Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

[back to previous text]

Mr. Dhanda: The hon. Gentleman has referred to problems that we have had in the past, including at Yarl's Wood. Just out of curiosity, has he any inkling of the difference in costs between the public sector or a public-private partnership providing the service?

12.15 pm

Simon Hughes: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the Minister's earlier remarks. As these ventures are new, there is no logical reason why there should be a difference or why the public sector should cost more. If the public sector is to be responsible for all the accommodation centres, there must be an efficiency cost benefit from using the same strategic—not local—management for all the sectors. If different contractors are to carry out different operations, that will add management costs, which will be forced back on to Government. The Minister rightfully talked about scale, cost benefit and efficiency. Those factors will determine the relative costs.

I do not know the difference in costs with regard to accommodation centres. Someone may have carried out an evaluation on the continent. I have talked through the issue in detail with people in Finland, where I went about a year ago. Accommodation centres there are run entirely by the public sector. It is not contemplated that they should be in the private sector. I am not aware of them being privatised anywhere else or of similar organisations in Europe—although I may be corrected.

We start with a principle. If there were an overwhelming argument that a reputable contractor could build accommodation centres better and more cheaply in a second phase after the trial, that would be reasonable. This is a new venture. There are already enough difficulties with the proposal we have discussed. If the accommodation centres are to be in the private sector there will be the added difficulty of lack of accountability. If the public are to have confidence, they must know that Ministers, or a Government agency, and elected local councillors are responsible and will not say, ''Nothing to do with us, guv, we just signed the contract''. It is important that we hold to that principle. I hope that the Minister can assure us that all the accommodation centres trials for the entire period under this legislation will be carried out in the public sector.

Column Number: 92

Mr. Malins: I shall be brief. My probing amendment No. 141 asks the Minister whether the contract for the centre manager will be available for public scrutiny, as I believe it should be. On the clause stand part, will the Minister give us some idea of the ratio of staff on-site to numbers at the proposed centres? Does she have any idea of the likely weekly cost of housing someone in an accommodation centre, given that the available figure for Oakington, for example, is £1,600 per week?

Mr. Barker: Will the Minister confirm who will be responsible for policing the accommodation centres? The maintenance of proper order is important. There will be a lot of vulnerable people, particularly if the centres are to house 750; that is a lot of people susceptible to crime. We know that there are criminals along with genuine asylum seekers, particularly among young men seeking to come here. The places of origin of most of these people are often rife with organised crime. One or two bad apples trying to assert their hegemony over people in accommodation centres can create an unpleasant and disturbing environment for those living there. Who will be responsible for policing and listening carefully to what is going on in the centres to ensure that no attempt is made to create gangs, or to pressure residents in the centres to obey anyone other than the British authorities?

When asylum seekers have been dispersed, on numerous occasions young men in particular have engaged in gang warfare or other small acts of rivalry that have given rise to violence and other criminal activity. Will the Minister assure the Committee that those factors will be properly monitored?

Angela Eagle: The amendments raise various issues, and I shall try to answer specific questions on the clause stand part debate as well.

I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey wants to legislate for all accommodation centres or just the four trial centres, but his amendment would mean that all accommodation centres, now and for ever more, would have to be in the public sector. I assume that that is his intention, but the Bill carries an important flexibility that allows us to run the centres by contracting them out—to which he objects—in the public or voluntary sectors, or even using a mix of the different types. The Bill uses a menu, which we can mix and match for the provision of accommodation centres, and I want to keep it that way while we trial various centres.

The hon. Gentleman was right about the virtues that he attributed to the public sector, and I share his commitment to them, particularly accountability. However, I am not as pessimistic about using contracted-out services appropriately to deliver a particular service. I do not want to accept amendment No. 167, which would completely rule out the possibility of anyone other than the Home Office or a relevant local authority running the accommodation centres.

The status quo in the Bill will allow the Home Office or a local authority to run an accommodation centre. It will also allow for some or all of the services to be

Column Number: 93

contracted out, and I would prefer to keep it that way so that we can be flexible across the piece. In the light of the Yarl's Wood incident, questions have surfaced about public and private ownership and management of such organisations, and it would be wrong to pre-empt what may emerge from the report into what happened at Yarl's Wood. It is important to remember that we are trying a new concept of accommodation centres, which will be different from removal centres. Some hon. Members said that they will not be that different, but we will have failed if we create an accommodation centre that is indistinguishable from a removal centre. It is not our intention to conflate the two concepts. There may be lessons to learn from the Yarl's Wood inquiries, which is why the Bill has the flexibilities that I mentioned.

On amendment No. 170 and the running of the centres, it is of course essential to prevent inappropriate people from attaining positions of influence or authority. That is vital for the welfare for all residents and staff, as well as for the integrity of what we are trying to achieve. We have the same aim. Any contract with the private sector will be able to specify relevant legislation that must be adhered to—the Race Relations Act 1976, for example—to ensure that we prevent unsuitable people from working with children or gaining positions as members of staff. That is implicit for public sector institutions, and there is cover if private, contracted-out services are used.

The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 outlawed race discrimination by both private and public sector bodies. It also extended anti-discrimination methods so that race discrimination and victimisation is now outlawed in all public functions, with limited exceptions for this building, immigration laws and national security. None of those will be applicable in the instances we are debating. As the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey may know from that Bill's Standing Committee, that also covers public-private contracting.

The 2000 Act covers all employers, who must not discriminate on racial grounds against people seeking work. The Act covers all aspects of employment including recruitment, selection, promotion, training and pay. Legislation covering sexual offences against children applies regardless of where the child is located, so it applies in an accommodation centre. In addition, the offence of abuse of trust, introduced in the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000, made it an offence for a person over the age of 18, involved in a position of trust or authority over a child, to engage in any sexual activity with them.

Any employer whose work involves training, caring for or sole charge of children may request an enhanced disclosure from the Criminal Records Bureau for any person requesting employment in their area. The disclosure will include all previous convictions, including spent convictions, and any local intelligence on the individual. That will be one of several factors influencing the decision to offer employment. Furthermore, the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 enables a judge to impose a disqualification

Column Number: 94

order as part of a sentence for a person convicted of an offence against a child and sentenced to more than 12 months imprisonment. That makes it an offence for a relevant offender to apply for work with children in the future or for an employer knowingly to employ them whilst they are subject to the order.

The safeguards apply across the board, and equally to accommodation centres. It is not necessary for the Bill to state that other legislative requirements need to be met. They are implicit whether the provision is public, private, mixed or voluntary.

Amendments Nos. 141 and 182 refer to the detailed contractual arrangements between an accommodation centre provider and the Secretary of State. They are commercially confidential and cannot be disclosed as a document of public record. It is envisaged that the manager of a centre may in some circumstances be a member of staff of a private sector or non-governmental organisation contracted to operate an accommodation centre. Alternatively, the centre manager may be a civil servant. The Bill is drafted to give us that flexibility because we want day-to-day decisions and regulation of the regime to be undertaken locally.

Mr. Allan: In the light of the Minister's comments about contracts being experimental, are the Government contemplating private finance initiative-type contracts for building the centres? That would tie them into a longer-term contract, typically 20-plus years. Are they considering only short-term contracts for the centres, which would exclude any proposal in which the private sector paid the building costs? I want to know about the potential involvement of the private sector in the provision of services.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 7 May 2002