Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

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Simon Hughes: As the amendment was tabled by the hon. Member for Woking, I thought it right to let the Minister reply first and I am encouraged by her response. It seems a sensible idea and I understand the point of it. It may not be immediately practical everywhere, but it does seem sensible to move one person, even with one or two back-up staff, to a centre rather than move 250 to 750 people to one person. The logic must be in favour of that. If High Court judges move around the country, it must be logical that adjudicators do so. There is a real need to keep trying to ensure the streamlining of the process between initial decision, adjudicator and tribunal, where we have tribunal appeals, as well as the leave to appeal process.

To take up the point made by the hon. Member for Walthamstow, it seems to be an approach that could be regionalised in a way that would allow closer scrutiny. We have a national system, in terms of monitoring and performance with, to be honest, comparison between how places perform in different parts of the country. It seems worth considering Wales and each of the English regions separately as areas within which there should be one centre with the adjudicating staff. I am glad that the Government in their other plans from the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department, with the anticipated Bill for next year, are expecting to co-ordinate the court system. That is no good unless we co-ordinate the tribunal system as well, so people who do this job need to be within the same arrangements system as people who provide the other legal services. I look forward to further announcements in due course.

Mr. Malins: I am most grateful to the Minister, who answered in a very encouraging fashion and if there was any wind in my sails, which there was, she has removed it quickly with that response. To hear her say that the idea was attractive to the Government and one that they were pursuing leads me to say without equivocation that I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 25, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 26

Conditions of residence

6 pm

Mr. Malins: I beg to move amendment No. 148, in page 13, line 9, after 'hours', insert

    'which shall not be more than 12 hours per day'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 147, in page 13, line 10, after 'manager', insert

    'which permission shall not be unreasonably withheld'.

No. 149, in page 13, line 12, at end insert

    'if it is reasonable to do so'.

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No. 187, in page 13, line 13, after 'centre', insert 'without reasonable excuse'.

No. 188, in page 13, line 32, at end insert

    'but only if he is satisfied the breach was without reasonable excuse.'.

Mr. Malins: This clause deals with conditions of residence. My lead amendment refers to the condition that might require a person not to be absent from the centre during specified hours, and seeks to limit it to 12 hours per day. It is simply a probing amendment to find out what kind of restraints the Government expect to be placed on those at accommodation centres. The nearest parallel in my life has been my experience in courts when conditions of bail are imposed upon people. Sometimes, the person must not just reside at a certain place, which in legal terms means live and sleep there, but is subject to a curfew from say 9 o'clock at night until 9 o'clock in the morning. The curfew is imposed to prevent the commission of crimes during that period. I know that the Government will not be able to be specific, but I should like to know how much freedom of movement they expect people in accommodation centres to have. Obviously, there is a requirement to reside there, but one hopes that they will have total freedom during the day to come and go as they wish.

Amendment No. 147 says that the permission to be absent should not be unreasonably withheld by the manager. It is similar to the last amendment and merely seeks to find out the sort of regime that might operate at a particular accommodation centre. Amendment No. 149 is also similar and says that a condition may require a person to report to an immigration officer or the Secretary of State only

    ''if it is reasonable to do so.''

These are simply probing amendments. We are anxious to ensure that the regime in accommodation centres has a light touch. We are trying to ensure that a reasonable test is inserted into the conditions of residence. This is quite important, because the ability of the authorities to require a person to leave an accommodation centre in the event of a breach could bring unforeseen and nasty consequences for the asylum applicant.

Simon Hughes: As the Committee will see, the group of amendments starts with three that were tabled jointly by the hon. Gentleman, his colleagues and us, followed by two more tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam and me. We have made a lot of progress since a year ago. When I was doing this job before the run-up to the last election and going into television and radio studios with Ministers and their Conservative shadows, the entire debate that the Conservatives wanted us to have was about these new centres. They could never quite make up their mind, depending on who was speaking, whether they were detention centres or not. Technically, they were not detention centres and so were a slightly odd creation.

Mr. Malins: That was not me, though.

