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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I hope for the sake of all of us in the House that most of the things to be done will not involve primary legislation. We are sometimes too ready to embark on new primary legislation instead of making better use of the tools that we have. No, the real thrust will be in improved use of existing audit and accountancy bodies—the National Audit Office, which, of course, is not under government control, the Audit Commission and so on.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, I declare an interest as the deputy chairman of the council of the University of London. This country has historically had world-class Armed Forces, financial services and universities, but the world-class position of the universities has been under greater threat than has been the case for the other two services. Can the Minister be more expansive and specific than the

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Statement allowed him to be about what the Government will do about the universities during the next three years?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: No, my Lords, not really. That matter will become more apparent in the Statement to be made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. The Chancellor allowed himself—and I do not blame him, because it is a matter of enormous importance—to be a little more expansive about resources for science, research and the budgets of the research councils. Of course, that forms a significant part of expenditure on higher education. My right honourable friend went into some detail about that in the Statement, but for the sort of more detailed analysis for which the noble Lord asks, it is better to await the Statement from the relevant Secretary of State.

Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill

5.19 p.m.

House again in Committee.

Clause 44 [Conditions of support]:

[Amendment No. 142A not moved.]

Clause 44 agreed to.

Clause 45 [Choice of form of support]:

On Question, Whether Clause 45 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Greaves: I rise to oppose the Question that Clause 45 stand part of the Bill. The clause is headed "Choice of form of support". It should be headed, "No choice of form of support, except for the Home Secretary and his departmental organisations". Although it refers to about five different forms of support, the clause is really about the choice between NASS accommodation in what is now the traditional dispersed form and accommodation centres. There are echoes of the question of whether cash-only support should be abolished. We discussed that issue on the previous clause, and the cash-only option stands as a matter of difference between parts of the Committee. No doubt we shall return to it.

The clause is about whether someone who comes to this country and applies for asylum should be sent to dispersed NASS accommodation; a block of flats in Glasgow; a terraced house in Leeds or whatever, or whether he should go to a new accommodation centre. The difference between us is that the Government are proposing not only that the asylum seeker will not make the decision and will not have a free choice in the matter—which is reasonable—but also that the asylum seeker's circumstances and wishes are not to be taken into account.

Of course, that is already the case with some people who are sent straight to Oakington, but they are special cases that the Government believe to have no merit whatever—although they are not always right—

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and that can be dealt with quickly. However, we are talking here not about people who are locked in a detention centre while their cases are dealt with quickly, but about people who may be here for two to six months—or perhaps longer—even under the new super efficient system that we are promised, before their initial decision is reached.

The assumption behind what the Government are saying is that no one applying for asylum in this country will ever want to live in one of the new trial accommodation centres. In another place on 14th May the Minister—who was Angela Eagle before the Home Office had one of its frequent throwing-balls-in-the-air-and-seeing-who-comes-down—said:

    "The Committee will agree that it would be nonsense for accommodation centres to run at half capacity because people have chosen dispersal".—[Official Report, Commons, Standing Committee E, 14/5/02; col. 220.]

I would not disagree. If accommodation centres are to be provided, it is sensible that they should be run as close to capacity as possible. No one disagrees.

The disagreement is over the suggestion that the new accommodation centres, with what we are promised will be excellent facilities on site, able to deal and cope with the needs of asylum seekers in a secure and safe environment, will be unpopular with those seeking asylum. I do not believe that they will. Some of those coming from the other side of the world to a country about which they know nothing, having never heard of Birmingham, Glasgow, Leeds, or even Nelson, given the choice of a safe, secure environment with facilities on site, will say, "We'd prefer that to being sent somewhere we have never heard of. We don't know who else is going to be there; we don't know where it is; it is more of the unknown".

As noble Lords have said, many people who come have suffered a great deal of trauma. The fact that a high proportion of asylum seekers are now young men leads people to believe that they do not necessarily suffer the same traumas as older people and families with children. My experience is that that is not the case. They are often frightened of the future: they do not know what is going to happen. They are often worried sick about the rest of their family and relatives, perhaps even wives and children back home. Some are suffering from mental illnesses and most have had great shocks to their system. The process of arriving here is extremely traumatic for many of them.

Under those circumstances, I believe that at least some of them would prefer the safety and security of accommodation centres. We have discussed accommodation centres at great length. Some of us do not share the utter aversion to them that exists in other quarters. Given the Government's propensity to turn a good idea into a mess, I am not sure that we will hold that view once the accommodation centres have been operating for a while. We will have to see. We will assess them in a fair and honest way. But we do not oppose the principle of accommodation centres. We support their proposed trials, but not necessarily all the details.

