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Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): I sometimes wish that those who occasionally chide Members of Parliament about what they do and how they do it could spend a little time at these Adjournment debates. They would then have a chance to observe the breadth of subjects that my colleagues cover, and the passion with which they speak. A perfect example was the speech of the hon. Member for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson), who spoke with knowledge and passion about mental illness in Northern Ireland and illuminated the matter for all of us, but a number of Members who have spoken could make the same claim.
Let me start by wishing everyone the very best for Christmas and the new year, and making one or two brief comments to my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). As chairman of Christians in Parliament, I find no difficulty in wishing friends and colleagues a happy Christmas in all the fullness of its meaning, and find no difficulty in professing a faith. I have noticed concern this year about the use of the term "Christmas"although it is not new; it comes up from time to time.
Perhaps I could offer a gentle word to non-believers. This really is not a problem. I have never come across anyone who professed a faith who was in any way concerned about celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. Regardless of one's faith background, the person of Jesus Christ is respected and revered in most religions. I think those who are responsible for such celebrations can relax. I also think that sometimes it is those who have no faith at all who feel most concerned. I hope that this year, after the fuss, people will learn that Christmas is something to be celebrated by everyone, and will lose their embarrassment and timidity about it.
I should be grateful if the Ministerwhose fortitude throughout these events can only be described as praiseworthywould be good enough to pass on to his colleagues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister the request from a cross-party group of Bedfordshire Members who seek an opportunity to make representations about the local government settlement, particularly in relation to highways. The council had sought a meeting early in the autumn but was turned down, and when MPs sought a meeting a little later they were turned down as well. During last week's questions to the Prime Minister and the ODPM, I noticed that Labour Members from the north-east were being given an opportunity to make representations to Ministers. I think it only fair for the same to apply to us. I should be grateful if the Minister would convey to the ODPM the urgency with which the cross-party group seeks a meeting to discuss the problems facing a county that is absorbing an awful lot of houses at the Deputy Prime Minister's request.
My second point relates to tax credits. I do not think that the Government should ever get away with an Adjournment debate without realising the pain and
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damage being inflicted on so many people through the workings of this extraordinary system. My constituents have had to bear similar problems to others, with a third of cases going wrong and 1.9 million people expected to repay something in the order of £2 billion. That amounts to a catastrophe. I know that the Government are considering no longer requiring repayments of overpayments from next April, but I wish that they would bring that date forward. It would be an appropriate Christmas gift to all those affected by tax credits if the Government said now that overpayments would not have to be returned.
My constituent, Anna Craig of Risley, a single mum, bravely went on television a couple of weeks ago to explain the problems that tax credits can cause. Someone came to my weekend surgery and spoke about the problem of living on incapacity benefit of £85 a week, from which £26 a week was being deducted. That put the person well below benefit limits, while £500 of tax credits had to be repaid.
Mrs. H of Biggleswade does not have a repayment problem, but is owed money because of the failure of a tax credit department to pay her what she was due. She is claiming back money relating to a period of longer than 93 daysthe statutory limit. Eighteen months ago, she asked to be paid over a longer period, but during those months the department had still not received guidance as to whether it was able to repay her for the earlier period. I cannot understand how she could have been kept waiting for legal guidance for such a long time.
I tried to find out how many complaints had been made about tax credits in my constituency and tabled a written question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Unfortunately, I was told that such information was not available at constituency level, so I cannot enlighten the Minister as to how many of my constituents are in this position. I have a database, like many other colleagues, of some 40 to 50 cases that I am dealing with now. It is, as I said, a scandal and the Government should have done much better. An appropriate way of concluding the Session would be for the Government to start the concession on overpayments right now rather than wait until next April.
I shall try to speak for no more than four further minutes, but I want to raise the difficult subject of the Yarl's Wood detention centre in my constituency. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) for his eloquent speech: I understand that the issue of asylum seekers is not always an easy subject to debate, but it is important to do so, as someone has to be a voice for the most vulnerable people who lack a voice elsewhere.
My particular concern is the operation of the largest detention and removal centre in Europe, which is located in my constituency. I make no bones about supporting the immigration systemthat is now effectively consensual in the Housewhich sometimes means turning people down and returning them, in due course, to the place that they came from. How precisely that is done, however, is terribly important and I should be grateful if the Minister would pass my comments on to the Home Office for consideration. I am in regular
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contact with the relevant Minister, who is unfailingly courteous and timely in his responses, but some issues remain outstanding and should be considered further.
The length of time that certain people have spent at Yarl's Wood is now becoming a serious issue. Some women have been there for more than a year, yet we have no policy for keeping people in detention for that length of time. If they have not been returned to their countries during that period, they should not be kept in Yarl's Wood, but be allowed out. Why are people being kept there for so long? I tabled a written question to find out how long people have been there, but it is difficult to get the right answer to that question. Some people have undoubtedly been there for a long time and I am worried about the legal basis for that.
Secondly, there is increased frustration at Yarl's Wood because appropriate legal services and advice are not available. The inspector of prisons, Ann Owers, said in a report earlier this year, under recommendation 3.7:
That report appeared in the summer, but no action has been taken. The frustration about that has caused additional problems within the centre. There has been an increase in cases of self-harm and in the number of people refusing food and being on hunger strike. The chaplain, Rev. Larry Wright, wrote to me saying:
"I wholeheartedly support the need for good, independent legal advice in detention centres such as Yarl's Wood . . . Good, independent legal advice would assist those who have been badly served by previous advisors"
We are now hearing of some families who have been resident in the UK for many years, who are picked up, detained for 48 hours at Yarl's Wood and then returned to their home countries. A family from Wigan were returned to Uganda, and a family from north London with four children including a boy in a wheelchair, who had been in this country for some four years, are among those who have been detained for 48 or 70 hours and then removed.
That cannot be right, and there will be a specific Adjournment debate on the policy early in the new year. Again, I have asked how many people there are who, having been in this country a long time, are given a short time scale in which to leave and then removed. I am not against their being asked to leave, but a short time scale causes real problems, and I believe that there is more of that going on than the House is aware of.
Increasingly, there are problems with the medical services at Yarl's Wood. The services provided there are under great pressure and the staff work extremely hard, but a series of issues have arisen concerning diagnoses, and what is in the best interests of detainees. Those who have been on hunger strike have to be carefully dealt with when they come back from hospital, and there are problems with their treatment.
Questions have been asked, particularly about one woman, Sophie Odogo, who came to Yarl's Wood in April mentally fit, well and able, yet by September needed acute psychiatric care because her condition had deteriorated so much. There is an argument about what happened to her. According to the Minister concerned,
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the Healthcare Commission had been asked to conduct an investigation, but the people from the commission itself said to a medical adviser that they did not think that it was doing that.
What Yarl's Wood badly needs is a panel of independent medical advisers available to detainees' representatives, to refugee groups and to Yarl's Wood itself, so that when there is doubt and uncertainty about the treatment being offered, there are people to turn to who are independent, and accepted by all parties as neutral. That job is now being done by one or two selfless individuals who get themselves heavily involved in cases, but whose judgments are not always accepted by the medical authorities. It is all a mess, and it needs to be tidied up.
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