Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): The Parliamentary Secretary rightly refers to services at the accommodation centres and clearly there is some serious thinking ahead on those matters. Could she confirm that it will be some months before any of the sites are chosen and announced, or will we hear sooner than that?

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary touched on that recently when there was a discussion about the sites that had been identified. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we plan to make firmer announcements sooner rather than later.

Mr. Malins: May we therefore expect an announcement within the next 10 days?

Ms Winterton: I am afraid that I cannot confirm a particular date but, as I said, it will be sooner rather than later. If I can give any further information, I will certainly do so.

Mr. Malins: On a point of order, Mr. Illsley. This reminds me of the exchange in the House of Lords some years ago when a Minister said that an answer would made soon. When asked to define ''soon'', he said that it meant ''before long''. When asked which was sooner, he replied that he would not be drawn into that difficult territory. It is an important topic. The Parliamentary Secretary would naturally never withhold anything from the Committee, but if she knows something to the effect that there will be an announcement within days or weeks, we should be told.

The Chairman: Order. That is not a point of order. It is a point of debate and if the Parliamentary Secretary does not have the information, there is nothing that the Chair can do about it.

Ms Winterton: All I can say is that two or three weeks would be nearer to the mark, if that is of any help to the hon. Gentleman. I have no more information than that, although I can confirm that the centres will not be open until 2003. To return to my point, as part of our overall strategy is to see whether accommodation centres are found to be effective, I hope that it will give my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North some reassurance to know that the evaluation system will be open and transparent and that all aspects of the provision will be examined.

My hon. Friends made a number of comments about preparing people for their eventually being granted refugee status. The provision at the accommodation centres could certainly play a role in achieving that. I am sure that my hon. Friends would

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also acknowledge that people can be isolated, even within a community. There are a number of ways in which one could look at the support provided by having other people around within an accommodation centre. We also have to take that into account when looking at schools, although I do not want to go completely down that line, as there is an important debate to be had on the subject later.

We are trying to make the process as quick as possible, so we must also look at the effect on local schools of a turnover of pupils. We must take that into account if we are to achieve our objective of letting people have a decision as quickly as possible. Again, I say that one of the worst experiences for children can be the uncertainty of not knowing whether they will be able to stay in one country. We must examine provision in accommodation centres. If a family is granted refugee status, the children should be ready to go into mainstream education. That is precisely the point.

3.30 pm

The clause is not about keeping children who have been granted refugee status out of mainstream education; it applies only to children who still have asylum-seeking status. Even that does not mean that provision cannot be made in the centres to prepare people—often an important aspect of ensuring quick integration once refugee status is granted.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester): On evaluation, some schools—I visited one in central London in connection with the Science and Technology Committee—have become adaptable to and adept at meeting the needs of children from asylum-seeker and refugee families. What evaluation will apply to teaching provision in accommodation centres for such children? Will Ofsted be involved or will it be a matter for local education authorities? I do not know what balance will emerge. Will there be a mechanism for schools—perhaps schools in my constituency—to have an intake of refugees? St. Peter's school, for example, gained from the experience. Will it continue to have some link with accommodation centres?

Ms Winterton: I assure my hon. Friend that a close relationship with the LEA will continue and that Ofsted inspectors will also be involved.

Mr. Dhanda: May I take my hon. Friend back to vulnerable children? We all agree that special thought should be given to the needs of children who are exceptionally vulnerable. Does she accept that an institutional setting, which is what an accommodation centre will be, may be highly unsuitable for placing families when the parents, and possibly even the children, are victims of torture? An institutional setting might be quite wrong for such a group of vulnerable people.

Ms Winterton: I understand that victims of torture are not dispersed. However, placement in a community may not necessarily be the most supportive environment. It may be a mistake to assume that a perfect life exists out there for asylum seekers who have been dispersed into the community. Some people in such circumstances might be highly vulnerable. We must not run away from that

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possibility. It may not be commonplace, but it does occur when asylum seekers do not receive the high level of support that we would all like them to receive. People can feel vulnerable even in their current communities. I stress that this is a trial. It could be argued that an accommodation centre would provide a more supportive environment for some people, but that must be evaluated.

My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North asked about the number of people who might be considered. Taking the figure of 750 people in an accommodation centre, 100 to 150 children would be right. She also asked about the criteria. In addition to the availability of places, the broad primary criteria will be language, family situation and port of entry or induction centre. The criteria will be open and transparent.

I hope that my hon. Friends accept that we understand the concerns that they have raised, but I re-emphasise that we are talking about pilots. If the pilots are rolled out more widely, it will be important to ensure that the services that we provide are the best for children, and we can do that only through trials. With that assurance, I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North will withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Malins: I must press the Parliamentary Secretary over the proposed sites. Does she or any ministerial colleague know the identity of any site that has been or is to be chosen by the Government? Does she know if or when any announcement will be made?

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying outside the terms of the amendment, which are very narrow.

Ms Buck: I intend to put sticky tape over my mouth for the rest of the day so that others have a chance to move on, but if we do not have this discussion now, we shall have it later.

On the initial point about the amendment's technical impact, there would be no need to separate families. Obviously, we are also discussing couples with dependants over 18, married couples without children and so on. The point is therefore not relevant, but in a sense this debate has been about exploring other issues.

I accept the point about turnover, and many points made by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. There is no perfect solution, as we do not live in a perfect world—we do not have world peace and prosperity. None of these issues is easy, either here or internationally, but an overwhelming number of children are already provided for in mainstream services, a great deal of good practice has been established and a number of problems have been identified.

In summing up, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary said that turnover is a particular issue in local communities. I accept that important point, but London schools are not unfamiliar with a turnover of 50 per cent. of children between key stages 1 and 2. As

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a London Member of Parliament, I sometimes find it a little hard to listen to arguments about 150 children in a single LEA and the problems that they might bring to a school environment. One school has to cope with that number of children in constituencies such as mine and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, and without enough support or recognition of the problems it has to deal with.

That brings me back to the point that we have a great deal to learn and a great deal to make better, but we must do that in the mainstream—in London, for the people who are already here, in dispersal centres and in and around accommodation centres. The good practice in education and the experience that is, and will continue to be, brought to bear on this issue by the teaching profession, teaching representatives, the Local Government Association and all those with an interest in education will reinforce the point that we must make provision in the mainstream and get it right for everyone.

Ms Winterton: My hon. Friend might be reassured by the fact that although we are trialling accommodation centres, that does not mean that we are not trying to improve the situation in mainstream schools.

Ms Buck: I appreciate that and I know that the proposal is not being ruled out, but we still have a long way to go.

There has been talk about flexibility, but the Bill does not allow sufficient flexibility for the children who would benefit from early access to mainstream education, which means most of them, to have that. In an ideal world, I would be perfectly happy with many children and families going into accommodation centres, because there is much to commend them due to their general support. However, that must be done in conjunction with access to mainstream services, particularly education, for many, most or all such children. That flexibility is not in the Bill.

I do not intend to press the amendment, but we shall probably return to the issue. I want flexibility for the children, who range from nought to 18 and span the whole spectrum of education provision. With the right support, many or most of them, and their communities, would be best served by the experience of coming to terms with a mixed intake. I am reassured by much of what the Parliamentary Secretary said and the spirit in which she made her remarks. I remain convinced that we need flexibility, but for the moment, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 18 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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