Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Mr. Malins: We have dealt at some length with the size of the proposed accommodation centres, and we now move to a series of amendments that deal with location and other ancillary matters.

The Chairman: Order. I remind hon. Members that I showed a degree of liberalism on the last debate, which incorporated location as well as size. I am sure that hon. Members will bear that in mind when they address the Committee in this debate.

Mr. Malins: Thank you, Mr. Hurst. I certainly will.

At the beginning of this debate on location, I ask the Minister to specify whether the eight sites set out by the immigration and nationality directorate in its briefing of 27 February are still proposed.

Angela Eagle: Yes.

11.30 am

Mr. Malins: I am most grateful. The Secretary of State said that those sites could be suitable. The majority are in rural areas. The IND website told us that an accommodation centre would not be a risk to local residents. It contrasted accommodation centres with removal centres such as Yarl's Wood, describing Yarl's Wood as secure, which it was not, and adding that it is a place where we detain failed asylum seekers before deporting them. I have already made it clear to the Minister that Yarl's Wood had 85 current appellants at the time of the break-out and fire. She will correct me if I am wrong, but an accommodation centre could have up to 750 current appellants.

Location is important. Many argue—including the various groups I mentioned that wrote to the Home Secretary—that an urban area would be more suitable to both those in the accommodation centre and local

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residents. Will the Minister consider the position of my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury? The proposed accommodation centre on former Ministry of Defence land at Bicester severely troubles his constituents and he rightly raises their concerns. It particularly troubles the residents of the small village to which I referred earlier, Piddington, to whom the idea of housing asylum seekers in rural communities is absolute folly. One has asked—many would think the same—whether the asylum seekers would be happier near their own ethnic groups in urban areas where there are better amenities. The villagers remain frustrated because the Home Office has told them little about the proposals.

Most of the eight proposed sites are in rural or semi-rural locations where asylum seekers would face difficulty in accessing local services and pursuing purposeful activity off-site.

Ms Buck: I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's point, but will he accept for the record that at least 75 per cent. of asylum seekers and refugee communities in this country are settled in London, and the majority are settled in urban areas? That context must be taken into account when discussing dispersal.

Mr. Malins: The hon. Lady is right. A large percentage of asylum seekers are in the south-east and London. The dispersal policy of the past two years has sent asylum seekers throughout the United Kingdom, predominantly to urban areas. It would be in the interest of asylum seekers in accommodation centres if they were to be placed in urban areas close to the communities with which they would feel most familiar and happy. After all, asylum seekers in accommodation centres will be free during the day to exercise purposeful activity, to make visits and so on. It would be much easier for them to have a proper life during the process of the asylum application if they were close to communities with which they felt familiar and happy.

A number of organisations, including the Refugee Children's Consortium, have expressed great regret that some of the proposed locations are in isolated areas, where it will be difficult for families to make cultural links and participate in normal community life. Similarly, the Commission for Racial Equality believes that accommodation should be near towns and cities, and integrated with local communities. Integration is fairly crucial to preventing segregation, which would be detrimental to race relations and impede possible resettlement. If an accommodation centre is sited in a remote area, the asylum seekers placed there will be very isolated.

Amendment No. 127 is about consultation. Many believe that consultation on the proposals has so far been rather inadequate, which is why I believe that the Bill should include a requirement for formal and comprehensive consultations with various bodies. Local authorities can advise on local facilities and local reactions, and can do much to calm any concerned residents. The role of a local councillor, for example, can be critical in that context.

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Health authorities are also relevant. They could give advice and deal with issues such as the medical facilities that they could provide on site if that were requested; how medical facilities would be funded; what, if any, local medical personnel would be needed; what role, if any, the local primary care trust might have in the operation of the facilities; and the availability of specialist services in the locality. The police could have a real input on local security issues, especially following the Yarl's Wood incident.

Amendment No. 128 would require a public inquiry to be held if a local authority objected to an accommodation centre. I have referred to the concerns of villagers in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury. He has made the good argument that, if a local authority opposes an accommodation centre, the Secretary of State should exercise his discretion under circular 18/84 to hold a non-statutory public inquiry in which the views of local services and community representatives can be heard.

Currently, people feel strongly that Ministers are talking about consultation with local providers that may amount to no more than written representations. That would be wholly unacceptable. My hon. Friend knows that there would be incredible resentment in his area if the Department steamrollered through a proposal to build on Government land without the fullest possible consultation.

The amendments are designed to tell the Government that the best place to locate an accommodation centre is in an urban area, near existing communities and organisations that can give those in the centre advice and help. The area should have good transport and other facilities to ensure that the idea of purposeful activity for a resident of a centre really means something. There should also be outside support, particularly medical support.

