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10 Dec 2002 : Column 222—continued

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT (REPRESENTATION) BILL [PROGRAMME]

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Orders [28 June 2001 and 29 October 2002].


Question agreed to.

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT (REPRESENTATION) BILL [MONEY]

Queen's recommendation having been signified—

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52(1)(a) (Money resolutions and ways and means resolutions in connection with bills).


Question agreed to.

DELEGATED LEGISLATION

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I propose to put together the Questions on the two social security motions.

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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Social Security


Question agreed to.

Environmental Audit

Ordered,


Euthanasia

7.47 pm

Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton): I wish to present a petition, signed by people across the United Kingdom, against euthanasia and assisted suicide.

More than 93,000 people have signed this petition, almost twice the number who signed the pro-euthanasia petition calling for assisted suicide. It reflects the concern of members of the public at the activities of

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the pro-euthanasia lobby and the legislation that is imminent from the Lord Chancellor's office and the Department of Health.

The petition states:


To lie upon the Table.

Hospices

7.48 pm

Mr Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): This petition was gathered by Mr. and Mrs. Gregory of 10, Bolton road, Chorley, and by Mr. Carl Crook, also of Chorley, with the help and support of their friends. It is thanks to their dedication that I am raising this very important question of funding for hospices.

The petition of the residents of the Chorley area declares:


To lie upon the Table.

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Wakefield Prison

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Joan Ryan.]

7.50 pm

Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise my concerns about proposals by the Angel Group to use the former prison officers' college building at Wakefield prison for the accommodation of asylum seekers. It is a matter of regret that I have been forced to bring the issue to the Floor of the House, but for almost two years I have been unable to get straight answers to straight questions and, frankly, I have had enough.

This saga began in February 2001 when I received a telephone call from someone at a senior level in the Prison Service. He told me that I ought to be aware that the former prison officers' college building at Wakefield prison was to be used for the accommodation of asylum seekers. It was apparent from his remarks that he was deeply concerned from a security point of view about what was being proposed.

I know that the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes) has been to Wakefield prison, so she will know that the building is located in Love lane, Wakefield, between the prison wall and the main Leeds-London railway line. It is next to the prison officers' club and the only vehicular approach was, until very recently, blocked by a manned traffic barrier. The building has throughout its history been part of the prison establishment and is viewed by local people as an integral part of the prison. I should also add that it is only a few hundred yards from Westgate, the popular pubbing and clubbing area of what has historically been known as the XMerrie City". Generations of young locals have traditionally undertaken the Westgate run, which entails having one drink in each of the numerous licensed establishments from the bottom of Westgate up to the city centre. The prison buildings are passed by revellers towards the conclusion of the Westgate run.

Following the telephone call, I had contact with the local authority, which advised me that a telephone call had been received some weeks before from the Angel Group, making tentative inquiries about the use of the building for asylum seekers. On 12 March 2001, I wrote to the then Home Secretary stating that in view of the sensitivities of the proposal, I would have expected, as the local Member of Parliament, to have been consulted at the very least. I set out my own serious worries about what I believed to be an inappropriate location for the proposed use. By this time, I had been made aware of the local authority housing and social care department's strong opposition to a proposal that it believed would completely undermine a successful local strategy for assisting asylum seekers.

I draw the Minister's attention to the letter of 23 March 2001 sent by Councillor Peter Loosemore, the Wakefield metropolitan district council cabinet member responsible for housing and social care, to Mr. Bob Eagle, the director of the National Asylum Support Service. The letter reiterated concerns that I had raised with the Home Secretary. Specifically, it referred to the inappropriateness of the physical location, saying:


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It said that the local authority had worries that a 200-bed accommodation unit would be excessive in size, with Angel's proposals for an average 21-day stay meaning an annual throughput of at least 3,400 asylum seekers. Councillor Loosemore reinforced my worries about the impact on community safety, as the location would make it easy for asylum seekers to be targeted. He outlined fears about the impact on education and social care services and other agencies.

Two days earlier, following contact with the private office of the then Minister of State at the Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), I had spoken directly to NASS. Mr. John Hinchliffe, the NASS head of accommodation, confirmed his comments to me in a letter dated 26 March 2001. It said:


The local authority was, by that stage, outlining its outright opposition in direct dialogue with the Angel Group as well as in correspondence to the Home Secretary and NASS. Mr. Hinchliffe concluded his letter by saying:


Nearly two years later, I am still waiting.

During the following month, I forwarded to Mr. Hinchliffe correspondence that I had received from Councillor Loosemore and local constituents, evidencing renovation work being undertaken by Angel Group at the building and local recruitment of staff. By May 2001, the Angel Group had asked the local authority whether its proposed use of the building for asylum seekers was covered by existing planning permission. When it was established that it was not, the group subsequently made a formal application to which I and many others, including the local ward councillors who were active on the matter and the housing and social care department, objected.

