Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Angela Eagle: Two amendments in the group take two different approaches. We all realise how difficult and emotive the arrival of asylum seekers can be in a local area, whether at an accommodation centre, in cluster areas or through dispersal. All decent and reasonable politicians must try to calm people's fears rather than make them worse. We must ensure that reason rather than blind emotion is the order of the day. It is also up to the Government to be as reassuring as possible when handling such difficult matters.

In my experience, there is always worry, and sometimes hysteria and deliberate racism, when large groups of asylum seekers arrive through the dispersal

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system or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dover knows, at the port of entry, or when accommodation centre sites are announced. We must work together to ensure that this country handles the issues in a way that is most likely to diffuse racial tension and reassure communities that have both legitimate and illegitimate fears. I am pleased that that has been the tone of our debate in Committee and on Second Reading.

It is difficult to reflect on that position and then to listen to the argument of the hon. Member for Woking that these people should be based elsewhere rather than in the rural areas, and that in no circumstances could any rural area help to accommodate asylum seekers while their claims are being dealt with. It smacks too much of a ''not in my backyard'' attitude. Services in London and other inner-city areas are already hard pressed, but the hon. Gentleman argues that they should always accept the burden and no other solutions can be tried in any circumstances.

Mr. Malins: It is not a question of ''not in my backyard''. Will the Minister explain why many of the professional organisations to which I referred earlier signed the joint letter to the Home Secretary? Why have they reached that conclusion about the siting of various accommodation centres?

Angela Eagle: The NGOs have the great luxury of being able to be against everything. They do not have to take decisions about numbers. In certain circumstances, decisions that are unpalatable to some groups have to be taken. The hon. Gentleman will recall debates about dispersal, which many opposed. It is easy to be against potential solutions to the problem, but that does not help either the Government or suffering local communities to reach a solution. We need an open and transparent debate about how best to deal with the problem.

Last summer dispersal was appalling. It was not working; it was awful; it should never have taken place. My hon. Friend's constituency of Dover and other parts of south-eastern Kent desperately needed relief from the sheer numbers. Yet we now hear that dispersal is working well. Different solutions are possible, and we need to assess them in order to provide the best possible system for hearing asylum seekers' claims as quickly and effectively as possible. We also need to distribute more fairly across the country the extra costs, social problems and other consequences arising from asylum seekers landing on our shores. It is inappropriate to pass an amendment that would ban us wholesale from considering rural areas as part of the solution. We must be flexible and sensible. We cannot accept the inflexibility that the amendment embodies.

Mr. Allan: We have already explained that we do not support a rigid distinction between urban and rural, but will the Minister listen seriously to the concerns expressed about the social isolation of asylum seekers? She referred to the previous problems with dispersal. Experience has shown that many of the criticisms that

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the NGOs made of the previous legislation were well-founded. Neither system has been perfect, but I hope that the Minister will at least listen to this informed criticism.

Angela Eagle: I always listen to informed criticism and I am a great admirer of NGOs, but Ministers have to take decisions. It is right for NGOs to have opinions on everything, but sometimes decisions have to be taken. We should recognise that it is possible to be as socially isolated in a tenement block in Glasgow as in a rural area.

Mr. Malins: The Minister is obviously right on that last point. She claims to be a great admirer of NGOs, yet a few moments ago she rubbished them. Does she accept the thrust of their argument—I accept that our wording in the amendment may be inappropriate—that it would be in the best interests of asylum seekers generally if accommodation centres were based in urban areas with all their available facilities? Does she accept the power of that argument?

Angela Eagle: I do not accept the power of that argument. If I did, we would not have the sites on the list. The argument has still to be proved, one way or the other. The trials will give us a view on the matter. That is why we are not taking dogmatic, peremptory decisions about where the accommodation centres should be. There may be a profusion of different provisions in time if accommodation centres work. I am not saying that accommodation centres will always be in rural areas and nowhere else. We have a lot of experience of trying to deal with dispersal in urban areas, and we want to trial accommodation centres in rural areas to see what that teaches us about what we can provide. An amendment that would preclude such trials or which would preclude certain areas is not acceptable.

