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10 Dec 2002 : Column 233continued
Mr. Hinchliffe: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's helpful and thoughtful response. Accepting that different tribes operate within the Home Office, may I assume that, if, at some unforeseeable point in the future, a need is perceived to use this particular building, the NASS tribe might consult the prison tribe on the security implications of asylum seekers being accommodated directly opposite the wings of Wakefield prison.
Beverley Hughes: As I said, given the issues raised by my hon. Friend, I think that it is highly unlikely that we would think that that was an appropriate location. I can say with absolute assurance, however, that should such a need arise, however unlikely at this point of time, I will insist on a full appraisal of all of the issues in relation to location, and particularly the security issues, as he raises a valid point in that respect. Arguably, given the concerns expressed to him by people working in the Prison Service, that point should have come to the fore in an appropriate way.
I want to explain the reference to housing asylum seekers as being a possible appropriate use for the site in the Land Registry record. When the Prison Service sells any site, it must ensure that any future use will not compromise the security of the prison, and Wakefield is a high-security prison. That is why several uses have been excluded. For absolute clarity, however, the Prison Service was saying at the time that, of all of the uses that the Home Office might consider, it did not regard housing asylum seekers as a security risk. That does not compromise what I just said about us considering the matter again, but that is the technical reason why that issue was made absolutely clear at the time of the disposal. As a matter of routine, the Prison Service would have to make clear what uses it thought were suitable or not suitable.
In relation to the apparently contradictory information and apparently contradictory statements of intentions by IND officials in various letters over a period of time, I agree that, at the very least, the letters to which my hon. Friend referred were confusing. On the face of it, they are not necessarily evidence of a deliberate intention to mislead. It may be more the case that officials use language very specificallyto them, hostel accommodation means dispersal. Understandably,
On the question whether there is any kind of inside track for this or any other company, I am aware of my hon. Friend's concerns. The Home Secretary instigated an investigation into that possibility some time ago, after his previous expression of those concerns to my predecessor as Minister, and no evidence of any relationship or untoward dealings was uncovered. I feel, however, that we need to look closely at the routine procedures that are used in our contracting relationships. NASS is in a difficult situation in the sense that, over the past year, we have needed more accommodation than has been readily available. It is understandable, in a way, if the first port of call to look for additional accommodation is with those who already provide it. I have already made it clear to officials, however, that not only must we be completely above board in those relationships but absolutely transparently seen to be above board. I will therefore ask for an examination of all the procedures that we follow to make sure that they are properly documented and that we can account properly for decisions that are made, notwithstanding the sometimes difficult and fluid situation with which officials must deal when trying to house people who turn up in the country at sometimes very short notice.
I hope that my hon. Friend will accept the assurances from me, and, through me, from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary: first, in relation to the likely future for the building as regards any IND use, which, as I have made clear, is unlikely, although I cannot absolutely rule it out; and more generally, in relation to the efforts that I will make to answer his specific questions about communication levels, and to look at our procedures in detail to make sure that we are seen to be behaving in a proper way and that we can account for our decision making fully and openly.
Peter Bradley: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am glad to hear those assurances, and I pay tribute to the even-handed way in which she has addressed these difficult issues since she has been in office. Can she confirm that the investigation that she mentioned will seek to improve communications between the various tribes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) described them, in the Home Office so that they speak with one voice, and that it will also seek to improve communications with prospective private-sector providers to ensure that, as I have argued, they provide a maximum rather than a minimum amount of information to people who have a right to know?
Beverley Hughes: Yes, I can. I want to provide the assurance not only in respect of private providers, but of NASS and IND more generally. My hon. Friends will be generous enough to accept that this is an inherently difficult issue. Whatever people's genuine feelings about the need to respond to the issue constructively, most people reject the prospect of accommodation of any kind being provided for asylum seekers in their area. They do not want to hear such a message. I hold the strong beliefI may prove to be wrongthat one cannot deal with that difficulty by battening down the