I received a further letter from Councillor Loosemore dated 14 May 2001, in which he expressed serious concern that, despite two separate letters from the local authority to the Home Office, there had been no response or any formal consultation about the Angel Group's proposal. He said:


I received a letter dated 15 June 2001 from the then Minister for Asylum and Immigration, Lord Rooker, again stating that the Angel Group did not have approval from NASS to use the property as emergency accommodation. He assured me that there was


On 1 August 2001, Councillor Loosemore wrote to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in an attempt to clarify NASS's position. He quoted the comments

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made in letters to me by Mr. Hinchliffe and by Lord Rooker. He also quoted from a letter to himself dated 9 August 2001 from Judith Simpson, head of support at NASS, in which she said:


Councillor Loosemore then asked four very relevant questions which, as I understand it, remain largely unanswered. First, is NASS negotiating with Angel Group about the proposed provision at the college site? Secondly, why will NASS not consider the offer of local authority-provided emergency accommodation from the regional consortium instead of seeking it from private providers? Thirdly, if NASS is considering Angel's proposed use of the building, when will the formal consultation take place with the consortium and with Wakefield council? Fourthly, what weight will NASS give to the views of Wakefield council and the consortium during any consultation?

Over the summer period last year, I had personal correspondence with the Angel Group's managing director, Julia Davey. I stated that I believed that her company had been highly irresponsible in ignoring perfectly reasonable local concern. I stand by my view that the company is exploiting a difficult situation in a grossly irresponsible way, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley), who is in his place, has similar views from his experiences with that company.

In a letter to me of 8 October 2001, Lord Rooker stated:


On 18 October 2001, I met my noble Friend at the Home Office where he stated categorically that the Home Office had not asked the Angel Group to convert the building. An official from NASS had visited the building at the request of Angel and had told the company that the building was not required. If the Home Office were to consider its use in future, it would be done only with the support of the local authority.

On 2 November 2001, planning permission was refused and the Angel Group indicated its intention to appeal. On 30 January 2002, my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin and I met Lord Rooker at the Home Office. He stated that the Home Office had no intention of using the building for asylum seekers. He advised us that the Government would shortly announce the location of a series of new reception centres for asylum seekers. The Wakefield building was not appropriate for that use, being too small for the functions envisaged and sited in an urban area. Interestingly, when the NASS representative at that meeting was asked about the actions of the Angel Group he suggested that it had Xan inside track" in NASS and gained information to its commercial advantage.

A further letter from Lord Rooker, of 7 May, informed me:


That letter suggested to me that there had been a slight change of position, and by then I was beginning to believe that the Angel Group's acquisition was more

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than mere speculation. It was also apparent from the Minister's reply that perfectly reasonable opposition from a local authority and others did not count for much.

In early June, I received a letter from a constituent, Mr. Robert Austin. I pay tribute to Mr. Austin and to another constituent, Mr. Roy Eyre, for their work on the issue. They are motivated by personal concerns as former prison officers. I also pay special tribute to Mr. Austin. The issue is sensitive and, at one time, the British National party in our area attempted to exploit it. There is no racial motivation in my concerns or those of my constituents. I much appreciate the fact that Mr. Austin gave very short shrift to BNP members who wrote to the local paper expressing their support for what he had done.

As former prison officers, Mr. Austin and Mr. Eyre have particular concerns about the security aspects of Angel's proposal. Mr. Austin provided me with the Land Registry entries relating to the sale of the building by the Home Office to the Angel Group for #1,161,000 on 6 July 2001. Part 4 of the restrictions in the charges register, agreed between vendor and purchaser, outlaws the use of the property for a range of purposes, including accommodating remand prisoners, ex-offenders and those in receipt of psychiatric treatment. However, there was an interesting exemption: paragraph 1.4 states:


of the preceding restrictive paragraphs.

My hon. Friend the Minister will probably be aware that, due to my concern as to its contents, I passed the documentation to the Home Secretary when I met him on 12 June. In passing, may I say that I hope that my right hon. Friend is making a good recovery from his recent operation?

On 18 September, Sue Goring of the NASS secretariat wrote to Mr. Austin, assuring him that the college building would not be used as a hostel for asylum seekers. She went on to say:


Interestingly, my constituent, Mr. Eyre, received a letter dated 8 November from the very same Ms Goring. It stated:


The Minister will be aware that a planning appeal was held on 8 October. I was present, along with representatives from the local authority and several local residents, including the two gentlemen whom I mentioned. Among the references provided in support of the Angel Group was one dated 4 October from Paul Winterbottom, the deputy director of NASS, which stated:


That has not been our experience in Wakefield but, as my hon. Friend the Minister will be aware, the appeal was upheld at the end of October.

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I am happy to provide for the Minister copies of the correspondence to which I have referred, as it is worth comparing the initial reply that I received from NASS with subsequent letters. I have come to certain conclusions from this long drawn-out saga. First, despite protestations to the contrary, it seems clear that certain parties in the Home Office were directly involved in the disposal of the building for the accommodation of asylum seekers.

Secondly, it is also apparent that the Home Office went ahead with the sale of the property for that known purpose despite being well aware of the fact that the strongest possible objections to the proposed use had been made by the local authority, the local MP and many other people.

Wakefield already has a hostel for asylum seekers in the city and wants to play its part in addressing the current crisis. However, to have top-security prisoners communicating from their cells to asylum seekers on the other side of the wall does not make sense.

I realise that my hon. Friend's Department has faced unprecedented problems in regard to asylum seekers and that has created great strains. However, that does not excuse the fact that certain officials in her Department have been somewhat disingenuous in their handling of this affair. I hope that, at the very least, my hon. Friend will investigate the actions of those involved and find out why I and others have been given misleading, inconsistent and sometimes incorrect answers to our inquiries. I hope, too, that she will realise that using the building for asylum seekers would be wholly inappropriate.


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