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3 Mar 2003 : Column 657—continued

Mr. Pound: I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend the Minister. However, I have a document that shows that, as she will be aware, Accommodata has operated the Leicester International hotel. The east midlands consortium for asylum seeker support offers an equally unequivocal endorsement of the company's operation of the hotel and of the service that it provides in that area. I will happily give her a copy of this document.

Beverley Hughes: I am doubly indebted to my hon. Friend. I thank him for that information and I would be very pleased to see a copy of the document.

I do not know whether this information is relevant but other companies have similar or identical names to Accommodata. There is an Accomodata, an hotel booking website, registered in Tadworth in Surrey, and a New Zealand-based hotel booking shares a similar name. A direct mail provider is based in Indianapolis and an American company provides services to ophthalmologists and similar professionals. Our contractor, Accommodata Ltd. has assured us that it has no links with any of the above companies, but I do not know whether some of the critics of this UK-based company are acting under the mistaken belief that all the companies are one and the same. I understand that Swale council's planning enforcement notice may have been sent to the Tadworth company by mistake.

I wish to make a few general points about our attempts to improve radically the asylum system. We are trying to bring into place facilities that will help us to do that in the way that I outlined earlier. In particular, we seek to keep in contact with asylum seekers. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North will know that many local authorities, including his own, are already responding by receiving significant numbers of asylum seekers through the dispersal system. I am grateful to them for that. It is right that we try to evaluate mechanisms for receiving and processing asylum claims.

3 Mar 2003 : Column 658

I am grateful, too, to my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey for his remarks about the willingness of the residents and the council in Sittingbourne to grapple with that problem. It seems that they simply do not like the proposal that the only substantial hotel in the town should be used for this purpose because residents could not use it as they do now. That point was made at the meeting that I had with local residents and councillors, as was a promise that details would be provided of more suitable accommodation in the area which we could consider. Freda Chaloner, the head of NASS, raised the same point at a public meeting.

In fact, I have to tell my hon. Friend, with some disappointment, that neither the council nor anybody else has come forward with an alternative in the area which might be used to accommodate asylum seekers. It is important that we find accommodation in the south-east, because this is where many people enter the country. It is vital that, metaphorically speaking, we take hold of them at that very early point, and that is why we need induction centres in London and the south-east.

I want to involve local authorities much more in the process of managing asylum seekers, and many authorities tell me that they want to be more involved. However, when we put the question to them, we find in practice that concrete offers of help and support do not appear. We gave other regional consortiums and the local authorities involved in them the chance to be involved in the provision of regionally-based induction centres because local authorities were telling us that that is what they wanted. To date, the offers that we have received amount to 685 bed spaces, when we need a total throughout the country of about 3,500.

Unless local authorities are willing not only to say that they want to be involved and to co-operate but to translate that commitment into practice, NASS and the Government have no alternative but to seek accommodation from private sector providers such as Acommodata. I am speaking to local authorities in general when I say, "We are in your hands." I want to work with local authorities, and there are many reasons connected with their responsibility for local communities why we ought to have been working with them more.

The offer is there, but if it is not taken up by Swale borough council and others, we must provide this accommodation through the private sector, and we will. If Swale council has some alternatives, I would be grateful if it suggested them. Today I asked my official who is responsible for the induction centre programme to make renewed contact with Swale council, which has not, I am told, so far responded to her requests of recent weeks for meetings about this matter. If we are not to use the Coniston hotel, the council should allow us to consider any alternatives in the area.

Question put and agreed to.

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