Simon Hughes: Does not the experience of the dispersal policy show that the secret of success is collaboration and agreement with local authorities? My noble Friend Lord Greaves said in a debate in the House of Lords that at the beginning the policy was not working, but once people started to work together it was much more likely to succeed.

Angela Eagle: Yes, I am always in favour of agreement and co-operation, because they lead to better outcomes than imposition. However, there must be a recognition of joint responsibility. Sometimes local authorities think that opposition will make the problem go away and someone else will have the burden. People in local authorities and at national level must recognise their responsibility to look after asylum seekers appropriately and effectively, and in a way that causes the least trouble for authorities that are under a great deal of pressure. The hon. Gentleman, who represents a London constituency, knows that we all have to work together to achieve that. At present, not everybody wishes to work with us to that end.

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Ms Buck: Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the work done by London local authorities and others? With the right Government support, local authorities are perfectly capable of providing the package of services necessary and of accommodating, as London does, the overwhelming majority of asylum seekers and refugees.

Angela Eagle: They are doing a good job, but we do not see why the burden should always fall on particular areas because of their geographical location. The authority may contain a port such as Dover, which is used for clandestine entry, or be in one of the most exciting multicultural cities in the world where large numbers of people would want to live if they had the choice.

Mr. Malins: Having told us that the first trial accommodation centre should be up and running by the middle of 2003, will the Minister outline exactly the proposed consultation process to be undertaken before that date with the local authorities that are near the proposed site?

Angela Eagle: I will go through that process in a moment, but I want to make another important general point, which relates to the welcome comments made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey about needing to ensure that the occupants of accommodation centres are safe and secure. We must recognise that there are racists in the land and, as the hon. Gentleman said, the balance of the debate needs to be non-NIMBY. It should also be non-hysterical and responsible. I noticed with satisfaction the comment made by the hon. Member for Woking about the crucial role of local councillors in reassuring local people.

I ask the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey to note a Liberal Democrat leaflet that was distributed in Speke Garston during the local elections. It featured pictures of Yarl's Wood going up in flames and was headed, ''Labour's prison camp for Speke Garston.'' Frank Roderick, a local councillor, referred to the plans and the people who might go into what is a detention centre rather than an accommodation centre. He said that Labour was considering foisting on the area not genuine asylum seekers or legitimate immigrants, but

    ''illegal immigrants and asylum seekers whose applications have been rejected,''

    ''instead of being immediately deported . . . are being herded into prison camps such as the one Labour is proposing for us.''

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take the opportunity to condemn such irresponsible behaviour, which whips up hatred against all black people, but particularly against asylum seekers and immigrants, whether illegal or otherwise.

12 noon

Simon Hughes: The Minister will guess that my response will always be to condemn such leaflets, wherever they come from. My 20 years in the House have shown me that they come from all three parties at

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different times. I have not seen that leaflet. I do not know that issue. I will happily look at it and take up the matter.

Angela Eagle: I thank the hon. Gentleman. All political parties, especially in the current environment, deal with those important issues responsibly. They arouse a lot of emotion, and if that emotion is not dealt with responsibly it can lead to extremely dangerous situations and enable more extreme and violent parties to gain a foothold. It is interesting to note that on every site there has been BNP activity.

The sites under consideration are: MOD Pershore in Worcestershire, RAF Hemswell in Lincolnshire, Sully hospital in Cardiff, Hooton Park at Ellesmere Port, MOD land in Bicester, Oxfordshire, Air West in Edinburgh, which was formerly RAF Turnhouse, RAF Newton in Nottinghamshire and Killinghome power station in Grimsby. We hope to confirm shortly those that are likely to be suitable. My noble Friend Lord Rooker will make an announcement when he is ready.

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