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Viscount Brentford: I support the amendment and strongly endorse everything said by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, about the Gatwick detention centre. I have also visited it and was very impressed with how it was managed and the attitudes of the staff and detainees to whom I talked.

Can the Minister say how many people are at present being detained in excess of six months? That could be relevant. A UN working group on arbitrary detention stated last December that the maximum period for the detention of an asylum seeker should be specified in national law. That makes a great deal of sense.

The Minister may say that there are occasions when it is impossible to reach a decision within six months and that there must be the power to extend that period. If so, I am sure that the Committee would be prepared to consider such a term--but whether the period is six months or has to be eight or nine months, it should be specified in law.

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I strongly endorse also from experience everything that has been said about the psychological harm done to detainees by having no idea how long they may be detained. I would like that problem overcome.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: The noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, and the Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, paid tribute to those who administer detention centres and the voluntary organisations that support them, and I associate myself with those remarks.

Amendment No. 69 fits hand-in-glove with my noble friend's earlier Amendment No. 68, which sought to impose a one-month limit, to ensure that there would be a review of cases where detainees were kept for a longer period. Amendment No. 69 seeks to ensure that after being held for a six-month period, detainees would be released. The noble Earl said that would ensure that the Government would be more likely to be in compliance with their obligations under the appropriate conventions. I entirely agree.

I was also struck by the noble Baroness's remarks about the nature of civilised societies in the way that they administer their affairs. The idea that someone should be held in a detention centre indefinitely, without a limit being placed on the maximum duration of their stay, strikes me as uncivilised and typical of the tyrannical regimes that the noble Baroness described. If six months is not to be the upper limit and the Government feel that there is a sell-by date beyond which a person should not be kept in a detention centre--and beyond which the Government think that it would be unreasonable to do so--perhaps it would be possible to reach agreement without having to press the amendment to a vote this evening or on Report.

I should like to ask the Minister about specific categories of people who are held as detainees in detention centres. One of those categories comprise people who beyond doubt have been tortured before their arrival in the United Kingdom. Should they be held for any period at all in a detention centre if they have clearly experienced physical torture? Perhaps the Minister in reply will set out the position of the Government in that regard.

I also worry about children who are held in detention. In my earlier contribution to the debate on Amendment No. 68, I referred to the first-hand account of a visitor to one of these centres. He described how he had encountered children on a visit to a centre. Elsewhere in correspondence, he detailed other examples of children being held in detention during his visits. It is extraordinary that children should be held in detention centres at all. Can the Government consider providing more family-friendly facilities where children are involved?

Baroness Williams of Crosby: Does the noble Lord agree that a number of victims of torture are also held in prisons where, if anything, even fewer facilities are available to deal with the particular matter to which he refers?

Lord Alton of Liverpool: I am grateful to the noble Baroness for making that point. The position in

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detention centres is bad enough, but it is worse in prisons. Most noble Lords who have visited prisons at one time or another will be aware that, as Brendan Friel and others have described, in some cases it is impossible for people to be reformed and it is more likely that they will follow criminal paths. For people to be placed in criminal surroundings, when they have committed no criminal offence at all but have suffered grievously at the hands of regimes from which they have fled, beggars belief. I hope that the Minister accepts that if such categories of people--victims of torture and children--are to be placed in either detention centres or prisons, it should be done with the express permission of at least a Home Office Minister, if not the Home Secretary himself.

Finally, I should like to ask the Minister about how detainees may be shunted from detention centre to detention centre. Can that form part of Ministers' overview when they consider how detainees are held? The Minister will be aware from his distinguished career in the law that a frequent complaint of lawyers who work with detainees--it was one regularly made to me in my days as a constituency Member of Parliament--is that detainees are moved from detention centre to detention centre with the purpose, so it seems, of wrong-footing both lawyers and visitors. Although I do not want to believe that to be the motive of those who make such decisions, that complaint has been made to me previously, and in correspondence received today, by those involved in this area. Perhaps the Minister will address that matter when he replies.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Avebury: The noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to people being shunted from detention centre to detention centre, or from detention centre to prison. In one particular case--one of the Campsfield five--the detainee wrote to me and by the time I replied he had been moved to Rochester. The letter was returned to me marked "Address unknown" because the authorities had been unable to discover where the person had been sent. Not infrequently, people who advise detainees and try to help them are unable to communicate with them because the detention estate and the prisons do not seem able to communicate with each other. They are not aware when a person is posted from one part of the estate to another what has happened to him.

We are not talking about people who are accommodated in special detention centres constructed for the purpose of housing asylum applicants. We are considering a total of over 900 people, 500 of whom are accommodated in the prison estate; only 400 are in detention centres. As the Minister will recall, in a recent report on Campsfield, Sir David Ramsbotham said that the point should be reached where no detainee was accommodated in a prison. I believe that the Home Office agrees with that recommendation and is moving to a situation in which all such people can be kept in special detention centres. As the Minister announced at Second Reading, a new detention centre is to be built at Aldington on the site of the present prison.

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I raise this matter now rather than later when the Committee comes to consider my amendment, which provides that people should be accommodated only in detention centres, because the period for which people are kept in detention is critical to the size of the estate. If we did not keep people for longer than six months and if we knew that the whole group of people whose detention extended from six months to over two years had to be released, what impact would that have on the total number in detention? It would be helpful if the Minister in reply could tell the Committee by how much the numbers in detention would be reduced if there was a maximum of six months. Perhaps we could have the same figures for a shorter period; for example, four months.

After all, if the Home Office is successful in its policy to bring the whole period for asylum determination and appeal down to a maximum of six months, no one can be detained for anything like that period. The maximum length of detention would be whatever was left of the period from first arrival in the country to final refusal, less any period of temporary release. It would be very helpful if at the conclusion of this debate the Minister could give the Committee the prognosis. How many places will it be necessary to provide--after all, this must be part of the public expenditure review--if the Government accept Sir David Ramsbotham's recommendation that people should be accommodated only in the detention estate and no longer in prisons?

Viscount Bridgeman: The noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Avebury, have made some important points about children which will come up later in Committee. I detect from the earlier replies of the Minister that he has a time-limit very much in mind. We look forward to his reply and to the point being addressed at later stages of the Bill.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon: The effect of this amendment seems to be wholly right in moral and practical terms. When the moral and practical come together, it seems to me that a strong case is made. The point made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and earlier by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford, is that the effect on those in a disturbed mental state of being kept in detention for more than six months is well documented and is not just a matter of anecdote. In addition, one must consider the cost to taxpayers, which presumably would be considerably reduced if the amendment was accepted.

Lord Dholakia: I support my noble friend Lord Avebury. Those who repeatedly deal with immigration and asylum cases have difficulty in making representations on behalf of applicants. My noble friend Lady Williams and I visited the Gatwick detention centre. One problem encountered by detainees that repeatedly surfaced was the uncertainty as to how long they would be there. In some cases, those looking after the detainees have not had a clue about what will happen to them.

I wrote to the Minister some time ago about the case of a detainee in one of Her Majesty's prisons. He had written because he was absolutely desperate to know

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what was going to happen to him. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, and I received separate letters. We wrote back to him. Two days later, there was a letter from the prison department saying that he had been deported. One felt disgusted that he had been deported; I was on the verge of tearing up the letter. Then I saw a headline in the Guardian that that detainee had been transferred to another prison where he had tried to commit suicide.

Cases like that, where people ask for help but letters never reach them, cause considerable concern. People must know what is happening to them. I should prefer people to be deported much earlier rather than being kept in detention centres for an indefinite period. There should be a time-limit so that everybody would know the outcome of the case, and they should be released at the end of that period.

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