Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Mr. David Lammy (Tottenham): I endorse much that my hon. Friend has said. It is certainly my experience in Tottenham that the children of asylum seekers and refugees respond well in our schools and that many do extremely well. Indeed, an exhibition currently in the House shows that children can come from far afield and do very well in the British system.

Does my hon. Friend accept, however, that some children from some communities are struggling? That may be because of the experiences of the countries from which they have arrived. From my experience in Tottenham, I think of the Kurdish community from Turkey and the representations that Kurdish parents have made to me about how that group is struggling in some of our schools. I also think of Somalian children: a young Somalian child to whom I spoke recently had trouble in our school system and ended up in Feltham young offenders institution. Children who have had traumatic experiences might actually benefit from specialist provision and concentrated help when they arrive in the country, so that they can then enter the mainstream.

Ms Buck: I am absolutely persuaded by extensive personal experience that a significant minority of asylum seekers and asylum-seeking children are disadvantaged by their experiences and what they have witnessed. I am thinking of children who have seen their parents tortured or killed, and children who have been in war zones or are traumatised and dislocated. It is also true that the children of certain asylum-seeking communities from war zones do not have a tradition of educational achievement. However, I do not substitute the argument that asylum-seeking children are a drain on our schools and communities for the equally glib and banal argument that all such children are on the gifted and talented register. It would be facile so to do.

The point is that all those children require the level of support that is appropriate to their needs, and that those children who require counselling and support will certainly do so for a great deal longer than the three, four or six months that they will spend in an accommodation centre or otherwise. That support will have to be continuing.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): If the implication of the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) was that children with particular difficulties should be the ones who go into accommodation centres, will my hon. Friend the

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Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) speculate on the ability of the National Asylum Support Service to select those children?

Ms Buck: I was drifting towards that conclusion. My hon. Friend the Minister might respond to that point. It is hard for us to know now what the selection process will be and the criteria that will be used to determine who goes into accommodation centres, and who remains in the dispersal system, going through NASS, which will be the vast majority of families with children and unaccompanied children. It is therefore difficult to draw a conclusion. If Ministers are thinking about that already, it would be helpful if they shared their thinking with us.

Currently, we have no reason to assume that the selection will be anything other than entirely arbitrary. Therefore the children who require special needs provision, to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow has referred, could be placed either in an accommodation centre or in the dispersal system. Either way, they need to be provided for.

Mr. Lammy: I am not a parent and I accept that many of my hon. Friends are, but I was only suggesting that one of the best experiences in our job is going into local schools and recognising how special all the children are, whatever their background.

I understood my hon. Friend's point that a significant number of the children will need extra support because of what they have seen and where they have come from. The state provides extra support for children who are school-phobic, those who have been bullied so much that they do not want to go to school, and those who play truant. Such children may be educated in pupil referral units, often outside mainstream education. In the same vein, does my hon. Friend accept that there is a case for concentrating efforts on the children of asylum seekers as they arrive in the country? I refer to specialist English provision and specialist educationists who understand those children's psychological and other needs. That is all I was saying—I did not mean to go as far as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow suggests.

Ms Buck: I understand that, but whether children spend a short time in an accommodation centre before going into mainstream education, or whether they go directly into mainstream education through NASS, we have got to get the level of support right. That includes the quality of support that we provide to teachers in the classroom. My hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham has made an important point about bullying, and I think that the ESRC research talked about the risk of bullying.

There is a great deal to get right, and we have not got it right in London: despite more than a decade of intensive experience, we certainly have not cracked the problem or found all the answers. Still less have we cracked it in schools in dispersal areas, which are still coming to terms with the numbers seen in the past couple of years. There is a huge job to do.

Two points remain. First, those initial few months after arrival are crucial. The school experience—being part of a community of children—plays a vital psychological role in the process of adjustment for

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under-18s. That will be especially important for the one in three children who, on current trends, are likely to remain. Secondly, we have to provide support for both traumatised children and those who have to come to terms with dislocation. We have got to get that right in the nine out of 10 places that are outside accommodation centres, so we might as well get it right for everyone from stage one, and do so in mainstream education.

Mr. Lammy: On that point, what if there is a crisis somewhere in the world in the next few months? It might be bigger than the current crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or it could be in one of the further reaches of eastern Europe. Let us assume that Britain goes to the aid of that country in some same shape or form, perhaps through the European Union or the United Nations. If a group, or community, as my hon. Friend rightly describes it, of children and families from that country arrives here, does she not accept that it would be best to concentrate efforts and keep them together, with specialist provision, than to split them up across London and the rest of the United Kingdom?

