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10 Dec 2002 : Column 229—continued

8.7 pm

Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): I did not anticipate that I would have the opportunity to make a speech in the debate. I assure those Members still in the Chamber that I shall not carry on until 10 o'clock. My comments will be brief.

My experience with the Angel Group is similar to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe). The company followed a similar course of action when it acquired the Centrex site in High Ercall in my constituency—not on an option but outright, for a payment, which I understand amounted to #2.5 million. That is a considerable amount to speculate on the possibility of winning a contract with the Home Office.

That fact caused great concern in the small rural community of High Ercall. People thought that if Angel was as confident of having its way as it appeared to be something must be about to happen and that a contract between Angel and the Home Office must have been drawn up. It was extremely difficult for me and for others to try to convince the local community that there was a due process through which decisions would ultimately be made and that no decision had yet been taken.

As their Member of Parliament I endured—like my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield—a lengthy period, between October 2001 and July 2002, of rumour, scaremongering and speculation as to the future of the site and the consequences for my community. I am grateful to the Minister for taking the opportunity to

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clarify the situation in July. However, that has not been the end of the story and, again, there is an uncanny parallel with my hon. Friend's experience.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I understand why the hon. Gentleman is anxious to add to the remarks already made by the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), but we are bound by the fact that the debate relates to Wakefield prison. The debate is not about the company or the procedures, but about Wakefield prison's suitability for the purpose identified by the hon. Member for Wakefield. So the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) must have a care. I know that he is going to make his remarks brief, but they must be about Wakefield prison.

Peter Bradley: I will try to be even more ingenious than I have been in seeking constantly to refer to the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield. I will keep my comments brief and try to relate them to the experience at Wakefield prison.

I share my hon. Friend's concerns about the apparent relationship between the Angel Group and the Home Office in relation to Wakefield prison. I attended the meeting to which he refers and well recall the comment of a Home Office official when he raised his own concerns about that relationship. The official said that the Angel Group seemed to have an inside track—that was the expression he used—and seemed to be able to anticipate the decisions that were being made at official and policy level by the Home Office before anyone else seemed to know about them. That is a very serious allegation coming from any source, but it is yet more serious coming from a civil servant. I very much hope that the Minister will confirm in her reply that, if investigations have not yet taken place, they will be conducted now as a matter of urgency.

The issues that my hon. Friend has raised are extremely serious whether they affect Wakefield, my constituency or, indeed, anywhere else. As we already know, plans to accommodate and deal with asylum seekers are extremely sensitive and highly controversial, and it is extremely difficulty to cope with local people's concerns and expectations.

I had a similar experience to that of my hon. Friend, as the BNP turned up in my constituency. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's constituents and, indeed, my own for the fact that, when they recognised who those people were and what their agenda was, they gave them short shrift.

I should like to conclude with the plea that I made to the Minister's predecessor, Lord Rooker, at the meeting to which my hon. Friend referred. My plea is simply that the Home Office should not tolerate lower standards of community relations from the private sector than those that it would adopt itself in dealing with such sensitive issues. As I have constantly said, my experience echoes almost to a fault that of my hon. Friend. It is not enough for a public body, much less the Government, to say that little can be done to influence the conduct of a private sector organisation.

I very much hope that the Minister will be prepared to make it clear that the Home Office will inform the Angel Group and any other private sector organisation that wants to be involved in such highly sensitive public

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issues that, if it has even the expectation of entering into contracts with the Government, it must conform not to the lowest, but to the very highest standards of local community relations.

My experience at High Ercall in The Wrekin is that the Angel Group has treated the local community and its representatives—the parish council, the unitary authority and the Member of Parliament—with utter contempt, and my hon. Friend's experience is very similar in Wakefield. Frankly, that is not the way in which we should pursue such policies, with or without the private sector.

The Angel Group does have form; it does have a record and if the Minister was not aware of that fact before, she will be now. I very much hope that a strong message will go out—not from hon. Members such as my hon. Friend and myself, but from the Minister—to the Angel Group, telling it that the way in which it has conducted itself in the past will no longer be tolerated in the future. Unless it can get its act together and show good faith—frankly, few of us who have had direct experience of the company would accept that at face value—it should be blacklisted and the Home Office should no longer be prepared to deal with it.

