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House of Lords

Thursday, 30th November 2000.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Lichfield.

Detention Centre Rules

Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will conduct an open consultation on the draft detention centre rules before presenting them to Parliament.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, the Government have recognised the importance of consultation throughout the process of drafting the detention centre rules. A re-drafted version of the rules has recently been distributed for further consultation, and we have revised the timetable for implementation of the rules in order to ensure that there is sufficient time to consider properly the comments that are received in response.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, I appreciate that the Government have moved some distance from the original draft rules, thus tacitly admitting that they were modelled too closely on the Prison Rules. However, was sufficient time allowed for the further consultation following the distribution of the revised paper on 14th November, given that most of the recipients considered the deadline to be 1st December and responded accordingly? That included the Asylum Rights Campaign, whose letter was dated yesterday. Given the volume of suggested further amendments received in response to the circulation of the paper on 14th November, would it be useful to have an open round table of all the organisations involved so that these matters can be thrashed out before the draft rules are presented to Parliament?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it is worth bearing in mind that consultation on the rules began as far back as January 1999 and has continued, both formally and informally, ever since. The consultation has been extensive: it has involved HMCIP, NGOs, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the Refugee Council, the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture and a number of others. I take the noble Lord's point about the shortness of time in relation to a specific document. If we receive representations after the date when the formal consultation period ends, we shall continue to consider those. On the noble Lord's final point as to whether it would be advisable to have a round table, if we receive that representation from the consultation bodies we shall give it fair consideration.

The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, after more than three years of this

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Government being in office, asylum seekers in detention are still waiting for basic communications, full written reasons and medical assistance or at least information about medical facilities? Why has it taken so long for what he would describe as a "listening government" to act?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, my understanding is that those in detention centres do receive written reasons and explanations. They have access to a full range of legal advice and to medical advice. We try to make conditions in the detention centre estate as reasonable and humane as possible under the circumstances. These centres are essential; and those in government have a responsibility to ensure that they are maintained in good quality. For that reason there has also been considerable investment in improving the quality of the detention centre estate.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, how many people are currently in detention centres and what are their family profiles? For what kind of duration are they likely to remain in the centres?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I do not have those precise statistics in front of me but I am happy to provide them in writing. The period of time spent in a detention centre depends on the complexity of the case. Our aim is to ensure that people spend as little time there as possible. The detention centre estate is enabling the Immigration and Nationality Directorate to turn over decisions much more quickly than was previously the case. I shall pick up the other points in correspondence with the noble Lord.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, will the Minister place a copy of his reply in the Library?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I shall be more than happy to do so.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, is it not ridiculous that, while one member of a family may be detained in a centre in the South of England, other family members may be dispersed over 200 miles away in the North? Is that not a wrong application of the dispersal policy?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, without having full knowledge of the circumstances of the case to which the noble Lord refers, it would be difficult and wrong of me to pass judgment at the Dispatch Box. There may be circumstances in which it is entirely appropriate. The general approach is usually to attempt to keep family groups together. If the noble Lord is concerned about the circumstances of dispersal in a particular case, I shall be happy to investigate it.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, I believe that after the detention centre rules have been settled, operating standards will need to be developed in line with them. What is the time-scale for all this coming into practice?

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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am not able to give an answer now on what is quite a complex matter. I shall correspond with the noble Lord.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, is the Minister aware that I am extremely grateful to him for his first Answer, and especially for his reference to the possibility of consultations with the organisations concerned? Will he allow me a week or 10 days in which to consult the organisations that have been involved in this process--especially the Asylum Rights Campaign--to see whether they would find such a meeting useful?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I always endeavour to be helpful to the noble Lord and others who are concerned about such matters. If the noble Lord would care to make contact with officials in my office, I shall consider what arrangements can be made.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, although the rules are clearly most important, can the Minister give the House an assurance that these centres will be used primarily to detain people who are about to be deported, and not as a random deterrent for asylum seekers generally?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, detention centres are not used in a random fashion; indeed, one of their principal purposes is to hold those who are facing removal in the very near future. The noble Lord will appreciate that many of the cases with which we have to deal are very complicated. Therefore, it is only right and proper that people are held while full investigations are made into their circumstances. I believe that that is as far as I can go on this point.

Firearms Register: Implementation

11.10 a.m.

Lord Marlesford asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Why the central register of all persons who hold, or who have applied for, a firearm or shotgun certificate which was required to be set up under Section 39 of the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 has not been set up and by what date it will be set up.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, time-scales for this project were recently reassessed because of the need to develop concurrently a link between the national DNA database and criminal records on the police national computer. I understand that the Police Information Technology Organisation, which is responsible for taking matters forward, has agreed with the Association of Chief Police Officers that a combined approach is the best way of taking forward both proposals. Development work on the project has now started. The register is expected to be operational by February 2002.

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Lord Marlesford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Given that the object of the amendment to the Act was to prevent a repetition of tragedies such as Hungerford and Dunblane, does the noble Lord agree that it is disgraceful that the Home Office is only now--three years later--starting to do anything about the matter? Has the noble Lord taken note of the report of the Home Affairs Select Committee of another place, chaired by his honourable friend Mr Robin Corbett, which said:

    "We are appalled that the national database of certificate holders ... is not yet in immediate prospect"?

Further, does the noble Lord agree with the Select Committee when it says:

    "We regard this system, which will allow the swift and effective exchange of information on applications made for certificates between all police forces, as absolutely central to the safe and effective operation of the firearms licensing system."?

Will the noble Lord put a bomb under the Home Office?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am not entirely sure that it would be appropriate to put a bomb under the Home Office. However, the noble Lord makes an important point. He is, of course, to be congratulated on introducing this section of the legislation. Concern has been expressed about the delay, but it is our desire to get matters absolutely right. Obviously I am well aware of the correspondence entered into with Robin Corbett setting out the position as far as concerns the Section 39 amendment to the Act. Yes, we are well aware of the problem. But we are on the case and are beginning to ensure that matters are put right. I, too, share the noble Lord's view that the register is extremely important. However, it is important to bring it into line with the DNA register.

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