Simon Hughes: I was just about to say that now the more enlightened regime has appeared among those in the Conservative Home Office team, they have got off

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these ridiculous head-of-a-pin policies. Had the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues been in their posts before the general election I am sure that we would not have got on to them. We are happily now in more agreed territory. The important point is that the Government are clear that they cannot be detention centres and I am sure that that is correct in international law too. Again, I have not done a pan-European tour of all the variants in the EU. I paid an official visit to Finland a year or so ago and the system there works well. The centres are open, but the residents lose the benefits if they leave them.

6.5 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

6.20 pm

On resuming—

Simon Hughes: Before the Division, I said that our amendments would limit the conditions that could be imposed under the clause, so that the accommodation centres do not become detention centres in practice. I hope that the Minister will accept that something should be included along the lines of amendment No. 147, which is about ensuring that the process is reasonable. I know that someone can go to court and have a judicial review, but it is better for reasonableness to be written into the Bill. Amendment No. 149 deals with the same point.

Amendments Nos. 187 and 188 relate to subsection (4) on breach of condition and are fairly important. They would ensure that there can be no penalty where there was a reasonable excuse for breach of condition, such as a transport delay. In an inquiry about the breach of condition, the Secretary of State must be satisfied that there was no good reason. It is important that we get these things right, and I look forward to the Minister's response.

Angela Eagle: The hon. Gentleman sounds as if he has just run up the stairs to finish his comments. Although we understand the points that are being made, we believe that the amendments are unnecessary, as administrative law requires the Secretary of State and the centre manager to act reasonably. That is implicit in the Bill, and is enforceable. There are already sufficient checks and balances in place to render the amendments superfluous.

On residence requirements, we stated in the White Paper that residents would be required to sleep in the centre overnight and be subject to regular reporting. We fully intend that these and any other residence conditions imposed by the clause should be reasonable. On the length of time that people are required to be present in any accommodation centre in any 24-hour period, we envisage that the 12 hours specified in amendment No. 148 would be at the top end of the scale. We said that accommodation centres are not detention centres, nor do we want them to become de facto detention centres. We would not want to put a statutory limit on what is reasonable, as that may vary from circumstance to circumstance. However, I find it difficult to imagine circumstances in which we would require someone to remain in an

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accommodation centre for more than 12 hours out of 24.

I have already stressed that people in accommodation centres will not be detained. They will be able to come and go. We want accommodation centres to be self-contained communities where people can live as normally as possible. We would expect people to be able to visit their relations or attend a funeral under the terms of clause 26(3). An advantage of accommodation centres is that there will be staff on site so that such decisions can be taken pragmatically and quickly. The Government have no problem with the spirit of amendment No. 147; we merely consider it to be implicit in the Bill. The same is true of amendment No. 149. It may help the Committee to know that we are planning for reporting on accommodation centre residents to take place on site. I hope that that knowledge will help to allay concerns that reporting requirements could be unreasonable. Distance will not be an issue, nor will inability to afford the bus fare or to find someone to look after children, because reporting can take place on site.

Staff and asylum seekers will know not to arrange appointments or commitments that clash with reporting requirements. If there is an issue with conflicting or clashing appointments, perhaps because someone needs to see a doctor urgently, centre staff will be able to sort that out on the spot. There will not be pedantic, unreasonable or ridiculous requirements.

Under amendment No. 187, we would be able to evict from a centre only when an asylum seeker or his dependant had breached a residence condition without reasonable excuse. Again, I have no difficulty with the spirit of the amendment because that is the approach that we intend to follow. It would be unfair and unreasonable of us to evict someone if they breached their residence conditions through no fault of their own—for example, if they were involved in an accident and could not keep their reporting requirement because they had been taken to hospital, clearly it would be ridiculous and unreasonable to say that that was a breach and we have no intention of doing so. It may be appropriate to require someone to leave a centre if they persistently failed to report, were away overnight without informing us, or acted violently towards another resident, but we would be minded to take a less strict approach with more minor infringements of house rules.

Amendment No. 188 is also unnecessary because it is incumbent on the Secretary of State to consider reasonable excuse when deciding whether to withdraw support under clause 26. There is no need to specify in clause 26(8) that the Secretary of State may take into account only the fact that a person has breached the residence conditions without reasonable excuse because that already exists.

In the light of those assurances, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

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