Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Mr. Malins: We have had a long and wide-ranging debate about accommodation centres. My hon. Friends and I have expressed serious concerns about their proposed size and location, despite the fact that we support them in principle and wish them well. I hope that the Minister has taken our comments on board.

Mention has been made of Yarl's Wood. Perhaps I can be forgiven for asking the Minister to give us an idea of when the insurance will be sorted out with the underwriters. When will the remaining half be filled up with detainees and over what period? What plans are there for rebuilding the half that was destroyed, and what is the time scale for that? We need to know when it will become operational again. We would appreciate any help on that and on the likely publication date of the report that the Government commissioned into the Yarl's Wood affair.

Simon Hughes: I shall be equally brief. I reiterate the question about the report. That is of interest to all of us. Our view is that relatively small accommodation centres would be a good idea, but that big and inappropriately located centres would be a bad idea. That is exactly the policy that is not evidenced by the Bill, but by thinking and practice. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam, who led on the previous Bill, and I have had unhappy experiences of the legislation and of the management of this issue. We will therefore happily talk to the hon. Member for Woking and his colleagues and the Ministers to try to reach a consensus. If we can reach a consensus in Committee and with non-governmental and other organisations about the right locations on the basis of the information provided by the Minister's officials, the centres are more likely to be successful. Otherwise, the locations are likely to be considered inappropriate, as were aspects of the previous Bill.

It is reasonable to trial proposals, but we must trial them carefully with the broadest possible consensus in Parliament and local government. We should not believe that it will be easy to achieve such agreement, but it is worth trying. We support the concept behind the clause and will not vote against it, provided that it is sensitively worked through with the maximum collaboration.

12.45 pm

Angela Eagle: I understand that the police are still investigating the incident at Yarl's Wood. It is important to put the report in the public domain, and to learn lessons from it as quickly as possible. We shall publish it as soon as we can, but I cannot give the hon. Member for Woking a date yet. That is not very satisfactory, but I cannot tell him what it is not possible to establish at the moment.

The hon. Gentleman knows as well as we do that the insurance for and the rebuilding of the remaining part of the site are subject to legal action. That makes it

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almost impossible for me to say anything other than that we are vigorously pursuing our contractual rights and that we look forward to the legal system dealing with the insurance claims as quickly as possible to end the uncertainty.

I agree with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey that it will be easier to develop the systems in the clause coherently and safely if we can achieve consensus in such an emotive area and calm fears that often get out of proportion. I hope that we can do that, however difficult it might be.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 14 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 15

Support for destitute asylum-seeker

Mr. Malins: I beg to move amendment No. 129, in page 9, line 12, after 'centre', insert:

    'for a maximum period of three months'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 171, in page 9, line 16, at end insert:


    (c) neither the person nor his dependants has previously been accommodated in an accommodation centre for a period of six months in total.'

No. 138, in clause 20, page 11, line 26, at end add:

    'for a period of no longer than three months'.

No. 177, in page 11, line 26, at end add:

    'for a period of no longer than six months in total.'

No. 140, in clause 21, page 11, line 31, after 'centre', insert:

    'for a period of no longer than three months'.

No. 179, in page 11, line 31, at end insert:

    'for a period of no longer than 6 months in total.'

Mr. Malins: Our debate on accommodation centres was useful, but theoretical. I intend to bring some realism to our discussions about asylum along the lines of remarks made by the hon. Member for Walthamstow. Our amendments would oblige the Government to house people in accommodation centres for a maximum of three months, although I do not believe that they want to include that in the Bill. We must ask ourselves whether our legislation makes a difference, and I venture to suggest that our discussions today are unlikely to have an impact on the outside world in the next year or so.

In the last quarter of 2001, there were 18,005 applications for asylum in the United Kingdom and 21,220 initial decisions, which is 7 per cent. fewer than in the previous quarter. Some 14,600 appeals were received and 12,655 determined. In the fourth quarter, 2,450 principal applicants were removed, which is way below the Government's unrealistic target of 30,000 removals a year.

