Previous SectionIndexHome Page

3 Mar 2003 : Column 652—continued

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for being his usual generous self and allowing me to intervene. Rockware avenue in Greenford, which my hon. Friend has mentioned, is in my constituency and I have looked into this issue. My investigations have led me in a different direction from that of my hon. Friend. Is he aware that both Migrant

3 Mar 2003 : Column 653

Helpline and the Refugee Council have given unequivocally glowing endorsements of the standard of service that is provided by Accommodata?

Mr. Wyatt: That is not the case in Leicester, where I think a High Court case is about to take place.

As I have said, the Coniston hotel is the only hotel in Sittingbourne. The economic report of Swale borough council said that we desperately need another hotel as demand is outstripping supply. Four weeks ago, I started an e-mail conversation with Hammerson, the owners of the Oracle at Reading and Brent Cross in north London. The company has bought 51 acres in the heart of Sittingbourne. No doubt it will want to develop a retail park, a multiplex cinema and an indoor swimming pool—as well as an inlet marina with housing. All that that will do is increase the need for hotel beds and hotel investment.

We need the Coniston. We want people from Hammerson, as well as our current business visitors, to stay and spend their money locally and enhance our local economy. We need the Coniston and we would like it back. We need it most because it is our community hotel. Already, 40 weddings have had to be postponed. Can NASS understand the heartache and disappointment that rearranging those 40 weddings has caused my constituents?

Is it true that NASS neither visited the Coniston before signing the deal with Accommodata nor asked for any economic or social data from Swale borough council? Coniston is not a secure site. Will my hon. Friend confirm that police costs for securing the Coniston have already reached £100,000 in less than two months? Should NASS go ahead with its plans at the Coniston, the police bill, over three years, will be somewhere between £1.5 million and £2 million. Who will pay for that—Accommodata, NASS, Kent county council or Swale borough council? Our citizens have a right to know.

If the Government had asked its top 300 towns and cities to share in the process of accommodating refugees and asylum seekers, we could manage the current influx. Had NASS brought people in Sittingbourne inside the decision-making process, and helped us to lay the issues in front of our citizens, we would have suggested properties and had a mature debate with our stakeholders—including our local churches, which I am sure would have taken a lead. We would have understood these issues better. I believe that if the site had not been our only hotel, we would have welcomed the refugees. Sittingbourne people are decent people. They understand how serious an issue this is for the Government—any Government. However, they have turned against us. They do not fully understand the relationship between the Home Office and NASS; people think that they are one and the same. Consequently, people have lost trust in the process of democracy.

When my hon. Friend the Minister reviews this case, I hope that she will agree that NASS has to be broken up, that it has to be moved from Croydon, and that it needs better management and management systems across all Government Departments. Notwithstanding

3 Mar 2003 : Column 654

the costs involved at the Coniston, I hope that it will be given back to our community. After all, it is our only community hotel.

8.3 pm

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes): I thank my hon. Friend for the way in which he has presented his case and for his courtesy in sending me a copy of his remarks a little earlier in the day. That helped me to ensure that I could answer as many of his points as possible.

As he knows, I have made it clear before that I am deeply unhappy with the way in which NASS failed to maintain communications with Swale borough council during the procurement process for bed spaces at the Coniston hotel. He also knows that I have instituted a review of NASS operations generally and that, since my appointment as Minister, I have accelerated the regionalisation of NASS. That is on track. I regard it as an evolutionary process. We will consider extending functions that can be regionalised as the first wave of regionalisation settles. I hope that it will be successful.

Since 10 January, there have been regular meetings between NASS and the council. In addition, NASS officials have attended two public meetings in Sittingbourne, at which members of the local community were able to raise concerns. My hon. Friend thanked me, for which I thank him. As he said, I was able to meet local councillors and community representatives in Sittingbourne. The meeting was useful and constructive, and conducted in a mature and open way. At the meeting, I made it clear that, although we could not allow consultation to continue indefinitely, I was happy to agree to an extension to ensure that everybody felt that they had had an opportunity to contribute. At that point, residents asked to continue at least until 28 February. As soon as people feel that the consultation has run its course, I will be in a position to receive a report and make a decision. I hope that many concerns can be resolved during discussions between NASS and the council—although we may have to accept that some issues will not be resolved. I will get a full report and I will make the decision on whether or not we will place asylum seekers at the Coniston hotel.

Bearing in mind some of my hon. Friend's comments, this debate gives me an opportunity to set out again what happened during the exercise to procure bed spaces to support an induction centre for those making their applications in the south-east. NASS ran a competitive tendering exercise, in line with standard Government procurement guidelines. There was nothing underhand or secretive about the process. It was done in the normal way. The guidelines require that information on tenders must be considered as "commercial in confidence"—a technical term with which I am sure my hon. Friend will be familiar—until a contract is awarded. However, the need to treat tenders as commercial in confidence does not prevent consultation. As part of the exercise, bidders were told that details of their tender would be passed to the relevant local authority. Letters were sent to chief executives of local authorities in areas where we were looking to procure bed spaces. The letter, while making it clear that the information contained was commercial in confidence, did not prevent information being shared with anyone in the council, or outside the council,

3 Mar 2003 : Column 655

whom the chief executive thought it was necessary to supply information to. NASS needed the information to enable it to undertake a full and careful evaluation of all the tenders.

