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Lord Greaves moved Amendment No. 103:

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 103 seeks to put on the face of the Bill the principle and important practice that families in accommodation centres should not be split up, that children should not be split from their parents and that wives and husbands should not be split up.

The Minister spoke earlier about the arrangements the Government propose to make in accommodation centres and their intention to provide family units. That is certainly a welcome step forward. However, there is nothing in the Bill to prevent families from being split, either on the same site or on different sites. This probing amendment is designed to discover what guarantees the Government can give that families will not be split in this way. This is on the basis of the principle set out in Preamble B of the 1951 convention which, among other things, recommends governments to ensure that the unity of a refugee's family is maintained.

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It will be interesting to know the Government's thinking in regard to the proportion of families they expect to be housed in accommodation centres. Single males make up more than 80 per cent of asylum seekers; single women, families of various kinds and single children make up under 20 per cent. So families make up a small proportion of the total.

Much of the public discussion in regard to accommodation centres has centred around the position of children and families in relation to their education and so on. The impression has been given that there may be a tendency to put a higher proportion of families in accommodation centres than asylum seekers in general. Do the Government believe that the proportion of families in any given accommodation centre at any given time is likely to be 20 per cent? Will it be less than that or might it be 30 or 40 per cent? It will be interesting to know the Government's view on this issue. I look forward to the Minister's reply. I beg to move.

Lord Renton: I gladly support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, not only because I believe in family unity but because I would not like it to be thought that it is only the Liberal Democrats who believe in family unity.

Lord Filkin: I shall be brief because the position has been made clear in the debates on earlier clauses. I want to make it absolutely clear that families placed in an accommodation centre will remain together. The residential units they occupy will allow for this. The precise nature of the residential units will be a matter for those who design the accommodation but it will accord to this general principle.

I do not think that a statutory reference is necessary or appropriate. For example, if a family arrives consisting of two parents, a young child and the older brother who may be, say, aged 25, naturally the parents and the young child would be placed together in the same unit but it might be more sensible for the 25 year-old, who would most probably be claiming asylum in his own right, to be placed in a separate unit. We would need to consider each case on its merits. But there is no disagreement with the purpose behind the amendment.

I just point to the existing situation in respect of removal centres and NASS accommodation where the same clear principle applies but without any statutory reference to family unity. I am not aware that there have been any suggestions that this principle has been compromised in those types of establishments.

I was asked what we thought would be the mix of families. It is a long way off. We are aware that it will be some time before the accommodation will be finalised. Therefore, at this stage I have nothing further to add on that but respectfully suggest that the amendment may be withdrawn.

Lord Avebury: Surely the Minister can at least give the figures for the number of families who apply for asylum at present compared with the number of single men. My noble friend thought the figure to be about

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80 per cent single men and 20 per cent families. Is that confirmed by the Government? Would not it be logical, therefore, for the accommodation in the centres to conform with those numbers? Unless there is a radical change in the mix of asylum seekers between now and the date when the button has to be pushed for construction, would the Government have regard to the numbers in the asylum population in the past year or two?

Lord Hylton: When the Minister replies, can he say what principle of selection will apply to the centres, given that the great majority of asylum applicants will continue to be dispersed, as occurs at present?

Lord Filkin: I stand by my original indication that the point at which we finalise the accommodation and put families in it is some time away. As a rough and ready figure, about 40 per cent of the residents—counting every soul as one—might be part of a family compared with 60 per cent who are not. The 20 per cent figure for families relates to cases: one family equals one case. But those are only rough and ready figures at this stage for reasons the Committee will understand.

Lord Greaves: I am grateful to the Minister for that information and for placing firmly on the record that families will not be split. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns moved Amendment No. 104:

    Page 9, line 12, after "centre" insert "for a maximum period of ten weeks, save in exceptional circumstances"

The noble Baroness said: The effect of Amendment No. 104 is to say that the Secretary of State can make provision for a person to stay at an accommodation centre for a maximum period of 10 weeks.

The purpose of the amendment is to require the Secretary of State to ensure that the application for asylum made by a person who is required by the Secretary of State to be resident in an accommodation centre is processed within that period of 10 weeks. I believe it is vital that the process of deciding applications is as swift as possible, as I have commented previously. This is one piece of the jigsaw puzzle which we believe, if properly completed, would ensure that we have a one-stop shop in which all can have confidence rather than the half built affair proposed at present by the Government.

If there is no incentive on the face of the Bill—having a proper target as a time limit—the likelihood is that time will drift and people will spend far too long in the centres. My amendment would ensure that the Home Office reacts with speed and efficiency.

I have sought to be practical. I have included in the amendment the recognition that there may indeed be exceptional circumstances which means that the claim cannot be processed within the time limit of 10 weeks. Perhaps the Home Office may have asked for documentation in a timely manner; they may have

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asked for documentation from another country and the other country fails to respond in the required time. That, of course, might be an exceptional circumstance.

The Government are not averse to setting time limits in other areas. The time limit in juvenile courts for the period between arrest and disposal of the case is an example in point. The Minister in the other place commented that this could not be a parallel because asylum claims entail overseas inquiries. Of course, my caveat of having the "exceptional circumstances" rider in the amendment would deal with that problem.

The Government have said that they expect six months to be the maximum time spent by most people in accommodation centres. That really is far too long. It is important that the claims are processed more rapidly than that if we are to be fair to the asylum seekers who need to know the result quickly. We need to be able to show people overseas that if they come to this country, they can expect a speedy and fair resolution of their claim.

By allowing the decision making to drift to a six-month limit the Government are also accepting that they will not process more than 6,000 of the 80,000 claims a year in accommodation centres. That is far too small a proportion even for what is to be a trial; it will leave the great majority still to face dispersal around the country, with all the problems that that causes for them. By accepting my amendment, the Government would set the objective of processing about 16,000 applications a year in accommodation centres rather than the paltry 6,000 that obtains at present. That would be a better target for all concerned. I beg to move.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Avebury: Can the Minister tell me whether I am right in thinking that the target of two months for the initial decision and a total of six months for the whole process was originally contained in the White Paper, Fairer, Faster and Firmer—A Modern Approach to Immigration and Asylum? If that is the case, is it not curious that the accommodation centres that are designed to speed up the whole process still maintain the same time limit? Surely the whole point of the exercise is to try to shorten the time-scale. I entirely agree with the thrust of the noble Baroness's amendment, although the 10-week period that she has allowed is perhaps a little too strict.

In his letter to me of 8th July, the Minister pointed out that,

    "53 per cent of applications received in the period April to December 2001, inclusive, had initial decisions reached and served within two months . . . [and] that 43 per cent of appeals received in the period April to December 2001, inclusive, were processed through both tiers of the IAA within 17 weeks".

So we are a long way off meeting the target suggested by the noble Baroness. While I hope that the accommodation will enable the process to be speeded up, I believe that a little more latitude should be

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allowed the Government. But I agree in principle with the idea put forward by the noble Baroness; namely, that there should be some form of time limit in the Bill.

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