In short, the centres should not be located in rural communities. Apart from being detrimental to the interests of asylum seekers, it could cause concern and fear among local residents. That view is strongly supported by all those organisations that work in the field of asylum on behalf of asylum seekers. If the Minister is not content with the amendments, she will be flying in the face of arguments that have been advanced by all those professionals. I very much hope that she will take the spirit of the amendments on board, and assure the Committee that she will act in accordance with it.

Simon Hughes: I, too, shall speak to amendments Nos. 126 and 127, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) and I are co-signatories. Amendment No. 168 stands in our names alone. We do not support the Conservatives' amendments Nos. 125 or 128. I will not add to the general points made by the hon. Member for Woking on amendments Nos. 126 and 127. It is more important to think of locations that are

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

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—to use the words in amendment No. 126—than to make a clinical distinction between what is urban, suburban and rural. As my hon. Friend said, a perfectly good site might technically be in a rural area, but lie within a two-stop bus ride from a city with a multi-ethnic, multiracial community. Proximity, accessibility and links to an appropriate community are important. As the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North said, asylum seekers who have recently arrived in this country are placed predominantly in urban communities, mainly in London but not always, whether they are being dispersed or have come from elsewhere. I suspect that not one village in England or Wales has significant numbers--say, 25 per cent.--of asylum seekers or recent immigrants, let alone more. Towns and other larger conglomerations are the more frequent locations.

The numbers will be more balanced if the accommodation centre is on the edge of a town or city. By definition, the number of people in such a centre is small compared with that in a town or city. It would help those who read the record of our debates if the Minister were to mention the eight sites in her concluding remarks. The sites have been publicised, but have not been discussed so far in the debate. Whatever the locations, how do the Government intend to ensure that accommodation centres are safe and that the people in them are protected, which is what the Churches Commission for Racial Justice supports, as the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham said? People should feel secure, wherever they are.

I shall be blunt: racists up and down the land are willing to act on their racism individually or in groups. We must therefore ensure that the debate is balanced in communities where accommodation centres are sited. Racists are able to put their arguments well in newspapers and on the radio, and it is important that there should be no NIMBYish opposition to foreigners, strangers and others whom they believe will not stay long but are unacceptable. I am not suggesting that the Minister or the Government are unaware of that.

Statutory authorities should be formally consulted on the processes of democracy. That is why amendment No. 127 is reasonable. It is no good for the Government to plant such centres on areas without formally asking for and taking into account the views of the local authority, local quasi-democratic authorities, the police, the health authority and non-governmental organisations with experience. If such bodies are consulted, a public inquiry would be unnecessary, if not unhelpful. Such an inquiry would cause delay and increase local tension.

Inquiries about electoral boundaries are the same: no one is allowed to say that they object to a proposed boundary because it disadvantages them, so they invent six other reasons to do with history, geography and everything else. People may not be prepared to say that they do not want black or Asian people or people from Kosovo living near them, so they will invent six other reasons and spin out the debate at great expense

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and to no great community advantage. If we are talking about a few centres around the country, I am happy that the debate will be public as long as the Government consult formally and properly, publish the responses and take them into account. If the parish, town, district or county council or unitary authority, together with the police and health authorities, cannot adequately represent the views of the local community, I do not know who can.

My hon. Friend and I do not support amendment No. 125 because we agree that one cannot ring fence an urban area and say that nothing outside it--not even two inches--would be an appropriate location.

11.45 am

Amendment No. 168 is an important probing amendment, and the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham referred to its provisions. It proposes that no accommodation centre should be established unless the Secretary of State is satisfied that it provides adequate accommodation and facilities, and unless proper consultation has taken place. It is easy to envisage the centres as institutional, dormitory places like army camps. That is a danger, and we must afford individuals and families the dignity they need, even in the trials. Eight males between 18 and 30 may arrive from Albania or 12 from Afghanistan, and they may be happy to share accommodation. However, it would not be appropriate for families with children to share accommodation and have to battle to get to the shower or to the washing or baby-changing facilities. We must provide adequate accommodation that we would expect any other family in a community to be provided.

My hon. Friend and I have compared notes on the Sheffield and London experience. Institutional accommodation is much more likely to induce resistance, objection and a potentially disorderly community. I have not visited Yarl's Wood and do not know the circumstances that led up to the difficulties there, but putting large numbers of people together in an institutional environment allows discontent to fester. In respect of management and decency, I hope that the Minister can assure the Committee about the provisions in amendment No. 168, particularly paragraph (3)(b), which concerns the provision of separate accommodation for each household or person.

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