres are sufficiently small to be efficient and humane for those on site and to alleviate the concerns of local residents.

Angela Eagle: Does the hon. Gentleman also recognise that there is a balance to be struck between efficient use of public funds and economies of scale so that we provide good services for centres of an appropriate size. Although we do not know what size is appropriate before the trials, we will have to strike a balance. Deciding on an arbitrary figure, such as 250, assumes a response to the trials and evidence that we do not have.

Mr. Malins: I understand that point only too well: 250 is an arbitrary figure, but it enables the debate to get under way. The Minister is aware now, if she was not already, of the strong feeling of the professionals and the entire Opposition that those centres should be small. I am encouraged by the Minister's statement that the Home Secretary is quite happy to consider a smaller size. That is an important concession. The tone of the Minister's response was helpful. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Malins: I beg to move amendment No. 126, in page 9, line 6, after 'persons', insert

    'in locations suitable to the cultural and other needs of those to be accommodated.'.

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The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 125, in page 9, line 6, after 'Part', insert 'in urban areas'.

No. 127, in page 9, line 8, at end add—

    '(3) Prior to providing an accommodation centre, the Home Secretary shall consult formally with, and receive representations orally or in writing from the relevant local authorities, health authorities, and police authority.'.

No. 128, in page 9, line 8, at end add—

    '(4) Where a local authority objects in writing to the provision of an accommodation centre within its area, the Secretary of State shall hold a public inquiry.'.

No. 168, in page 9, line 8, at end add—

    '(3) No accommodation centre shall be established unless the Secretary of State is satisfied that it provides adequate accommodation and facilities with especial reference to:

    (a) location

    (b) provision of separate accommodation for each household or person

    (c) the health and safety of residents and staff

    (d) the availability of appropriate support and advice services in the locality.

    (4) In determining that an accommodation centre provides adequate accommodation and facilities the Secretary of State shall consult with and have regard to the views of

    (a) the local authority of the area

    (b) the health authorities for the area

    (c) the Legal Services Commission

    (d) the police authority

    (e) relevant professional bodies.'.

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