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However, other people will be coming in for whom dispersal is the most sensible option because they have family, friends or community in this country. Therefore, where subsection (3)(a) suggests that the Secretary of State may,

    "have regard to administrative or other matters which do not concern the person's personal circumstances",

the wording rings alarm bells. The absence from subsection (3) of any reference to the asylum seeker's personal circumstances being one of the issues taken into account is worrying.

In another place, the same Minister said that not to include this clause would cause "administrative havoc". That is surely putting the point too strongly. By choosing the best option for individual asylum seekers one may avoid administrative problems and create a situation in which people will be the least unhappy with their circumstances. That must be conducive to quick and sensible decision making.

The whole clause is misconceived in the way it is set out. We are not suggesting that asylum seekers should have an absolute right to choose, but they should be told what the options are and have the opportunity to put forward a preference that can be taken into account when the decision is made. The decision may not be the one they want, but their circumstances and preferences should be taken into account. The clause as it stands seems to preclude that.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I want to spell out what we understand Clause 45 to mean in the circumstances raised by the noble Lord. I want to place clear lines on the public record so that there can be no misunderstanding in future.

Clause 45 deals with the choice of forms of support offered to destitute asylum seekers. It gives effect to our policy that support is provided on a no-choice basis. We have been clear about that from the outset. The Secretary of State will make the decision about where to provide support.

Given some of the concerns expressed in another place and referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, it may be helpful if I emphasise that Clause 45(3) is not intended to list in order of priority the issues to which the Secretary of State should have regard when determining which provision to offer support under. It is intended to make it clear that the Secretary of State may lawfully have regard to several matters that are unrelated to personal circumstances for administrative reasons, such as running an effective asylum support system or for the purposes of the trial. That does not absolve the Secretary of State from his obligation to act reasonably in the circumstances. We have every intention of taking account of personal circumstances.

It may help the Committee if I try to provide some idea of how we envisage using Clause 45(3). We will allocate places in accommodation centres to people according to their personal circumstances, the language that they speak and the size of their family group. However, during the trial period, we will have only a limited number of places, and we are likely to need to take into account additional factors that are

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unrelated to personal circumstances. That is why we have included the express power to allow us to take non-personal circumstances into account and to regard such matters as conclusive.

The White Paper said that we might want to limit the allocation of accommodation centre places to those arriving at particular ports of entry or induction centres. That may assist in the early days of the trial, as capacity is built up, and may also foster links between, on the one hand, ports and induction centres and, on the other, particular accommodation centres. That would ease the process for all concerned. Clearly, the port of arrival is not linked to someone's personal circumstances, which is why we need subsection (3)(b). If we say that speakers of a particular language can be accommodated at the centres, one way of deciding which people should go to an accommodation centre would be to link the decision to the port of entry.

I need hardly remind the Committee that, at the outset, we will have only 3,000 places at accommodation centres. It may be that we allocate person A to an accommodation centre and person B, who came through a different port but whose case is similar in other respects, to dispersal accommodation. Under Clause 45(3), that would be entirely right and proper. There might be nothing in the personal circumstances of those two people to distinguish them from each other, but paragraph (b) allows us to treat the port of entry as a conclusive factor in determining whether someone goes to a centre or to dispersal accommodation.

Subsection (3)(c) allows us to,

    "apply different criteria to different persons for administrative reasons".

It assists us to trial the new system by permitting us to allocate one person support in an accommodation centre and another person with the same or similar needs support in dispersal accommodation.

Inevitably, some asylum seekers will express a preference as to whether they wish to be supported in an accommodation centre because that would suit their needs exactly or in dispersed accommodation. They may express a preference to live in a particular part of the country. As the Minister in another place said, it is the case that personal preference would be taken into account, although it might not be the primary consideration.

I shall make the position clear. We will, of course, listen to any comments made, but asylum seekers will not be able to decide the method of support that will be used or the location in which they will be supported. We could not run an efficient system on that basis. However, a preference may be based on someone's personal circumstances. For example, a person might say that he wished to be supported where he could attend hospital regularly, as part of continuing treatment. It would be right for us to take that into account when deciding where to offer support—an accommodation centre or in a dispersal area.

I shall make the distinction clear: personal circumstances will be taken into account, in so far as they have an impact on support-related issues, but

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pure personal preference as to the type of support will not be taken into account. We will, of course, be sensitive to the needs of individuals, but we must retain the flexibility to allocate in such a way as to make the system efficient and to ensure that we make the best use of it. That is the intention of the clause. It is best left as it is and best left in the Bill to do that job.

5.30 p.m.

Earl Russell: The Minister has explained carefully and clearly that, although their preferences may be taken into account, asylum seekers will not be allowed to make a personal choice about where they live. Can the Minister explain why it is right to do that for asylum seekers but not for British subjects?

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