Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Angela Eagle: To put the hon. Gentleman's mind at rest, I can tell him that we have not made decisions on which sites we shall go ahead with. We are considering which sites to submit planning applications for, and that is the beginning of the process. Planning is never a forgone conclusion, as the hon. Gentleman will know. An announcement on which sites we intend to submit planning notifications will be made soon, but no

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decision has been taken about individual sites or which sites we shall build on. We are simply looking at sites on which planning applications can be submitted.

Mr. Malins: That is helpful. The Committee and others outside will want to know what the Minister undoubtedly knows: which sites will the Government nominate as sites for which they wish to apply for planning? Can she specifically answer that during the debate?

Amendment No. 142 is the important amendment, but I wish to speak to amendments Nos. 144, 143 and 145 as well. The clause reads:

    ''The Secretary of State may arrange for the following to be provided to a resident''.

Amendment No. 142 provides that the Government ''shall'' instead of ''may''.

People in the accommodation centres will often come from a difficult and vulnerable background. Many will have undertaken long and hazardous journeys. They will come to centres where they are likely to live, sometimes with their families, for a period which, according to the Minister, could be four months. The first few days and the first two or three weeks of an asylum applicant's life in this country are terribly important, and it is vital that the fullest possible range of services is provided to the applicant and his or her family at the earliest opportunity. While we welcome a number of the services proposed, we strongly believe that it should be a duty on the Secretary of State to arrange for them to be provided. It should not simply be a possibility—something that the Secretary of State may do—because that gives the Secretary of State freedom to provide some services in one accommodation centre and others or fewer in another. My hon. Friends and I believe that there is a need to provide the services, and the Bill would be much better phrased if it placed a duty on the Secretary of State. As the Minister will say, in due course, that services will be provided, why does the Bill not say that they will be provided, rather than

    ''The Secretary of State may arrange''?

If the Minister has doubts about whether they will be provided, she should say so. However, if she is in no doubt about their provision, the Bill should say that the Secretary of State shall arrange for them to be provided.

What is not included in the list that should be there? First and most important, there should be on-site, independent legal advice and representation, funded by the Legal Services Commission or by the Secretary of State. I have been to Oakington, as have some of my colleagues. The Immigration Advisory Service offers full legal representation on that site. The Refugee Council or the Refugee Legal Centre—forgive me, I know which it is but it has escaped my mind—is also there in great number. I believe that there are 54 caseworkers from the Immigration Advisory Service.

4.30 pm

What happens at Oakington? Admittedly, there are different types of cases, because some are said to be easier to determine. However, the reality is that as

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soon as someone arrives, they receive legal advice on the site. That must apply to accommodation centres as well. Goodness knows, every non-governmental organisation involved in asylum or immigration work and everyone that is interested in the subject agrees that access to legal advice at the earliest possible stage is absolutely vital. We will come on to that when we discuss induction centres.

Clearly, there should be a duty on the Home Secretary to provide legal advice and representation on site—not somewhere else—for asylum seekers. Why? According to the Government, the purpose of an accommodation centre is to have a smooth, speedy, satisfactory, humane and efficient resolution of an asylum application. Therefore, it must be right to offer on-the-spot legal advice as part of the operation.

I have seen it written down in Home Office documents and I have heard the Home Secretary and the Minister say that the Government intend to provide legal advice and assistance at or sufficiently near accommodation centres. If that is the case, why are they omitted from the Bill? The Bill says:

    ''The Secretary of State may arrange for the following'',

and lists food, money, assistance with transport, education and training, medical facilities, facilities for religious observance and

    ''anything which the Secretary of State thinks ought to be provided for a person because of his exceptional circumstances.''

Why are the classically important legal advice and assistance not included? They should be.