I have quoted those figures to establish the fact, for it cannot be doubted, that the Government face a real difficulty in that the asylum system, with current

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methods, cannot be efficient and speedy. However, efficiency and speed are two absolute requirements. The system must be speedy not only for obvious reasons, but for slightly less obvious reasons, including the asylum applicant's welfare.

Members of the Committee will have experience of asylum applicants from their constituency surgeries. How often in the past, and even these days, had a visitor to a Member of Parliament's surgery been waiting for an initial decision on their asylum application for 12 months or more? Will the Minister give the latest figures on the time taken to make an initial decision after an application? What is the average time that such a decision takes? I know that, in practice, it can take up to a year.

What about appeal? I know, as other Members do, that in practice an appeal can quite often last a year or more. As a result, the system becomes as chaotic as it has been in the past year or so—a fact recognised by the Home Secretary. Let us relate to my amendment on accommodation centres the fact that decisions on initial applications and appeals are not taken quickly enough and that removals are way behind target.

Mr. Barker: Is my hon. Friend aware that asylum seekers who have come to see me have been waiting more than two years for their first interview? They have pressed for one since arriving in the country, but their paperwork seems to be totally lost.

Mr. Malins: My hon. Friend's experience is not unique; it must be shared by many members of the Committee. Where does that leave our debate on attendance at accommodation centres? How long will asylum seekers spend there? The Government propose that asylum seekers will remain at a centre throughout the process. If that is not the case, I should like to know. Otherwise, I should like confirmation that the Government believe that the initial decision will be made and, if it is unfavourable, the appeal lodged and determined while the applicant is in the centre.

How long will applicants wait in accommodation centres? It has been remarked that the centres will take only a small proportion of applicants per year, and 70,000 or 80,000 people apply. According to the Government's figures, if an applicant remains at a centre for six months, 6,000 will go through the centres per year—a very small proportion of the total.

If order is to be reintroduced to the system, my hon. Friends and I believe a one-stop shop to be essential. We shall come to amendments concerning the presence of adjudicators, but decisions can be reached quickly in a one-stop shop. There seems to be no reason for an asylum applicant not having their application decided in one, two or three weeks by an official or for the adjudicator not hearing the appeal within weeks thereafter. If the process were completed speedily, which later amendments, through a one-stop shop, would encourage, a much higher percentage of asylum applicants would go through the accommodation centres each year. If, however, initial decisions and appeals still take months, applicants will be left in accommodation centres for a very long period, which cannot be right.

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That is the background and context of my amendment, which would limit to three months the presence of an applicant in an accommodation centre. I picked that figure to encourage the Government to make it clear that they intend to apply a distinct time framework from the moment an application is made right through to the conclusion of an appeal. That would enable them to catch up with the appalling mess of case arrears that has prevailed over the past three or four years. That position shows little or no sign of improving, and it will improve only if people are in accommodation centres for a very short time.

Justice delayed is justice denied. It is simply not fair to asylum seekers to allow them to stay in this country not just month after month, but year after year before the final conclusion of their appeals is arrived at. People put down roots and families quite naturally become absorbed and entrenched in communities. It is therefore chronically unfair to tell someone who has lived here two or three years, entirely through the fault of the Government's system, under which appeals are not heard quickly enough, that the system has caught up with them, so they have to go.

Angela Eagle: I would be the first to admit that systems in the IND are not perfect. I have often acknowledged that and said that they need redesigning. However, the hon. Gentleman has gone over the top in asserting that the delays are entirely the

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Government's fault. Surely he must recognise that many asylum seekers do not want to co-operate with the process, and do their best to adjourn hearings as often as possible in order to lengthen their de facto stay. Incentives in the system allow asylum seekers to use every avenue of appeal. Many clearly use appeals in that way, so the hon. Gentleman should admit that it is not all the Government's fault.

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