Ms Buck: I see what my hon. Friend is getting at, but I am not sure that the accommodation centres point is all that germane. We will have to cross that river anyway. Let us say that 5,000 or 3,000 people arrived. Whether they spend three or five months in an accommodation centre, that hurdle has to be jumped. We have to provide mainstream services for those whom we accept anyway. By excluding children from mainstream education in those first few months, we merely delay that process. Accommodation centres are not relevant, because, as planned, they will provide for only a tiny minority of people. I am not convinced that that argument undermines my case that all children should, as a matter of principle and practicality, start by being educated in mainstream schools.

We should not be diverted from this challenge. We must ensure that good practice, resources and support for those services are put in place in the communities that will receive dispersed asylum seekers and in London, where we have not got everything right by any means. We should not be distracted into thinking that we need to set up a parallel set of services, which—even if it is as good as has been claimed—is likely to be infinitely more expensive than taking good practice and support from mainstream service delivery.

My last point is brief. If we are to overcome the fear of the unknown, which is a principal driver of anxiety in communities that are accommodating asylum seekers for the first time, and which often accompanies the arrival of strangers, schools are the best place to start. If we are to change the culture of fear and anxiety, letting our children mix from the beginning in those communities that are new to a more multicultural and mixed society is the right way to do it. Children are capable of leading the way. They are not innately anxious about people who speak different languages, are of a different colour and have different experiences. We should build on that and allow our

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children to show our communities the way to ensure that asylum seekers become properly integrated.

I would welcome assurances from the Minister, as I have no intention of pressing the amendment to a vote. No doubt we shall return to these issues when we debate education issues later in the Bill. However, I would appreciate responses to my questions. Will the Minister share her thinking about the criteria used in the selection process? We must have an informed debate about which children should be based in accommodation centres and how to make the best provision for them. Finally, I affirm that children under 18 should be excluded from accommodation centres.

3 pm

Mr. Gerrard: I shall be brief, because my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North has already made a powerful case for the amendment. I shall add just a few points.

I am worried that if we create accommodation centres that provide education services, we will be setting up an alternative to an existing service. I had hoped that after the experience of the first couple of years of NASS, when vouchers were used as an alternative social security system, we would be wary of going down that road. Medical and other services will certainly be provided in accommodation centres, but we would not suggest that people should be excluded from access to the national health service.

It is a matter of principle whether any child should be excluded from mainstream education. Like my hon. Friend, I represent a constituency that has for several years taken significant numbers of asylum seekers and refugee children. I have seen what happens when those children are admitted to schools. There is no doubt that problems and pressures are created when significant numbers of children arrive at intervals during the year rather than all at the beginning. Schools have to cope with different languages. Finance, too, can be a problem when children enter during the school year; it has to be dealt with at the end of the year, rather late.

The pressures and problems cannot be denied. I can think of schools in my constituency that have spare places. As well as receiving many asylum-seeker children, they often have to accept children who have been excluded from other schools, which does not make for an easy life. However, when I talk to teachers and staff in such schools, they often express a positive view and recognise the gains as well. As my hon. Friend said, asylum-seeker children are often highly motivated.

I was absent from Committee this morning because of the Queen's first visit to a London constituency as part of the jubilee celebrations. The Queen gave awards to several children, one of whom arrived in this country two and a half years ago as a refugee from Kosovo. He spoke no English, yet he was picked out by the school as an outstanding pupil who exemplified what was good in the borough and the constituency.

As I have mentioned before, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes)

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and I visited Kosovo and met families who had lived in the UK through the humanitarian evacuation programme and had returned to their home country. One of the main purposes of our visit was to see how they were getting on. I remember that members of one family had been killed in Kosovo while their children were at school in Leeds. Among other things, they showed us photographs of the school and cards that the other children had written to them when they returned to Kosovo. It was obvious from talking to the children, seeing their souvenirs and hearing about the relationships they had made in the school, that the asylum-seeker children and the rest of the children in the school had gained from being together and making relationships, even if it was only for a year or so.

Schools that receive significant, regular numbers of asylum-seeker children build up a degree of expertise. Many London schools have great expertise in dealing with those children. What worries me about the suggestion that asylum-seeker children should be educated in the accommodation centres is that they will be separated from other children and the mix will be lost. As my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North said, education is not only about learning a language, or being taught how to do arithmetic; a vital part of education is about relationships and mixing with other children.

The argument about isolation and about people becoming institutionalised is my main general concern about large accommodation centres outside urban areas, but it is especially relevant to children.

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