I hope that the Minister will agree to the amendment. Many outside the House support it, and it is wholly supported by my hon. Friends and I, and, I believe, by the Liberal Democrats and many Labour Back Benchers who know the importance of immediate legal advice and agree that its presence on site at an accommodation centre is critical. If an accommodation centre is located in a rural location, let us not be told that legal advice is available miles away. Let us not be told that transportation facilities are not too bad if an asylum seeker wishes to travel for an hour or two to get advice. Let us not be told that there are local lawyers prepared to give advice if someone is seeking it. Let us be told that the Government will offer legal advice on site.

The Chairman: Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but this seems a good time to suspend the Committee until 5 pm.

4.35 pm

Sitting suspended.

5 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Malins: I welcome you back to the Chair, Mr. Hurst. You have missed a most interesting session. We are now debating amendment No. 142 and its group, under the very important clause 25. I had concluded my remarks on amendment No. 142, urging the Minister to accept ''shall'' instead of ''may'', and almost concluded my remarks on the absolute need to have independent legal advice and representation,

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funded by the Legal Services Commission or by the Secretary of State, present on site.

The Government may make a planning application in respect of a rural site. I am anxious to draw observations from the Minister on that when she replies. What will happen if the site at Bicester or, more accurately, the village of Piddington, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry)? I am sure that the Minister will be prepared to tell us, if she knows, whether that rural site has been selected as one in respect of which an application will be made. If she does not know that, I am sure that she will be prepared to tell us that she does not know, and silence from her on the point would indicate a complete absence of knowledge. If I am wrong, I am sure that she will tell us at some stage of the debate. If an application were made for that site, any legal advice would be miles away. The closest proper legal advice—for want of a better phrase—would be in Oxford, where legal services are already heavily overstrained because of demand. All the more reason, therefore, to say that legal advice must be present on site.

I shall speak to two other amendments in the group. Amendment No. 144 would add ''psychiatric''. If the Minister tells me that the phrase ''medical facilities'' includes psychiatric services, I shall be entirely content. In reality, as she well knows, many people who claim asylum are heavily traumatised, not least the youngsters, after the most horrific experiences. The presence of those services on site is most important.

Comprehensive interpreting services are also important. I think that I have seen several references to them. If we are to have the one-stop shop, which I think is so important, at accommodation centres, every relevant service must be on site. The Minister's hope that the applicant will remain on site only for a brief time could then become reality. The converse would be the case were those services not on site, especially in a rural accommodation centre, where people would have to travel long distances to get the services, and the efficiency that the Minister seeks would not be found.

I believe that the Minister should take on board my amendments to change the wording to ''shall'', to provide ''independent legal advice'' and to add ''psychiatric'' services and ''comprehensive interpreting services''.

Simon Hughes: I, too, welcome you back to the Chair, Mr. Hurst. I happily support amendments Nos. 142, 144, 143 and 145 in the name of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues and in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam. I also speak to amendments Nos. 184, 183, 185 and 186 that stand only in my name and that of my colleague.

My first and substantive point is one that comes up often when debating legislation but is no less important for that. Government draftspeople, the famous and oft-referred-to Government draftsmen and draftswomen, always provide the Government with opt outs. They always use the wording that Secretaries of State ''may'' do something, and then

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Ministers come to the Dispatch Box or to Committee and say that the Government intend to do that, but they will not agree to write it into the Bill. That is common, and the fact that we have been round this course before does not make it any more justifiable.

Although I understand where the Government are starting from, there is no excuse in this case—it is one of the strongest that I have been aware of recently—and I hope that the Government will accept the amendment so that, instead of an option, they have an obligation. Again, I give notice that if we do not get obligations in Committee, we are pretty likely to get them at another stage of the proceedings, before we finish discussing the Bill. It would be easier to concede earlier—and gracefully—rather than later.

One reason why many of the services that should be provided for residents in accommodation centres should be described as ''shall'' obligations and not ''may'' options is that the White Paper clearly said:

    ''Services, including health care, education, interpretation and opportunities for purposeful activities will also be provided for''—

not ''may'' be provided for.

The White Paper continued, in paragraph 4.36:

    ''Accommodation Centre residents will have access to legal advice''—

not ''may'' or ''might'' have access to legal advice.