8.14 pm

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) on gaining the opportunity to debate this important issue this evening. I hope that I can reassure him that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I absolutely understand his concerns. Indeed, on 29 October 2001, my right hon. Friend made it clear, in answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley), that a provider would be very ill-advised to buy any property speculatively with a view to offering it to the Home Office for use as accommodation for asylum seekers.

My hon. Friends will understand that we cannot prevent providers buying such property; nor can we prevent them from applying for, or obtaining, planning permission to use a property for that purpose. We are not, however, obliged to accept such properties and, in light of the unequivocal statement made by my right hon. Friend, he and I would certainly be prepared to do so only after very careful consideration.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield is primarily interested in the former Prison Service college in Wakefield, and my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin is equally concerned about a site in his constituency, but I heard your advice on that issue, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When the Angel Group was in the process of purchasing the Wakefield site and others, it made it clear that it was doing so with the intention of offering them to the Home Office for use as accommodation for asylum seekers. That is absolutely true, as I understand it. As I have already said, however, we are under no obligation to accept those properties for that or any other purpose.

Let me make it clear that the decision on where asylum seekers are housed does not lie with accommodation providers. That decision is one for the

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Home Office and ultimately Ministers, and I emphasise that the company did not buy the property at the request of the immigration and nationality directorate. Following the Angel Group's purchase of the former Prison Service college, it sought planning permission to use the property as hostel accommodation for asylum seekers. A member of the procurement section in NASS made an informal visit to the site at that time, but, following that visit, the company was told that NASS did not wish to use the building as dispersal accommodation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield has said that he met my predecessor, Lord Rooker, in October last year to discuss the Angel Group's proposal. At that meeting, Lord Rooker confirmed that NASS had declined the offer made by the Angel Group and said that, if the situation were to change, there would be full consultation before the property was accepted if we considered doing so.

My hon. Friend met Lord Rooker again on 30 January this year, when Lord Rooker made it clear that the property was unsuitable for use as dispersal accommodation and that it was not being considered as one of the sites for the trial of accommodation centres, but he said that, although no plans for the site were being considered, it was not possible to rule out its use in some way in the future.

As has been said, the Angel Group's original application for planning permission was refused, but then allowed on appeal. That is a matter for the local authority, as my hon. Friends will know, and I cannot comment on that application. However, the Angel Group has now formally offered the accommodation to NASS. I am happy to assure to my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield—I wish to make this absolutely clear—that we shall not use the property as dispersal accommodation or in the trial of accommodation centres.

There is, however, a current need for some additional emergency accommodation, and NASS has been considering whether the sites at Wakefield and High Ercall would be suitable. I have decided that that would not be appropriate in the circumstances because there are significant problems with both those locations, so neither site will be used for our immediate or foreseeable needs. Although I cannot foresee a time when the problems involving both sites will be such that I would agree to use them, I cannot give my hon. Friends a categorical, absolute and indefinite assurance that they will never be used because I cannot predict how the situation that I am trying to manage with officials may change.

I am very grateful that my hon. Friend recognises the inherent difficulty that we face in managing what is and must be seen as a national issue, with some shared ownership, with which many areas will have to help us to deal. As he has acknowledged, Wakefield is already doing so. In the unlikely event that I consider it necessary to use either property, should they remain available, I reaffirm the commitment to consult thoroughly with them and the local parties with as much notice as possible.

My hon. Friend raised a couple of specific issues on which I want to touch. In relation to the contents of the Land Registry record, and the inclusion of an

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acceptance that use of this site for asylum seekers would be appropriate, as he knows, the college at Love lane was declared surplus during the summer of 2000 and scheduled for closure later that year. Subsequently, it was given over to the Prison Service estates section for disposal. I know that my hon. Friend will argue—in a sense, he is right—that that is part of the Home Office, and therein lies some of the difficulty in deciding whether it is a case of the Home Office trying to sell to the Home Office. The Prison Service estates section, however, is a separate section, and it was dealing with that disposal. Given the college's size and layout, and the pressures that IND was under at the time to provide emergency accommodation, the site was offered to IND, but it decided that it could not make use of Love lane. It was therefore placed with agents to sell on the open market. As he now knows, unconditional offers were received, and it was sold to Angel Group, whose offer was the highest.

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