Two letters were received from Swale borough council. I have seen them. They are very short and anyone reading them would see no concerns that they would think that the authors had thought significant. The second letter passed on some information about possible crime and disorder concerns. However, I want to make it clear that those concerns were generalised and did not relate to the possibility that asylum seekers staying at a hotel would engage in criminal activity in the local area. NASS considered the contents of the letters but took the view that there was nothing in them to prevent the hotel from being used as accommodation only. A report came to me and a contract with Accommodata was signed on 11 December. As I have already said, it is my real regret—and I admit that I had assumed that things were happening differently—that while the process was continuing, NASS did not correspond with the council. It should have done. It is also a fact that, once the contract was signed, NASS could have, and should have, engaged more quickly with the council to allay public concerns.

NASS has entered into a contract with Accommodata to use up to 111 bed spaces at the Coniston hotel, as my hon. Friend has said. In turn, Accommodata—which has a licence to operate the hotel but does not own it—has a contract with the owner, Munro Properties, to lease bed spaces there to enable it to fulfil its contract with NASS. I am told that there are other bedrooms at the hotel that are not part of the agreement between Accommodata and Munro. Those are available for use by the public—although I have heard comments from local residents on the feasibility of that use continuing with asylum seekers in the hotel. I understand those points.

I want to assure my hon. Friend and the residents of Sittingbourne that no asylum seekers will be placed in the hotel as a result of the contract between NASS and Accommodata until I have decided whether that is appropriate. However, I cannot stop Munro Properties or Accommodata doing work at the hotel if they want to.

My hon. Friend will know that the purpose of the induction centre concept is to make sure that, at the very earliest opportunity, we make strong contact with asylum seekers when they make their claims and establish a mechanism for that contact to continue We brief them fully on the asylum process and start to prepare them for the outcome that the vast majority of them will face—that their claim will not succeed. We are trying to bring order and rationality to the system and to increase the number of removals of people whose claims do not succeed.

It is envisaged that people will be in the induction centre for a very short time while their fingerprints are taken, their identities are established and they are issued with the new identity cards that we are using for asylum seekers. They will then be dispersed. They do not stay in the induction centre and, as my hon. Friend knows, Kent is not a dispersal area and we have no plans to alter that. There is no suggestion that asylum seekers staying at the Coniston hotel or anywhere designated as an

3 Mar 2003 : Column 656

induction centre will be provided with longer-term accommodation in the area while their application is being considered.

My hon. Friend made a number of points about Accommodata as a company. According to my information, this Accommodata Ltd.—I shall shortly come to the other companies that share this name—is owned 50:50 by Shallan UK Ltd. and Zareno Ltd. Both companies provide loans to Accommodata at commercial rates of interest. I am providing this information, because I take my hon. Friend point's about NASS's due diligence appearing in the public domain. This information was revealed by NASS's checks on Accommodata. Accommodata, Shallan and Zareno are all registered in the UK. Accommodata was incorporated as a UK registered limited company on 16 February 2000. It acts as a property manager; it does not own accommodation facilities or associated services.

The background checking process for Accommodata's bid evaluation started in June 2002 when NASS placed advertisements for expressions of interest in providing hotel services in the south-east. In September 2002, along with nine other companies, Accommodata submitted a detailed tender in response to NASS's 94-page invitation to tender document, and NASS then undertook detailed commercial and technical evaluations. Each evaluation took place independently of the other. Accommodata scored very highly compared to the other bidders, and the Consiton proposal was found to be fully compliant in the technical evaluation. In addition, the company was required to provide details of its health and safety policy, insurances, track record and statements of its methods. References were demanded.

My hon. Friend may be familiar with Dun and Bradstreet reports, and they were obtained for Accommodata and for its parent companies. The invitation to tender document also required Accommodata to disclose whether, in the previous five years, any of its directors or the company secretary had been associated with a company that had gone into liquidation, any of them had been liable for bankruptcy proceedings or had been involved with any bankrupt company, whether the company had been subject to a termination of contract due to failure to fulfil contractual obligations and whether the company had been a defendant in a tribunal, civil court case or law suit relating to contractual performance or obligations to employees. The answer provided to all these questions was no, except that in reply to the first question—whether anyone had been associated with a company that had gone into liquidation—it was disclosed that one director, Mr. Somji, had been a director of Primedeck Enterprises, a subsidiary of Shallan, that had gone into liquidation in July 1998.

Accommodata was also required to submit full audited accounts and its bid was assessed with reference to profit, liquidity, the net worth of shareholders, audit opinion and risk rating. As a result of this analysis, it was judged to be a financially sound company. The evaluation methodology provided that, where a tenderer appeared to have breached company law or to have engaged in any other irregularity—for example, failing to submit accounts to Companies House—that would be ground for rejection of the tender unless there

3 Mar 2003 : Column 657

were exceptional mitigating circumstances. None of this applies to Accommodata. Contact was also made with other parts of the Home Office to check for any other adverse experience of the company.

I am not here to argue the case for Accommodata; I am simply setting out the standard process of checking that is used throughout Government procurement. That process was applied to the company and I have outlined the results that it revealed. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) for his intervention outlining some of the views of voluntary organisations about the company. My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey claimed that a case against Accommodata is pending in Leicester, but we know of no case pending against the company in Leicester, in any other local authority or by anyone else.

Next Section

IndexHome Page