On 7 February 2002, the Secretary of State said:

    ''Yes, legal advice will be available in the accommodation centres.''—[Official Report, 7 February 2002; Vol. 379, c. 1031.]

He did not say that it ''may'' be available in the accommodation centres. Lord Rooker, on the same day, giving a statement in the Lords, said:

    ''The centres will offer education, healthcare and legal and interpreting services.''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 7 February 2002; Vol. 631, c. 743.]

I do not think that we disagree on the core issues. The Government made those points very clearly in the White Paper and in both Houses on the same day. I therefore hope that that can be easily agreed.

The hon. Member for Woking argued for some additional services, which we support. The Minister may say that psychiatric services are covered by the word ''medical''. I suppose that, on a wide interpretation, they could be so described, but we have flagged this up because many asylum seekers have severe psychiatric problems, as all members of the Committee know. I think that I am right in saying that, for very understandable reasons, such problems are more common in that group than in any other group in the community. Dealing with mental health is as important as dealing with physical health.

It is clear that there must be independent legal advice and representation. Experience shows that the sooner people get that the better. To be honest, bad applications require much more undoing later than good ones. People have experience, so will make applications as has been suggested, which I hope will be acceptable. Comprehensive interpreting services must also be available, otherwise no one will get off home base.

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The additional matters covered by the amendments that my hon. Friend and I tabled include an amplification of how training is defined. I accept that amendment No. 184 is a probing amendment, but it picks up the point that the hon. Member for Walthamstow and I have now made twice in this Committee, which had all-party support. From the beginning, adults should be trained in the English language and in information technology and business skills, which are the two other most useful skills people should have, whatever their background or prospects.

Amendment No. 183 would include

    ''adequate leisure and play facilities.''

I learned a long time ago that play facilities are as important for youngsters as education. Good play facilities, particularly for younger children, are hugely important. There needs to be space for them to play.

Amendments Nos. 185 and 186 are different in nature. Amendment No. 185 would add

    ''such amount to be no less than 10 per cent. of the relevant income support personal allowance.''

after line 36, which deals with the provision for the Secretary of State to make regulations specifying the amount of pocket money that can be provided. The Minister, in her previous incarnation at the Department of Social Security, will remember earlier debates during this Parliament on that issue. She will be aware that it is most important to ensure that people in this country temporarily are given a minimum income, so that basic income levels are guaranteed. The Bill provides for some pocket money to be available to residents. The amendment is designed to flush out from the Government the amount that is being considered. We have chosen an amount that is 10 per cent. of what is thought to be the basic minimum allowance necessary. The amendment is a probing one, and the sooner we can see the regulations the better.

We have attempted to remove subsection 2(b). At the moment, it would permit the Secretary of State to make regulations requiring the manager to decide what the pocket money levels should be. We believe that that matter should be dealt with on a common basis throughout the country. Living costs are different in different parts of the country. However, we are not talking about living costs but pocket money. I do not think that the differences are such that we need delegated responsibility. I am all in favour of delegated responsibility, but it strikes me that, for people who will be in a limited environment for a limited period, it would be very unfair if a common amount of pocket money were not given.

However, there is a more important point that I am alert to, and I suspect that Ministers have spotted it. There could be a conflict of interest. Managers of accommodation centres might hold a budget. The centres may be, as I would wish, entirely in the public sector with public sector employees. It would be much worse if they were not in the public sector and run by those working a profit-based operation. In that instance, the Home Office could pay a fixed sum to a private contractor to run the service and to run the accommodation centre. There would be an incentive

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for those running the centre to keep the amount of money they paid out as small as possible.

In that case, there is a serious issue of public policy at a second level, as well as the obvious one about unfairness across the system. Whether a person is sent to an accommodation centre in Edinburgh, Wales or Grimsby, they need to know that a standard amount of pocket money will be paid, otherwise the process would be unfair. I hope that the amendments will be supported in principle even if the drafting has to be amended at a later stage.

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